Silicon Valley's New Hiring Strategy

In Silicon Valley, some dare to ask: Why hire a PhD, when a self-taught kid is just as good?

Photo by Toby
Burditt

Adam Passey, 28
Medford, Oregon
Former VP of information and technology at a marketing agency
HIRED BY IGN

"I had one job for 10 years, and a lot of the systems I worked on were proprietary, so I couldn't show them as examples of my work. Getting hired at IGN has been a dream of mine, but I never applied because I always thought it was out of reach. It's humbling now to think that people here see something in me."

Photos by Toby Burditt

On an August afternoon, Adam Passey, 28, steps up to the front of IGN Entertainment's lunchroom in a rumpled cardigan and hipster glasses, and bounces through a presentation on a hub for mobile games that he spent the summer coding. IGN's engineering managers are impressed. Passey added features that other similar hubs don't have. But they're particularly impressed because, by conventional measures, Passey shouldn't even be here.

Silicon Valley companies have notoriously strict hiring standards for engineers. They want grads from the country's top computer-science programs, like Stanford's and MIT's, or people with sparkling résumés and deep experience. Passey, from Medford, Oregon, didn't even graduate from college. "I briefly studied computer science at college, but I wasn't really excited about the actual degree program," he says.

But he's here because IGN's president, Roy Bahat, is part of a small but growing movement of tech leaders who are rethinking what coders they're looking to hire—and for that matter, how the industry approaches coding in general. "Software is thought of as a science," Bahat says, sitting in a conference room painted to look like the underwater city of BioShock games. "But what if it's not a science? What if it's more like a craft? Or even an art? If you wanted to hire somebody who could be a great craftsperson, you wouldn't look for somebody with a PhD in that craft."

That may sound democratic, but it's also a response to a hard-learned business reality: The battle for talent in Silicon Valley has gotten expensive. Monied players like Facebook and Google regularly poach each other's employees by offering big salaries and sweet perks. Smaller startups lure those same developers with promises of greater responsibility, interesting work, and potentially lucrative stock options.

IGN is a division of News Corp. But because Rupert Murdoch isn't flooding the firm with Fox News-style cash—and nor is it well-known enough to have top grads pounding down its doors—the company has to find talent in other ways.

That's why it developed Code Foo.

The program, which ran this summer, brought in people with a core aptitude for programming, then spent six weeks "teaching them something to see if we could get them up to a level where we actually might want to hire them," Bahat says. IGN specifically downplayed the importance of experience and education. "Flipping burgers to scrape together enough cash to buy Portal 2?" read its recruitment ad. "Blow our minds while you're here and we'll hire you."

Sure enough, the 28 people accepted into the program (out of the 104 who applied) were a diverse bunch. One worked in a call center, another at a medical-device company, and a third managed a grocery store. Aged 20 to 30, only half of the group had college degrees in a technical field, and not necessarily in computer science.

Trevor Boone
| Photo by Toby Burditt

Trevor Boone, 26
Flagstaff, Arizona
Stay-at-home dad
NOT HIRED BY IGN

"For the last two years, my wife and I have been saving up so I could take time off to learn to code on my own and eventually move into the tech world. We weren't planning on doing it for another year or so, but after the experience at IGN, we're going to do it now."

Alex Ivlev | Photo
by Toby Burditt

Alex Ivlev, 26
Russia
Just graduated from Wilmington University
HIRED BY IGN

"I sent resumes to every big tech company I knew. But I came from a university no one had ever heard of. The market is tough. If you don't have a degree from Harvard or Yale, you don't have a chance. I spent eight years sacrificing, hoping that one day it would all pay off."

Darren
Matsumoto| Photo by Toby Burditt

Darren Matsumoto, 24
San Jose
Just graduated from the University of California
HIRED BY IGN

"I'd always built desktop software, so building things for IGN was like writing with my left hand. Coming here gave me the opportunity to learn about the tech industry in the Bay Area. Before, I was just looking for jobs in San Diego and Los Angeles. Now I think, Why limit myself?"

Amanda
Garfield | Photo by Toby Burditt

Amanda Garfield, 24
Spanish Fork, Utah
Works in tech support
NOT HIRED BY IGN

"I don't know if IGN realized this, but when you offer someone a job that they have the experience for, one job is about the same as the next. But when you do that for someone who doesn't have that experience, you're giving them a chance at a life that they couldn't otherwise have had."

