The Non-Technical Founder’s Nightmare

Can You Introduce Me?

When I decided to study Computer Science at Stanford, I anticipated many wonderful outcomes.  I knew I would be able to better support the companies I built (ie ContractorMarketingPros.com), understand new technology trends (ie opportunities in mobile), and build new prototypes (ie BeTheDuke.com).  The experience has exceeded my expectations…

But there’s one aspect of studying CS at Stanford that I never anticipated: the extent to which the tech community covets top engineering talent.

Go to nearly any event in Silicon Valley and you’ll hear one key theme repeated over and over again by entrepreneurs and investors:

“I’m looking for software developers…”

Cisco and Oracle are hiring engineers.  Google and Microsoft are hiring engineers.  Facebook and Zynga are hiring engineers.  Dropbox and Square are hiring engineers.  Pinterest and AirBnB are hiring engineers.  Your uncle is hiring engineers.  My uncle is hiring engineers.  Everyone, and I mean everyone, is hiring engineers.

The Request

Jockey seeks horse, promises plentiful oats & minimal whippings.

As one of the few MBAs who then went on to become a computer scientist, I get a LOT of requests that sound like this (these are all actual emails I’ve received):

  • “a friend of mine is creating software that IS very cool…But… he needs programmers. I told him that you might be a great resource”
  • “I’m going to revolutionize the ___ industry…do you know any good programmers who might be interested”
  • “do you know of any rockstar android developers who might be interested in part-time work? (longer term, we’re also looking for algorithm and AI engineers)… if yes, can you please fwd this to anyone you know who might be interested? thanks much!”
  • “I am working on a cool idea in the mobile ____ space. Do you have any iPhone programmers you would recommend?”
  • “Anyway, we are definitely still looking for developers…Let me know if you come across any rockstars interested in changing the world of _____.”
  • “Do you know any awesome Rails engineers that might consider joining an exciting _____ startup? Ideally 3-5 yrs experience for a Sr. Eng/VP, Eng role.”
  • “I am determined to launch this project on my own, but I have no development savvy at all. Do you have any advice for how I can find a programmer that would partner up on a project like this?”
How Not To Find Engineers

It gets much worse…(see Whartonite Seeks Code Monkey).

You…and everyone else…

The entrepreneur in me understands EXACTLY where these emails are coming from.  However, the frustrating thing about these emails is that I’d love to help out, but I can’t.  It’s not that these are unqualified people asking for help. On the contrary…these are requests coming in from some of the most fantastic people I know. These are entrepreneurs and investors who are successful, high character people. It’s a beating-and-a-half to say “um, sorry, I can’t really help you with that” every single time this happens.

But the truth of the matter is…if I forwarded even a small % of these emails onto my CS friends, then we wouldn’t be friends for very long. You see, talented Stanford engineers are so thoroughly bombarded with inbound requests like these, they almost become numb to the flirtations.

Everyone’s a gatekeeper…

In coordinating the FounderSoup events, I’ve spoken with a handful of Stanford CS professors to invite them to our events.  Their response, “I actually don’t know that many developers”.  To which I reply, “No, I’m asking if YOU want to come to the event…I’m encouraging my non-technical friends to learn CS and we’d love to have YOU there…it could be a good way to recruit new students.”   They typically perk up at this point, but nevertheless, their guard is up.  And that’s just the professors.

Want to really see what I’m talking about?  Try going to the CS career services folks.  Maybe say something like “hey, I’ve got this really cool program & I wanted to see if I could reach out to some of the CS students directly…”  Hah.  They’ll say something like “yeah, you and everyone else” and then repeat the phrase…”the best we can do for you is offer that you sponsor a booth at the career fair.”   Ohhh…the career fair.  That deserves another post of it’s own.  But in short, if you want to see a who’s who of the technology world, the CS career fair is where it’s at.

Heavily Fortified

So why does everyone in the system either have a fortress built up or deny even knowing any engineers (despite teaching hundreds of them every quarter)?  It’s not that they have bad intentions or anything like that…they, more than anyone, realize how overwhelming it is for these students to be recruited by seemingly every company in the valley.  Their students, who they “don’t know that many of” are so sought after that the professors, advisors, and everyone else within earshot of the ecosystem are bombarded with inbound requests, as well…and all serve as a form of gatekeeper, lest they burn their own bridges.

If I, the MS-MBA, am fatigued by requests to meet software engineers, imagine how tiresome it must be for their professors…or worse yet, the engineers themselves.

As a result, one of the unwritten rules within the CS community is that you don’t bother your friends with intros to “yet another startup looking for a developer”…you just don’t.

Do You Have Some Time To Grab A Coffee?

