Finding a Software Engineer for Your Startup

Aug 27, 2020

It’s a common occurrence at The Garage and on college campuses around the country: someone who does not have a software engineering background has a great idea for an app, website, or software product, if only they could just find someone to build it for them! Having seen this story unfold over and over again, we’ve assembled advice and perspectives from students, entrepreneurs-in-residence (EIRs), and staff at The Garage to give you the full spectrum of advice. If you’re considering hiring a software engineer, finding a technical co-founder, or learning to code yourself to build your product, read along to see what others would advise. 

Tom Hayden, an EIR at The Garage and co-founder of Blueprint Alpha, has a very strong opinion on the matter of recruiting an outside developer versus building a first version of your product yourself. “I tell all students that they should be building their own first prototype. Unless they're doing flying cars or some kind of AI, the technology is accessible enough that anyone can build their own good-enough first versions. Why should an engineer get involved if the founder isn't even willing to learn some basic tools themselves? In my five years with The Garage, I have yet to see a startup be successful where it was a non-technical founder with a slide deck who found an undergrad who built the product for them. You’ve got to put in the elbow grease!”

Spencer Levitt, co-founder of Qade and Resident of The Garage agrees with Tom based on his own experience. After months of talking to hundreds of freelance software developers on platforms like Upwork, Spencer and his co-founder Austin Pager were frustrated. “We wasted a ton of time and significant money just trying to get things built using freelancers and dev shops. I realized that no freelancer is going to have the kind of urgency that you have and no one is going to care about your product as much as you do.” When working with freelancers, the Qade team experienced a lot of miscommunication about expectations and also worried that they were being taken advantage of, because they were paying hourly rates but had no idea how long the work would take. One freelancer that they had worked with ended up “ghosting” the team after a month, leaving them with nothing to show for their time and money.

At that point Spencer decided to take a shot at building the Qade app himself. He purchased a $10 course on Udemy (this one), and after completing the course, finished the first version of Qade in just 8 days. Now, Spencer sees many advantages to building and iterating the product himself, without having to rely on outsiders. “Our development time is super, super quick. We’re already on version 4 or 5 of our product, and can make changes very quickly. Nobody really gets it (their product) right the first time, which is why it’s so important to keep building and iterating. I know it sounds easier to just find someone to build your product for you, but it’s actually not that easy, even if you have money, and there are so many disadvantages.”

Michael Saunders, another EIR at The Garage and co-founder of Blueprint Alpha has a slightly different take, telling non-technical founders that if they can’t build, they have to sell. “If you're not a technical founder and your business requires tech or a product, you need to find a technical co-founder. Full stop. If you cannot build, then your other job is to sell (find customers). Get someone who is willing to pay you and prove that your idea is a good one. Finding a technical co-founder requires you convince them that your idea is good. To do that, you have to de-risk the opportunity vs. them getting another job or finding another startup team. Every win you get proves that this is an idea worth being a part of. Get customers willing to pay you and it will be easier for others to take the leap with you.”

Fardeem Munir, a sophomore computer science major, has some great recommendations for resources at Northwestern to help find engineers who may be interested in joining your team. But he caveats that you must be thoughtful in your approach. “I think a big part in recruiting technical people is to show a certain level of initiative. A lot of non-technical people approach the search as them being the mastermind and they just need an engineer to code it up. Even if they don’t mean it, sometimes this approach comes off as condescending, like ‘I don't really need you but I don't have time to code.’ I think it's so important to approach it as a partnership. If the non-technical person also has a working knowledge of the relevant technological pieces, that goes a long way in convincing someone to join the team.”

With a thoughtful approach in mind, Fardeem recommends finding student engineers by reaching out to the student club .dev by emailing them (, who are often open to forwarding postings onto their listserv. The Northwestern internal Computer Science (CS) listserv is another resource, and can be leveraged by emailing your post to IEEE is another club whose membership is largely technical that could be a resource. 

Fardeem also recommends The Garage’s quarterly Startup Matchmaking event, which draws hundreds of students eager to join startup teams, and reaching out directly to faculty in the computer science program to recommend students who may be interested in joining your team. 

Lilliana de Souza, a senior computer science major, recommends finding undergraduate engineers by reaching out to Women in Computing (WiC), which posts job opportunities each week to its members. She also advises leaning on your engineer friends to help with your search and interview process. “One strategy my founder friends have used is outsourcing their technical interviewing to me to help accurately judge the caliber of candidates that they’re interviewing. I simply ask the candidates to bring a past project they’ve coded and explain it to me. I then ask about their experience, the coding languages they know, their skill level, and a few questions about the code for their presented project. This helps non-technical founders ensure that they are hiring engineers capable of executing the project they are working on.”

Outside of Northwestern organizations and events, the best way to find someone to help build your product is to be very public about your idea and what you’re looking for. Talk to your friends, post on your social media channels, and tell anyone who will listen about your idea and what help you need. The more people who know what you’re looking for, the better your odds of finding it!

Fardeem agrees that warm introductions from personal networks are effective ways to find a technical co-founder. “Engineers tend to know each other so it’s best to make friends with a good engineer and ask them to recommend someone. This might seem like the most difficult but it’s actually the most worthwhile since you already have a level of screening due to the recommendation and the person being recommended will take it seriously if it’s coming from a friend.”

Hopefully, these stories and perspectives have clarified the next steps you should take to begin building your vision. While finding someone else to build your product sounds easier, it often is not, and has many disadvantages. If you do decide to search for a technical co-founder, there are a handful of University resources to find capable student engineers, but you should be sure to have a thoughtful approach, and think of the position as a partnership. Whatever you decide, remember that it’s okay (and very entrepreneurial!) to change your mind and try a different strategy down the road. Good luck! 

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