Hiring developers blindly dooms startups — here’s how to avoid that fate


To those outside the technology scene, programmers speak jargon-filled alien languages. Understanding their technobabble is a challenge for me as well, despite having cut my teeth in the tech startup world for about a year now.

At the StartupRootsSG Panel held at Hackerspace Singapore yesterday, an interesting discussion raged about the granular differences between PHP, Ruby, and Python. The three wise men representing each domain were Michael Cheng, Sau Sheong, and Calvin Cheng respectively.

Vociferous laughter, inside jokes, and light jabbing filled the already cramped room, but for poor sobs like me who think Python is a slithery animal, the event felt like an intergalactic confab for the United Federation of Planets.

So now you understand the predicament facing non-technical startup founders who want to hire a developer into the team. How do you evaluate someone who speaks in an entirely different (programming) language?

Fortunately, much of the discussion that night revolved around this very fascinating topic. While I do not intend to give a blow-by-blow of what transpired, I shall note down some general points below.

Get a programmer to evaluate a programmer

As a non-technical entrepreneur, evaluating technical talent is a humongous task. While you can attempt to pick up some programming to understand what exactly developers face, nothing beats getting another programmer to suss out wheat from chaff.

If you don’t have a CTO, your best bet is to check out the developer’s profile on LinkedIn and find out who he has worked it. See if you can get references or impressions from another noted programmer. Check out GitHub too: Uploading some public code onto the platform is essential for developers who want to build credibility.

Another option for entrepreneurs is to get established developers to interview potential employees for you. You may even find it worthwhile to pay them a fee to be your makeshift HR personnel.

Generally, bosses should look out for programmers who can work fast and learn fast, since startup work is more rapid and fluid than less torrential corporate environments.

The challenge comes in evaluating and separating spongy minds from lesser, stony ones.

Be sure to nurture the potential in young developers

Since companies are often eager to hire the top talent, startups might be better off snagging a junior developer with a strong upside and hunger to learn. The next step is to water them the right way such that they’ll grow with the company.

Founders must make sure these developers receive adequate mentorship. In Michael’s opinion, bosses should encourage junior programmers to learn process skills like agile development, team and project management, as well as testing and deployment processes. Ultimately, they should know how to launch products fast and adapt on-the-fly.

Singaporean developers cost more, but they add value

Good developers generally don’t come cheap. According to Calvin, a reasonably skilled programmer who is a fresh graduate from NUS School of Computing demands about S$3,800 (US$3,000) a month.

After two to three years, the rate could go up to S$5,000 (US$4,000) a month, depending on the employee’s professional growth. A really proficient developer with multiple skillsets and can literally handle everything for you would cost about S$8,000 (US$6,300) a month. Some programmers undervalue themselves however, asking for as little as S$2,000 (US$1,580) a month.

With Singapore being a developed country, hiring talent from emerging economies is definitely cheaper. Calvin said that a good Romanian developer, for example, can be hired for 600 Euros (US$750) a month — that’s considered a steal.

Programmers from other lands may suffer from a problem of communication since they might not speak your language. Some concepts are hard to visualize and must be explained in words. This causes headaches, and might even be fatal to your company. With the Romanians, Calvin left the backend to them while he handled interfaces himself.

So, in certain contexts, it makes more sense to hire locally.

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