I’ve spent a nontrivial part of my last two months at Percolate focused on hiring growth engineers — software developers who are passionate about agile, creative app development, customer acquisition and scalable experimentation. This clearly represents a valuable skill-set, as talented individuals in this role can have a major impact on the overall trajectory of an early stage company.
The challenge for recruiters, however, is that it’s basically impossible to find good growth developers. Why? After going through hundreds of resumes and dozens of screening interviews, I see four major thematic challenges:
1. Mentality and experience don’t align. Being an effective growth developer requires being able to balance periods of creative ideation with rapid prototyping sprints. There’s also, in my opinion, more “competitive” impetus in growth development vs. more traditional software development. With customer acquisition the most important priorities are being fast (ideally first), original and unconventional, rather than writing clean, reusable code that’s been thoroughly unit-tested. My observation is younger software developers tend to embrace these work parameters more enthusiastically than more experienced engineers (for a variety of obvious vocational and lifestyle reasons). Unfortunately, a lot of the job market candidates who have the best mentality for growth development are recent graduates from development bootcamp programs like General Assembly, Hacker School and App Academy. As a result, these types of devs usually only have three to four months of experience, primarily focused on a single framework like Ruby on Rails, and need additional mentorship and skill-development to reach the point where they can be effective in a growth-oriented, more independent role on a smaller dev team.
2. Most developers want more structure. Engineers, are, after all, engineers. And while engineering fundamentally entails technical problem-solving, it’s also closely linked with defined — sometimes even strict — parameters, documentation and requirements. By comparison, there’s a lot of blank slate fits and starts in growth and marketing. Most web and mobile engineers don’t like unstructured, vague or open-ended assignments, and would prefer a more steady, structured work environment.
3. Most engineers like big(ger) teams. Although the solitary hacker-with-headphones archetype still hasn’t been entirely dispelled from startup folklore, the reality is most engineers are social, like collaborating, and want to work on big teams. There are practical considerations for this — big teams can manage bigger projects and accomplish more work — as well as social advantages: development efforts become more modular, engineers with different expertise compliment each others’ work, and larger engineering teams can solve problems collaboratively. On the opposite end of the spectrum, most growth engineering teams run extremely lean and are much more individual contribution-oriented.
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4. The best growth engineers tend to be fiercely independent. In rare instances where I come across great growth engineers, they almost invariably dislike being directed or managed. Again, this is largely a practical matter — if you’re talented enough to devise your own technology products, build them, then acquire users, traction and revenue, you’re about as self-sufficient as someone in the modern workforce can be. In addition, you also bring a very holistic and thorough vision to product development overall. Finding a marketing-oriented engineer like Dharmesh Shah, or, among the younger generation, a Robert Matei, Myles Recny, Nathan Bashaw, or Carl Sednaoui (and most recently Taowei Huang) is a needle-in-a-hackstack quest to begin with… then you have the heroic task of convincing them whatever you’re doing is worth their time.
Ultimately, great growth engineers possess a rare combination of technical proficiency, creativity and competitive drive, alongside a willingness to be an experimental self-starter. Very few marketers (even those who refer to themselves as “growth hackers”) and software developers can put all the pieces together, making growth engineers one of the single hardest roles to recruit for. In some ways, maybe this is a good thing, as individuals who fit this talent profile can generate a true competitive advantage when they’re focused and given the resources (coffee, budget, distribution exposure) they need to be successful.
By the way, whether you live (or want to live) in NYC or anywhere else, I’m always looking to meet, work with, and help great growth engineers. Drop me a line any time if you’d like to connect.