Winning Tech Talent

5 Ways Startups Can Compete

Think your tech company can’t compete against the heavyweights for top young technical talent? It’s true that hiring young coding superstars has never been tougher. And while the prestige and paychecks that Google, Apple, and Amazon can offer are major enticements, it takes more than that to convince the most promising millennial software developers to come on board.

Smaller tech startups can still compete — it’s just a matter of knowing how. Here are the new best practices for recruiting young tech talent.

1. Start Early, As in Now

Begin reaching out to students by August. Yes, August. Even earlier is fine, since students have more time to engage with you before classes begin. If you wait until October and want to recruit from top programs like Stanford and MIT, good luck getting noticed in the sea of career-fair iPad giveaways. And if you wait until January—even if you’re only looking for interns—you’ll be out of luck; the best candidates will be taken. Starting early will allow you to build your recruiting brand on campus and establish relationships with strong candidates before they get lured away by the big shots.

As resources allow, visit the more competitive campuses as often as you can. Don’t just drop by for the career fair and a round of interviews. Consider attending or even sponsoring programming competitions, like hackathons, class projects, panel discussions, and tech talks.

Make sure you’re sending your own engineers to campus as well, not just recruiters. Even if you still aren’t sure of next year’s intern or full-time hiring needs, it’s still better to make a judgement call. If you wait, the decision will be made for you.

2. Get Execs Involved in Outreach, Not Just Recruiters

A shocking number of companies blindly spray students with impersonal messages and generic links to career sites. Their tone-deaf mass messaging is your competitive advantage. Take the time to be personal and human. Differentiate yourself with thoughtful messages telling candidates why you find their background compelling and mentioning any shared experiences. Instead of spending boatloads of time contacting many students, use sourcing platforms, hackathons, and similar tech events to identify a few, really strong candidates—and focus your energy on them.

Once you’ve found those superstars, the CEO or engineering leader should contact them directly. Many companies wait to involve their top execs until it’s time for the sell, but your leaders should play a role in the early stages, too. Reach out before your campus visit so your engineering head or other exec can take candidates out for coffee or dinner, either one-on-one or in small groups. This kind of personal, white-glove recruiting experience lets candidates begin an honest dialogue with your firm, and it’s an effective way to set yourself apart from the competition.

3. Be Considerate of Students' Time

It’s amazing how hard companies work to find talented candidates only to blow it by being insensitive. Students are busy, so if you’re going to ask them to complete a coding challenge, give them enough time to do it—like a week. I’ve spoken with tons of students who were told to complete those sorts of tasks in 24 hours, even during exam time. They turned those companies down. And make sure the challenges are interesting—you’re trying to recruit them, after all! Let candidates choose the programming language, and assign any challenges early in the process, not after rounds of interviews and wasted time for everyone.


Later on, as you’re extending offers, don’t resort to old-fashioned scare tactics and tough negotiations. These are often students’ first jobs, and it’s a big decision for them. They want to have the time to consider their options. Exploding offers leave a bad taste in the candidates’ mouths, and given the breadth of opportunities available to them, those tactics usually backfire anyway. You’ll not only lose the candidate, you’ll also get a bad reputation on campus, making future recruiting even tougher. 

4. Set Clear Expectations, and Give all Candidates a Choice (Even Interns) 

Students and recent grads often feel like larger companies offer more certainty. They tend to know people who’ve worked at those companies, so they have a sense of what to expect from them. That’s seldom the case with startups. Reduce the uncertainty by letting candidates know what they can expect. Mention the types of projects they’ll be able to work on, and list past projects that recent grads and interns have completed. Be specific.

Later, as candidates move deeper through the recruiting process, put them in touch with recent grads or past interns who can tell them what working with your company was like. And all the better if they’re alums of the same school.

Once you extend an offer, give candidates some say over what teams they can join and what work they can begin taking on. The chance to have a say in how they spend their time right from the get-go can be a deciding factor in which offer candidates ultimately accept.

5. Promise New Hires Twice The Learning in Half The Time - and Deliver It

Really strong engineers want to work on meaty problems and tackle interesting challenges. Sell candidates on the breadth of experiences they’ll gain by working with you and emphasize the level of impact they can make from day one. Make sure they hear about the direct access they’ll have to senior leadership—even as interns. Remember that millennials are just beginning their careers, so they’re eager to broaden their skills.

In other words, don’t apologize for being smaller than Google. Talk up the boutique experience. Startups are often in a better position to offer junior engineers a chance to work side-by-side with their top-level teams. Allow candidates to meet your best engineers throughout the recruiting process so they can interact with the same people they’ll be working with should they choose to join you.

Once candidates have accepted your offers, make good on your promises. Deliver that high-impact learning experience you talked so much about. Millennials crave impact, so let them have it. Nothing is cooler to a young developer than writing code and seeing it shipped. That is not likely to happen at a big company, especially for interns.

To be sure, the free food, Wi-Fi shuttles, and napping pods on the big tech giants’ campuses are nice perks, but millennial developers are more likely to be lured by thoughtful, considerate outreach and the prospect of learning a ton right out of the gates. That’s something you can offer that not all the heavyweights can.

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