I spent the past eight years working as an engineering manager and CTO for two startups in Chicago. Hiring software engineers at an early-stage startup is a tough job: you can’t match the pay or benefits of brand name employers, and you usually have little to no reputation to trade on.
I tried contingency recruiters, ran a cold outreach campaign on Linkedin, talked to everyone I knew, and still I struggled to find qualified candidates.
As I spoke to other CTOs and read about what their engineering teams were doing, I realised there were other ways to attract great talent. Hiring didn’t have to be a mad rush to find candidates when I got the budget for a new engineer. Instead, I started to think about it as a year-round job.
So, I went to work on a personal and employer brand centered on startup engineering. I worked with my team to write blog posts, created open-source projects, attended Meetup groups, and spoke at conferences. Along the way, I kept in touch with the software engineers I met who might make a great addition to our team.
When the time came to make a new hire, I had a list of candidates who knew me, talked to me about our product, and whom I suspected would be a cultural and technical fit for our team. Rather than desperately taking anyone who would apply, I could opportunistically reach out to specific candidates. It turned hiring on its head for me.
While branding isn’t a silver bullet – hiring is still hard – having a list of warm leads when you open up your next job listing certainly helps.
The process of building a reputation for your engineering organisation is a form of employer branding. While your company’s brand describes its perception among your customers, your employer brand describes its perception among potential hires.
Most engineering leaders don’t think about their team’s brand too much, but it’s being defined whether you take an active role in shaping it or not. Prospective employees use Glassdoor, Linkedin, and search engines to learn about your company. If you’re not putting anything out there, someone else will.
Before you start actively showcasing your employer brand, you need to know how people currently perceive your company. I’ve seen employers do this a few different ways, but here are some ideas you can consider:
- Talking to your existing employees – Ask them in one-on-ones or via anonymous surveys to tell you why they joined your team, why they’ve stuck around, and how they would describe the workplace to others. Would they recommend it to a friend? Have they recommended someone in the past?
- Asking candidates why they applied – Candidates often apply to companies they’ve heard of and have some favorable impression of. If people find out about your company through friends, social media, or blogs, it’s good to know. These are potential channels for your future branding efforts.
- Talking to former employees – I always try to leave things on good terms with former employees because they can be the most brutally honest source of information. If you feel comfortable doing so, ask some of them how they would describe your company to others.
Knowing how your organisation is currently perceived will help you decide how much work you need to do on your brand. If people love your company, everyone gets along, and all your engineers refer their friends like crazy, then great! Unfortunately, that’s rare.
Showcasing Your Employer Brand
Once you know how employees see your company today, you should start to showcase your brand. This might sound manipulative, but I’m not advocating that you lie about what your company is like. Showcasing your brand is about highlighting the culture and priorities of your team.
For example, if you work in the finance industry, potential employees might assume that you have a staid, buttoned-up culture. If that’s not true – i.e. maybe your team takes Fridays off to go rock climbing together – then show it. Start telling people what makes your organisation different, and you’ll start to attract people looking for something just like it.
While my experience is primarily in writing and speaking, those aren’t the only channels you can use to promote your employer brand. Some good options include:
- Meetups – I’ve co-organised the local PHP user group in Chicago for the past two years, and while many meetups are on hiatus during the global pandemic, we’re always looking for sponsors and speakers. If you want to get involved in your local developer community, reaching out to some of your local meetup groups is one of the easiest ways to get started.
- Conferences – Attending conferences is fine, but speaking is an even more powerful channel. If speaking is new to you, I wrote a huge, 8-part guide on speaking at tech conferences that might help you out.
- Open Source Software – Whether your company adopts a 10% time policy or not, building some small projects in public is a great way to promote your brand to a technical audience. It shows developers your standards and invites them to participate before they consider working for you.
- Videos – Whether it’s live-streaming a coding project, interviewing team members, or a technical tutorial, video content is a great way to give engineers unique insight into your company.
- Podcasts – Starting a podcast is a lot of work, so if you don’t want to go that far, you can just pitch yourself as a guest on other developer podcasts. Here’s a big list of about 200 podcasts for software engineers that can help you get started.
