How to attract high-potential engineering candidates

Interview with Alex Yang, Co-Founder and CEO of Mighty Acorn
June 15, 2021
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Alex Yang is the co-founder and CEO of Mighty Acorn, where he spends most of his time helping early stage founders hire talented engineers regardless of years of experience, academic credentials, or work history. Previously, Alex worked at Google and BCG, and most recently led a UK-based tech nonprofit as its VP of Engineering. He also co-founded an online learning platform that has taught web development to 20k students. Outside of work, Alex is an avid ultimate frisbee player, competing at the world championships in 2010 and 2012, though after too many injuries, he is now “retired”.

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What inspired you to start Mighty Acorn?

I co-founded Mighty Acorn to help founders hire engineers because:

1. Hiring is one of the most impactful areas for founders to invest their time

2. Most founders can’t afford to spend more than 20% of their time on hiring

3. Early stage startups are disadvantaged without the resources of mature companies

As VP of Engineering at my last company (a UK-based tech nonprofit), hiring engineers became a primary focus of my role. Since we could only afford to pay below-market salaries, my team had to find Moneyball-esque approaches to punch above our weight in recruiting talent.

We sponsored work visas to attract high-potential candidates from around the world.

We A/B tested our job descriptions to find engineers who were a couple of years away from being recruited by FAANG. (Read more about how FAANG companies think about recruiting.)

We eliminated resumes, implemented a blinded evaluation process, and designed our offer letters to close every engineer we extended one to.

During my two years at this nonprofit, I helped the team double in size from 25 to 50 employees, so I started Mighty Acorn to help founders use similar approaches to find the overlooked engineering talent they need to grow their companies.

You have a unique perspective on recruiting engineers from non-conventional backgrounds. Tell us more about your perspective and why it’s effective.

While some of my hiring approaches may be unconventional, I don’t believe the principles behind them will be controversial to most people. Here are my core beliefs:

1. Role-specific take-home tests are more reflective of an engineer’s skill than a resume alone. Since most technical recruiters have never been engineers themselves, they’re forced to rely on proxies (e.g. work history, education). The widespread use of this shortcut means that plenty of qualified candidates never make it past the resume screen.

2. Relative to technology-specific “hard skills”, “soft skills” are more impactful factors of high performance. Hiring managers over-index on technical skills because they’re easier to measure, but soft skills like communication, prioritization, and curiosity can’t be measured through unit tests.

3. Understanding motivation is key to evaluating culture fit. You can’t reduce a candidate down to their job application, but need to deeply understand their motivations before hiring them.

With these principles in mind, here are a few unique ways I approach recruiting for the companies I work with:

1. We eliminate resumes from the hiring process. Instead, we work with hiring managers to build a short take-home test custom-designed to gauge the hard and soft skills required for the role (here’s an example). Every applicant is invited to complete it. After closing a role, I’ll look up the hired individual’s resume and they often wouldn’t have passed a resume screen.

2. We fully blind the grading process. Candidates succeed on the basis of their ability, not their demographics. At my last company, after blinding our process, our next two hires were our first two African engineers. It was incredible that diversity was a natural outcome of a process change.

3. We give personalized feedback to every candidate. The candidate experience bar is so low, with applicants used to being ghosted, that we routinely receive glowing feedback from rejected candidates. One of the two African engineers had applied a year earlier, worked hard to level up his skills, and then applied again because of his positive impression of the company.

What was the biggest risk you’ve taken in your life?

In 2012, I stepped off the well-defined career track for the first time, choosing not to apply to business school and instead quit my consulting job, moved to San Francisco, and lived off savings as my cofounder (my girlfriend at the time, now wife) and I struggled to find a business idea worth pursuing.

This decision was especially out of character for me since I was raised in a classic Asian immigrant household where the only definition of success was a stable career climbing the corporate ladder at a brand-name company. The tipping point was when I discovered Paul Graham’s essays (“How to Do What You Love”). I realized my unspoken motivation for applying to business school was to minimize my risk of failing as an entrepreneur rather than maximizing my likelihood of success.

To avoid mentally overestimating risk, I ask myself “what is the worst case scenario?” Quitting my job to start a company became easier to digest when I realized that if I failed, I could always return to my old job. The decision took courage at the time but was not as risky as it felt.

How can candidates differentiate themselves from other engineers?

If you’re struggling to land interviews, my advice is to submit fewer, higher quality applications. I’ve seen too many applicants use a “spray and pray” approach, where they fire off a generic resume or cover letter to as many job listings as they can find. In this sea of noise, the candidates who have done their homework and are clearly interested in this specific role are the ones who stand out.

What's one thing you wish you had known when you started your career?

I’ve always optimized for learning, but it took me a while to realize that learning alone wasn’t sufficient. I’ve been both a founder and an employee, worked at companies ranging from a two-person startup to FAANG, and held roles in engineering, finance, and operations. At this point, it’s impossible to find a single role that allows me to make use of all the things I’ve learned.

Instead, learning is best in the context of a broader goal. If you want to grow into an engineering management role long-term, seek out opportunities to practice being a people manager (and check out Camille Fournier’s The Manager’s Path).

For me, the hardest part of career planning wasn’t the work itself, but figuring out what type of work I wanted to do.

Through reading widely, identifying role models, and working with an executive coach, I now have a clearer idea of what I want to do, and it’s easier to find relevant learning opportunities.

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