How We Are Making DevOps Hiring Easier For Companies And Fun For Candidates

Published: March 29th, 2023
Maksym Lushpenko
Founder, Brokee
from Ivano-Frankivsk, Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast, Ukraine
started June 2021
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Hi, my name is Maksym Lushpenko. I’ve worked as a DevOps engineer for almost ten years and decided to build Brokee, a product that makes hiring DevOps and Cloud engineers easier for companies and fun for candidates.

Brokee offers live technical tests with broken IT infrastructure that hiring candidates have to fix to prove their theoretical and practical skills in one go. Companies of all sizes can use Brokee, but the biggest time and cost savings are for IT companies with big candidate pools that must effectively filter out the best candidates. For smaller companies, the main value proposition is reduced risk of hiring the wrong candidate as it can significantly affect their budgets.

Our first paying client was my former employer EclecticIQ where two teams started using Brokee for the hiring process, you can check out a full case study here. To date, we’ve had four paid trials generating $5.5k in revenues - a humble beginning, but at least we know customers are ready to pay for our product.

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What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

The immediate need to work on Brokee came from work stress. Several engineers left our DevOps team, and we had too much work on our hands and needed to interview quite a few candidates in parallel. I was frustrated each time we had to do these calls while we had some critical customer case to work on, and even more frustrated when candidates weren’t good, and it felt like a waste of precious time.

Our hiring process back then was to have a 30 min call with a candidate to go over basic questions about the technologies we used in our team: Linux, Docker, AWS, and Kubernetes. And the second stage was a team call with open-ended questions like: “How would you design some system to make it secure and reliable?”. While you can’t do too much with open-ended questions in terms of automation, you can check technical skills for specific systems in an automated way.

At some point, our team decided to send a programming test to candidates, and I felt like: “This is not right, we barely do any coding in our day-to-day work as DevOps/Cloud engineers.” Also, reviewing those tests was taking extra time from our team instead of speeding up the process. So, I wanted a solution where the candidate doesn’t need to set up any systems, the team doesn’t have to spend extra time for skills evaluation, and the whole evaluation is meaningful and very close to day-to-day work.

I built the first prototype and asked fellow engineers from past companies to provide feedback before presenting the solution to our team. The “aha” moment was purely based on feedback like: “It was hard; I had to deal with these problems at my work; it reminded me Kubernetes exam.” So, that’s when I thought we should try it for hiring, even the most basic version.

Take us through the process of building the first version of your product.

I built the first version of Brokee over the weekend. I was thinking about a typical business requirement: we have a new product or a new version of the product and need to make it available to the customers. Assuming all the development work is done, the fun and trouble often begin when teams try to deploy the application to the production environment, making it available to end users.

So, I designed a scenario of a failed application deployment: a candidate has access to a Kubernetes cluster (IT infrastructure with some smart servers and application management). Some application is running on the cluster and should be available to end users, but it’s not working. The candidate has to figure out what went wrong and fix multiple problems to bring the application back to life.

I didn’t build any website or anything like that for the first prototype. I only launched a Kubernetes cluster and created a Helm chart (pre-packaged application) to create multiple test environments for the initial feedback. So, in the very first days, I’d manually create such test environments and credentials for each of my friends to try the test and then manually check their solutions and gather feedback.

After that, I automated the most common manual tasks, like creating a 1-click test creation, automating test evaluation, using a google form to gather feedback instead of emails, and whatever task was taking too much time from me as more users got onboarded.

Startup costs were minimal - just paying for a few servers on Google cloud.

Describe the process of launching the business.

So, I didn’t do any specific launch event (my background is purely technical). After the first hire, I asked the company to pay for the product, but their answer was: “we hired a person already, we don’t need your service anymore…”. Half a year later, another team member left the company, and the need was there again.

By then, I had an initial version of the website, so the business looked more legit, and we made the first deal: 40 euros per test, paying every three months. Kind of strange terms, but I was happy to get the first paying customer.

One of the early versions of the website

Initially, the costs were just for servers. Later, I started paying for a Slack license as test results were coming to Slack, and we needed a way to communicate with external slack channels. And a bit later, we also started paying for google suite products to have “official” email addresses and be eligible for Google credits - that was the reason to move away from my email to my business email. Generally, I am trying to keep all the costs to a minimum until there is some need to spend money.

In terms of lessons, not so long ago, I discovered another similar product launched on Reddit without any registration in place - completely free access. Even though the guy that launched it is losing money on infrastructure every month, he got some initial user base and daily active users.

I know it’s obvious to whoever reads this, but free access can greatly increase the user base. I went with a completely closed platform, onboarding users one by one, and he went with a completely open platform. I think the right approach combines those two: give something for free and protect more advanced features (or skill testing scenarios in our case).

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

As we are very early, I’ll just try to share very early-stage stories, not so much about growth.

We got one customer through competitor research - I was trying out a hiring product and provided feedback that the product was not good for DevOps roles. The CEO completely agreed and was looking for something better, so they became our customers.

Another customer tried our product and returned to us a year later - just to give aspiring founders an idea that the sales cycle in a B2B product can be super long. And it is very different from just finding people that love your product.

