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The Perpetually Vexing Problem of Hiring Programmers

How can you snag the best tech talent? Chris Dixon says you need to first get inside their heads.

Like bodice-ripping romance novels and leave-the-lights-on ghost stories, "how to hire a programmer" blog posts aren't exactly a new genre. But because the question of how non-techie entrepreneurs can gauge the abilities of the programmers they desperately need for their businesses to succeed is a perpetual and vexing problem, high quality new entries into the category are always welcome.

Few people are probably better positioned to take on the topic than serial entrepreneur and Hunch co-founder Chris Dixon, who offered up his hard-won wisdom in an end-of-the-year blog post recently. Rather than focus on the standard advice of what tests to give candidates and how to weed those more adept at boasting than coding, Dixon takes a progammers'-eye-view of the problem, offering entrepreneurs a glimpse inside the minds of the best tech talent.

By understanding the thinking, priorities, and workflow of programmers, entrepreneurs can better position their businesses to snag the best of the bunch. So what tips does this exercise boil down to? Among the best from Dixon are:

  • Motivation. It's not all about the money. "In my experience programmers care about 1) working on interesting technical problems, 2) working with other talented people, 3) working in a friendly, creative environment, 4) working on software that ends up getting used by lots of people,” writes Dixon. “Like everyone, compensation matters, but for programmers it is often a ‘threshold variable'. They want enough to not have to spend time worrying about money, but once an offer passes their minimum compensation threshold they'll decide based on other factors."
  • Don't be a clock watcher. "Software development is a creative activity and needs to be treated as such. Sometimes a programmer can have an idea on, say, the subway that can save weeks of work or add some great new functionality. Business people who don't understand this make the mistake of emphasizing mechanistic metrics like the number of hours in the office and the number of bugs fixed per week. This is demoralizing and counterproductive," says Dixon.
  • Don't try to out-Google Google. "You will never beat, say, Google on perks or job security so don't even bother to pitch those. You'll never beat Wall Street banks or rich big companies on cash salary so don't pitch that either," insists Dixon. Emphasizing the impact and usefulness of the product you're building or offering equity are better bets.

Dixon's post is long but interesting throughout and well worth a read in full for those looking to hire programmers. Or check out some of the many and diverse alternate takes on the question of recruiting programmers that are out there. Ideas range from the how to present your project in a simple and appealing light to the more humorous injunction that good programmers always prefer cats as pets.

Have you learned any lessons on how to recruit tech talent from the school of hard knocks? 

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Last updated: Jan 5, 2012

JESSICA STILLMAN

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in Cyprus with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.




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