Teresa Dietrich, Chief Product and Technology Officer at Stack Overflow, on hiring engineers

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Vertex News Team posted on 05 May 2022

Much like the Stack Overflow community which Teresa Dietrich oversees as the company’s Chief Product and Technology Officer, she knows that engineers can be a headstrong, opinionated bunch. She knows that because she is one!

As an Internet veteran with 25 years of leadership and technical credits, she likes to solve problems as they relate to technology, process, or people-related challenges. Over the years, she has held executive leadership positions at companies such as McKinsey, WebMD, Namely, AOL in the early days, and more. 

She’s hired hundreds, if not thousands, of employees. While hiring technical talent has never been easy, it’s even more challenging when growing at an outsized pace in a highly competitive market. Startups often go through a fast evolution and maturation process and that dramatically impacts a company’s culture and ability to execute. 

So, given the realities of today’s workforce, how should founders, who are often deeply technical, think about hiring in tech today? Here are some of Teresa’s most critical tips on how to ensure those early engineering hires are great ones.

Passion for the users and problems you are solving

First, ask whether the potential hire uses the product – or competing products or does someone close to them? And do they know the pain points you’re trying to solve? Ideally, says Dietrich, “you want to find someone who feels strongly about wanting to work on a product or mission that they believe in.”  That passion is going to help them navigate the pivots and roller coaster ride of companies through growth and change.

What if you don’t know what product a hire will be working on – as was the case when Teresa worked at McKinsey, where she says her team was hard at work building MVPs. Engineers would constantly be working on different products and industries, making it difficult to find actual users who lived and breathed the product. In this case, she advises that hiring managers look for people who thrive on uncertainty, not just can survive within it. “One of the things we looked for at McKinsey was folks who liked to take chances and who really saw the opportunity within uncertainty,” she says. 

Develop successful employee archetypes

Use your existing employees to help develop an archetype of success and be intentional about your hires and complimentary skills. “One of the things that have helped me most is looking around to the people internally that you already have: What are the characteristics of a team member who you believe is doing well? Who is thriving?” she says. “This kind of thought can help you develop a persona of the type of folks who are going to be happy and impactful at your company.”

If it’s a small team or you’re hiring for engineer #1, be thoughtful and look 1-2 years in the future.  Flexibility and resiliency are key for early hires as you work to find your culture, product-market fit, and technology choices. You need to figure out a set of archetypes that translate well to happy, challenged, and motivated employees, based on your company’s culture, the stage you’re at, and the kinds of problems you're solving.”

Don’t be fooled by technical talent without “soft” skills

People are often so wowed by technically talented engineers that they forgive core skills like collaboration and communication. Don’t let that happen! It’s important to ensure that hiring managers investigate and confirm candidates are team players throughout the hiring process. Those skills are defined at Stack Overflow. “One of our core skills is collaboration, for example,” says Teresa. “And when we interview for that, it doesn't always involve another engineer. The panel has at least two cross-functional partners, such as a product manager, designer, or product researcher. It's specifically designed to find out how well the candidate would collaborate cross-functionality as well.” 

If you hire a highly technical and talented engineer without these essential, non-technical skills, you risk severely damaging the organization. “If you also wait too late in the interview process to look at those core skills, people can get really attached to a candidate who isn’t going to work well within the team,” reminding us that not only are they crucial to having a healthy company culture, but a sustainable one as well. 

It’s okay if it doesn’t work out

Teresa also says not to be afraid to end the process if a promising candidate shows signs of misalignment to your core values in the hiring process. “Design your interview process around your company values and career competencies and then hold yourself accountable to the process and standards.”  Especially in competitive environments, hiring managers can feel desperate and just want to make the hires so they can deliver on plans and commitments.  “Remember the negative impact a bad hire can make on the rest of the team and the heavy workload to manage someone out of the organization.  Poor hiring decisions often have an outsized impact and high cost to their team and manager.”

Summing up, Teresa says, “I always hire on two things beyond key technical skills: attitude and aptitude. Those are the two things I can't teach you. I can't teach you to want to come to work each day excited about the opportunities and be a part of a team solving problems. And I can't teach you how to learn or a desire for learning.

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