Code Foo is hardly the only such experiment in the marketplace. In India, local offices from the likes of Microsoft and IBM swallow up the best programmers—so an online office applications company called Zoho identifies promising high-school students whose families can't afford to send them to college, then trains them itself. The program began six years ago, and about a tenth of Zoho's 1,400 employees, and 20% of its new engineers, are graduates of it.

"It's not charity," says Zoho CEO Sridhar Vembu. "It works for everybody. We find great employees, and they make us money."

At IMVU, a California-based firm, cofounder and Lean Startup guru Eric Ries scours online developer forums for potential hires. "We all want to find the next Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs," Ries says, "but [the tech industry] only looks in very specific places. All kinds of people aren't on that radar."

Where some see opportunity in unconventional recruiting, others just see wishful thinking. Sure, Zuckerberg and Jobs were college dropouts, but there's a reason they're in select company: There just aren't many like them.

"I don't think it's as simple as saying lots of people who don't have a lot of schooling or who were never good at schooling will be great programmers," says Rob Mee, CEO of San Francisco's Pivotal Labs, which develops applications for companies like Twitter and Groupon. "It's not that they have to go to university or go to a great program. But a lot of great programmers, even if they are self-taught, are people who end up excelling academically at some level."

Mee does, however, give the less-accredited a shot. He asks all candidates to do a hands-on coding exercise, to assess how well they express their ideas and think on their feet—an effort that can level the competition.

Of course, one could choose to see efforts like IGN's more skeptically: Less-educated workers cost less, don't they? Bahat swats that idea away. He says he'll pay atypical applicants the same salaries of regular entry-level employees. "Talent in the technology industry quickly finds its market," he says. "There is no cheap labor."

Bahat hoped that his Code Foo experiment would produce one or two good hires. To his surprise and delight, the talent pool was so deep that IGN extended offers to eight—including Passey, who presented in the lunchroom.

All eight accepted.

"It's not like if you looked at their résumés, you would have said it's impossible that they would be qualified for the jobs," Bahat says. "But if you only looked at their resumes and said, 'Should we interview this person based on this résumé?', there wouldn't necessarily be a reason to say yes. They're the kind of people we would have overlooked."

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25 Comments

  • Erin Bender

    Excellent article written from multiple perspectives. Very encouraging for someone like myself, a 30 something artist looking to get into software development.  

  • david sammons

    In short, they are looking for people who are adept not at looking at
    the horizon, but looking way beyond it. I think the term that is
    currently being thrown around is 'visionary.'
     
    David
    Found Of
    buy here pay here car lots

  • Liberty427

    In short, they are looking for people who are adept not at looking at the horizon, but looking way beyond it. I think the term that is currently being thrown around is 'visionary.'

  • Christopher Shea

    Okay, so this is a novel approach to identifying undervalued assets for individual contributor roles but it is still a flawed strategy because it relies on the talent to find the opportunity.  This approach only works for commodity level roles that aren't critical to the success of the organization. 

    When seeking a critically important staffer, the only way to insure that the right person is hired is to figure out where the best talent is and pursue it.  It's a very simple concept but very few companies actually hunt the talent they seek.  The information age makes it possible to identify top talent in almost any field quickly.  Targeting the specific talent that is appropriate for a particular opportunity requires a thoughtful effort but it isn't rocket science but It does require a dedicated effort. 

  • David Robins

    The problem with most start-ups writing software today is that the software they write does not have any real value (example the shaker.com which got $15 M for creating a virtual bar!). There is no need for critical thought here and a coder or hacker can do just fine. In a few years this will pass too.
    David Robins
    Binfire.com

  • Trend Guardian

    There is certainly a paradigm with education. It was said that the current system was designed by the standards of the industrial age to train workers, not creative people. So those who dropped out were innovators and so self-motivated by nature that they didn't need anyone to tell them what to do: in short, they were their 'own boss'. This video explains it:
    http://trendguardian.blogspot....

    But is the rest of the population like this? I doubt it, geniuses are hard to find. Even geniuses in Silicon Valley recognize the crisis in the current American education system and are trying to fix it with their companies, ironic right?
    http://trendguardian.blogspot....

  • CJay

    You have to take these types of articles with a grain of salt. The premise is just wrong. You cannot be a founder of a billion dollar company just because you are a drop out and you can't become one because you have a PhD. It is different for everyone and different for unique case scenarios. 

