Non-technical founders have built remarkable technology companies and products, which means that they were somehow able to lead teams of technical experts. If you are one such founder, the most pressing question on your mind may not be how to run a team of engineers, but how to hire one. After all, if you don’t know anything about engineering, how can you know the good ones from the bad ones?
It is important to start this conversation by dispelling a few myths. First, there are no maxims in software engineering. It is not always true that offshore development is low quality or cheap. By the same token, it is not always true that onshore development is high quality and expensive. These kind of maxims do not actually provide much value to you in your search for engineering solutions.
So how have successful non-technical founders managed to navigate the technology world? The key is to develop a baseline of knowledge, a simple testing framework, and train your eye to recognize universal signs of quality.
Learn the language
The first time you interview someone is a scary moment. When you are vetting candidates to join your startup’s team, you are trying to understand someone’s professional competency on a timeline. The first time you interview an engineer will be the same experience but in a complete vacuum of context.
But there is good news — you can teach yourself enough to guide the conversation into territory you are comfortable with. The first step is to familiarize yourself with some key vocabulary. Terminology lists abound online, and with a few quick searches you should have a pretty comprehensive list of your own. As you study the terminology, start searching for freemium courses and tools for learning how those terms are used and where they fit in the software engineering language.
Remember, you are not looking to measure the applicant’s knowledge against your own knowledge. Instead, you are asking him or her to explain why they think what they think. That certainly requires you to be able to speak the language, but only enough to challenge the candidate to communicate their opinions to you.
If you were going to hire a construction company to build your new office space, one of the most important things you would take into consideration would be what else they had built. Their previous builds are tangible evidence of the quality of their work. The same is true of software engineers and engineering firms: ask to see what they have built.
Simply by tapping around a mobile app, you can discern the quality of their architecture, UI, UX, the efficiency of the tools they built, and how well the app delivered the value it promised. You are able to do that because on a daily basis, you likely use some of the best designed and most cutting edge apps in the world, from Uber to Facebook to Waze, etc. These are the tastemakers, or the standard setters. You don’t necessarily need to be an engineer to tell a good app from a bad one.
By the same token, firms that design more enterprise-focused technology should be able to point you to satisfied customers who can quantify how the technology worked. Did it improve efficiency, save money, grow the business and retain top talent? A good engineering firm should have a portfolio that you can assess as a laymen.
Find a testing platform
Having learned relevant vocabulary and reviewed portfolios, you may feel comfortable making a decision. But if you want to feel like you have done everything you can to vet candidates or vendors in light of your lack of technical expertise, there are other tools at your disposal.
A quick internet search for developer testing products will surface a litany of resources. As technology is getting more complex, it’s natural that technology is required to suss out the merits of its engineers. Perhaps most importantly, these tests will spit out more than just a letter grade or a pass/fail. Many of them will provide a thorough report on strengths and weaknesses that can help you find the right developer for your specific project.
Hiring good talent is essential in any business. For a technology startup, the quality of the talent you hire is not just essential, it is the rocket that lifts your company off the pad. Find the right talent. Know that in your search, you can acquire the skills and utilize the resources that will allow you to find the right people. In the early days of a startup, for technical and non-technical founders alike, confidence is everything.