Startup Essentials: Rockstar programmers

I recently answered a set of questions for Charu Bahri, for her column called eVoice in IT magazine ( published by EFY India. All these answers are in the context of early stage, young startups, not well funded, less than 1 year old, less than 10 people.

Is it tough for tech startups to find very skilled tech manpower? If so, why?

It can be tough or easy for a startup to get good tech guys depending on the approach of the founders. With the right approach it can be done fairly easily.

The way startups are done has changed these days, the most well known web products; ranging from Youtube, Facebook, Twitter have been built with small teams of few rock star programmers.

The best option is to have tech co-founders, who will develop the initial version of the product themselves and not depend upon hiring programmers. It’s essential for the founders to build the product and create initial traction around the product. Along side they need to continue to look for the rock star programmers, guys who will be truly interested in joining a startup and doing real meaty work and come on board for lesser money along with equity.

Places to look for are the startup conferences, thru references (spread the word), have your own blog and write about exciting work company is doing, write about the open positions, put job posts on popular startup blogs (for India: venturewoods,, startup dunia etc), also look at getting people form your college. Post to yahoo/google group mailing list from good colleges like IITs etc.

The conventional ways of hiring will not work because over there you will find folks who are looking for safety, salary and cushy jobs. Some of them may be curious about startups, but will back out at some point or the other. No point wasting your time.

What novel remuneration means may be offered to tech specialists?

For right people remuneration wont be the deciding factor, these are people who are passionate about working on exciting things, people who have a desire to learn and to “upwind”, who may themselves want to start a venture down the line.

Quoting form Paul graham, the founder of Y combinator

“In an essay I wrote for high school students, I said a good rule of thumb was to stay upwind– to work on things that maximize your future options. The principle applies for adults too, though perhaps it has to be modified to: stay upwind for as long as you can, then cash in the potential energy you’ve accumulated when you need to pay for kids.

I don’t think people consciously realize this, but one reason downwind jobs like churning out Java for a bank pay so well is precisely that they are downwind. The market price for that kind of work is higher because it gives you fewer options for the future. A job that lets you work on exciting new stuff will tend to pay less, because part of the compensation is in the form of the new skills you’ll learn.

Grad school is the other end of the spectrum from a coding job at a big company: the pay’s low but you spend most of your time working on new stuff. And of course, it’s called “school,” which makes that clear to everyone, though in fact all jobs are some percentage school.”

Is there a possibility of retaining tech specialists to work as and when needed, that is, paying only a retainership (and thus, avoid paying them a full salary)?

I have not come across programmers who are available on retainer-ship, only option is to use a Tech services company, which will surely be very expensive.

Another way to do this is to find folks who are available to work part time in the evenings and weekends. But this approach brings uncertainty into the project, because these programmers have high chance to treat part-time work as low priority in case there is an increase in working hours at their full time work place. Also this option may work for building prototypes and demos. The moment you have to build the real stuff you will need full time programmers.

What sources/routes could tech start-ups use to find the right manpower – job portals, executive search firms, campus interviews?

None of the above works for startups. See answer to the first question

I’d especially appreciate any example you can share with me that showcases how your company was able to recruit the right tech talent and the kind of remuneration agreement you proposed for the talented staff.

At madhouse, after approx 1 year of operations, we found a great tech co-founder (Ankur Agrawal), who single handedly build a lot of parts of the product and since he was a co-founder there was no salary to be paid, until we got funded.

There is another model which has worked for Instablogs (I am an advisor to Instablogs). Ankit (founder of Instablogs) developed the initial version of product, got the traction and later started hiring bright freshers from not so popular colleges. They created a very good training program using which they are able to create very good programmers out of the fresh engineers in record time. For pulling this off Instablogs had to move from Delhi to Shimla, where they were able to find good fresher engineers, who were eager to take a job, learn and do well.

A question relating to the Instablogs example you shared. There is a possibility of the fresh engineers moving off to greener pastures after being trained. What measures did Instablogs take to prevent

I disagree with definition you have indicated for Greener pastures.

  • Green pastured != higher salaries.
  • A job = salary + learning + challenges + working at a place which gives you happyness.

