Education Opinion

DIY: Hiring Coders & Developers

By Tom Vander Ark — September 10, 2012 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

“Coders are tough to find since nearly every industry is looking for them and they are also able to start their own company,” said Alan Louie, the founder
of the edtech incubator ImagineK12. He continued, “There’s no magic bullet to finding them. It’s old-fashioned
networking based on sharing your exciting idea that will change the world through education. Current employees, meet-ups, startup-weekends, friends and
family, ex-coworkers, industry friends are all people to tap.”

The good news is that we are experiencing what Michael Moe called a “near spontaneous explosion of
entrepreneurial activity in education.”

“Most coders aren’t aware of the fascinating and challenging problems they could help solve in education, ranging from adaptive learning to big data to
implementing pedagogy to thoughtful integration in the classroom,” said Louie. “In my experience coders get excited about difficult and world changing
problems, so education is a perfect storm--huge need in the U.S. and globally, challenging technology problems and massive personal satisfaction.”


Mike Lee, co-Founder of EdShelf, suggested on EdTech Handbook, “Start with people you know. You may
already have a developer or two as a second- or third-degree connection. The closer the connection, the better. This person doesn’t need to be an
experienced developer with a computer science degree; someone who is willing to learn can be just as good. Building out your idea could be a great way for
them to grow their skills.”

Lee also suggested on EdTech Handbook that Startup Weekend EDU and Ed-Tech Meetup

can be a good place to find developers.


David Waxman said, “Give candidates a problem to solve in pseudo-code on a whiteboard and have them talk you through their thinking as they go. Don’t rely
on written code tests, they evaluate rote memorization. In the real world, programmers have a great reference book -- the Internet -- and they use it all
the time for little language-specific details, code examples and other info that they don’t really need to have in their head.”

Mick Hewitt of MasteryConnect said, “I’ve always been a big 37signals fan, and have always followed their advice
when hiring,” Work with prospective employees on a test-basis first. We always give potential developers a project that we can work on together. It’s easy
to find something you need done and to engage a project with a prospective developer. You’ll learn so much about their communication style, attention to
detail, and they way they handle stress and deadlines.”

Reference & Portfolios

Waxman said, “Ask them about software they’ve written and ask very detailed and specific questions. You’ll engage them and also get a good sense of their
real contribution. Have them talk through something they’d like to re-write or do over. This can (should) draw out some passion. It’ll also tell you
whether they think in terms of the business (this could increase our load capacity/response time) or think of engineering more in isolation (a much more
elegant solution, a more modern technology). Both answers are fine, but it’s a perspective that’s good to understand.”

Connection & Convening

Clay Whitehead of PresenceLearning said, “As Brad Feld said, ‘A convener has much more leverage than a
connector.’ Try to convene events, webinars, and other functions related to your company with an eye towards talent as well as clients.”

“Follow and engage people on Twitter,” said Michael Stanton. “Start a tech blog and pose interesting challenges.”

Mission Matters

Whitehead said, “Focus on what makes you unique. We were able to hire three superlative Silicon Valley developers at a time when the demand for their
skills was off-the-charts. We didn’t do it through wining and dining or headhunters, but through a clear message about what defines PresenceLearning: our
mission to help students by changing the focus of special education from compliance to outcomes. This made us very different than Facebook or Zynga, to our

Product & Company Vision

Whitehead added, “Know and communicate your product. We were lucky in that we instinctively knew where our product was going over time and were able to
articulate what it would look like from very early on. If you can paint a clear vision of what you are building to potential candidates, they can start to
picture their own contributions and importance to the organization well before an offer letter is on the table.”

Jason Lange of Bloomboard said, “Let your prospective hires hear your users talk about your product. If you’re
getting lots of feedback from users on a regular basis, then you should be able to have a prospect sit in on one of those conversations relatively easily.
Setting up this interaction may seem risky, but it builds tremendous credibility since you can demonstrate how much you value frank user feedback (and are
willing to risk someone listening in on a random usability testing session), and if your users love your product, then they become your selling tool to any
potential hire. The moment a potential hire hears the excitement that a user has for your product and the candid view of how it could change their life,
the rest of the sell is easy.”

Stanton added, “Genuinely build a great company culture and support peoples’ dreams.”

Fit & Career Path

The following questions are useful for any type of employee, including developers: What makes them happy, what type of environment they thrive in and what
they aspire to? Do they want to become a manager? Is that a realistic path in your company? Do they like changing projects often or going extremely deep
and being the “owner” of part of the system? Then ask yourself honestly if you’ve got a good match. A happy fulfilled developer/team-member is a much more
productive one.

Louie added three big ideas on hiring:

  1. “Concentrate on finding folks who are like-minded and may not have known it until you shared the excitement. Don’t worry about trying to convince
    everyone you meet to join your quest.”

  2. “You’re not competing with big tech companies who are also pressing hard for talent. As an entrepreneur you are looking adventurers. Remember Steve
    Jobs famous quote to John Scully, then PepsiCo President, ' Do you want to sell sugar water, or do you want to come with me and change the world?'"

  3. “Take your time and be thoughtful who you hire. Early employees have a huge impact on the success and culture of the company because they set the tone.
    There’s always big pressure to hire folks, but it’s far better to hire for the long run than hire quickly to solve a short term problem. You are
    building a company, not just getting the next version out the door.”


Social Matchbox
suggests you can expect a “rate range for a Washington, DC based programmer of web applications: $42.15 to $67.15 per hour.”

Coding Recources

  • Guru:
    Hire freelancers and manage projects online

  • Vwork:
    Hire a virtual worker

  • Indeed
    : Job postings

Web Design Resources

MasterConnect and Bloomboard are portfolio companies of Learn Capital where Tom Vander Ark is a partner.

The opinions expressed in Vander Ark on Innovation are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.