Hiring Non-Traditional Engineers: Lessons and Tips

Truss has been hiring engineers for years, and we’ve learned an important lesson: résumés aren’t everything. Yes, qualifications, certifications, and degrees are important for assessing a potential engineering hire—but they aren’t entirely indicative of a candidate’s potential success within a team. Any company knows that hiring engineers with résumés full of impressive work experience and accolades can still lead to an ill-fitting hire.

That’s because there’s not enough attention paid to the more abstract (but essential skills), like being a good collaborator or knowing when to ask for help. These traits have been overlooked and undervalued, because most companies lack the time and assessment tools to evaluate every candidate that way, while also meeting day-to-day HR demands. 

But what if I told you that some of our best software engineers were once farmers and classroom teachers we recruited from coding bootcamps, and who brought talents to the table that perhaps a straight-out-of-computer science grad couldn’t? 

In our experience, we found many of those important off-résumé skills in “bootcamp developers”; we intentionally recruited them, and enabled them to be successful by adding a specific training structure. 

We didn’t just go to any bootcamp and hire away. We had a systematic vetting process. We compared and contrasted the quality of different coding schools, what they specialized in, how they taught and the kind of recruits they were working with. We established relationships with the select schools we deemed a good fit for us. Each bootcamp has their own liaison process with hiring managers, and so we had to adapt to each of their requirements, as well.

If a business is considering this approach, keep in mind these things Truss has learned over the years:

Non-Traditional Hires Possess Unique Skill Sets

There are an estimated 26 million software developers globally, marking a 45 percent spike over the past two years. However, how many of these 26 million developers have the ability to collaborate and work as a part of a team? More defined skill sets are important, but they sometimes fail to compensate for a lack of skills, like situational awareness.

One of the most telling characteristics of a potential hire is their Emotional Quotient (EQ). More specifically, the candidate’s ability to recognize and understand their own emotions and those of others, discern between different feelings, and appropriately use emotional information to influence decision-making. These traits will undoubtedly be a determining factor in their overall success in any engineering role. Hiring from developer bootcamps allows companies to onboard talented individuals who make up for a lack of more concrete work experience. 

These non-traditional hires join the team without pre-fixed notions of how to complete assignments or bad habits to unlearn, so they come aboard more willing and able to adapt to a business. For example, many traditionally educated engineers were taught to code independently, meaning their education didn’t include an interactive team environment with designers and product people, for example. Given that Truss employs a full spectrum of skills, it’s interesting to hear that “green” engineers need training from product and design staff. The initial feeling is that graduates come in with assumptions. It takes a high EQ to be successful in any professional environment and work with different groups like marketing and sales.

Non-Traditional Hires Drive Company Culture and Growth

Hiring engineers with non-traditional backgrounds will impact company culture for the better. Eighty-three percent of tech executives are white men, mirroring a lack of diversity across tech industries. This stat is exacerbated by personal networks: Eighty-five percent of all hires come from networking and previous connections to a company. Even with the best of intentions, If a core team is homogenous, it is highly likely it will remain that way. This leaves little to no room for atypical candidates. 

Bringing bootcamp grads into the fold is a significant step toward diversity: A more culturally inclusive workplace that ensures new and old employees aren’t boxed out because of gender, ethnicity, or background. When one recognizes that creating a diverse and inclusive company creates value in problem-solving, innovation and market returns, it becomes imperative that emerging startups find, recruit and support non-traditional engineering candidates. 

These employees can help the company uncover areas in which other non-traditional candidates were discouraged from applying due to various factors including pronouns, language, and even company pictures. 

There are a couple of ways bootcamp grads’ different viewpoints helped our culture, like suggesting we use preferred pronouns on company websites, Slack channels, and photos to convey a feeling of acceptance to underrepresented employees and potential future hires. Without hiring employees with non-traditional backgrounds, these insights would probably have gone overlooked. 

Designate a Large Management Team

Of course, hiring engineers from developer bootcamps comes with its own challenges. The learning curve for a bootcamp grad is going to sharper than that of a traditional CS graduate, so companies need a large enough management team to train and support bootcamp hires, who will have to absorb large amounts of technical and career guidance. This is why we advise that companies should only bring in roughly three to five recruits per manager to prevent managers from being overwhelmed, and so that each recruit has a substantial support system. Additional planning is required up front to develop a specific development plan for bootcamp hires. 

In order to cultivate a productive learning environment, it is crucial to assign these young engineers to projects that foster growth, not maintenance projects. They won’t feel like they’re learning or contributing, and that could lead to frustration and eventually attrition. 

Be Willing to Teach; It Will Pay Off

It is crucial to develop an overall culture of learning, not competition. Employees who are learning skills within a cutthroat environment will be discouraged to stay, changing the company dynamic significantly. Leadership expects hires will have a certain tenure, and thus are willing to train them for the long haul. It is the company’s commitment to cultivate and support bootcamp recruits to the point where they can independently learn and contribute within a few years. Companies must look beyond the skill of coding, and instead hire engineers who are open to learning a new way of thinking, and who will ask for help along the way. 

Mentorship on real projects with real, measurable results will give them valuable, on-the-job, concrete training that brings them up to speed with a traditional engineer. They are embedded with a company’s culture and systems, making them potentially more productive than a more traditional hire.

Hiring non-traditional engineers will require companies to invest up front for a long-term return. The immediate cost is the time and personnel required to properly train hires. The tradeoff for managers is the different life experience of these bootcamp grads, who can bring diversity and inclusion to the table. They are likely easier to recruit and will command less than a traditionally trained engineer (but even “traditional” engineers fresh out of college need to learn how to work in an engineering environment). 

Like any hire, there remains the risk of turnover and the costs that come along with it. However, companies willing to search beyond the cookie-cutter developer will reap the benefits of forward-thinking, diverse engineers. When companies are willing to train and support non-traditional engineers, they will find invaluable team members. It’s worth the investment; in the end you are at least equal or better off. That’s not a bad bet.

Everett Harperis the CEO and cofounder of Truss, which builds software and infrastructure to help companies scale and modernize digital services.