Who to hire first: A senior or junior?

October 21, 2021

I’ve worked with a number of early-stage startups, and one question that constantly comes up when making a first hire for a new role is whether to hire seniors or juniors (or some other level of seniority).

A common trope is “Always hire a senior first, who can mentor later hires with less senority.”

This isn’t bad advice, but it is a bit myopic. It’s not always appropriate to hire a senior first. I’ve seen a several successes with an intern hired first. So what gives?

My slightly nuanced advice, then, is:

For a first hire, select a candidate with seniority in line with the role’s ability to destroy your business.

Now let me elaborate a bit.

Suppose you’re selling flowers at a downtown store front. Your first florist hire should probably be very experienced. Selling flower arrangements made of broken flowers is a sure way to destroy your reputation and in trun your business. But maybe you hire someone with very little experience (like your teenaged nephew) to set up your web site and email. After all, if your web site goes down, few people will notice. Its only purpose is to direct people to your physical address and phone number, and provide a link that your business can plug into Google Maps.

Now suppose you’re building Uber for Flower deliveries. Do you need to hire an expert florist? Probably not. The floral arrangements are made by others, you’re just in the business of delivering them. But you do need an expert managing your web site and mobile app, since that is the lifeblood of your business. Could your teenaged nephew get you started? Perhaps. But if the web site goes down, or can’t handle the load, your business will be in jeopardy. So this is where you’ll hire a seasoned expert.

Maybe you still want to hire your IT-minded nephew, but as a second (or eighth) hire, who will be working under the guidance of your first-hired expert.

I’ll assume that if you’re reading this, your business closely aligns with IT. Your business is likely expressly an IT business, or IT is a huge enabler for your business. This probably means that your first technical hires should be experts.

First mobile developer? Get an expert. A crashing app or security holes could ruin you.

First test automation engineer? Get an expert. A bad test automation platform could ruin quality, and slow down your release caedence, costing tons of money.

First operations engineer? Get an expert. An unstable operational platform could send all your clients to the competition.

Where can you go with juniors, or even interns?

Social media marketing? Junior is probably fine (unless you’re a marketing agency, for example). Posting to Twitter on a sub-optimal day of the week won’t cost you any customers.

Data science/analytics? Depending on your exact market, a junior might be fine here. Will you be making data-driven decisions that can ruin the company if the data takes longer to analyze?

Office decorator? Anyone with a creative urge is probably good enough, unless your key clients are sophisticated aesthetes, and you’re schmoozing them in your office.


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