When you’re building your early team, you’d know that trying to master every skill yourself doesn’t end well.
You could learn to code yourself, but you probably have better things to do. So how do you hire the best programmer for your team from the ever-expanding pool of college grads, coding bootcamp alumni and self-taught techies?
You need to know who’s going to hit the ground running while being the right fit on your team. You’ll also need to know what kind of salary to offer the right coder. It’s a competitive market out there, where savvy coders can name their price, as new Airbnb recruit and coding bootcamp grad, Haseeb Qureshi, blogged about recently. But he didn’t leap straight from App Academy to Airbnb; there were many rejections along the way. His break came when he signed up with a tech recruiting startup, which led to a job offer from Yelp.
Wanting to hold out for something better, Qureshi played the field, telling other companies he’d received numerous offers. After negotiating his price between Google and Airbnb, Qureshi chose the latter – with a $250K salary.
So while coders don’t need a college degree to command high earnings, as an employer, you need to work out how to source and hire the best programmer for your budget. But how can you gauge that when you don’t have a coding background? That’s why we’re here to help!
Let’s start with some definitions …
Anatomy of a Computer Science grad
With the average Computer Science (CS) degree spanning 4 years, most graduates leave equipped with a solid grounding in theory and sufficient practical skills.
- analyze code efficiency
- easily adapt to any software environment
- apply the theory of code to the art of working within programming constraints
- design software from the ground up, taking into account potential problems and their solutions, again within particular constraints
- provide fully documented, clearly written software that is easy to modify if needed.
- No guarantee of real-world coding experience (unless they code in their spare time)
- Some in the industry see CS degrees as teaching antiquated, non-essential material, and not keeping up with the times, so graduates are not job-ready when they leave.
- Some grads may be more motivated by money and consider a start-up as a mere launching pad to Google or Facebook.
- Most grads are male, which means less diversity in workplace. Adam Jonas, Managing Director of Engineering at The Flatiron School, observes: “In the tech industry, where creativity and unconventional thinking can convert into high-yield rewards, diversity is a powerful economic opportunity,” he says.
Coding bootcamp: Ready to roll in 12 weeks?
Coding bootcamps claim to teach what start-ups need, in a very condensed timeframe, between 8 weeks and 3 months. Some academies are fairly selective too, only taking people who can already code – including college grads!
- Graduates are equipped with the latest industry skills and knowledge of trends that many startups need.
- Higher percentage of female graduates offers a more diverse talent pool. Women attain just 14% of computer science degrees, whereas they represent between 36% and 40% of bootcamp graduates.
- They have more practical experience in web development particularly, compared to CS grads.
- They’re potentially more passionate about programming, as many are self-taught prior to attending a coding academy. If they’re not fresh out of college, they may even have a career background that’s applicable to your company.
- Very little exposure to the theory of coding and developing critical thinking. So, a bootcamp grad may have to learn theory on the side to be more employable or adaptable.
- Without the discipline of a 4-year degree, some bootcamp graduates may burn out quickly or not have the commitment that programming requires.
Raw skills or solid theory – which matters more?
This is fairly subjective, as each startup founder will have a different take, depending on their needs and company philosophy. Out in the real world, opinion is divided.
While he acknowledges the college grad’s theoretical background, Flatiron’s Jonas says that the bootcamp grad might have better practical skills to start programming immediately. But he goes on, “From a manager’s perspective, maybe the CS grad is the safer bet – whatever coding skills she needs, she can learn at her employer in a few months. Assuming that grad is passionate and great at learning to learn – that makes sense.”
Passion and being willing – and quick – to learn are key attributes many in the industry consider just as important as qualifications.
Makifund’s Casey Gibbons backs this up, saying he’s hired both types of grads. He values employer references and actual projects a candidate has worked on over degrees or certificates. He finds their hunger to learn “a key determinant of success,” and sees “the hungriest learners coming out of coding bootcamps”.
In a Wall Street Journal piece, Daniel Gelernter, CEO of Dittach says he’d never hire a CS grad. “The thing I look for in a developer is a longtime love of coding – people who taught themselves to code in high school and still can’t get enough of it,” he says.
Gelernter observes that some bootcamp grads are not “innately passionate” and just after a fast career transition, making them less-than-ideal hires. But he says out-of-date college curriculums are a bigger problem.
