Hiring Mobile Engineers vs Training Engineers On Mobile

We have watched many of our large “web first” portfolio companies struggle to make the change from web first to mobile first. By now, most of them (but not all of them) have made the transition. And it is not an easy transition.

Most of them built up “mobile teams” that are made up of mobile product managers, mobile engineers, and mobile designers. These teams are tasked with designing and building mobile apps to compliment the web apps that made these companies successful. This can and does work, but it is suboptimal for a whole host of reasons.

Some of those reasons are:

1) mobile engineers, designers, and product managers are in short supply and are very expensive. on the engineering side, an iOS or Android specialist could cost as much as 1.5x to 2x what a web specialist costs.

2) the web and mobile apps are not two separate things. they are a continuum of user experience from web to mobile or mobile to web, and back. having two entirely different teams building these two applications can cause all sorts of problems.

3) many things need to be rolled out on web and mobile at the same time. localization is a good example of this. so is a new payments system.

The other approach is to train your product, engineering, and design teams in mobile so that your web specialists can become mobile specialists too. This fits nicely into the notion of a “full stack engineer” who can do it all when necessary.

Several of our “web first” portfolio companies have invested in this model with great results. This is not something that you can do overnight. It takes time. So its not a great solution for a raw startup, but there are examples of very young USV portfolio companies where one or two of the leading engineers on the team picked up iOS and Android development skills quickly and led the mobile development efforts.

The thing of it is that a great engineer can learn any new environment or any new language if you give him or her the time and place to do it. The same is true of a great designer and a great product manager.

Mobile requires new skills and new ways of thinking. Mobile is different. But it also can be learned if you make the right investment in your people and partner with the right training partners.

In a board meeting of one of our most successful “web first” companies last week, we learned that they no longer have a mobile engineering team or a mobile product team. All the engineering and product teams do mobile and web at the same time in the same team. They still have some small teams that work on mobile growth and other specific issues that are unique to mobile. But most of the product, design, and engineering work on mobile happens in the same teams that do the web work. They have fully absorbed mobile into the way they plan, design, and make things. That was a watershed moment for me and led to this post.

This all comes back to the question of hire from outside vs invest in your people. Of course you have to do both if you are growing quickly. But as Jerry Colonna told me many years ago now, the companies that invest in their people are the best companies to work for and to invest in. So when you are thinking about how to do something new, don’t always look outside for new blood. Think about getting your best people to learn some new tricks. It can work and it does work.