How to Find a Programmer

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Andrew Satz, president of Columbia Organization of Rising Entrepreneurs (CORE), explains how to overcome the challenge of finding a programmer.

“I have a great idea. I just need someone to build it”

A common yet unfortunate statement heard in today’s tech startup frenzy. Admittedly, technical execution was once something I saw as a hurdle in pursuing the launch of my own company. What really changed my perspective was a conversation I had with Dave Lerner. He basically asked me what I would be willing to do to turn my idea into reality and suggested that I stop looking for someone to do it for me and start learning what it takes to build my product.

It was a life-altering conversation. I started learning to code so I would have the skills to build anything myself and I got involved in the programming community. Going through that process, I met my co-founder, Polina Viro, one of the most brilliant minds I have ever encountered. I went to a workshop on html+CSS that she was leading. I gave her feedback on something I knew about, teaching, and she started helping me and gave me guidance on coding. We became friends. Then we became partners on Track Ripple.

When I was looking for an engineer, I imagined that my idea was amazing, and anyone I approached couldn’t help but say “YES!!” to joining me. But because of the shortage of engineering talent, engineers (many of whom can program) are bombarded with “great ideas” almost everyday. So while your idea may very well be amazing, it is likely to get lost when it’s pitched to engineers because you aren’t seeing their point of view. In my opinion, it’s important to understand the problem of “I just need a programmer” not only from the perspective of the person with the “great idea” who’s looking for a programmer, but also from the perspective of the engineer themselves. In order to get this type of insight, I asked Dan Schlosser, a very well-respected member of the tech community at Columbia, to join me in writing this piece on forming partnerships with engineers. This is the result.

As an entrepreneur, finding engineers to join your team is an extremely difficult task. It’s the problem that we at CORE hear most often. Like it or not, when you begin to seek out engineering talent you are competing with recruiting heavyweights like Google, Facebook, and Microsoft. Competent programmers are in extremely high demand. If you’re an entrepreneur, your success in bringing technical people onto your team will be tied to how you present your project, the agreement you propose and, more importantly, how the engineer views you as a person.

When your team size is still in the single digits, you should think of new engineers as team members rather than employees. This doesn’t, at first, involve considering things like an even division of equity or pay. Instead, it should affect how you talk about growing your team. Becoming friends with engineers is, by far, the best way to do this. Many successful startups began as a tight-knit group of friends that took a leap of faith on an amazing idea. The best technical co-founders will take ownership of the product that they’re building, and push back on areas where they want to see improvement. To do so, they will need to trust that you’ll take them seriously, and that you respect them as a friend and peer. Coming in to it with the “I have a great idea, but just need a programmer” mentality is the wrong way.

Instead, try putting yourself in an engineer’s shoes. Before you approach a potential technical partner, ask yourself:

  • Does anyone on my team have programming experience? If not, why not?
  • What is the expected workload for the engineer and what can I do to make it easier?
  • What type of work are the remainder of the team members going to be doing?
  • What does she/he think of me personally?

Engineers are typically very wary and skeptical of someone “looking for a programmer” because they feel like they’re being taken advantage of for their skill set. Being brought on as the engineer at a startup basically means having to build a product from scratch. As a result, the engineer enters with a lot of questions about how the product is actually going to work. To build a product, the engineer first has to trust that there will be open communication across the team. It’s very difficult to sell your idea without this trust because the heavy lifting of building will often fall on the engineer. Pitching your idea to technical people is very different from pitching it to investors. It’s not enough to have a good idea. It’s not enough to have a financially viable business model. It requires the engineer to trust that you will understand what she/he will be going through.

A fantastic way to communicate your idea and your understanding to an engineer is to speak their language.  This means learning to code! With all sorts of free online resources and courses it’s easier than ever, so there’s no excuse. Check out Codecademy or Treehouse. If you’re a Columbia student, you have free access to and the vast assortment of Safari books. If you’re not willing to learn at least the basics of coding, maybe your idea is not that important to you after all, and you probably won’t be able to convince others that it is as awesome as you think it is. Learning to code is one of the many challenges faced by tech entrepreneurs. Taking steps towards learning how to code shows that you are committed to turning your idea into reality.

Another amazing way to demonstrate that you’re serious about your project is to build a basic version of your product. So build one! Checkout Flinto, Invision, or Omnigraffle and build the wireframe of your product without knowing how to write a line of code. The best way to sell your idea to an engineer is to understand how it will be built. So get started by building a wireframe and learning to program. You don’t have to become the most amazing programmer in the world, but knowing the basics is important. Talking to engineers is like talking to nationals of a foreign country. You don’t have to be fluent to have a conversation, but if you don’t speak a word of their language, you won’t be able to find the bathroom.

One of the best answers to the problem of “I just need to find a programmer” is to think of people who know how to code, not as tools, but as friends or advisors first. And what better way than to have an engineer become your friend or advisor than by learning to program? Getting into any kind of relationship requires someone to know you first. You can do that with engineers by getting involved in the hacking community. Don’t make the mistake of going to hacking events thinking to yourself, “I just need to find a programmer.” Treating people like tools will make you come across as a tool. Instead, look for help in learning how to build your product. Bring your team because it shows that there are people who are willing to work with you. Ask for advice. Show people what you’re building. Show individuals that you value their insight, regardless of whether they’re going to join you or not. Maybe you’ll find someone or maybe you won’t. But you’ll be learning, and hopefully at the same time you’ll be building your product. And all along, you’ll be more involved in the hacking and entrepreneurial community and being part of a larger community is a sure way to find you help. And when someone else needs help, perhaps you can reciprocate. Hopefully, you’ll make a friend. Maybe you’ll become business partners. And then, who knows what could happen…

This article was originally posted at CORE Impulse.

Andrew Satz

Andrew Satz is the President of CORE, a student group at Columbia dedicated to inspiring, educating, and launching the next wave of entrepreneurs. Prior to attending Columbia University, Andrew worked simultaneously as an international DJ and in the insurance industry. He is the co-founder of Track Ripple, an intelligent music distribution platform that helps artists expand their audience and gain more fans. Email Andrew or follow him on twitter @SatzAndrew

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