I’ve worked for startups and stalwarts, small shops and large corporations, firms where software is the means to an end, and firms where it was an end in itself. After years of exploring what I love about building software I’ve realized that coding for a 17-person dot com is a far cry from building enterprise software for a 300-person credit card company. It only took me eight years to figure out why.
There are a myriad of articles on interviewing, evaluating, and hiring software developers, but a topic that’s rarely discussed is how to attract software developers that fit your company’s environment. With the current state of the software job market, it’s critical as a hirer that you determine not only what type of developers will be happy in your environment (your “developer demographic”), but how you can become more attractive to that particular slice of the market.
Your Developer Demographic
As an example, IndyMac and Countrywide are large financial institutions with development offices in Los Angeles. They attract people looking for stable jobs with good benefits where they can code 9 to 5 and then go home and not think about it from 5 to 9. I envy people who do not grow bored with this environment; I really do. Life would be much, much simpler if I could handle it.
There are also tech startups that attract caffeine-junkies. Long hours with potentially large reward, and the prospect of building something really cool in a short amount of time that could make a difference in peoples’ lives. Or, more likely, be relegated to the failed startup scrap heap. These companies should be looking for people who love using new technology, are typically younger, willing to take risks, and willing to shoot from the hip.
These may be extreme cases, but they illustrate the point: certain attitudes and personality traits play nicely with certain environments. Often, a developer who thrives in one environment will find that she slowly withers away in others.
The Three Dimensions
To get more specific, there are three dimensions to a company that most affect the internal environment for a software developer. It’s critical that you know which of these your company falls into, and not only market to, but ensure you can retain developers who fit that demographic. The descriptions of the software developers who like to work at each corporate classification are generalized, but they serve as a guide to get you thinking about the personality of your ideal candidate.
Your company may not match exactly with one of the choices below each dimension, but do your best to categorize it. Many companies start off as one thing and transition to something very different in the first year or two.
- Small – Some small companies are startups, and some are 10-year old, profitable, mature businesses that make money hand over fist with 9 employees. Software developers who like small companies are typically social, they like the vibe of knowing everyone, going to lunch with the same people, and knowing that they contribute a great deal to the success or failure of the enterprise.
- Large – The bulk of corporate development is for larger companies. They tend to have big teams, lots of process, and decent-sized QA and Change Management teams. Software developers who like large companies tend to enjoy more process, like working on larger teams where they can either lead or be led, and enjoy the possibility for growth that comes with a large organization.
- Chaos Level
- Stable – Stable companies tend to be, um…stable. They have good benefits, and employees can often get away with working 8 or 9 hour days. Developers who prefer stable companies are likely a little further along in their career, may have a family, like the consistency of coming in to the same office each day, and enjoy their time out of the office when they don’t have to think about software.
- Startup – Startups tend to be more risky with the possibility of more reward. The salary may not be as high as that of a stable company, but the stock options will be worth six-figures if you can get your bleeding-edge online calendar out the door before Google’s. Benefits tend to be spotty. The hours are long, but it’s more than worth it for developers who are passionate about technology (read: bring books about ASP.NET to the beach), love building software that matters, and enjoy the camaraderie of working on a team of people who share their interests.
- Software (or a technology that relies on software) - These companies rely on software for their main source of revenue, whether they sell it (Microsoft, Intuit), give it away (Google, Craigslist), or offer it on some type of “pay to play” basis (eBay, salesforce.com). Technology firms that rely on software are companies like Palm, Apple, or the guys who make the fingerprint readers I keep seeing at data centers. Software may not be their main source of income, but they are technology companies and software is critical to their product. Software developers who prefer these types of companies enjoy being around other software people; they like the idea that technology is at the core of their company, and they love that they work on real products that people use. In addition, they relish the fact that software firms tend to live towards the cutting edge and are able to constantly upgrade their skills to the latest and greatest.
- Everything Else – These companies make up the majority of companies in the world; their main source of revenue is something other than software – credit cards, lawn furniture – you name it. “Everything else” companies use software to support their business: to track widgets, support their call center, and balance their books. The majority of corporate software jobs are working for companies under this umbrella. Software developers who enjoy this type of company like building applications to support accounting, management, and the people who produce or sell the company’s main product, and they are either very content to know they can go home at night and not think about developing software, or they go home at night and all they think about is they day they can leave the company and work for someone like Google.
Your Company, Your Developer Demographic, Your Job Description
Before writing your job description think hard about where you fall in each of the dimensions. Then think twice as hard about the kind of developer who will be happy at your company. Don’t kid yourself; you can convince the 24 year-old tech hot-shot to work for your financial services company by offering him a huge salary, but he’ll be gone in 9 months because you’re using three-year old technology and developing boring (from his perspective), back-office software.
Once you’ve determined who will be happy at your company, write your job description with that person in mind.
You’re a large company with great benefits? Spell it out in bullet points: plain, simple, and official. Play up your stability.
You’re a small startup with no benefits? Use a casual tone and create excitement. Make that 24-year old hot-shot be dying to work for you.
Even if he has to pay for his own health care