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  • 10.20.11

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?

Silicon Valley’s New Hiring Strategy
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.

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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.

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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

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“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.

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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.”

About the author

E.B. Boyd (@ebboyd) has holed up in conference rooms with pioneers in Silicon Valley and hunkered down in bunkers with soldiers in Afghanistan.

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