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Tim Hwang
Tim Hwang

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Early stage companies shouldn't hire juniors (yet)

People I talk to tend to be surprised (and often personally offended) when I tell them that my company doesn't interview junior engineers. It's an understandable reaction; a blanket policy of not hiring juniors implies certain negative things. It can imply arrogance: I think I'm so smart and talented that junior candidates simply can't keep up. Or it can imply poor value assessments: I don't think juniors are worth training. Or it can imply selfishness: I think juniors are worth training, but it's expensive; I'll let some other sap eat the cost of training them, and then poach them.

On one hand, I don't decide hiring strategy at my company, so chill! On the other hand, however, I must admit that I think this is a sensible policy that's worth justifying. To do so, I need to add several qualifiers: we don't interview junior engineers at present because we are a small growth-focused company, and I don't think small, growth-focused companies should hire juniors.

(Note that the main question this post attempts to answer is "is hiring junior engineers beneficial for early stage companies?" It's not attempting to answer the related questions "is hiring junior engineers beneficial for junior engineers?" or "is hiring junior engineers the right thing to do, even if it's not personally beneficial?")

1. Risk and time

Small, growth-focused companies are in a cutthroat race against time. The company is not yet profitable and is burning money in R&D and customer acquisition. This generally means building as fast as humanly possible, prostrating oneself at the feet of customers, and pivoting so much your product roadmap looks like an Etch-A-Sketch. In such an environment, I can't see how hiring a junior engineer and dedicating several months worth of resources to get them to net zero productivity is an effective use of resources.

The problem isn't one of expense, or even one of rate of return. Junior engineers are cheaper to hire than seniors, and proportionally benefit far more from training. Hiring and training juniors has an incredibly high rate of return. Rather, the problem is one of risk, and one of time to return. Juniors are inherently higher variance due to having less of a work history or references that can be evaluated, and young companies are drowning in risk already. Additionally, the lifeline of young companies is measured in months, not in years. For these companies, every day and every dollar is spent in order to get the next, longer lifeline (venture funding, hockey stick growth, etc.) before everyone goes bankrupt and moves back home with their parents. A junior engineer may be ready to be a star player after 3 months of training and learning, but there may no longer be a team to play on at that point.

In poker, short stacked players have no choice but to tighten their ranges and play low variance hands. Early stage companies are in the same boat: regardless of how big a payoff hiring junior engineers may have (or how altruistic it may be), these companies simply lack the resources for it to be an attractive option.

2. Hire fast, fire fast

If the problem is that hiring juniors requires more resources than early stage companies have, a solution could be to reduce the amount of resources needed. The "hire fast and fire fast" strategy is one popular approach. In this strategy, juniors are given the bare minimum resources (maybe an onboarding guide, some code labs, and a scattered list of online resources) needed and told to figure it out -- and if they don't, out they go.

This is similar to how large mega-corps hire juniors: at Facebook, Google, and the like, new hires go through weeks or even months of orientation and onboarding boot camp, and emerge ready to hit the ground running. Our strategy is basically the same as the mega-corps, only without the time, money, and resources, and with an atmosphere less like college welcome week and more like the Hunger Games (unless said mega-corp is Amazon, in which case they really are basically the same).

I have to admit that this seems like the most cost-effective way for small companies to evaluate junior candidates: the level of risk is capped, and the negative impact of hires that don't work out is minimized. The only sticking point is that it's evil, and a reputation for being evil tends to be bad for hiring. While this strategy works out in the company's favor, it is predatory from the perspective of the new hires.

(Some may argue that a predatory relationship is better than no relationship, which is the argument used by companies offering unpaid work or work paid via "exposure." I'm sure the hire/fire fast strategy can be tweaked to be more equitable, but I haven't yet found any implementation that's compelling enough. Bad early career experiences can be crippling, and I'd rather stay away unless I am sure the experience would be great for junior engineers. There are enough companies out there that hire anyone with a pulse and ruthlessly cull the herd.)

3. Growth potential

There's a belief that engineers from large companies tend to be overspecialized, and that engineers from small companies are more independent. I've found this belief to be entirely inconsistent with my experiences. Over the years, I've had the opportunity to work with mid-level engineers from large companies and mid-level engineers from small ones. In general, the ones from large companies felt years ahead in experience: they were the ones who had a large repository of patterns and architectures to draw from, who knew how to effectively work cross-functionally, who could scale databases, and who could do domain modeling effectively.

Even if you're willing to bet on your mentorship capabilities and commit the resources to train up juniors, doing so may not lead to the best long-term growth for juniors. Pattern recognition and analyzing existing systems are two important ways in which junior engineers learn. Engineers witness more successes and more failures at large companies than at small ones; this evidence of what works at scale and what doesn't is powerful insulation against a cargo cult mentality. When it comes to systems, startups generally aren't know for being shining bastions of best practices and stable architectures; things change a lot in the pursuit of product-market fit, and products are often made to be more or less throwaway.

It's not impossible for juniors to thrive at small companies, but the rate of growth at a larger company will likely be much higher. I believe the converse of this article's title is also true: if given the choice, juniors shouldn't join early stage companies. (Of course, the options available to junior engineers is inherently limited. It's probably sensible for prospective juniors to value their long term growth potential lower than their short term ability to pay rent.)

4. When should companies start hiring juniors?

To me, the question of hiring juniors is not "if", but "when." I believe that early stage companies should not hire juniors; at the same time, I believe that companies that hire juniors are doomed in the long term. At a certain scale, having a steady supply of junior talent is critical to a company's continued survival: there simply are not enough senior engineers to go around. (Companies like Netflix are the exception, where sky high compensation and a compelling engineering brand are used to continue attracting senior talent.) Whenever taking a stance, it's helpful to identify the boundary conditions under which the stance will change.

So where is the inflection point? There isn't a universal answer. Early stage startups generally don't think in the long term, but there are indicators of success (or, more conservatively, "signals of a reasonable expectation of continued existence") that may influence the decision of whether or not to hire juniors. Milestones like hitting 100 people, or reaching a certain valuation target, or raising a certain amount of money may all be such inflection points around which hiring policy should be revisited.

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