NO!  Every top notch CS student or engineer has an overwhelming array of opportunities…so much so that many top engineers avoid any spotlight that threatens to bring unwanted attention upon them: public LinkedIn profiles, attending entrepreneurial mixer events, or subscribing to the “blast” email lists.  One of my favorite engineers, a PhD in the CS program here, simply tells everyone he’s studying “marine biology” in order to avoid all the flirtation…

They certainly don’t want to “meet up for coffee” every with every “idea guy looking for a programmer”. In the much the same way that celebrities avoid the public, engineers are hiding from the bombardment of prospective startup opportunities.

After all, they’ve got 6 hours of coding still to do…tonight.  This weekend?  They’ll be cranking on code then, too.

So… 

What was my response to this? First of all, I started FounderSoup.com.  The goal of the organization is to invite all of my entrepreneurial friends (and their friends), both technical and non-technical to one event.  It’s efficient for everyone. We aim to make it a high-trust environment and have seen some awesome successes from the event.  So if you’re interested, join the signup list.

Second, I continued studying Computer Science.

Third, I’ve started encouraging every able-minded person to either (a) come to FounderSoup, or (b) study Computer Science.

Earn That Technical Co-Founder

Probably the best piece of advice I’ve heard along these lines came from Jason at HumbledMBA

“You don’t find a technical cofounder, you earn one.”

How do you do that?  Jason suggests several steps to achieving this…most important of which, IMO, is:  1. Learn to Code.  2. Build the front-end.   The key here is doing everything in your power to build trust, gain traction, show your talent & commitment to the project.

In a recent survey we conducted at FounderSoup, we found that even top engineers are mostly looking for other engineers, not MBAs.  But of those engineers who aren’t looking for MBAs…you know what they wanted?  Entrepreneurial decathletes.  In other words…if you aren’t an engineer and you want to earn a technical co-founder…then you’d better be darn good at everything else!

And you’ve got to win them over!

Often, it’s “how” you say it…

So how can you, the entrepreneur, find that special programmer?

Well, first of all, talking THAT WAY, you’ll never find what you want.

You’ve got to show that you respect their skills and know enough about their world to be a great partner.  You are not looking for a “programmer”. You are looking for an “engineer”, a “software developer”.

Instead of saying we are looking  “for an expert in PHP, Ruby-On-Rails, CSS AND Machine Learning”, or “a rockstar programmer to build our frontend and backend using xyz-string-of-non-complementary-languages.” I suggest you say something like “we are looking for can-do co-founders who have a strong foundation in software engineering and enjoy taking on new challenges”.

First Date

It’s Like Dating

When looking for someone to date, you certainly wouldn’t post on Facebook saying, “I’m looking for someone who cooks, fixes cars, loves children, likes to fornicate daily, and is going to make a ton of money.” That would be crazy and even the most socially foolish person wouldn’t do so.  Why? It’s obvious…that just doesn’t work!

So don’t be THAT entrepreneur! Don’t ask the world in your first meeting.  Don’t look for a programmer to build your app.  Recognize that these 21-year-olds are getting offers from the top businesses in whatever industry they are interested in.  Realize that you’re going to need to cough up real equity to attract them.  Know that your competition is offering them free food and foot massages.

So if you’re going to find that team-mate, you’d better not promise minimal whippings…get to know them, show them you are interested in them, let them see how awesome and trustworthy you are…and maybe that special relationship will develop.  But, for starters, know what to call them…they’re software engineers, not rockstar programmers.

Seems like a strange detail to emphasize, eh?  One thing we have learned in building this program is that these subtle touches are surprisingly fundamental to how prospective engineers feel about the way they may be treated in an organization.

This is the first part of a multi-part series on the subject…I’ll later cover things like how to build your engineering skills…but step 1 (for the newcomers to this world) is to recognize that there is a fortress you’re trying to enter and that it takes time and awareness to build the trust necessary to earn that technical co-founder.

Stanford, my MBA experience & my MS

Update (Jan 2015). I finished with a joint MBA-MS. The MS was a blend of energy engineering (building, wind, resources) & computer science (java, c++, ruby, OOP). I continue to be delighted with the relationships my wife and I built there and how useful that experience has been to us since graduation.

Mike & Joan Dorsey
Mike Dorsey & Joan Dorsey at Stanford Graduation

Well, Stanford has been an amazing ride.  I’ve now completed 2 years and have 1 more to go.

Friends: gotten to know some of the most energetic, friendly, and efficient people I’ve ever met.

MBA-MS Joint Degree – I’ve now finished my two years here, but I haven’t yet officially graduated.  I’m now starting a third year, at which point I will have both an MBA and an MS.  I’m splitting the MS between Energy Engineering & Computer Science.