The person that pays the bill is likely very different from the one that uses it, so you need to find arguments for all people involved in the sales process why they should buy your product. I’ve got recommendations to find channel partners instead of prospecting one by one, but we haven’t succeeded yet in finding such a partner.

Another thing from the early stages - if you create a new business email, there is a decent chance most of your emails will end up in spam. Apart from the technical setup, you’ll need to warm up your email, I’ve used a tool called Gmass, but there are others.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

We are considering a pivot right now. We had a few paying customers last year, but sales are not going great with current market trends. We are keeping our costs low and building the product.

In the short term, we are going into shadow mode and working on some reporting features and new platform architecture. Then we’ll decide to try re-launching the same product or pivoting to a marketplace model where we can build a database of pre-vetted DevOps candidates and do matching with companies that are looking for such candidates. As I am the only full-time person working on this, I am trying to keep my options open and not stress too much about the current market conditions.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

Even if you fail, you’ll learn so much; you may just better discover yourself while trying to build a startup.

I learned that many startups started with a good amount of money (>100k) from their savings, friends, family, etc. Some of them already have a big network of connections, so they can get a jump start on whatever business idea they want to validate. It took me more than six months to find the first co-founder who’d be willing to use their free time to work on the idea without funding. Some ex-colleagues seemed enthusiastic, but no one wanted to put in any real effort. Eventually, one of my colleagues at EclecticIQ, Amr Farid, started helping with the code and we made it work. And maybe another six months later, I talked to one girl I barely knew at a company event, and she was also curious about working on a startup. Her name is Yuliia Nesteruk and we are now co-founders. My lesson with co-founders is those are people I least expected to become co-founders with and you just need to share your story whenever you get a chance and an opportunity will present itself. To sum up, I’d almost say it’s your “fair disadvantage” if you are just starting on your own without an existing team and don’t have the money to hire team members.

In terms of mistakes, it’s probably super typical, but in the spirit of startups, I was trying to iterate fast and deliver small improvements to make customers happy. Because of that, I often tried not to over-engineer anything and looked for technical shortcuts. As a result, I’ve done several migration projects already, even though, the project is still in its early days. So, a few times, I wished I’d spend more time on design versus doing something quickly.

As for external forces - our product is designed for hiring, and there are layoffs all over the industry. From a sales perspective, it seems bad (who’d buy a hiring tool when no one hires?), but at the same time, there is a big influx of free candidates on the market that will need to go through the selection process again (for companies that do hire in 2023), so we’ll see what the future brings.

What platform/tools do you use for your business? better than LinkedIn sales navigator for customer prospecting and cold outreach, as it seems to be more tailored for startups (you can create customer personas and apply filters based on that), cheaper, and you can get contact details of people (many CxO people will just ignore LinkedIn messages), and create email sequences. We are still exploring possibilities.

Notion: We’ve tried using Slack initially for everything, then later a combination of google docs/sheets plus Jira for task management, but now we have moved everything to Notion as the interface is so much simple and more intuitive. They have a $1000 deal for startups, so it should be enough to get you going, and later on, hopefully, you’ll have enough income not to care about these costs.

Related to the Notion deal, you can get many startup deals on F6S. Our mentor Yaroslav Yaroslavskiy recommended it, and I am very happy with it so far, other platforms charge you money for the same deals you can get for free on F6S.

Auth0: user management and authentication. It’s great to get started, but we also have some regrets as, with time, we had to save different data related to users, and Auth0 is not designed for that. So, now we have to synchronize the Auth0 user database with our internal database, and it is not very fun technically.

SendGrid: our email provider is integrated with Auth0. I chose it because you can start for free with sane daily limits.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

I am a little unorthodox here because I haven’t read many business books and am still not a big fan of podcasts. I can recommend Startup School from YC because the lectures are super interesting and packed with actionable advice.

Also, I found Founders Network, which I like a lot because you can ask any type of question and get answers from other experienced entrepreneurs. They also have pitching practice sessions with real investors. A similar network is GoGlobalWorld, and there are probably others, but talking from my personal experience.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

I know many founders are struggling with finding a technical co-founder, but my case is the opposite. So, if you are a technical founder like myself, think twice if you are ready to expand your horizons and learn sales, customer development, marketing, team building, and fundraising, as building the product and doing technical work will likely be the least of your problems.

Another non-obvious piece of advice I often hear is to register the company immediately. I am still working as a sole proprietor, and if I’d listened to this advice two-three years ago, I’d lose quite a bit of money for no reason. My current plan is not to register a corporation until we find a product-market fit and our sales start growing fast, or we get funding and need to do it for legal reasons.

One fellow co-founder told me a phrase: “First-time founders think about the product, and second-time founders think about the market”. I am still learning the business side of things, but after quite some interviews with customers and potential investors, I am starting to understand this phrase better: it can be super hard to figure out your target market and sales process, even if your product is great.

In the end, please don’t let anyone stop you and try it out. Even if you fail, you’ll learn so much. You may just better discover yourself while trying to build a startup.

Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?

We are looking for a business co-founder. If you have a big network, HR or EdTech expertise, especially technical skills evaluation, and development, not afraid to get your hands dirty with prospecting and business development, please drop me an email.

Where can we go to learn more?

If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!