How Silicon Valley startups try to lure top engineering talent

A recruiter who specializes in finding top engineering talent for high-profile startups dishes the tech-recruiting dirt—from typical packages to the best company from which to poach talent.

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We all know that there’s a huge engineering talent shortage in Silicon Valley, right? That anyone who knows the difference between a 1 and a 0 can instantly make more money than the President of the United States, and maybe even get super-rich before they turn 25.

See also: Yes, there's a tech bubble: Facebook's mobile ad success proves it

But how all that actually works—especially at the highest levels—is a juicy story, one which tech news site The Information did a great job illuminating in an interview this week with Ali Behnam (paid subscription required), co-founder and managing partner at Riviera Partners, a leading San Francisco tech recruiting firm. According the piece’s author, Eric. P. Newcomer, Riviera helped Uber, Dropbox, and Twitter, for example, hire vice presidents of engineering.

Where to begin? Among the tantalizing tidbits:

  • How much new CTOs get offered
  • How hiring companies suffer from the "supermodel syndrome" of unrealistic expectations
  • Who should decide which CTO candidate to hire—and who actually does
  • The best company to find tech talent

How much is enough?

If you think the CTOs at hot tech startups do well, you’re right. Here’s how Benham described a typical package:

"My advice… is give them $250,000 to $300,000 to live—they probably have kids. Then you negotiate on the equity. If it’s a newly minted VP, probably $4 to $6 million after four years, depending on what stage they get in.

If it’s a branded guy, the sky's the limit."

And if even that’s not enough, Benham told the story of a retention offer for a VP of engineering that included a home in San Francisco, a job for the exec’s wife, and a bigger chunk of equity.

The bizarre thing is that it’s not quite enough to feel rich in Silicon Valley these days. If you ask me, that’s irrefutable evidence we’re in a bubble.

Who’s the most desirable candidate?

If you’re willing to pay, Benham told The Information, there are good candidates out there. But he complained that many companies don’t understand that their position in the hierarchy of startups won’t allow them to grab the hottest candidates.

"For these companies, it’s like the supermodel syndrome," he said. "You get a guy who thinks he’s going to be the next Brad Pitt, thinking he should be with a supermodel. I’ve got news for you. It’s just not going to happen."

Well, duh? Everyone thinks their company is special and that any candidate should be thrilled to work with them. After all, you work there, so wouldn’t everyone else want to as well? I think these giant compensation packages are partly the result of second-tier companies bidding up top-tier talent. And since everyone thinks they’re top-tier, it also inflates the cost of the entire talent pool. Still, what tech startup can afford to scrimp on technical leadership?

Who’s in charge here?

Here’s another amazing thing. Oftentimes, Benham said, the CEO doesn’t even make the top technology hiring decisions; those are made by others in the engineering team. That may be because non-technical CEOs don’t feel comfortable judging the candidate’s chops, but Benham warned that that can lead to hiring "the least common denominator" instead of a visionary in sync with the company's strategy.

That strikes me as an indicator of a serious issue. If you ask me, a CEO who isn’t able to even hire the CTO may not be the right CEO for a tech startup. I don’t think tech CEOs absolutely must be technical, but they’ve got to be at least tech-savvy enough to be able to recognize and judge talent. I mean, the head of a steel company should be a steel expert, right? The leader of a hospital ought to know something about healthcare, even if they’re not a doctor. If I were a top tech candidate and got wind that the CEO, to whom I would be reporting, wasn’t making hiring decisions, I’d run for the hills.

Target practice?

With all that, the tastiest morsel for me was Benham’s take on the hottest company from which to poach engineers. His choice is not entirely surprising—the company he tagged as the Valley’s top target has struggled since going public a year ago. There’s a lot of churn in Silicon Valley, though, and you’d think persuading people to leave all kinds of companies wouldn't be that difficult. The hard part is getting them to choose yours.

What was surprising to me is that Benham named names at all. I love that.

So, what’s your guess on the best place to look for engineers? Here’s Benham’s selection: Twitter.

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