Hiring Engineers When you Have No Idea How to Code

October 13, 2015

6:01 pm

There is no shame in acknowledging you do not know how to code. While having a rudimentary understating of JavaScript or Python is a decent advantage, it doesn’t make you a proficient developer. So be honest with yourself, don’t be naïve – you can only “fake it till you make it” for so long. Eventually you will need guidance.

As the founder of a tech-dependent startup, you are probably a savvy end user of technology. You know the marketplace, and you have a strong vision for how your product or service fills a gap. But you’re not a technical person yourself. That means you need to rely on people who essentially speak a foreign language to build your core product and perhaps your functional infrastructure as well.

The costs of getting it wrong are enormous.

Here are a few lessons I’ve learned about managing developers when you’re not a trained software engineer:

  1. Hire right. The odds of a bad hire are heavy. Why? Because the good people are hard to find, and they don’t typically show up for job postings. So unless you are a senior-level developer, don’t rely on only yourself to do the hiring. Get help. Find someone whose skills that exceed those required for the position. If there’s no one in your organization, hire a consultant; LinkedIn can help. Look for someone who has done technical interviewing and knows how to review code. Ask him or her to create a list of test questions – such as, how would you refactor a complex code base without breaking it? –and to help review the candidate’s answers.
  1. Pick the right technologies. Be aware that your interests and those of your development team are not necessarily aligned. Developers tend to want to work with leading-edge technologies. You want to use the fastest, most reliable code that can get the job done. If your developers are telling you they need to use new tech, find someone knowledgeable to vet their claim. Be convinced.
  1. Manage timelines. Don’t just dive into development; start with thorough functional specs and a detailed mockup, if possible. If you don’t know what the finished product is supposed to look like, you will never get what you want. There are online resources, such as InVisionthat provide a suite of tools for creating interactive prototypes. Explore these options. Even if you think your team understands what you’re asking for, invest time in the design process. This will pay huge dividends on the back end, and you will actually get what you wanted, as opposed to what the developer thought you wanted.
  1. Expect to incur technical debt, and pay it off. You won’t get your tech right the first time. Guaranteed. This is not your developers’ fault; it’s just par for the course. Everyone is under pressure to get the end product in users’ hands ASAP, which means that even if you get it right, circumstances are likely to change, and new features will continually get grafted onto a flawed foundation – that is the definition of technical debt. As the founder, you need to expect this. Plan on having code rewritten. Plan on cleaning up a lot of technical debt. Don’t despair when you find out your tech is flawed—that’s almost inevitable—but don’t procrastinate too long in fixing it, because every day you continue “investing” in bad code, your debt grows at an ever-increasing interest rate.

Coders are the foundation to a structure. Regardless of height, the foundation is crucial to the integrity of the building. The more developed your company becomes further responsibility is put on the foundation. Start your build correctly, don’t cut corners, and avoid having to tear down and start again.

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Stephan Goss is President & CEO of Zeeto, a rapidly growing SaaS company that offers clients a specialized, proprietary ad platform to power their visitor sign-up process and monetize the registration flow. Stephan started Zeeto in 2010 at the age of 22 years old. In nearly 5 years the company has grown from two employees to over seventy. Stephan is an H1B visa holder from Switzerland. He came to the United States to attend college at the University of Albany, where he graduated in 2010. Under Stephan's leadership Zeeto has been recognized as an Inc. 5000 Fastest Growing Private Company, the 2014 & 2015 Top Workplace in San Diego by the San Diego Union Tribune and the #2 Best Place to Work in San Diego by the SD Business Journal.

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