6 essential but not-so-obvious qualities needed in the first engineer hire at a company

February 15, 2022 in Career Transitions, Coaching

Every technical founder and CTO knows that the first few hires are critical for the future of a company. They can determine success or failure. That’s no exaggeration.

So what qualities are needed in those first few hires? We asked technical founders at OpenDoor, Dapper Labs, HoneyComb.io and Divvy Homes. Here’s a curated list of the top six qualities they told us.

  1. Be optimistic. Snark kills. Negativity is infectious. When there’s a problem, you can express it in a way that’s snarky, where you’re trying to get the other side to be negative too, or you can express dissatisfaction in a constructive way. Like, “Hey, I noticed there’s an issue with X, how about we solve that together?” People who are optimists and can voice their dissatisfaction in a positive way are vitally important.

  2. Have a growth mindset. Hire for slope, not intercepts. The reality is, in a startup, everyone’s growing. People are drawn to startups because they’re tired of the slow, gradual growth path that some larger companies offer. Many engineers prefer a compressed learning experience.  A growth mindset goes hand in hand with being an optimist and believing that tomorrow, as a team, you can do a better job than today.

  3. Act like a leader. Part of leadership is bringing people along with you. While many people are drawn to startups because they want to be very productive and move fast, it’s important to recognize that part of advancing your career is to lead, which may mean working at a different pace to prioritize teaching, guiding and coaching others over getting stuff done at lightning speed.

  4. Take ownership. Startups need people who take ownership not just for the code they write, but for the entire domain they’re solving problems for. If you have somebody who’s working on a ledger system, not only do they write code for the ledger, but they also likely spend time with the people on the capital markets team, to understand what they need to know to do their jobs appropriately. If you need to spoon-feed people the problems they have to solve, they’re never going to be truly autonomous.

  5. Be passionate. You need to be a missionary, not a mercenary. People need to actually believe in what you’re doing because inevitably there are going to be ups and downs in the company. You need people who are going to be okay with change, and who are passionate about the vision, customers and company culture. Passionate people persevere, and that’s what startups need to succeed.

  6. Communicate openly. Startups need people who communicate clearly about technical things—it’s especially important for the first engineer. If you can talk through how you’re going to solve a problem, you can write the code, and you can more easily empower others to build on what you’re doing. But the reverse is not necessarily true. There are many people out there who can write code but can’t explain how they did it or the trade-offs they were thinking of. This is how a great team is built: by having people who can talk to each other openly, who are humble, and who can teach and learn from each other.

At the end of the day, working on any team or being part of any community is about making other people better. This is critical to building a diverse and supportive community, and the qualities you have and learn will continue to evolve with time. 


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