Developers are fast becoming integral to every company, from department stores and banks to the latest tech startup.
Modern software development is unlike many other aspects of business, however. Not only is it a highly creative pursuit, with its own culture and methodologies, but it also sits at the nexus of everything you do, and its product is never finished, living as it does in a complex ecosystem of operating platforms and on a range of devices and screens.
Hiring, leading and working with developers is likely to be new territory for a range of business leaders. We spoke to our panel of leading Australian entrepreneurs and investors to ask what all founders should know about working with developers.
SEEK co-founder Andrew Bassat looks for cultural fit when hiring developers for his company Seek, a process not dissimilar to filling any roles. This means looking for world class talent, but it also means finding people who are passionate and will fit in.
“We want people that are driven and passionate around SEEK’s purpose which is to ‘help people live more fulfilling and productive working lives and help organisations succeed’,” says Bassat.
“When it comes to leading developers we try to set some broad parameters around ‘Why a product needs to be developed’, ‘What outcomes you hope to achieve’, and then give the developers the flexibility to find the solution.” Bassat continues:
When developing these professionals I think it’s all about giving them opportunities to be inspired by their peers (i.e. Peer lunches where they develop each other on new topics and trends), providing them freedom to experiment (Hackathons), offering them opportunities to jump in the deep end on projects (stretch projects) and running structured career planning sessions to encourage them to capture and communicate their career goals.
At SEEK, we understand that work is one part of their lives. We are flexible and understanding around hours and life’s other competing priorities, so long as they get the job done.
For Benjamin Chong, parter at Right Click Capital, startups can be split into two categories: companies that use technology as part of their operations, others who develop new technologies. The relationship between founders and developers will vary for each.
“For businesses in the first category, domain knowledge or business founders need to develop a strong relationship with their lead developer or CTO. By understanding what makes them tick and their preferred communication styles, they can engage in meaningful conversations about the business’s vision and short term technology needs,” says Chong. “In my experience, many developers want to deliver highly engineered solutions, but in a startup’s early life, speed is often more important than technical perfection. For one of our advertising businesses, it took us too long to develop our original system. Instead, we should have asked our lead developer to create a prototype or MVP so we could test this system with customers and learn what would be important instead of building the complete system at inception.”
Chong has tapped his network to help in this learning process. “Although I have a level of technical understanding, I’ve leaned on friends who are experienced developers to assist in the hiring process. They’ve created tests where we’ve been able to ascertain the problem solving and coding abilities of candidates, allowing us to compare their relative strengths. We’ve also combined this with a more general psychometric test, allowing us to hire a variety of candidates whose perspectives differ but are also complementary.”
For those companies that develop new technologies, a different approach may be required. “While it may be easier for a tech founder to judge the tech chops of a new hire, it’s critical they hire a mix of different personalities for their team. There needs to be a range of personality types in a high productivity team, with some prepared to take risks and others who ask the right questions.”
Chong adds there are other ways to grease the creative wheels. “I’ve found it very helpful for both developers and product or business people to spend time together, outside of the work environment. At one of our portfolio companies, both teams regularly share lunch together. Apart from discussions about mutual hobbies, I know they spend lots of time solving customer problems. This also allows both sides of the business to understand why they do what they do, providing meaning to the tasks each is working on.
Elaine Stead of Blue Sky Ventures says developers don’t necessarily need to be treated differently than other individuals or skill-sets necessary to a startup. She says: “Good leadership is about setting a vision, and tailoring how you explain people’s contribution in delivering that vision and I think that’s personality driven more than skill-set driven.”
Annie Parker, co-founder at muru-D, puts emphasis on instilling passion and pride in a tech team. “If you can get them to care about the business even half as much as you then you’re on your way to building a high performing team. They’ll be more likely to work harder fixing thorny problems, debug at 3am on a Sunday morning or help you strategise how to make your last $1,000 stretch for $10,000,” Parker said.
“Never underestimate the power of a debrief after a launch. New mobile app or site gone live or a major release? Awesome, high fives all round. But then back to work, ask questions, what could they have done differently, what worked brilliantly, who has ideas on how you might have done the same thing quicker or cheaper?” says Parker.
“I find tech teams are extraordinarily good at these quick fire sessions, but don’t just run these in your tech teams, run them across your whole team, it’s a great way of transferring knowledge and skills across your whole business.”
AirTree ventures partner Craig Blair has advice for the founders specifically — they need to know about the technology. To be able to speak the same language, to understand the methodologies and approach. Not only will this allow for more seamless communication during the project, it will help you hire the right people as well.
“[Founders] should try and understand the key development focus areas e.g. front end or back end, and hire accordingly, says Blair.
“They should also think about the role of product management and UX and how this fits with engineers. Many will say they can do this and some can but most don’t do this well.”
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