If you’re an engineer in a leadership role where you’re dealt with the task of developing teams, the hiring process can be daunting. Do you hire junior engineers that you can shape and mold? Or senior engineers who are experienced, but come with baggage? And how do you throw boot camp graduates into the mix? Johnny Ray Austin joins me to lend his thoughts on the hiring process, including what he looks for in an engineer. Don’t miss it!
Johnny is an experienced engineering executive and international public speaker. Johnny claims he got into leadership by sheer luck—but he ended up taking the leadership position and never looked back. He’s now the VP of engineering and CTO at Till, a company that helps people pay, stay, and thrive in their homes.
Johnny’s talk, “The Death of the Full Stack Developer”, was a culmination of what he's seen developing in the industry. He’s seen an evolution of people switching engineering midway through other careers. The people who are switching have a more difficult time because of the expectations that are placed on engineers to know it all.
Catching up to everything that’s happened struck Johnny as silly. He can’t keep up with all of the new stuff out there. It also depends on our definition of “the stack” (It’s typically short-hand for front-end and back-end experience). 80% of people land on their website from a mobile device—but no one talks about mobile devices when they talk about the stack.
The full stack encompasses a lot more than what we mean when we use the phrase. When you look at it that way, it’s unreasonable to expect someone to be an expert in the entire stack. The true full stack developer is dead and gone. Johnny is quick to point out that that doesn’t mean you can’t be good in multiple areas.
But you have to recognize that there are specialties. While you do want as much bang for your buck as possible when hiring, you can't burn people out. You have to set expectations accordingly. How do engineering leaders stay on top of new technology? Keep listening to hear our discussion.
Johnny points out that—as an industry—we assume that one hiring process is going to work for every company out there. But it’s up to you to find a process that works for you and your team. You have to take into account questions like: Can they grow into what I might need in a year? Or 18 months? Does your company align with their future goals? The paradox is that you need to stop hiring for the now—and hire for tomorrow—while still solving today’s problems.
John screens a potential team member’s ability and willingness to grow with the company from the first phone call. He talks about their ambitions as a business and asks if the potential engineer can see themselves growing with that vision. Are they interested in leadership? Are they willing to mentor other engineers? What is their mindset regarding operational excellence? He’s honest about his expectations moving forward.
Hiring engineers is a risky endeavor. Bringing on the wrong person can damage the team. Johnny emphasizes that you should hire engineers based on their strengths. Then, you can hire other engineers to fill in the gaps. They can learn from each other while complementing each other.
Where are they really strong? What are their interests? Some people are good at cranking things out. Some people are great at communications. You want your engineers to work on the things that allow them to thrive. You need to build teams that are diverse because together you have something greater.
Johnny points out that if you hire a senior engineer, you reap the benefit of their experience and track record. So there’s less training involved—but they often come with baggage. They’ve done things a certain way their entire career and tend to be resistant to learning new methods. With a junior engineer, you don’t get the experience—but you don’t get the scar tissue either. You have a blank slate. They can grow in a way that fits your company.
When Johnny is considering a junior engineer, he looks for two things: intellectual curiosity and the types of questions they ask. It’s a good indicator of someone willing to level up and gain experience. He’s found that intellectual curiosity is positively correlated with great performance.
To further complicate the hiring options, boot camp graduates can be thrown into the mix. Johnny is an advocate for hiring out of boot camps. Some of the sharpest engineers he knows had no formal education of any kind.
Someone with a CS degree knows a lot of theory but they have no clue how to be a day-to-day software engineer. Bootcamp developers have the day-to-day software engineer requirement without the foundation in theory. They often also have industry experience in other fields that they can bring to the table. Either way, there will be gaps to fill. As a manager, you have to decide which gaps you want to fill and train.
To hear the full discussion about hiring, transitioning into a leadership position, and much more—listen to this episode of the Simple Leadership podcast!