Software is at the core of today's most successful companies. In the race to the top, attracting and retaining the best developers is the magic ingredient.

As a result, companies are keen to discover the secrets behind hiring and retaining high-performing developers.

© GoCardless
© GoCardless

We spoke to GoCardless, winner of the techies 'Best Place for Developers to Work' 2016 award, to learn what sets them apart. The startup, which provides direct debit services, was launched in 2011 and has grown to a team of 100, including 33 developers.

It's a complex mix but careful hiring, sensitive management, flexible hours and talented, empathetic people seem to be the crucial ingredients.

GoCardless offers the work environment you'd expect from a growing tech startup: an attractive office with a communal kitchen, video games, pool table, comfy sofas and meeting booths.

Developers get a £1,500 conference budget and five extra days off a year to attend them, top of the range kit both at work and at home, private healthcare, pension scheme, subsidised gyms, generous parental leave, 27 days holiday and one day of 'investment time' a week to work on their own projects.

However, when you ask people why they like working at GoCardless, the perks are not the first thing they mention. It's their co-workers.

The people

There is a palpable sense when you visit the office that GoCardless employs people who are bright, enthusiastic and, most importantly, genuinely enjoy working with each other.

"The calibre of people working here is awesome," says Jess Summerfield, who joined in 2014 and leads HR.

"It's the people that make it. They are excited and passionate. They aren't here specifically for direct debits of course, but they are keen to solve problems," she adds.

It is a view echoed by principal engineer Norberto Lopes, plus software engineers Tim Rogers and Peter Hamilton. “The people are amazing. They are super smart,” Hamilton says.

"When I was interviewed, I felt like there was a human being on the end of the phone. Some startups don't make you feel that way. I went for coffee with [the founder] Hiroki and Greg. They were so open I thought it would be a good fit," says Lopes.

Rogers joined as the fifth employee in 2012, left to do a degree at LSE but was welcomed back in 2014. His degree was in government; his skills as a developer are partly self-taught and partly from training.

Likewise, Hamilton joined as an intern, left to do a master’s degree then came back three years ago. “I did a few internships and freelance jobs, but GoCardless was the nicest,” he says.

"This is an example of why this is such a good place to work. They really invest in their employees, and this continues today," Rogers says.

©GoCardless office in Angel (also below)

The hiring process

Given the calibre of its people, it is not surprising to learn GoCardless puts an awful lot of work into recruitment. All of its salaries are at or above market rates, according to Summerfield.

Developer jobs are advertised on sites like Hacker News and the jobs page. The company has also found success both from its developers speaking at events, she says.

The qualities GoCardless seeks are curiosity, passion, the ability to collaborate and enthusiasm, according to Hamilton. “We aren’t expecting people to love direct debit, but they need to love something. It’s so much better when you work with learning, self-driven people who love what they do,” he says.

Lopes has an initial chat with a developer candidate to check suitability and explain the role. If successful, they have face-to-face interviews with people both within the team that's hiring and the different teams across GoCardless.

"We are trying to figure out if they are empathetic and their culture fit, that is all embedded into the interview process," Lopes says.

There is a coding challenge to build a crawler for the site, then one and a half hours of pair programming with an engineer.

"All of the engineers are involved in hiring. We all review applications, and design the interviews and coding tests. We review the CVs as a team. It's an effort but it's worth it. We get better people for it," Rogers explains.

"No one single person has 'oversight' over this process. At the end of the session we all make a decision and we all voice an opinion on a candidate. We allow vetoing and we follow instincts," Lopes adds.

GoCardless constantly seeks to improve its recruitment practices according to Hamilton. “We want to ensure an awesome candidate experience. We are putting a lot more effort behind diversity and are about to review hiring,” he adds.

The work

When a developer joins GoCardless, they go through an intensive four week training plan. This includes company history, meeting people across departments, the products, the codebase and the technology stack.

Lopes, the principal engineer, has a flexible, light-touch approach to managing the tech team.

“The best case is that they are not managed at all, just helped to grow into what they want to be. Of course, it depends who they are so we also do coaching and weekly one-on-ones with direct reports. It’s less a status report - more discussing how I can help,” he says.  

GoCardless is very flexible about when and where its employees work. They can work from home virtually whenever they want. “We don’t really have set hours. We don’t care about bums on seats. It’s about getting the work done. Some come in from 11am to 8pm if they want, I prefer working a traditional day but others don’t,” says Rogers.

“Our main focus is results and we value empathy highly. We have a culture of collaboration. Your hours are whatever works for you,” Hamilton says. “Trust is a really important thing here, it glues us all together,” he adds.

The advantage GoCardless has over larger firms is that “your impact is clearer here. You can make big changes, solve problems and introduce new processes,” Lopes says.

There are weekly team meetings and an 'all hands' meeting every month, according to Summerfield.

“We have strong values of integrity and transparency here, and there is an emphasis on enjoying work,” she adds.

The play

Lopes admits that big companies can offer some things GoCardless can’t, like on-site gyms or creches. What GoCardless has, however, is a great culture and a strong ‘vision’, he says.  

The different teams mix together well and regularly go for drinks on Fridays. They have day breaks or even mini work vacations (they had a half week retreat in Seven Sisters in Dover a while ago), and there are all sorts of regular activities like BBQs, cocktail making, chocolate tastings, quarterly dinners, laser quest and so on, according to the interviewees.

Hamilton says: “We don’t actually lavish people with perks, but it is the stuff that matters. We have flexible hours, you can always take time off, you can work from home and people are always happy to help. They even help staff with finding accommodation. There is a very supportive culture.”

"The biggest perk here is the work environment. You're constantly solving problems, learning and growing," says Rogers.