That’s exactly what Instablogs has done, they provide the people with

  • Constant learning and fast growth in knowledge
  • Opportunity to work on cutting edge technologies
  • A place to work where they are allowed to make mistakes, have fun and enjoy life
  • Opportunity to create from scratch

These programmers obviously have friends who work in other tech companies on higher salaries etc, but they realize that their knowledge is far superior as compared to those guys who are getting paid more but are doing UNINTERESTING and NON GROWTH work. Basically at Instablogs people are upwinding and others are essentially downwinding.

There was a recent case of one guy who left for higher salary and came back with couple of weeks saying that he just did not enjoy working at his new job and this has become a live example of all other guys in the team.

Also read: Joining a pre-VC startup

anger management

Arasu sent me this nice article on anger management. This article comes from

Handling workplace anger
18 Jan 2005 | Dan Bobinski

We often see people getting mad at work, and the ripple-effects are never very good. Anger as a reaction to bad news is a common scene, and anger as an intimidator is often used to get results.
Since coworkers lose a lot of respect for those who vent on a regular basis, what can be done about it?
First we need to find out what causes people to get mad.
Anger most often occurs when what we want to happen is not happening. It manifests itself in various forms, from mild frustration to all out rage. Essentially, we choose anger because we don’t know what else to do to get the results we want, and anger often manipulates others into doing what we want.
Sadly, this view is rather short-sighted.
Additionally, and contrary to popular belief, no one ever “makes” someone else angry. Anger is always a choice one makes.
Whether you are the aggressor or are on the receiving end of outbursts, one of the best ways to combat workplace anger is to have alternative choices.
If you’re one of those who tends to vent, think about when you’ve gotten angry. Don’t blame others, look seriously within. What was it that you didn’t do that you could have done? What didn’t you plan for? Or, were you trying to control something beyond your control?
If you’re truly honest with yourself, you may be surprised at your answers, and realize that other, better choices were at your disposal.
“Better choices” usually means asking better questions. One way is to ask yourself how you could have planned better to prevent a problem from occurring. Another way is to ask forward-thinking, solutions-oriented questions to find a resolution to a problem. These normally start with the words “what” or “how” and incorporate “I” or “we,” not “you.” Examples include “what can we do from here?” or “how can I solve this problem?”
Questions asking “why” or using the word “you” are dangerous because they put people on the defensive and usually try to assign blame. An example could be, “why didn’t you think of this ahead of time?”
Beyond asking better questions, a person who tends toward anger can also choose better actions. Instead of slamming a fist on a desk and raising one’s voice, it’s better to sit back in the chair, breathe deeply, and focus on the next step for resolution. The purpose? A move toward resolution leads to a better sense of control.
Essentially, there is no excuse for relying on anger or intimidation as a way to get things done.
For anyone who must deal with those who choose anger, remember that anger is simply a tactic for trying to gain or regain control. Anyone who works with angry people should memorize this fact.
Therefore, one of the worst things you can say to an angry person is “calm down.” Think about it. An angry person already feels out of control. If they’re being told to calm down, it is telling them to acquiesce to someone else’s command, taking them further out of a feeling of control. This is why many angry people get even madder when told to calm down!
My best recommendation is simply acknowledging why the angry person is upset. One of the best ways to do this is by paraphrasing. A standard line might be “You sound pretty upset about ‘x'”. By acknowledging the reason for a person’s anger, you validate their concern. This gives them a sense of control, and once people feel in control again, their anger starts to subside.
Might I add that it’s usually not a good idea to match a person’s anger. Such action only escalates the other person’s anger, because they continue to feel out of control.
If a person refuses to calm down, simply state that you’d be happy to continue the conversation when emotions have subsided, and then respectfully but quietly disengage. It may even require walking away.
Anymore, continued threats and yelling constitute a hostile work environment, and life is too short to be putting up with such nonsense.
Obviously there are more situations about workplace anger than can be listed here, but this is a start.
Nevertheless, the bottom line is that people with anger habits need to find alternative ways to stay in control, and those who endure antagonistic behavior can set healthy boundaries so they don’t have to put up with it anymore.