Back in 2012, I started a two-man agency in Manchester with aspirations of becoming the goto company for helping SMEs achieve digital transformation.
We had to start with the basics which meant websites, apps, print … yep, you name it, we probably had a tender for it at some point.
We were soon given the green light on multiple projects and within a week we were hiring and had become employers, expanding the team slowly and organically. When opportunities came in, we would assess the skills needed and recruit to win.
Naturally, we created a core set of skills within the agency and tried to align our resources with future work and by 2018 we were ten people, landing projects in PIM, eCommerce and a few entrepreneurs with exciting app ideas.
That’s how we met Will, a young quantity surveyor working in the rail industry. He had a potential game-changer of an app idea.
After a few months of prototyping and some passionate pitches to Angel investor groups, Will landed a sizable round of funding. There was a natural fit for us to continue working on what we’d built together, so we combined forces.
With myself as CTO, Will as MD, and a core set of employees, we pivoted to become a fully-fledged SaaS platform.
We were practically a new business with investor money in the bank and able to hire new people with a clear focus on growth. This time though our hiring focus had changed, with skill sets and hiring out of necessity were no longer the priority.
We now felt that we wanted people who could fit in, click with others and were genuinely excited by the problem we were solving. Hiring had taken on a very different dynamic and it felt like our recruitment strategy was starting again from scratch.
For lots of reasons the past couple of years has been very enlightening for me and not least in the area of recruiting for growth with a very clear focus on the type of people we wanted to hire.
So I wanted to write an article with my personal experience of what really matters when you’re making those early hires …
1. Check Your Responsibilities.
As a first time employer, you’ll have new responsibilities. Whether employees report to you directly or not, you should always be aware of your duties as part of the senior management team. I know the CTO Academy community is global so different countries will have different resources to help but here in the UK, an excellent place to start is the government website. Read more here: https://www.gov.uk/get-ready-to-employ-someone.
On the other hand, this is the opportunity to relinquish (partially) some of the responsibilities youhave daily. But from personal experience I know it’s one of the most challenging things to cometo terms with throughout your career. This is your baby. You have a vision of perfection; it could be related to the tech stack, the code quality, or a different business area entirely. Nobody will be able to reach the standard you probably hold yourself, at least straight away.
In The Alliance – managing talent in the networked age, authors Reid Hoffman, Ben Casnocha, and Chris Yeh refer to hiring as a tour of duty. It is a declaration of trust and a call to arms with a clear set of objectives and expectations. I recommend giving this book a read, as your expectations of a new hire are likely to be unrealistic. For example, you and other founders will be working crazy hours because this business is your life right now; you are all in until the end. Non-founding members may be passionate about your vision and excited about the company. Still, at the same time, it’s just a job, and they will probably move on.
Unclear expectations can be problematic. For instance, a vague or broad job description doesn’t give an employee any meaningful direction. It could result in the wrong person being hired or hiring someone at the wrong time, costing the business more in the long term. In rowing, this error in timing is known as catching a crab; a rower’s oar can become stuck in the water and acts as a brake, slowing the boat down. A severe crab can eject a rower or even capsize the boat – direction and timing are equally important.
To be clear about what you expect from a new employee, write a job description as if it were a reflection of their first year. Work backwards through the year to set SMART objectives (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Timely) along the way. If the results don’t align with your company’s goals, then it could be that the job’s scope is too broad or you’re hiring too early.
2. Company values and culture.
A well-defined set of values underpinning your business culture and strategy will help motivate people. Having an immutable set of expectations around the way everyone communicates and behaves will ensure you can effectively deal with problems for the difficult times ahead. You should always be able to look at core values and ask, “Does this situation align with them?”.
Being a CTO, one of your goals is to create a functional team of professionals. This doesn’t necessarily mean hiring based on skills; I’ve seen some of the most senior-level engineers crippled by their attitude toward one another. A functional team is a diverse group of people whose greatest competencies are professionalism, respect, and a growth mindset. Their skill sets all differ, as will their career and walk in life.
Your challenge is finding them and creating an environment that upholds company values and meets its objectives. You also need to defend their time and inspire them to be creative without the prospect of being blamed for getting something wrong or thinking outside of the box.
New businesses are chaotic as there are just too many things to do. There are also many unknowns. Sometimes, the only way forward is to try, hack it, get all hands on deck. I emphasise the word “sometimes” because all the time isn’t sustainable; you need a rhythm.
“Creativity, progress, and impact do not yield to brute force.”- from It doesn’t have to be crazy at work by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson.
If you ensure that your values and culture support knowledge sharing and continuous process improvement, you can let the team get on with it. To quote our ops director on his perception of Agile, “its process, practice, practice, practice, process, practice, practice …”
3. Finding and Interviewing candidates
My advice for finding candidates is that unless you have time to burn, then use a recruiter. Finding one is pretty straightforward; just go to your email or LinkedIn inbox. If by some miracle you’ve avoided detection, you can always do a quick search for one.
