At Fast Forward we often talk about how starting a tech nonprofit is even more difficult than launching a for-profit startup due to the lack of resources and support. Hiring, especially for a technical role, is one of those big challenges. It’s important to have a CTO or technical lead early on, but tech nonprofits grapple with technical hiring as a result of competitive tech salaries and the importance of mission fit. By nature, nonprofit salaries land lower than market rate, and typically tech nonprofits leverage existing technology in innovative ways to drive impact, rather than building something entirely new. This means any member of your tech team must have an underlying passion for your mission and willingness to sacrifice high pay and developer glory that can come with working for a venture-backed startup. So how do you balance skill level with passion?
Oliver Hurst-Hiller brought his 10 years of experience as CTO and Head of Product at DonorsChoose.org to our 2016 cohort last week. Over the summer many of our teams have been focused on growing their technical teams as they scale, and Oliver had amazing advice to offer around hiring. To his point, your team needs to be strong enough to handle the everyday traffic and the traffic bumps you may get a couple times of year if your organization ends up a major national TV show, like Oprah.
Here are Oliver’s recommendations for top qualities you should look for in a technical co-founder of head of engineering.
This is almost a no-brainer in the nonprofit sector. If you’re committed to working in social impact, you likely don’t care about equity or IPO potential. These social impact driven individuals are the candidates you want in your application pool. However, sometimes exceptions are made when it comes to hard-to-fill roles. You find a developer who is amazing at coding, knows your technology and fits the role to a T from the tech perspective. But hire enough people who have the tech chops but lack the passion, and you’ll learn the hard way that it never works out long-term.
If an applicant’s cover letter doesn’t speak directly to your mission, or at least give an indication they know what your mission is, ignore it. When your technical team receives calls every week from recruiters at big tech companies, you’re paying them under-market, and there’s no chance of an equity windfall, how do you retain that person if they aren’t fired up about your mission? At a tech nonprofit, most of the time you aren’t inventing something new technically speaking. You’re not trying to land an unmanned rocket ship on a boat in the ocean, you’re not protein folding. If you’re building technology from scratch you’re probably doing something wrong. It’s critical to bring in employees who understand this and get that sometimes the tech side of a tech nonprofit is using readily available resources. You’re not reinventing the wheel.
Building technology is essentially the same whether you’re in the public or private sector. You’re still doing user research, building products, and A/B testing. But, there’s a fine line between the value of joining a tech nonprofit engineering team with startup experience versus a big company. If a candidate has never worked at a small organization, they’ll have higher expectations. They’ll also be used to a more specific scope of work. Some things you throw their way may not be cool with them.
At a tech nonprofit you have to wear lots of hats and sometimes the role you were hired for evolves unexpectedly. You might find a candidate who comes from a big company, is fired up about your mission, and has a great technical skill set. But during the interview process, you have to hack a way to figure out if they are adaptable to the changing workload and tasks that come with the startup environment. The right candidate will be looking for a job that changes week to week and haa a “let’s get this done” outlook.
A CTO or head of engineering should be a combination of a hands-on and strategic thinker. If someone isn’t willing to be a hands-on thought partner, there will be a lot of things they cannot or will not do. The strategic component is necessary for obvious reasons. A technical lead needs to be someone who will have thoughtful conversations with the team about the technical strategy, not just stay heads down on product development. Consider that you only need a few engineers to build your product – not a full-fledged team. While Donor’s Choose has a larger tech team than most, they still keep it tight enough that engineering and product sit on the same team. This streamlines leadership as well as the product development cycle.
There’s no way to know what product challenges will arise 6 months from now, or even in 2 weeks. That’s the same approach you should take to individual engineer and product hires. Someone might say they specialize in security or in databases. However, you probably won’t have enough work for them within the narrow scope of their specialty. When you need that employee to work outside their specialized area, they either won’t know what to do or won’t be excited about it. The trick is, generalists don’t always describe themselves that way. So you have to figure out in the interview process if they are game to widen their focus.
While it’s not easy to find someone who fills all four of those buckets, never sacrifice mission excitement or ability to operate as a hands-on generalist. Use your networks to find referrals. Encourage current employees to help with recruiting efforts by offering a formal bounty. Give them content to post across their social networks to make it as easy as possible to spread the word. If you always think about hiring versus waiting until you really need a technical position filled, you’ll be in much better shape. When you find the right person, bring them on board.
Chances are you’ll wrestle with hiring a good bit, but if you stay true to your needs in a technical hire chances are you’ll find the right fit and retain employees. Big thanks to Oliver Hurst-Hiller for sharing his knowledge with our cohort! Want to learn more about putting the tech in tech nonprofit? Check out Making DonorsChoose for some exceptional content from the product and engineering folks on Oliver’s team.