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Technical hiring for non-technical founders

Starting a tech company as a non-technical founder is hard, especially without a technical co-founder. While non-technical founders have a lot to bring to the table, they have to rely on the technical expertise of others to build the products. If you don’t have a technical partner that you know and trust to help you along the way, navigating the technical needs of your organization can be overwhelming.

Initial hires at a startup play an outsized role in the culture and direction of the business. As a founder, focus on finding people who not only have the skills that you need but can also further your vision. In order to find the right fit, you’ll need to have a clear idea of what you want the application to do, who your target audience is, and the pain points you are solving for them. You’ll also need to be able to communicate your vision clearly and in a way that ignites the passion in potential teammates.

As you make your first technical hires, prioritize finding individuals who have the skills to do what you need today and the skills to do what you may need in the future. In order to find the right people (and convince the right people it’s worth joining you), it’s important to understand the technical terminology, workflows, and processes that will matter to your business.

Slow down and build a foundation

It’s important to hire someone you can trust. As a non-technical person, you’re relying on the expertise of your technical hire (whether that person is a co-founder, a contract worker, or part of a dev shop) to make your application function. Whenever possible, hire someone from within your network. If you don’t know anyone with a technical background, work to expand your network. Non-technical founders may be able to find a technical mentor or consultant to pay by the hour to help them navigate making initial engineering decisions.

After you find a technical mentor or consultant, take the time to walk through the technical details of what you need from future hires. Are you looking for frontend or backend developers? Frontend development takes care of the things that the end-user sees and uses tools like HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. Backend development is the development of services that support the frontend of your application. Infrastructure, programming languages, and databases are all components of backend development. There are different platforms and frameworks to choose from, and developers will often specialize in certain areas.

If you are hiring one developer or building a very small team, a full-stack developer may be the right choice for you, as they will possess skills for both frontend and backend development. By hiring a talented full-stack developer, you may be able to build an initial Minimum Viable Product without additional employees, but it also could be more difficult to find the right fit for this role.

Become familiar with standard tech stacks

Due to their popularity, certain combinations of software have created what’s known as standard tech stacks. Choosing one of these stacks means developers are likely familiar with them and their processes, making it easier to find and hire developers for your project. Two of the most commonly used stacks are MEAN, MERN, or MEVN, and LAMP, LNMP, or LLMP. The MEAN tech stack is a popular choice for web applications because apps can be written in one language for both client and server-side projects. LAMP is popular for developing simple web applications and dynamic websites. For native iOS and Android mobile application development, developers often use Swift language, Apple Xcode toolkit, and iOS SDK for iOS and Java or Kotlin languages, Android Studio, Android Developer Tools, and Android SDK for Android devices.

As you look for your first technical hires, come to the table with an idea of the stack you’ll need. While it doesn’t have to be set in stone, having a starting point can help you prioritize developers familiar with the technologies that are most likely to fit your needs. Ask yourself these questions as you consider what technologies you’ll use for your application.

  • What will the business ecosystem look like? What does your application need to be compatible or integrate with?

  • How popular is the software? If you need to hire additional developers, will they be available?

  • How big is the community to offer support should you need it? For example, is there a vendor for the programming language you choose?

  • What are the specific requirements for things like libraries, features, and tools?

  • Are there any security considerations?

Learn more about choosing your tech stack with our downloadable guide: The Ultimate Guide to Choosing your Tech Stack for Startups and SMBs.

Be a knowledgeable interviewer

As a non-technical person, you’ll likely be able to evaluate soft skills and culture fit relatively well. As you go through the hiring process, keep in mind that initial hires at a startup need to possess both leadership skills and the ability to get the job done. Many startups find that hiring an experienced individual contributor rather than someone Director level or above is advantageous in the early days. These candidates are often comfortable with execution while having the expertise to contribute as strategic leaders.

It’s a good idea to include your technical mentor or consultant in the interview process. Technical interview processes usually involve some kind of project or coding challenge in addition to typical interviews. Have a plan for assessing the technical skills of potential candidates. There are online tests available, but evaluating skill alone won’t necessarily find the best candidate.

Having an experienced engineer on your side can help you suss out red flags in candidates. As a non-technical person, one way to assess a candidate’s skills on your own is to ask them to explain their choices. Ask them to elaborate on their decisions with the question, “can you explain why that’s a good idea?” This will help you understand their reasoning and communication skills and ultimately give you a good idea of who can help you make good technical decisions for your business.

Understand the market for technical hires

The market for technical hires is often very different from non-technical roles, such as marketing and sales. Developers are in high demand from companies both large and small, which means they often have high salary requirements and may be interviewing with several companies at once. Do your research on the average salary for technical hires in your industry and area, and think about what additional benefits to offer in order to make your company stand out.

These often include equity in your company, the ability to work remotely, healthcare plans, and 401k contributions. If a technical hire is coming to a small startup from a larger company, they may be taking a pay cut, so you’ll need to find other ways to appeal to them, such as through a generous equity offer and a good company culture.

Websites like Glassdoor, Blind, and Payscale can give you an idea of salaries companies like yours are offering, but talking to fellow founders or mentors will give you an even better idea of what technical hires might be expecting.

Here are some questions to consider as you create an offer for a technical hire:

  • What salary will a technical hire be expecting?

  • How much equity am I willing to give a technical hire?

  • Will I allow them to work remotely, or will they need to come to an office?

  • How can I clearly communicate my company values and culture?

  • What other non-tangible benefits can we offer, like the ability to work flexible hours?

Technical hires, like many hires at early-stage companies, are often looking for more than just salary to accept an offer–they want to believe in the product they will be building, and feel like they will have a seat at the table when it comes to decision making. Ensuring you communicate clearly your expectations for the role they will play and the opportunities you see for your company in the long term can often sway a technical hire in your favor, even if they have other offers on the table.

Get more tips on hiring your startup team

Hiring is one of the most important elements of building a startup, as your early hires will determing company culture and set the course for how your product is built. At DigitalOcean, we’re committed to helping startups and small-to-medium businesses succeed, which is why we’ve put together several resources on how to build your team, from examining the ideal startup team structure, to how to interview candidates for culture fit, and how to hire remote employees. Check out all of our startup resources, and sign up for our simple, cost effective cloud solutions by creating a DigitalOcean account today.

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