When using recruiters, check the terms and negotiate; working with them exclusively, for instance, can yield better rates and better quality CVs sent through. If you want to use multiple for better coverage, any more than three on the same role is a bit much. There’s only a finite number of candidates out there, and recruiters can speak to a lot in a day. Whatever your approach, keep them all informed.
Reading CVs can be monotonous; this is where recruiters are helpful. Walking them through your job description and setting expectations will save many hours. The best recruiters in my experience are those that a) actually send you quality CVs b) send snippets of their conversationswith candidates c) act as ambassadors to your company.
When checking a CV, I look for mentions of achievements or responsibilities at each company, the dates and length of time between roles and mentions of activities/hobbies outside of work. You can quickly build up several questions based on a few key bullet points.
Over the past year, I’ve had applications claiming more experience than on the CV. I’ve even hadtechnologies listed that didn’t exist at the time of their employment. Checking dates, I would say,is essential.
“Why does your company exist?”.
“Where do you see the company in two years?”.
“Why should I come to work for you?”
All three are reasonable and valid questions from a candidate. I’ve never had the last one asked directly, though it’s kind of the elephant in the room being a small business.
For this reason, I start interviews with a candidate friendly elevator pitch and talk briefly about my company’s aspirations. By setting some context, I find that I address the questions above, encouraging a more engaging interview. In the past year, I’ve discovered that pitching first has taken the edge off any nerves candidates have had from coming into a video call with strangers.
If working with a new recruiter, interviews can reveal how much of an ambassador of your company they are. In the past, I have asked candidates how much recruiters have told them about the role before pitching.
As an aside, if you’re conducting interviews by video conference, stick to a maximum of two people from your side; any more can be overwhelming no matter how friendly you might be.
Keeping the interview as a casual conversation can be a challenge at times. Asking open questions such as “What do you think about X?” instead of “Can you do Y?” generally helps the conversation flow.
Questions I like to ask engineering candidates focus on problem-solving, conflict resolution, being a team player, thirst for learning, root cause analysis vs kicking the can, and willingness to fight fires.
I always ask why a candidate has chosen to move on from their previous role in the first interviews. You can tell a lot about a person’s integrity, personal objectives and character from their response. Bad-mouthing a previous employer, for example, is a red flag for me.
After the interview
Straight after an interview is the best time to reflect and make a decision. My only advice here is to go with your gut. Typically if I come out of an interview and don’t think, “Yes, I’ll hire this person or take them to the next stage”, then I don’t dwell on it. It’s no.
I always aim to give feedback within the same working day, then if the answer is no, everyone can swiftly move on. Giving constructive feedback, however, is a must. Think about the person on the receiving end and their perception of your company after. Even if that person was rude and the worst candidate you had ever encountered, you still have a chance to offer some value to them.
If all goes well and you find the ideal employee, congratulations! Send an offer letter and an employment contract to them. Confirm their start date and check their references. If there is a negotiation on their employment package, remuneration, career development spend, holidays, and working hours are all cards, you can play. Be sure to check the impact on your business before promising anything.
4. Onboarding and 1:1s
Onboarding can be more than just a tick box exercise of introductions, tools and training. An excellent way to bring someone new to the business and keep them motivated is to create a 90-day plan and schedule regular 1:1s. By setting objectives in their first few days, your employee will know their path instead of getting lost in day-to-day tasks. The first few goals can be low hanging fruit like “Read the employee handbook” to get them started; after that, create more challenging objectives.
By week two or three, they should have a grasp of the day to day and be progressing through the tasks and/or objectives you’ve set them. At this stage, using output as a performance indicator is probably not the best idea. Instead, I would opt for performance review through their approach towork, learning, and professional relationships with others.
Over the years, I’ve had 1:1 meetings as walking sessions over coffee or en-route to lunch. Getting away from the office is excellent for keeping it casual. It’s essential to get feedback during this time and learn as much as possible about what problems people are having operationally and look mostly forward rather than backward.
More recently, Sanjay at the CTO academy has helped me structure weekly 1:1s. A lot of emphasis is now placed on objective setting, wins, losses and learnings. Whenever an employee comes to me with a loss, we’ll try to figure out what we’ve learned from the loss together and turn it into a win for them.
Mixing in peer 1:1s can also help establish better working relationships, providing timely feedback between colleagues. I found this very valuable for working out how an entirely new role fits into the engineering team.
In conclusion, hiring new colleagues is an opportunity to grow your business objectively, rather than through numbers alone.
Finding a skillset is easy; you can quickly extend your team’s capabilities through contracting or freelancers.
However, attitudes and behaviours are the seeds of something much bigger, and you can reap the benefits by creating the right environment, setting expectations, and supporting the growth of individuals in the team.