11 mins

At LeadDev’s recent New York conferences, I heard a lot of engineering leaders talking about how hard it is to hire engineers these days.

With the MANGA companies (Meta, Apple, Netflix, Google, Amazon) and other brand names like Twitter, Dropbox, and Spotify offering astronomical cash compensation, it’s hard for anyone else to compete. Plus, companies that used to tout remote work as a key differentiator have lost that advantage, since nearly all companies offer remote roles now. What’s a smaller, younger org to do?

I’ve worked at a number of organizations that have paid far less than the MANGA companies but have been able to recruit very effectively. Here’s the secret: not everyone is driven solely by high salaries – and you can draw incredible engineers who are well suited to your company by emphasizing the things you can offer and connecting with people who value those things.

If that sounds obvious, it’s also the case that many managers believe raising offers is their only tool to land candidates. That can be a fraught path, attracting candidates who value cash or even equity at a level you may not be able to sustain, and leading to unequal compensation across your staff.

Of course, many people choose new jobs based primarily on salary and won’t consider companies that don’t pay in the top tier. That’s fine. Because you don’t need 100% of engineers to find you appealing. You need just a subset, and many people are motivated by factors that your org likely does possess.

Below are just some of the factors you may have in your favor. You can use these to connect with candidates on your jobs page, in your job descriptions, in your outreach, during your interviews, and so forth. It’s best if your organization has a strategy for the story you want to share with candidates, so that the many touchpoints in hiring reflect the same ideas. But you can also improve your game as an individual hiring manager by thinking through the details you can emphasize.

1. A flexible workplace

A couple years before the pandemic, I was working for Mailchimp, which was privately owned at the time. The company typically paid less than public tech companies that could offer RSUs. Yet we frequently hired world-class engineers away from those companies in part because they valued the fact that we almost never asked people to work nights or weekends.

More than two years into being deeply constrained by the pandemic, a lot of workers value flexibility more highly than ever. That might mean having day-to-day scheduling control for parenting and other needs, working four-day weeks, not being expected to work more than forty hours in a typical week, or taking long breaks every year. The specifics vary, but the question I hear candidates ask most often these days is about how the company structures work so that other things are possible in their lives, too.

At Daily, where I’m currently VP of Engineering, we emphasize asynchronous work, which lets us offer maximum flexibility – and we take advantage of that every day. For example, our founders are parents who set up their days to include childcare (a fact of genuine interest to a lot of candidates). This kind of flexibility is still uncommon enough at big tech companies and small startups alike that it’s among the factors we can use to distinguish Daily.

2. A great culture

‘Great culture’ is the second most common thing I hear candidates asking about lately. That can cover a lot of things: collegial atmosphere and low politics; smart, friendly coworkers; an emphasis on certain kinds of work or certain kinds of fun; the leadership of experienced founders; the dynamics of a smaller company; a lot of managers who are women of color. Whatever your company’s strengths, you can emphasize them in your job listings and other public writing.

In addition, when a candidate mentions culture, you can ask for specifics so that you can learn what they care about and then discuss the ways you’re aligned with them (or not! It’s best for both parties when candidates have a good sense of the reality of working in your organization).

3. A compelling mission

People are sometimes motivated by mission to the point that you can pay them exploitatively low wages. I’m not advocating for that. But it’s worth noting that the US general federal payscale, which is location-adjusted, tops out just below $177,000 for the most senior employees in the highest-paying areas, and there are no stock or bonuses. That’s less than an entry-level engineer can make at some companies. And yet, tech teams inside the federal government, like USDS and 18F, are overwhelmed with applications and are consistently able to hire excellent engineers, because lots of people want to do work that will help others.

When I was at 18F, nearly every member of staff took a pay cut or turned down higher paying jobs in order to work for an organization with a mission they believed in and the potential to make a positive impact for millions of people. We had the lowest salaries of anywhere I’ve worked in tech, but we had no trouble recruiting stellar people.

4. Opportunities to grow

Tech sector pundits like to say that in every job, you should earn, learn, or leave. That’s decent career advice, but it also reflects the fact that people genuinely enjoy learning. The opportunity to do so will look different at different companies.

At ConvertKit, where I was previously VP of Engineering, we couldn’t afford many senior engineers, but we gave early- and mid-career engineers a lot of responsibility and a chance to learn through trial and error. At Daily, we take the opposite tack: we hire mostly senior engineers, and we give them room to explore challenging technical problems and learn from each other. By definition, strong engineers love learning, and both of these approaches work to draw people who want to grow, even at companies that don’t pay MANGA-level rates.

5. A cool product

Years ago, I worked at O’Reilly Media, which was beloved by a lot of engineers for publishing great technical books and running popular conferences. We were often able to recruit engineers as editors and writers – even though we paid less than they could typically make as developers – because they loved our products and wanted to help create them. I can’t think of a place I’ve worked since where we didn’t draw a number of staff members from among our passionate customers, even when we paid less than big, established companies.

6. Remote work that works

It’s worth mentioning that while remote work is no longer a differentiating type of flexibility, being good at it is. At this point, a lot of people have worked for organizations that are uncomfortable with distributed teams and don’t have the communication chops to support it. Companies like Daily, which has always been fully remote, can appeal to candidates who like remote work and appreciate thoughtful approaches to it. At Daily, our strong written culture is key to the success of our remote teams. ConvertKit also grew up as a distributed company but has used regular in-person meetups to support team building. Conversely, if you offer an office for workers, you can tout that and attract candidates who want to work in person.

7. You go beyond talking points

Every engineer has multiple horror stories of bad interview experiences – often very bad. The bar is low. Stand out among companies by optimizing for the candidate experience throughout your hiring process. (Bonus points if that actually reflects a thoughtful culture.)

Of course, in the end, compensation does matter. Get ahead of the conversations by publishing your compensation strategy so that candidates know what to expect and can filter themselves out if you don’t meet their financial requirements.

At Daily, in all our job descriptions, we include salaries, a link to a detailed post about how we set them, and a rundown of the interview process. Nearly every candidate we talk with mentions having read these things and feeling like we’d be a fit for them in part because of how we’ve approached compensation and hiring. We don’t pay what Netflix does, but we have more terrific candidates than we can hire. With some focus, you can, too.