- Newsletter/Social Media – A relatively low-lift and low-cost way to showcase your brand is through a newsletter or social media accounts. The biggest challenge here is creating content that’s compelling enough that people will want to follow you.
- Writing – While many engineers dislike writing, starting an engineering blog is one of the best ways to get information out to potential hires.
The Role of Writing in Employer Branding
Writing is just one channel you can use for employer branding, but it’s one of the most impactful. It allows anyone on your team to contribute, it improves your visibility in search engines, and it feeds into other channels like your email list or social media accounts.
While the most common way for tech teams to start writing is to create an engineering blog, this isn’t the only way forward. You could contribute to existing publications, ask developers to publish on their personal blogs, or publish your content in a section of your company’s blog.
There are pros and cons to hosting the content yourself versus using an established platform, but I’ll save that for another article. If you decide to use writing to advance your engineering team’s brand, the most important thing is to just start doing it.
While you can start by asking your engineers to write about whatever they want, it’s much better if you have a content plan. Work with your engineering team to develop some ideas and then let everyone pick the ones they’d most like to work on.
While it can be difficult to stick by them, having deadlines is a good thing. Without a forcing function, engineers will struggle to prioritise something outside their comfort zone.
As the engineering team’s leader, you should set an example by writing articles yourself and giving the team time to devote to writing. This means you will take a hit to productivity in the short-term, but writing is a long-term investment in your brand. Long-term investments require sacrifices today but compound in value over time.
Another thing you can do to help your engineers is to give them direction for each post. I work with dozens of freelance engineers to write blog posts for my clients, and while some only need a rough idea to create a great article, most of them require more help. Create a detailed outline with the engineer and make sure they know who the intended audience is.
Finally, bring in an editor if possible. While most of your readers won’t expect perfection, sloppiness is never a good look. If you’re not good with detail work like this, find someone in the marketing or communications department who is.
What Should You Write About?
While I mentioned that you should have a plan, I didn’t really specify what you should write about on your engineering blog. Your content should reflect your brand (or the brand you want to convey).
For example, if your team exclusively uses Spring Boot and you’re always on the cutting edge of new developments to the platform, then write about that. You’ll attract engineers who want to work on Spring Boot projects and keep up with the latest updates.
Similarly, if your team has solved some tough performance or scaling problems in the past few years, these are great topics to write about. One example I bookmarked years ago was GitHub’s post on high-availability MySQL. I’ve worked with MySQL for almost a decade, but I’ve never dealt with the scale of data or throughput they have at GitHub, so I found it fascinating.
If your team doesn’t have many interesting technical topics to write about, you can write about human problems. Stripe’s blog provides an excellent example of this in their post on scaling their engineering organisation.
You can also try a mix of different approaches. For example, Buffer’s engineering blog offers both deeply specific technical content and general tips for your engineering career. There’s no right answer to this question, but the content you write should reflect the brand you want to build for your team.
Great Engineering Team Blogs for Inspiration
While seeing the effect of employer branding firsthand at my last two companies was helpful, I’m far from the first person to think about this topic. I’ve always been inspired by larger engineering organisations that have successfully pulled this off with dozens of contributors and a wide range of technical topics.
So, I want to leave you with a few examples of engineering blogs that I hope will inspire you as you kick off your employer branding efforts:
- Medium Engineering Blog – Medium does an outstanding job of giving engineers insight into their hiring and career advancement process. I borrowed heavily from their Snowflake framework when I was an engineering manager.
- Buffer Overflow Blog – I know I already mentioned them above, but Buffer’s engineering content efforts are truly impressive for such a small team. It seems like they’ve fallen off in 2020, but they’ve been very consistent for the past few years.
- Facebook Engineering Blog – While maybe a little too formal for my taste, Facebook’s engineering team has solved some very unique technical problems. I loved their recent post about how asynchronous architecture scales as you get to Facebook’s size.
- Slack Engineering Blog – Being open about your failures is hard, but Slack does a good job of it on their blog. This makes for some fascinating posts like this one about their outage in May 2020.
If you know of other good examples, please let me hear about them on Twitter. I look forward to hearing your suggestions.
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