    Take, for example, the difference between hiring practices in Facebook and Google. Google only hires Engineers, Product Managers, Project Managers from Top 5 schools. They will not even consider candidates from others schools. Facebook is much more flexible in their hiring. They will consider you even if you are a drop out.
    Now look at the difference between products by Google and Facebook. Facebook continues to innovate at a faster pace and are able to understand user needs very easily, thus their products sticks with general users. Google, on the other hand, have been struggling for years on products other than their search product. Perfect example is their Google+. They are having a hard time trying to understand what users want, how to deliver product and to sum it up, they just don't get social, period. 

    Now does education have anything to do with it? Yes. Directly and indirectly. When you only hire PhD, rest assured, they are not the brightest bunch in terms of social. But they are definitely great with search. At the same time, on average, "most" PhD holders are in their late 30's. Facebook, on the other hand, because of their flexible hiring process, are able to attract young, social individuals who "get" social much better than Google.

    So my point is, depending on your product, your hiring needs will have to be different. Zynga, IGN or gaming companies in general are not in need PhD holders. Not every Silicon Valley company can use this Camp Foo method. So please don't say that this is Silicon Valley's New Hiring Strategy.

  • Joshua Cason

    But let's not forget that the list of outstanding people with a degree is probably longer. One example relevant to the tech discussion is Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon. Moreover, just because the person is on this list does not mean he or she does not value education. I'm sure that many of these Ivy League and top 50 drop outs got a lot from their time at college and from the preparation they did to get in. Not to mention people like Bill Gates who highly values education having set up the Gates Cambridge scholarship and having funded buildings bearing his name at a number of top colleges. All the big companies, even those started by drop outs, target people with excellent academic backgrounds and will continue to because that's part of what made them great.

  • Vladimir Mikhailov

    "Software is thought of as a science" – it is still
    true and possible way for practice, but it did not materialized, and was turned
    into craft. That is why so many people are engaged in so unnatural and
    repetitive activities, which are called computer programming.

  • Todd Farrell

    A friend of mine who is also a PhD in CS here at MIT went to an interview with Facebook. He was confronted by a 19 year old who had no idea what he was doing with other people. He didn't shake my friend's hand or look at him in the eye. He just told him to go up to the board and start writing code. The kid didn't graduate from college and bragged about it. My friend walked out of the room after answering the question. They guy just had terrible communication skills and could use some growing up. If those are the people we are talking about then I hope something better comes along to refine these kids. Maybe a technical school like in Germany or just get into MIT or Caltech.

     That kid will never get to management or will be capped at a fixed income like a plumber. Coders are not paid above $200,000 unless they are finance coders. Their best bet for this lot is to goto a startup where their soft skills won't drive people away.

    I think that the "self-taught" snobbery is worse now. Lots of people have college degrees in tech, and a minority have become prosperous without degrees -- its like the nouveau riche douche-bags I meet in Silicon Valley and all over California. Like my significant other says about her experience at Cornell, "There is a clear divide between engineers and humanities -- I would never want to work for any of the self-righteous pricks in engineering."

  • Jeff Larsen

    I remember doing presentations at the head of the intellectual table, years back at CommerceOne.  Afterwards, a few asked me what my PhD's where in, I told them I was a high school drop out.  I too have systems, built decades ago, still running smoothly with clients.  But, now clients are all caught up in syntax and nomenclature.  

    Good to see they are reaching out to less traditional coders, wish they where as creative with architects (read senior engineers).

  • Douglas Crets

    If these people didn't go to school, and their predecessors didn't go to school, I have two questions:

    Do hiring managers even really know what to look for in hiring someone, or were the hiring managers in these cases just exceptionally perceptive that most people, with or without training, can be hugely successful if just given the support?

    Why is there this constant infatuation with the young in tech? There are people just as intelligent and action-oriented in their 30s and 40s who have something the young don't have -- experience. 

  • Laurie Greer

    Those doing the hiring need to remember- most A's are managed by
    B's. You don't need a Harvard or Yale grad to get an awesome employee.
    Change how you view. Drops outs Dell, Gates and Zuckerberg's resumes
    might not have been impressive.  The out of the box thinking, hardworking, efficient, entrepreneurship type characteristics that you only get out of the references are hard to show on the resume that gets that 10 second look see.

