Can Anyone Be an App Developer?

How I: Find, screen, and hire developers

DALE HUMBY: My name is Dale. I am the CTO of Nomanini Mobile. And we build Point of Sale Terminals for emerging markets, mostly in Africa, to sell prepaid electricity, air time, and water. So today I’m going to talk about how Nomanini hires developers. Finding developers in Cape Town is incredibly challenging for a startup. There’s a lot of big companies around who are snapping up all the good, talented people. And as a startup without the name brand of these bigger companies, or more established firms, it’s difficult to get people to join us. The developers are the makers of, certainly, a technology company. The developers and engineers are the guys who are building the product that the sales team sells and that our customers want. The way that we build our development pipeline, or rather, the way we build our hiring pipeline, is– there’s two parts to it. We’ve got the junior developers who we find at the local universities through talent programs, I suppose, and internship programs. University of Cape Town, particularly, has a program called Break The Rules. And they invite local tech companies to go and present to the students. And then the students give us their CVs and we hire them. And every year we take on three developers in the middle of the year, the winter vacation, and another two or three during the summer vac. And that’s been very successful in building a pipeline for new developers.

For more senior or experienced guys, we use our personal network. So myself and the other guys in the company have all got friends who are generally within the tech space. So we put our art and social media that we’re looking for people to join our team. Otherwise we use recruitment agents, and we’ve had a bit of success with that, as well. As a startup sometimes it’s difficult to convince a developer to join a startup, mostly because it’s less established than some of the bigger companies in Cape Town. So it’s a little bit more risky. Or so we can’t necessarily compete on salary that some of the bigger corporates can pay. So what we really sell the developers on who want to join us is our vision. So they can join our company and really define the product that we’re building. With a small team of six people– in the early days it was just two or three of us– we have a huge impact on what you can do. We have a very cross-functional team. So you don’t have a front-end developer and a back-end developer, or a firmware and hardware developer.

The first bit is receiving the CV.

We expect the guys to be able to develop right across the stack. So everything from the hardware, if they need to implement a feature, right up to the front end that the dashboards need. Our hiring process has got five steps to it. The first bit is receiving the CV. Then we have an email screening, as well, where I get to introduce myself, and Nomanini, and what we do, and ask for a little bit of information about the person who would like to join us– what is their current role, what are some of the projects that they’ve worked on, what do they really want out of their career, why are they looking to change jobs– just to get an idea of who they are and what they want out of it and see whether Nomanini can offer that. The next stage is a telephone or hang-out screening that I do with them. Just a basic interview, ask some general questions about them and their history. We do a coding example, as well, over Google Docs so I can see what they’re typing and understand how they do It. And a little bit of a creativity question, as well, to just kind of get an idea of how they think.

After that, I’ve finished my part of the interview process and hand them over to the dev team. And it’s up to the developers to interview their peers. And it’s something we believe very strongly, and that it’s not up to management to do the hiring, but it’s up to the team to hire people that they want to work with. So the developers, we invite the candidate in to interview with us. It’s two or three devs sit in on the interview. Ask them some coding questions, perhaps some more creativity, some thinking questions just to, once again, understand the scope of their knowledge, and also whether they’re going to make a good fit with the team. And assuming they get through that process, the final step, which is all about the cultural fit, is inviting them to our office to work for a half day or a full day with us to sit and do pay programming on production code, that we can see what it’s like to have them on the team with us. If we’re going to be working 10 hours a day together, we want to know that they’re going to fit in well with our existing team.

When we hired our first or second employee we were able to tap into our personal networks. But after you’ve hired those guys, there’s not a whole lot of your friends that are looking to change jobs. So you very quickly run out of your personal network to get recruits. So we’ve looked further afield, and that’s probably been the biggest change is looking up in Johannesburg and Pretoria for people to join us– and trying to figure out how you do interviews and recruiting without necessarily meeting the person until towards the end of the process. I guess we’ve refined our interview process over the last two or three years. It started off with we’re so pleased that somebody wanted to join us that we hired them. But that’s not necessarily the right decision. And we’ve been a lot more diligent about having a formal process, and keeping the questions from interview to interview the same so we know how to gauge.

  • The top people who’d actually join the team, what were their sort of answers?
  • And now how does this other candidate stack up against some of those answers and the way they think?

So I guess just a little bit more experience has helped a lot in recruiting. For us, the hiring process can be very long. And I’m talking about, not necessarily the recruiting like we’re looking for someone now, but from the time we see an intern, perhaps, in their second year of university. By the time they’ve done their fourth year and then they’re looking for a job, that’s two years have gone by that we need to keep them warm during that period.

There’s other people that have interviewed with us who we ultimately didn’t take on. But because that interviewing process was a good one for them and they enjoyed it, they recommended us to some of their friends who then did join us. So we’ve had at least two people who recommended one of their friends to join our company. So building that pipeline– although if you’re recruiting it’s not immediate, kind of always having that on the back burner, looking for good employees, is important. Because it does take years before someone you first speak to them to when they may be changing jobs and they want to join you. We try and limit the amount of people that we onboard to one a month. That’s just because if you suddenly– we found, through some of our colleagues who’ve grown their companies very fast that onboarding more than one person a month really disrupts the culture. And by the time you’ve got that person settled in, we’ve found that the learning curve for them is anywhere between three to six months until they’re fully up to speed.

So getting more than a few people joining your team during that time takes a huge load on the existing team to up-skill these guys.

When we first started Nomanini, our CEO was very keen for us to build a development team, build a product, and then they would sell the product and they don’t need engineers anymore. I always have taken the vision that we are developing a minimum viable product, and you want to iterate on that product, that it’s never finished. So having a team is really important. And to me that means the team should be an internal team. If you’re a technology company building a product, I don’t believe you can outsource that development, either to a local company or to, perhaps, companies in India or the Far East. I believe if you want to do something properly you need to do it yourself, and find the right people who are sitting together in the same room developing that product that meets your vision. And that’s how we hire talent at Nomanini.

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