How to win the tech talent war

July 17, 2012, 10:03 PM UTC

FORTUNE — Want to hire good engineers? The top talent is going to cost you — it’s not unusual right now for recruiters to offer senior engineers a base salary of $210,000 to $240,000, says Andreessen Horowitz’s Technical Talent Partner Shannon Callahan. And that’s before the perks.

Callahan joined Facebook’s (FB) Vice President of People Lori Goler and Zynga (ZNGA) Chief People Officer Colleen McCreary to talk with Fortune Editor-at-large Pattie Sellers about how to win the ever-escalating talent war at Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech Conference in Aspen, Co.

To add a little contrast, they were joined by famed sports agent Casey Wasserman, who pointed out that tech recruiting is a lot like recruiting athletes. “You find the top five percent and you know who they are. You sometimes find them in high school even.” From there, it’s about identifying who will fits well within the culture of a company, and convincing them it’s a good move.

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The economics of this proposition have become eye-popping in recent years, according to the panelists. Starting engineers may make $130,000 before bonus. And, as Andreessen Horowitz partner Jeff Jordan pointed out from the audience, that’s before companies begin lobbing perks at the strongest candidates. “There are engineers making multiple millions of dollars a year,” said Jordan, referencing sign-on bonuses and, in some cases, hiring agents authorized to double the size of a competitor’s offer.

Partly, that’s because talented engineers are getting so many more offers. “It used to be for experienced candidates, it was a one-to-one conversation,” said Zynga’s McCreary. “Now it’s like a groundhog popping their head out of the sand.” Engineers are balancing five and six offers.

So how can startups compete? Everybody agreed that even with so many offers, engineers are not always entirely motivated by money. Said Facebook’s Goler, “What’s most important to people at Facebook is the amount of impact they can have — that’s personal impact and also being part of something that is bigger than themselves and working with people at Facebook.”

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Startups can also win top talent by focusing on quality-of-life issues. And the companies that are best able to land the most gifted coders are those with interesting challenges to offer them. Says McCreary: “There are certain people who are just motivated by money and that’s the easier thing. But there’s no amount of money that can keep someone who is bored.”

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