On Hiring: How to win software engineers and influence people

Words by

Co-Founder of PearlPay

Hiring is aggravating, tedious, hard. We startups, against everyone in the market out there, know this too well. But it is gratifying when the result of our efforts yields a positive impact with your colleagues and to the enterprise.

I took on hiring key engineers when PearlPay and Unosoft started up. I had recruited software engineers for projects I led in the UK and past ventures here in the Philippines. I embraced the task while my colleagues focused on their immediate objectives at the time.

PearlPay is now scaling up to double its current headcount of around 35 people in its Ecosystem team by summer. We aim to triple that by the end of the year. Unosoft is to scale up with more engineers later too.

We are thankful that driven, thoughtful, talented people have joined us last year. Our hiring methodology has paid off so far. And we’re to sharpen this up further with upcoming campaigns.

We focused on hiring key people from the start not only with the skills we require but would also build-up the foundation of our ethos.

Now, all my colleagues are involved in the process with a better idea of what traits in people we should be after and how to go about it.

What makes a great software engineer?




Technology in our age is like white sand forever shifting under our feet. We stand still at our peril.

Great engineers know this well. They know a lot already but may not yet be working on things we’d need them for. So they are teachable. They are great at learning new skills as needed. Some even become experts on the next big thing by their own volition.

We startups pay close attention to candidates with such dexterity. We give them every opportunity to grow and be influential to the team once we on-board them.

And so the best candidates, regardless of their technical level, evidently possess and express their passion to learn and work, their aptitude to do all these things and the humility to learn from anyone and collaborate with everyone effectively.

They work well in isolation yet thrive in a team environment too. They know how to work in a team well and what makes great teams work. They communicate their ideas and teach others well. Perfection is their North Star yet they make decisions with practical clarity.

The great ones have skills in both technology and people. Not all possess both in equal measure. So the equilibrium is key by striking the balance – complimenting different levels of capabilities to each other. This balancing act occurs naturally by some who possess stronger people skills.

The chances of great engineers turning up on one’s shortlist for interviews are slim at times. But if one can properly assess the potential of a promising candidate, they could very well not only be a great engineer, but a thriving team leader.

Culture matters to them too

The right culture in a team would be the spirit that cultivates tenacity, agility, diversity, compassion, and camaraderie. It inspires excellence and respect in one’s self and of each other. It has a major influence on the success of an enterprise.

PearlPay’s mission is to make financial services universally accessible. Its reach is vast. Its scope is ambitious. Its rate to scale is to be exponential.

Micromanagement won’t cut it. The right culture shapes a team that everyone thinks for themselves yet takes care of each other, does the right thing, doesn’t sit on the bench and doesn’t quit.

Of course, one should hire people that match the criteria that are to deliver the objectives of the enterprise.

But it also pays to holistically look for attributes in candidates that will contribute, nurture the culture and performance of the team – qualities beyond the job description and technical criteria.

Otherwise, such oversight may short-change the enterprise later — even hurt its prospect in the long run.

Also, they are to be ambassadors of your team, of your company to everyone out there. Such traits from candidates are also worth consideration.

And the right people with the right mindset will get involved in the hiring process later too — to screen, interview and evaluate.

Birds of a feather flock together, as the saying goes. And hiring people for the engineering team is no different.

Pair-coding with candidates is the most effective test

Technical questionnaires and brainteasers were a waste of time for me in the past. These would tell me what applicants might already know about stuff anyone can look up on the internet or Stackoverflow. These don’t predict or expose anything else about them.

Applicants stop getting back to me after an email invite for a pair-coding session. The invite already does its job by saving me from wasting time. The applicants we should care about are the ones up for the challenge, especially those who fear it but go for it anyway.

I ask them to bring their own laptops if they have one. A dedicated coder usually would have their own machine rigged with their own software, IDEs, etc configured to their preference.

The pair coding session proceeds after the verbal interview. I give them instructions on what to code. Either I start the build for the candidate to complete or they start by themselves from scratch. Then I leave them to complete their build; check on them after about 20 minutes.

If they complete it without problems, I ask them to extend their build with more complex tasks like how they would write tests with it or how they would design a business rule enforcement with tests bolted to it, for instance. The level of complexity of what they’re to complete next depends on the level of confidence and knowledge they have displayed so far.

If they haven’t completed their work, I would sit with them and complete it in front of them. If the technology stack we’re after isn’t my forte, I either delegate the session to someone in the team who knows it or ask the candidate to build one from scratch by themselves and guide me through the stack and their coding work.

I then give a critique as I go through their work; write code with them if need be. Our interaction for me to evaluate them starts here.

Half the skill of a great candidate is how well they comprehend what they need to know, what they have to do to deliver their work (e.g. skills, knowledge).

The other half is how well they diagnose problems and how their aptitude aided them to solve issues on their work — like a detective solving a crime.

They don’t necessarily have to complete the work to pass.

But how much did they care about how they did at the session? Did they care when they didn’t complete their task? How well did they use resources like the internet to solve their issues? Their interaction with me at these sessions tells me enough about their level of capability, their capacity to learn (or how well they tolerate it), their communication skills, intuition, etc.

Great interns make the difference too

We evaluate internship candidates with exacting criteria on aptitude, passion, and humility just like with job applicants. And they get valuable experience should they come through for their internship with us.

We had an intern who flew in from Switzerland. He learned about PearlPay; how our program for financial inclusion is developed for the rural community.

A documented business case by another intern attracted attention from potential investors from Japan — one among other assets produced by them at PearlPay.

With the right culture in the team, they too become ambassadors of the mission to their campuses and to their peers.

Making valuable time and due care for young minds — our future leaders, future entrepreneurs — makes the difference to any enterprise. It certainly has for us.

Evangelize the mission

We startups have our mission to accomplish. We evangelize about it to investors and potential partners with great aplomb.

I pitch the mission to candidates as if I’m talking to an investor; attempting to raise capital for the team. I use a visual aid on my iPad — either a pitch deck about PearlPay from the team or a journal in PDF written by our CEO, Spark Perreras.

I attempt to impress them with our mission; make them understand this is an opportunity of a lifetime for them to be part of. What I share is valuable to us so we don’t just hire anyone. So they have to impress me too.

One candidate was rather taken at her interview that she recommended her colleagues to apply too. “I fell in love with PearlPay”, she said to her ex-colleague who later applied and became a key member of ours. He is now a Senior Engineer at our Ecosystem team.

Another great candidate, a Project Manager, jumped ship to us — a startup with a humble working capital and workplace in Makati — from a competitor who had been in business a lot longer than us with a plush office floor at an exclusive location in Taguig.

Great people want their work to mean something; what value they will be contributing to.

To cite Mr. Nestor Tan, CEO of BDO Unibank Inc, from whom Spark learned this nugget of wisdom from his time at the bank and shared to us:

Excite them. Keep them interested. Tell them it’s doable.

_______________________________

Napoleon Catilo is Chief Innovation and Information Security Officer at PearlPay Inc.; a solution architect, software engineer and team leader for over twenty years.

He has provided various solutions to clients in Europe and the Philippines such as Ford Motors Europe, Microsoft Corp USA, The Guardian, Royal Bank of Scotland and NATO among others.

You can get in touch with him at nap@pearlpay.com.











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