Stacking Your Bracket: Attracting and Maintaining the Developer Dream Team

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Companies don’t code, build, innovate or discover. Companies don’t sell. They don’t hire. People pioneer, invent and make deals — and they hire the people who continue the cycle. It’s their contributions that make companies successful.

Okay, so what? Companies are built on people. That’s nothing groundbreaking. But in the startup world of Silicon Valley, where we’re experiencing the highest annual employment growth in more than a decade, we spend more time talking and writing about the product and than thinking about how we can attract and retain talent.

To be fair, it’s hard to avoid hearing about the perks at gigantic companies like Google, Apple, Facebook and Twitter. But most startups can’t offer high salaries, luxury buses, catered meals and on-site laundry services to entice and maintain the most talented workers.

Startups can, however, entice them with vision, responsibility and recognition. And once you have the right people in place, all it takes is a little bit of structure to build and maintain the developer dream team.

Who needs free lunch when you have inspiration?
Before founding a startup, I worked as a medical researcher, and if I learned one thing while in medicine, it’s that scientists don’t work in a lab to sequence DNA. They work in the lab to cure cancer.

Doctors give up lunches, time with their families, sleep and whatever else they could be doing during the day and night for even the slightest breakthrough. They give their time and energy because they’re inspired by the purpose.

We might not be so directly curing cancer in the IT industry, but we can affect the technology that helps a doctor make a breakthrough. Because after all, it’s technology experts who built the nanotechnology that enables earlier cancer detection and the identity management solution that protects a cancer research company’s patients.

Too often in the IT industry we focus on technology and tools instead of their higher purpose and relationship to the rest of the world. Giving away free meals might seem nice, but the real key to attracting and retaining talent is that you must give them a higher purpose than the hammer that they’re swinging.

Recognition shouldn’t always be monetary
In addition to providing a purpose, you have to give your employees recognition. There are all types of potential recognition: raises, promotions, shout-outs in company meetings and yearly awards, to name a few. Although employers often motivate their employees with lofty titles, my advice is to put the emphasis elsewhere.

The truth is, there’s always someone who can offer your engineers a higher salary or a fancier title. But no matter how high the salary or lofty the title, positive reinforcement and strong connections are often the things that build loyalty and create a strong community, and that’s ultimately more meaningful.

So if personal recognition through great work is as important as a salary, there’s no need for titles. I would abandon them completely if I could, because in my experience, the best policy is to let compensation and ownership reflect importance and contribution.

And once you place importance on ownership, you should encourage your engineers and technical experts to speak at conferences, teach classes, blog, write whitepapers — do anything more than just write patents. Let them be recognized (and perhaps even become tech celebrities) and known in their respective fields and they’ll become advocates for your company more than if they were to brag about their high salaries or fancy titles.

You need a captain for more than the coin toss
As a founder, CEO, CTO or VP of engineering, it’s your job to provide your employees with the vision and recognition necessary to inspire them in their day-to-day work.

Whether or not you established the company in question, if you’re in charge of a developer team, they’ll follow your lead. If you stay in your office all day, only responding to a select few emails, engaging with a couple of your coworkers or joining the executive meetings when the biggest decisions are at stake, you won’t inspire.

Teams need a captain for more than just the coin toss. They need their best player, too. So if you’re technical, work with your engineers to validate and shape their work and dig in if something’s broken. Work hard and share your vision and they’ll imitate you.

Now all you need is a fire team, and a sergeant
Beyond the lofty job of instilling a vision and culture, you need to establish an organizational team structure to ensure your developers are working to the best of their ability.

Teams are essential to everything we do. And whether they’re teams of cells in your body, your March Madness bracket pick or your company’s team of developers, they function well because they’re designed to do so.

I believe team structures have a basic biological aspect to them. When I was younger, I spent some time on military bases and picked up a thing or two. Army fire teams and squads have an almost tribal structure — that’s the reason they work so well. A military fire team is made up of four people: a sergeant and three team members. A squad is a team of two or three fire teams plus a staff sergeant.

As a leader, you need to be capable of running a fire team and a squad. But you should never attempt to run more than a squad. You need to bring on sergeants and staff sergeants, or in our case VPs and managers, to stay organized. It’s true in the military and it’s true in technology and larger business.

When looking for these sergeants and co-captains — or whatever metaphor you choose to use for your co-manager — consider how they’ll be able to inspire, recognize, instill culture and organize.

I, like most founders I know, know that building and scaling core engineering, product and operations teams is nothing like building your post-work intramural kickball team. There’s so much more at stake: Your funders’ investments, your reputation and most full nights of sleep, to name just a few. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t apply the same team mentality in your workplace. If you continuously give your employees a purpose, encourage and recognize them (and organize your management to do the same), then there’s no need to tempt them with an office keg or ping-pong table — those are really just perks, after all.

Jason Hoffman (@jasonh) is the CTO and founder of Joyent. An expert on scalable systems, Hoffman earned his PhD in Molecular Pathology at The Burnham Institute and UCSD School of Medicine, and MS and BS in Chemistry and Biochemistry at UCLA.


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