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.
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, 26
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."
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, 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."
A version of this article appeared in the November 2011 issue of Fast Company magazine.