12 Feb 2022

Hiring That First Backend Engineer

[Facts adjusted to protect the innocent]

A friend approached me to talk about what to look for when hiring their startup’s first backend engineer. The company is ~8 people, with a frontend/3d CTO and 2 strong engineers on the frontend. There is currently no backend tech or staffing, so this is hiring from the ground up.

First off, it’s hard to hire well for a skillset you lack, so get advice from people who have that expertise.

For personality, they need to be scrappy and able to do more with less. This is entirely at odds with the expectations that exist for staff in larger corporations. You want more “indie hacker” style than deep expertise on LSM Trees.

They need to be personable and able to work well with various business units, since it’s all hands on deck to survive the first couple years of a startup. They might need to be front line support for Enterprise customers and will require the patience and tact to retain that customer despite less stable technical systems.

They need to understand the build-versus-buy debate and strongly prefer to buy when staffing is short. They will do things with Zapier, Airtable, etc that you find appalling… and they’ll use that saved time to invest in mission critical systems getting the product features or reliability they need.

They know how to build reliable systems, but save their efforts for the systems that need it. Sometimes a scholastic grade of C+ is the right benchmark for Tier 2 systems and they know how to make the tradeoff.

They’re biased towards boring technologies and realize how few innovation tokens a young startup can truly spend. At this stage of my own development, this means they’re using tech like Golang, gRPC, Aurora MySQL, and hosted solutions. They realize every hour needs to be delivering business value and reinventing wheels with self-hosting or new flashy tech is a failure mode.

They see technology as a means to an end of delivering product features and “wow” for customers.

They’ll need to be the DevOps and Developer Efficiency team, on top of their main backend architect and coder role. They need the skillset and willingness to design IAM permissioning, wrangle sensible and secure defaults into AWS/GCP, and ensure developers have a minimal amount of tooling and support to be effective.

They’re the ones who will setup your Continuous Integrations, Continuous Deployment, deployments, rollbacks, operational manuals, paging system, alerting, metrics, commit hooks, linting, unit testing, end to end testing, staging environments, etc.

They’re designing a storage layer that will likely survive for 5+ years… so while they’re not planning on ROFL scale, they have a general idea of how the current system would evolve into ROFL scale. (TLDR Please use Aurora MySQL… if that can’t handle your ROFL scale… consider DynamoDB or MongoDB can rofl-scale with coaxing and mild care).

They’ll setup your data warehousing and long term archival (blob storage). They don’t need to be an expert here but should have seen it done before. If they can use a hosted solution for warehousing, that’s best. Otherwise, they know enough to choose among various hosted/self-hosted solutions (snowflake, spanner, redshift, clickhouse).

They’ll work with your analysts and eventually will set them up with a dedicated Business Intelligence tool. When I sourced this in a prior company we settled on Periscope and it treated us well. They’ll make sure you run it off a read replica so you don’t endanger production.

They’ll do the rest of your backend hiring, they should either have the skill and experience in hiring, firing, and leadership. They don’t have to be a people manager but do need to be willing to act in whatever way is best for the organization.

They need to be scrappy: ie able and willing to tackle any problem. They should also be willing and able to work on the frontend if that’s the most critical task of the moment. If they can’t solve a problem, they know to find someone who can for advice or admit they’re stuck and brainstorm solutions.

They need to be product minded and think of how their expertise can unlock that product vision. They’ve either considered founding their own startup, worked in a small one or done entrepreneurial work before.

They need to understand the value of dollars, in your startup. It’s different than in larger corporations with greater runway. If someone isn’t productive, it could result in the full startup failing and putting everyone out of work… better to coach that person and fix it or send them packing.

They need to be presentable among a wide audience: sales staff, investors, techcrunch, other engineers.