The problem hiring software developers

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com

The problems with finding software engineers. I have run into this. I did 4 rounds of interviews of at a startup in NYC, and they clearly liked me, yet they were afraid of hiring me because maybe I had some secret flaw. Then I got hired somewhere else. I wrote to tell them that I’d gotten hired somewhere else. They wrote back and sounded somewhat bitter that I had not chosen them. But of course, they had it backwards: it was they who had failed to make a choice.

“I tried to start a business once, a social music business, and I don’t code,” he says. “It made me see the other side of the story. The people I talked to, I just did not trust them. One guy said he wanted 70 percent of the company. It was really interesting to see it from the other side of the fence. Until you get there, you don’t really know.”

So Marcus now has to take the same type of fear and mistrust from a founder and balance it with opportunity and reality. One founder, he says, refused to see any candidates who didn’t hold degrees from Ivy League schools.

“He turned down everyone who came to him. We had to tell him, ‘You’re going too far. Shakespeare and Gallileo didn’t go to Ivy League schools,’” Marcus says.

Another story he told revolved around a founder obsessed with the idea of high moral character in his candidates. “[He] would ask them about their personal lives even back to high school. One time a candidate called me after their interview crying because of this. … She told me she was kidnapped in high school and his questioning brought up all those memories. I talked her out of suing the company.”

The founder just wanted the assurance that his company would be in good hands, that he wouldn’t get screwed somehow by an employee. But there’s no real assurance of that, Marcus implies, no matter what questions you ask or how far back you dig.

“There’s always risk, and if it’s your company, you ultimately have to make the decisions. Maybe they don’t trust themselves.”

Our talk turns to “culture,” one of the sacred dogma of most startups I meet with these days. Culture, I note, is often used as an excuse for, say, overwork, desk-drinking, inappropriate fraternization, and other counterproductive and unhealthy office behaviors. I speculate aloud that culture may serve as a convenient excuse for certain hiring practices as well.

“Too many startups treat their business like it’s a frat,” Marcus says, “when in fact, someone’s invested a lot of money, and the founders have invested a lot of time, and they’re there to make money on a product.”

And when your sole goal is to make money, you stop worrying about things like age, race, or even gender; tech becomes a meritocracy. Hypothetically, at least. Marcus says that in his own vast experience, even when presented with highly qualified candidates, founders still seek the familiar, possibly out of insecurity or fear. “They want to find someone they’re comfortable with,” he says.

“It’s really complicated. The VCs are throwing money at the people in their early and mid-20s who like to hire people in their early and mid-20s, so to make diversity work, you have to get people in other groups to create their own businesses. Easier said than done.”

Marcus has hit on the crux of one of Silicon Valley’s biggest problems, one that countless groups and corporations and funds and individuals are working right now to correct — especially when it comes to gender. Not a day goes by that we don’t hear about some new initiative to find and help more female entrepreneurs or engineers or investors. But the institutional discrimination lingers on.

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