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, understand new technology trends (ie opportunities in mobile), and build new prototypes (ie  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.


What was my response to this? First of all, I started  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.

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Entrepreneur, technologist.

18 thoughts on “The Non-Technical Founder’s Nightmare”

  1. Interesting topic Mike. I think your line of thinking is right on but I think it could perhaps be taken even further. While software technologists would prefer to be called an engineer rather than just a coder, I think the underlying issue you are touching on is whether the person doing the search is looking for a “partner” or just hired labor. If an engineer is looking for a hired gun assignment, they are going to go where the money is. If they are looking to work in a startup, they want to have some skin in the game (either financial, creative or both). Many of the examples you gave as what not to do scream “I’m looking for a hired gun”. The engineers that want to be hired guns go to the highest bidder and unfortunately for most entrepreneurs, high bidders pay a lot.

    While there is a big difference between a “coder” and a “software engineer”, there is also a big difference between an “employee” and a “partner” (or at least a “peer”). Entrepreneurs will have a lot more success luring engineers to work for them if they actually value the work they are providing rather than thinking of them as commodity labor that connects the dots and makes all of the 1’s and 0’s work. If an engineer wanted to be thought of as commodity labor, they would take one of the million high paying salary jobs they have available.

  2. Looking forward to the rest of the series Mike. I’ve tried to teach myself, I’ve done Michael Hartl’s tutorial on ROR. When I was at Cornell, I even took a class on PHP (it sucked). I’ve just finished all the exercises at Codecademy – and you know what? The sad thing is that I don’t feel like I’ve made much progress at all. Why is this subject so hard? I’m good at everything else… I’ve got the investors, the advisors, a co-founder designer, an incredible idea – but I feel like Bono “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for…”

  3. Well said Charlie. But even then, it’s still very difficult. I’m willing to give up ~20% of my company to this partner. I’m looking for a soul-mate, someone who buys into the vision, and wants to build a company that will endure. Not just any engineer will do. How do you find that special one? Especially when, despite all the networking events I go to, they are not present. It is as if software engineers only go to secretive events in the forest. At night. When there’s a full moon out.

  4. Hi Mike! We’re building for the iPhone! Yes, the next hurdle is a prototype. We’ve got designs. (Wanna see them? They rock!) The front-end is what really matters for us right now. (Though I’ve convinced a friend working at Palantir to start working on the backend on nights and weekends, and he’s using Rails.)

  5. Palantir is no joke. You apparently have the gift of persuasion. Then you might be interested in the class. All of the materials are available online. That’s how I learned what I needed in order to build For the iOS stuff, I’d definitely look at the iPhone programming class on iTunes Stanford.

    Yes, learning to write software is extremely difficult. That’s why it’s so valuable. And it feels like climbing a sand dune…but there ARE increasing marginal returns. The more you know, the easier it is to learn the next step. It doesn’t start to feel that way until maybe 2 thousand hours in…but then things start to glide more easily, IMO.

  6. Mike, I’m so tempted to pay the $99 bucks to get 31,000 points on BeTheDuke and just buy everyone out and own a worldwide monopoly and be the duke of everything and collect taxes from everyone. That would be fun. I also like the legal disclaimer in your footer. It’s hilarious. Great work for a pre-alpha, keep it going. Looking forward to see what it becomes. If you’d like detailed feedback, let me know and I’ll try to give you a substantive critique.
    Thanks! I’ll not deny that I have a venerable reality distortion field. We’ll see if I can keep him motivated to finish. Right, thanks for mentioning the iOS course on iTunes – I had seen that and that should be my next step. I should just force myself to learn. I wish I had tons of money to blow just contracting it out (I recently built this iPad app for a client w/ a 20K budget,, but you’ve got to do whatever it takes right?
    Hey, I’ve got an idea – YOU be my co-founder! 🙂 What-da-ya say? Oh wait, per your post, that’s like asking you to sleep with me on my first date. Alright. Well, can I take you to coffee so we can “get to know each other”? 🙂

  7. Haha, there is one duke in, in particular, who would find that very offensive. So do it! You could make him sweat for much less $ than that…

    Yeah jumping into the iOS subject without a basis in C++ can be more defeating than it should be. Get a grounding in either Java or preferably C++ before you beat yourself with Objective C (iOS).

    If you’re serious about it, take one of those classes online, preferably Stanford CS 106A (Java and basis of object oriented programming) with Mehran Sahami. Then do first 1/3 of CS 106B with Jerry Cain (differences between C++ and Java, ie pointers and method declarations). Both should be online (academicuniverse or stanford iTunes).

    Then, C++ won’t sound like alien.

    If you are in Bay Area, you could also apply to FounderSoup.

  8. For sure!  I thought your post absolutely nailed it.  Just read your post about blue light and sleep…going to go pick up some filters this weekend.  Thx!

  9. Ha! This may be the best article I’ve ever read on the internet. And no, I’m not a spammer trying to get you to publish my comment. 

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