Attracting Top Engineers in a Competitive Market

Ron Pragides

Ron Pragides rode the wave of IPOs at Salesforce and Twitter, but wanted to grow a team at a company with a less-certain future. He was the very first engineer at Austin-based Bigcommerce’s San Francisco office, and the company’s third hire in the area. His team outgrew its original office in 10 months, forcing them to move to another space in SoMa (otherwise known as South of Market, for those who don’t live in the Bay Area).

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Given his company’s rapid growth, Pragides has some excellent insight into how to build teams, which could be useful for anyone looking to bootstrap and expand their company.

How big was the [overall] company when you joined?

The company had just under 240 employees when I joined, mostly in Austin. Now there are more than 350 people across offices in San Francisco, Sydney, and Austin. I joined because the timing was good, they were at a good size, and it was still an early stage where I knew I could make an impact, define process, and scale a team. The opportunity and traction drew me in.

Can you tell me what it was like building engineering teams at Salesforce and Twitter, and how building a team at a less-established company became a challenge you were willing to take?

At Salesforce, I had the opportunity to build a team. When I joined Salesforce, the number of engineers was in the twenties—and I was one of them. Over the next 8.5 years, we grew to the point of hundreds of engineers. So I had the chance at Salesforce to build a team and process and wanted to do it again. I knew the ideal place would be smaller than Salesforce; it would be a place that’s still in the awkward stage where it’s not a sure thing. That’s why I joined Twitter. It was a great ride, too. When I joined Twitter, the team was already at 500 engineers. While I was helping them scale, you could no longer count engineers on two hands. I wanted to build a team from a small stage, where I could put in the right inputs and really change the dynamics of the company.

At Bigcommerce, the first offer I made was a referral I had from the dot-com days. I trusted that person’s judgment… Hiring really is all about connections and knowing good people. We had engineers visiting from our Sydney office. Having the first three engineers visit for 90 days, allowed us to see if potential hires were both a technical talent and cultural fit. I would ask: “How motivated is this person?”

How do you convince people to come work for Bigcommerce?

It is about presenting the opportunity and the potential of what it could be if we have the right attitude, the right focus, the right work ethic. That’s how I sell it to them. It’s about making people feel like this is your company and making them understand they are going to help the culture and will have a big direction in how the office develops. I tell them, “This is your company, this is your startup.”

I talk about the size of the company, the impact they have, how fast we move, and paint a vision of where we can build the company together. It’s easy to have the impulse to hire more bodies, to hire anyone who knows how to code. There’s always a trade off when staffing the company as fast as I did. There were some hiring mistakes. Sometimes you go with gut instinct; it’s okay if you correct it fast. Almost all the hires were great. However, we decided to part ways with some people when it wasn’t a fit. It doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It’s good for the person to know the company isn’t quite the right fit for them, and give them the opportunity to find the right fit elsewhere.

You’re moving into a new office because of the growth?

I think office space matters. The vibe matters: the buzz, the energy, the lighting, it all adds up. Potential hires ask, “Who am I going to get to work with?” The people who dug that, jumped at that. It’s the makers or people who want to jump onto something that’s already moving. That’s the hardest part of starting a team… is having them answer, “Who am I going to work with” and, “What’s the culture of this office going to be?”

I say to them: “You tell me, you join and shape those things.”

As teams grow, communication gets harder. It’s harder to understand what everyone is working on and to understand which part of the code people are working on. Culturally, each person does alter your culture. It’s important to make sure that you are mindful of other viewpoints.

Does location of the hire matter?

We have offices in Austin, SF, and Sydney, so we look for people in those cities. Or we look for people who want to relocate. Because of the communication overhead that we already have, it’s important to have people in our offices. We are at least looking for people in the same time-zone.

We hired someone living in Florida who saw our job rec. We did a phone screen, we flew him out, and we liked him when we interviewed him. Referrals are one part of it, but we also do look at people outside our network.

We did a marketing scheme. We’ve looked at some of the bootcamps. It helps us build levels of engineering, so that senior engineers have junior engineers to mentor. With these bootcamps such as Hack Reactor, which is run by Twitter alumni and is really rigorous, the quality of the projects coming out of there is awesome.

I like thinking out of the box. I was able to hire an entire team out of an established company. I was looking for a director of engineering. She had an amazing team and it turns out, we liked all of them, so we hired that team. That is super out-of-the-box thinking and something a large company wouldn’t do.

What’s a common mistake people make when thinking all they need is an engineer to make their idea into a success?

You can’t wish for something to be awesome. You can’t say if you get an engineer, it will be an awesome product. You have to have a great idea, but you also have to have a team that believes in the idea that shapes it. You can’t have a product such as “Uber for space travel” and just hope that you just need an engineer.

If you look at all startups, generally the most successful ones start out with a killer team: The team has done it before and therefore has experience; they have seen other things and know what mistakes not to make. The bigger the company gets, you can afford to have an idealized version and can hire engineers who haven’t seen enough—they need some guidance.

Anyone who is only starting out with fresh engineers, the odds are against you in succeeding. There are way more startups that haven’t made it. You don’t see them on Twitter but it only reinforces that everyone is chasing that dream. It’s not just the wide-eyed engineer that success is built on; you can’t change people’s behaviors overnight. The same thing is true for the bootcamps: everyone wants to be a coder, everyone wants to be in a startup. However, not all engineers are created equal.

Can you describe an ideal engineering recruit?

There is no ideal, but there are great traits such as intelligent, communicative, can work in a team, not afraid of hard problems, curious, passionate, and wants to make a difference. An engineer who is not impressive is someone who is just in it for a paycheck. If they ask me about the company and the mission and what the technical challenges are—those kinds of questions are indicative of a quality hire. If the questions center around equity, free lunch, how much vacation do you get—it’s not as interesting to me.

What’s your most usual and unusual hire?

I have met people on Twitter, which is common since I Tweet about my job. I’ve hired some great engineers who don’t have a classical engineering education. By looking at their past work, I can see what have they done. I’ve hired people who have been at other startups or students who are at Stanford. Interns are a good source of talent, especially if you’re not sure you can hire them full-time yet and want to make sure.

I have tried hiring on the street via guerrilla marketing. I handed out poached-egg sandwiches at the bus stops for Google and Apple employees. The marketing campaign said, get off the bus and join our rocketship. I’ve used hired.com, posted ads on Twitter and Facebook, and specific job sites.

I would say the most unusual hire I had was a principal architect & CTO of a startup, who was speaking at a Meetup about how scaling the Web doesn’t have to suck. I pursued him for many months! We exchanged emails and phone calls. By the time the Meetup happened, he accepted a job offer from us. At that Meetup, I also brought first hires to meet him and socialize with other folks. It was a way for us to close candidates.

One of my recruiters in SF took Uberpool. She got into a ride with an engineer and after the car ride, the engineer got into our pipeline.

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Image: Ron Pragides/Bigcommerce

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3 Responses to “Attracting Top Engineers in a Competitive Market”

    • Fred Bosick

      I don’t know about suck. The guy seems sincere. The problem I see is that the stories he puts forth as paragons suggest they prefer the recruiting strategies of Scientology or Reverend Moon’s Unification Church.

      If you need cultish devotees as employees, rock on.