  • DFReed

    I entered into the area of technology in the mid-80's when have a formal college education wasn't yet "all that" on the mid-east coast of the US.  I was a recent 16 yo high-school grad, with natural appititude for technology and a willingness to learn and explore my options.  I worked turns, weekends, holidays, unpaid OT and took advantage of every opportunity to interact with the more senior members of my team and along site vendor technicians to learn about the engine that drove this wonderful new machine called a personal computer. 

    As a master graduate of the "school of hard knocks" (SOHK) or the "university of life" (UoL), I make it point to interview 1 SOHK/UoL candidate and 1 college grad for every position I seek to fill. Thus far, its been a 60/40 split favoring SOHK/UoL because they were "authentic" people, willing to go the extra mile, to think outside box, and more importantly, prepared to pay their dues without a sense of entitlement.  

    Now 25+ years into my career, I still shake in my shoes when I move from one challenge to another and my resume doesn't include a formal college education. In the current economic climate, with so many senior level techies (20+ years of more of paying their dues) unemployed, companies should start a new affirmative action practice and interview 1 SOHK/UoL candidate and 1 college grad for every position they seek to fill. 

    However, and more unfortunate for all, many graduates of the SOHK/UoL over time become so full of themselves and their professional successes over the years that somehow they begin to think they too can only consider hiring college grads.  What about paying it forward? 

  • ClickTell Consulting

    At ClickTell Consulting we recently questioned the general lack of innovation in university education. Similarly we went on to say:
    "Ironically some of the most successful
    global companies such as Google, Facebook and Microsoft were founded by university
    drop outs."
    You can access the article entitled : " Watch out Oxford & Cambridge: A new disruptive innovation in University Education? " at http://www.goo.gl/fdNQh or just Google the title of the article.

  • David Kaiser, PhD

    First, It's great to see companies identifying talent and then investing in people who may not get the break otherwise. That can only be a good thing.

    Also, I'm amused by the number of people above who are dropouts. Could it be that more schooling makes better managers, but not better leaders (says the guy with a PhD)?

    David Kaiser, PhD
    Executive Coach and CEO
    www.DarkMatterConsulting.com 

  • Bob Jacobson

    PS Sorry, I missed the top row of "greats."  Richard Branson is obviously one of the most eclectic, brilliant, self-educated minds we are fortunate to have among us.

  • Bob Jacobson

    You don't get a PhD to learn a trade.  You earn a PhD when you demonstrate the ability for critical thought.  Critical thought is not in evidence in this article.  Of course, you hire a tradesman with skills to get a job done.  Then it's done, and you hire him or her to do the next job.  Or more likely, you hire someone who's even cheaper on the market with the same skills.  Critical thought has the value that it isn't duplicable.  None of which is to say that one can't think critically -- i.e., with the ability to parse truth from bullshit -- without formal education.  Many people develop such capacities, especially overseas where the educational systems give emphasis to it in early education.  However, if commercial gain is the standard for educational success, as is the case in the USA, then what you get is a very overdeveloped commercial sector and a society going to the birds in every other way.  An out in which we are succeeding grandly.  "We don't need no education!" is actually a pretty stupid slogan.  Everyone who makes it is educated, formally or tacitly.  How far they can go in terms of personal accomplishment -- and how wide, as well as narrow -- is something else again.  Of the eight "greats" you picture, only three strike me as having had broad interests with lasting value for others: Russell Simmons, Walt Disney, and maybe James Cameron.  The rest are of interest mainly within their mono-domains.  Gates' philanthropy is gratifying. 

  • Adrienne Graham

    Andrew, yes, they are and have been snobs. I'm a Recruiter (19 years) and it frustrates me when a hiring manager chooses pedigree over ability. I find myself often fighting for that candidate who may not be an aesthetic fit, but can blow the socks off the hiring manager with their skills. It's great to see that some of these companies are finally getting it. This snobbery also perpetuates the myth that we don't have enough good tech talent in the US. WE DO!!! I see them every day and a lot of them are in my own database. Companies need to take a good long look at themselves and focus on hiring quality over pedigree. We can put more people back to work and stimulate the economy. By choosing a person from a top notch school over someone else, they've directly contributed to this bidding war that some claim exist in Silicon Valley. Those people are not in it for the long term. They mostly enjoy the thrill of being pursued and are always looking for that bigger better position. Come down off that high horse (Silicon Valley) and hire people who are not only talented, but also loyal.

    Just my little ol' 3 cents worth. Everyone enjoy your weekend.