Building a great team starts with a great hire

This is a guest article by Gun.io, the experts on hiring freelance software developers for your project. In this post, Taylor pulls together quotes from engineering leaders about at the key skills engineer leaders look for beyond the tech.

The DNA of a great engineer

Hiring for any kind of technical role is never without risk.

And let’s face it, it can be daunting to assess the nuances of talent and team fit in a few simple interviews plus a code exam. So how should we think about the value differences between:

  • A great engineer and a decent one
  • An experienced senior engineer or a talented junior
  • A unicorn from a yak

We asked successful engineering leaders from across our industry (38 of them actually) what qualities they look for in an engineer, beyond technical acumen. Here are our key learnings.

Commitment to professional development

The answer or theme we heard more than any other was “a commitment to professional development.” Leaders want engineers interested in constant and ongoing learning, in both technical and non-technical realms. Engineers who consistently learn new technologies to improve their workflow are valuable long-term team members.

It’s not just learning the next new technology. It’s also adapting to the changing ways that software engineering organizations are run and the different kinds of skill sets.

Christine Spang, Founder & CTO of Nylas

The power of “I don’t know”

Finding an engineer committed to their professional development, with 7 to 10 years experience, doesn’t mean they know everything. A great engineer - no matter how many technical years under their belt - should still be comfortable with the phrase, “I don’t know”. Here’s why:

1) No one knows everything, period

2) Saying “I don’t know” is the sign of leadership

3) A lack of knowledge leaves room for curiosity and passion to take over

Soft skills

Historically, developer jobs don’t hinge on good communication skills. The average dev could clock in, never talk to anyone, and leave for the day having gotten the job done.

But, frankly, those days are gone. We need customer empathy, we need clearly articulated logic for architectural decisions, we need good stakeholder relationships; the list goes on.

We call them soft skills, but they are really professional skills, and great developers have them.

It is very important that you can communicate your technical abilities and the solutions that you’re proposing to other people and how you’re able to relay that information.

Shawn Kuenzler, Co-founder & CTO of Manatee

What communication should look like from a senior engineer:

  • Clearly communicating their process and solutions to everyone, technical or not
  • Speaking up on their opinions about a project by concisely relaying how they think it can be better
  • Consistently sharing updates to managers, stakeholders, and clients on projects when milestones are reached

The true art of communication

In looking for communication skills, it’s not just about how they talk to stakeholders or clients. A huge part of communication is how they talk with a team.

Questions to consider are:

  • Do they ask teammates for help to expedite troubleshooting?
  • If working parallel with other engineers on a project
  • Do they maintain a weekly, daily or monthly time to align on progress, updates and helpful feedback?

Diverse experience

Engineers who consistently learn new things and stay committed to professional development will inevitably increase the depth and breadth of their technical ability. How? They put their work to practice, capitalize on it and implement their knowledge into new projects.

“You do need to have a good amount of depth technically. If you don’t it’s not anywhere good enough because you can’t really make informed decisions and you can’t lead a team. I think you have to have some depth.

Jim Nasr, VP of Tech & Innovation at Synchrogenix

Dig deep

Deep technical depth helps engineers make educated code-level decisions, and can help lead a team when the rest of its members lack experience and require mentorship or guidance. Great engineers who diversify their experience are more prepared to handle challenging situations in a variety of business contexts - a key differentiator between good and great.

Passion

Where there is a passion, there is a drive. And where passion lacks, there are shortcuts. If your team members are not passionate about what they’re working on, it means they are unfulfilled and it’s going to show in their work.

“What I’m looking for is mostly how passionate they are about what they’re working on ─ because it really goes a long way with building a solid team if everyone is on the same page.

Robert Fratila, CTO & Co-founder of Aifred Health

It’s in the details

You shouldn’t have to do too much investigative work to figure out what an engineer is passionate about. A great engineer won’t apply to a job they have no interest in the first place. Here are some tips:

  • Dig into their CV

    • Do they primarily work on projects related to healthcare
    • Do they have multiple projects using AI? Do they have a lot of experience designing?
    • Get them talking
  • Ask the right questions!

    • You’ll be able to tell what project they worked on in the past that they were most passionate about and why by the inflection in their voice

Problem solvers

Lots of our experts mentioned problem-solving as a key proxy for performance. Sure, it helps complex logic problems day-to-day, but good problem solvers can also help solve team dynamics challenges or contribute to business-level strategy questions.

“How do they think? How do they problem solve? Is this person the kind of person whom you wouldn’t want to go to war with, the kind of person who is going to run through walls…”

Kevon Saber, CEO of GoCheck Kids

Someone to lean on

Reliability is important, especially in this industry of unpredictability and things going wrong. A problem solver will face challenges head-on (or head down, get it?) to find the best solution possible.

You don’t want a team member who needs their hand to be held. If they can manage problems in a high-stress situation, they can manage themselves in a day-to-day setting. A great self-manager will often feel comfortable taking initiative to proactively solve a problem, without being explicitly asked to go the extra mile. Self-managed engineers have a high ROI.

Data doesn’t lie

Building a great team is much more nuanced than a developer’s ability to code. It’s a deeper set of considerations that often determines the difference between an ok hire and a home run. At Gun.io we spend hundreds of hours in interviews and on calls with clients with the hope of sharpening our understanding of great software engineers. And we often make our candidate recommendations based on similar themes we heard from these leaders in tech Team-building is, without a doubt, equal parts art and science.

Hopefully, the insight shared here will help shape how you think about the softer side of technical hiring. If you still don’t believe us, check out the data:

Primary data from the Frontier Podcast

Additional resources

We’ve already talked about the pain points of hiring, so if and when you are looking for a solution, we got you. At Gun.io our deep bench of senior professional freelance engineers are interview ready to close your hiring gap.