As a female Perl developer with a decade of experience, 34-year-old Dana Kelemen should be a dream come true to every diversity-starved tech firm out there with too many brogrammers on its hands.
There’s just one hitch. As a new mother looking for a new job earlier this year, Kelemen needed to either find affordable day care or a work-from-home position. Also, her home happens to be in Romania.
Kelemen may have the chops, but can’t be an answer to the tech field’s gender diversity problems precisely because, unlike an unattached recent college grad, it’s not possible for her to pick up and move to Silicon Valley, New York, or other major cities where many tech jobs are located. Conversely, even as startups competing for tech talent often struggle to fill open positions quickly enough, their teams still tend to be made up mostly of men–a situation that’s bad for a company’s image and often for its bottom line as well.
That’s where a new company, called PowerToFly, aims to come in. Led by two veterans of the startup world who are also both mothers, its goal is to bridge the gap between companies seeking more diversity and female tech talent who feel limited in their careers by constraints like their location and family responsibilities.
In July, PowerToFly helped Kelemen get a dream job: working from home as a full-time Perl developer at BuzzFeed, a media company growing so fast it’s hiring an average of one person a week to its tech and product team. BuzzFeed’s CTO Mark Wilkie says Kelemen has been a great addition so far.
“Everybody talks about this problem–that there aren’t enough women in tech. But nobody was doing anything about it,” says PowerToFly co-founder Katharine Zaleski, a new mom who used to be the Washington Post’s executive director of digital news and the Huffington Post’s senior news editor. “We actually have women. The big issue is that if companies want more women, they have to change themselves.”
PowerToFly is essentially a matching service that vets, coaches, and then places female tech applicants who live mostly outside big tech, media, and startup cities, in places as far away as North Carolina and Egypt. It operates on the premise that companies’ attitudes towards remote workers are stuck in the pre-digital age and that changing them could ease gender imbalances in any field, but particularly the glaring ones in tech.
So far, their clients include a small but impressive list, such as media companies like BuzzFeed (CEO Jonah Peretti is an angel investor) and Hearst, and startups like RebelMouse and Skillcrush. They are now trying to sign-on bigger Silicon Valley tech companies, which often say they would hire more women in technical positions, if only they could find them.
But convincing the Googles and Facebooks, which abide by a Silicon Valley mentality that insists innovation and creativity are lost when workers are not physically present, will be a harder sell. Just this week, Google chairman Eric Schmidt dismissed remote work in an interview with MIT Technology Review: “The reason [employees] need to show up at work is because of the water cooler effect. A lot of the conversations are informal; the entity moves forward when people are around. It’s very difficult to do that, even with modern communications technology, when people are remote.”
It’s an ironic attitude, considering these are the companies that made the world smaller for everyone else. Zaleski and co-founder Milena Berry believe there’s got to be more middle ground. Wilkie, at BuzzFeed, believes remote developers can work out well for some positions, with the right work culture and the right person: “They have to be great communicators. They have to be great problem-solvers.”
The founders’ own belief in a remote workforce came from experience. At the Washington Post, Zaleski saw her employer struggle to hire qualified developers because, back then, it insisted on in-office workers-something she believes slowed the company on its quest to build better web and mobile offerings (now the Washington Post is an early PowerToFly client). Meanwhile, Berry had the positive experience of building an entirely remote 20-person tech team during her seven years as CTO of the global activism organization Avaaz.
“It was fun to give a task in the afternoon, and wake up to your task being done,” she says. “We really enabled efficient handovers and really tried to master remote communication. I feel at PowerToFly, we have a lot to teach people about this way of working.”
By late last year, Berry had planned to start the company and asked Zaleski, who had recently given birth to her first child and was frustrated by the difficulty of going back to work in an office while nursing, to join her.
“Women spend 10 years working so hard to build experience, and then you either have got to go back in for 12 hours a day, or you pull out. So why can’t there be something in the middle?” Zaleski, who is 33, says. She believes moms are generally an asset to a company: “You spend a lot of time cajoling [people in their twenties]–taking them out to drinks to get them to do things, working on ego issues. Working mothers, they don’t care about any of that stuff. They get in, they get out.”
The company launched out of a beta period in August and currently has more than 30 women in active contracts. Both Berry and Zaleski work in New York, but their staff of 20 is located all over the world (95% are women, 45% are moms).
To be listed on the platform, Kelemen, in Romania, was interviewed PowerToFly staff and also submitted a sample of code for review. Kelemen’s placement with BuzzFeed started with a two-week trial that could be ended by either party. At the end, she was “hired,” which because she is not in the U.S., meant being hired by PowerToFly and contracted to BuzzFeed.
But will giving software development work to coders in foreign countries–regardless of their gender–just be another way for companies to shave costs? IT outsourcing is already a common phenomenon. Zaleski insists that’s not the case. Promising candidates will receive coaching on their resume, asking for higher salaries, and even their English skills, she says. They work on their terms, not in large centers, she says. Their pay is higher than typical remote workers, though they acknowledge a programmer in Romania might not earn as much as someone in Palo Alto.
For his part, BuzzFeed’s CTO Mark Wilkie appreciates the caliber of PowerToFly applicants and the hiring tools they already provide; he’s already hired several women through the service. It’s helped that about one-third of his 140 employees work remotely already–he says it takes effort, strategy, and communications skills from both the employer and employee to succeed at a remote arrangement. Otherwise, these things tend to fail. Though at 60-40 male/female, BuzzFeed’s tech team gender breakdown is already pretty good, the company hopes Power To Fly can help it improve its diversity further.
Today, Kelemen is working mostly regular hours from her home in Romania and she’s happy with her pay. “I’m learning a lot. I never worked with such a big team,” she says. “Of course, the kind of connection you have when you’re face to face, it’s not here. But I’m fine with that. I think they are fine with that.”