“University computer science departments are … 10 years behind in a field that changes every 10 minutes… They teach students how to design an operating system, but not how to work with a real, live development team…. If a college graduate has the coding skills that tech startups need, he most likely learned them on his own.”
Jennifer Bland, who trained at Hack Reactor bootcamp, says she’s interested in a candidate’s coding skills, but also ability to think and solve problems and their communication skills.
“When companies interview programmers they will ask them a series of very technical questions on programming to judge their knowledge. They will ask them to complete a programming assignment to assess their programming skills and how they write code,” she says.
“If a candidate can show quality programming skills during an interview I don’t care if they learned it in college, in a bootcamp or are self-taught.”
Who performs better straight out of the gate?
As different startups have different requirements and measures of performance, this is also a tough call. A bootcamp grad, with prior work experience, might slot into your company faster than a “freshly minted” college grad who’s never worked in an office.
But Appboy’s Kevin Wang, says, “New college hires [and] bootcamp grads are pretty similar out of the gate. They both make silly design decisions until they have more practice. They both write sloppy code until they have more practice”.
“The biggest advantage for college grads from top CS programs is that they have highly technical knowledge that pays dividends once they’ve learned how to operate efficiently in their environment. This is an advantage 6 months to a year into the job when they can draw on these deeper experiences when tackling more complex problems.”What should you look for?
As we’ve seen, there are no hard and fast rules on how to choose a programmer. While larger companies might favor a college degree over a bootcamp certificate, most place a high value on qualities like passion, an eagerness to learn and what Kevin Wang calls “a mix of drive and innate brightness”.
In terms of coding courses however, not all are equal. You need to look into where a candidate got their qualifications. Whether it’s college or bootcamp, some have better reputations than others. Try Course Report, which is aimed at potential students, but can give you an idea of reputable coding bootcamps, with reviews written by students.
Some of these questions might help you narrow your selection criteria:
- Does the candidate keep up to date with tech trends and new code?
- Do they have a variety of examples of previous projects?
- For the college grad: how much self-education or practical experience do they have? (e.g. have they participated in any hackathons or codefests?)
- Where is the majority of their coding experience – in what application, platform or industry?
- Do they know anything about your company and its industry?
You’ll want to assess candidates for each of the following skills too:
Coding ability and problem-solving
It goes without saying – you’ll want to see a candidate in action, so get them to solve a coding challenge or build one of your ideas from scratch – in your office, working with you and your team. That way, you get to assess their speed, accuracy, attention to detail, creativity and how well you work together.
In addition to the exercise above, you can gauge how well they’ll fit with your team by assessing their communication skills. If they can’t give or follow instructions, or contribute ideas, they may not be for you.
Jason Champion, creator of independent search engine WbSrch says a coding candidate should be able to tailor their communication to their audience. “Communicating technical ideas to non-technical people in a clear and non-condescending way [is important]. This also includes writing documentation, both for users and for other developers. Presenting ideas and demos well is also important. It’s very easy to be confusing and overly technical in a conversation when you’re laser-focused on hard technical problems all day.”
And while a resume is certainly not the best measure of a coder, if it’s littered with grammar or spelling mistakes, the fact they couldn’t be bothered to run it through spell check, may be a sign of laziness – something you don’t want on your team.
Diversity of skill set
Whether they’re a college or a bootcamp grad, it’s clear that the broadest skills are gained in extra-curricular pursuits. But you’ll want to ascertain how well a potential hire codes for software function and interactivity as well as for design aesthetic and user-friendliness. And consider how complex their experience is: have they only built websites and apps, or have they designed and built a robot that can assemble a car? (In which case, they might be a little overqualified!)
Decoding code quality
How do you assess the skill and code quality of a potential programming hire?
Some experts think it takes more than code tests to assess a candidate’s suitability. Malcolm Teas from Voalte says, “A software developer needs to be able to write software, design software, and work effectively as part of a team. Simply evaluating coding isn’t a good thing…I want [candidates] creating the product the business I work for needs.”
That said, for non-techy types, there are tools out there to assess quality of code.
With code quality a pretty subjective concept in any case, your best bet is a real-time, on-site peer review to assess a potential hire. Try and find a coder through your network, who can sit in with a candidate while they work on an assessment task. Their professional opinion on the prospect’s skills will then be more relevant to your situation.
The choice is ultimately your call – and that only comes from knowing the direction you’re business is heading in, the skill gaps that need filling – and the needs of your team.
How did you make your first coding hire? What resources or advice did you call upon?