Photo: Brenda Gottsabend

You’ve heard the stories of the tight labor market, and read about some of the unusual gimmicks (and even cash bounties) companies have rolled out to attract top engineers and developers. Heck, it’s so tough to find good engineers these days that President Barack Obama even cited the labor crunch in science and technology during his State of the Union Address last week.

With that in mind, I cruised over to Seattle’s Get a Real Job Fair Monday night for a dose of reality on what it’s really like on the front lines of the talent wars. With glasses of wine clanking (the event was held at Wine World), about a dozen startup companies pitched their wares to a room full of geeks.

Some of the entrepreneurs touted the ability to work on cutting-edge technical problems, while others talked about culture and fun work environments. Many noted the rewards of working at a startup, including Redfin CEO Glenn Kelman whose opening talk very much hit on that theme. (We’ll have more on his remarks in a follow-up post).

I spent a good portion of the evening interviewing many of the presenters, asking them the same two questions: “What’s the biggest challenge you face right now in hiring?” and “What’s the craziest thing you’ve done to recruit technical talent?”

Symform co-founder Bassam Tabarra

No one really had any bizarre, over-the-top recruiting stories to share, so here are the answers to my first question on the challenges they face in recruiting:

“We are an infrastructure company, and we are working on storage and distributed algorithms. Finding folks that can get excited about this problem outside of the Amazons and the Microsofts and the others. It is recruiting out of a very small talent pool. That’s the biggest challenge. You have to find the right profile. You have to find someone who is excited about revolutionizing online storage … but also at the same time someone who is willing to join a startup and have the entrepreneurial spirit to take a bet on the company. That combination is hard to find.” –Bassam Tabarra, co-founder and CTO at Symform.

“The most difficult thing is obviously just finding qualified candidates. We have five open positions right now that we are just looking to hire immediately, and we can’t hire them quick enough. That’s the biggest challenge…. Good talent is in high demand.” –Damon Cortesi, co-founder and CTO at Simply Measured.

Kate Leroux

“Our greatest challenge is actually for a position we are not advertising tonight, which is a CEO position. It is difficult to hire your own boss and we are taking it really slow, and we really need to make sure it is a good fit. That is quite a challenge…. Developers are hard (to find), but we are in a good community for them, so we just need to keep talking to people.”” –Kate Leroux, operations manager at Urbanspoon.

“It is just that we have a very high bar for what we are hiring for. We also have some real specific skill sets, especially in analytics and big data and understanding the scale of what real-time bidding is.” –David Snelling, vice president of technology at AdReady.

Leo Shklovskii of EnergySavvy

“It is a really tough market out there, and there are a ton of companies that are looking for people. Everything from startups to big companies, everyone wants to find engineers, and wants to find developers. So, it is a challenge for us, as it is for everyone. It takes a certain amount of craziness to come work for a startup, right? You can go to Microsoft, you can go to Google. But it is a very different experience coming to a place that is as small as EnergySavvy, so the people who are interested in that are going to be interested in startups that are similar-sized.” –Leo Shklovskii, co-founder and CTO of EnergySavvy.

“The challenge for talent really revolves around all of the gimmicks that everyone else is playing, so we are trying to be this down-to-Earth, fun place to work. We are really about family. We want to find people that fit the culture, who are willing to have fun and willing to work hard and are smart and interested in what we are doing. I think a lot of people get swayed away by gimmicks and options, and thinking: ‘Oh, it is going to be great to work here’ and not understanding the full scope of the environment they are looking at. We are hiring in job categories that are coveted, regardless of where you are in the U.S., let alone Seattle. And there’s not a lot of people there.” –Jesse Proudman, founder of Blue Box Group.

David Naffziger of BrandVerity

“The biggest challenge for us is finding … senior developers who are willing to make the leap and contribute to a startup. Finding the person who is willing to take that risk is hard…. The Googles and Zyngas and Facebooks of the world are doing a good job of making compelling pitches to senior developers. You can offer compensation equivalent, but you can’t really offer the benefits and the unknown potential that comes with that. ” –Dave Naffziger, founder and CEO of BrandVerity.

“The hardest thing is finding people who are a home run, who are really, really smart, really great communicators and people who are a good culture fit and have the right values. Those are the three things I always look for. And, it is so often that we get one or two of the three, and it is really hard to get three of the three. And we just aren’t willing to compromise on that.”–Sasha Aickin, CTO of Redfin.

[Editor’s note: GeekWire served as a media partner of the Get a Real Job Fair, and Blue Box Group is a GeekWire partner].

Comments

  • Anonymous

    This article is really missing the boat on several critical aspects of hiring great talent at startups:
    1. Compensation: Startups have to budget way more money for Software Engineering salaries; Google & Amazon are killing startups on this point. Also, VCs need to allow for a much bigger pool of options, say 2x what was usual in the last decade.
    2. Why no questions answered by the talent?
    3. The dirty little problem: Great Developers do not want to waste their time being lead by poor or middle-of-the-road leaders. Anyone can give a good quote, but can they inspire a team to do far better than the members think they are? Are they ready to step up and handle an under-performing employee? These traits are rare, and show great leadership. 

    *Shouldn’t you interview the staff’s of the folks you interviewed for this article and find out how good they are?

    • johnhcook

      I focused this piece on those who were doing the hiring, but I’d be game for doing another story on the perspectives of developers. That said, an environment like last night’s job fair is often difficult to interview the “talent” in part because many of them have existing jobs and don’t want to go on the record talking about how they are looking for new work. Anyway, that’s why avoided that angle in this piece, but there are other ways to get at it. 

      We’ll continue to cover the “talent war” story, so I appreciate the insights and feedback. Thanks for the comments.

  • http://moodpanda.com Ross Larter

    Maybe try looking outside your own back yard, at http://moodpanda.com I work with people all across the world, its much more important to find people that believe in your vision and product rather having them sitting at a desk in your office, think about it, a UK developer has done 8 hours work before a west coast USA Dev wakes up, if you have a UK Dev working in a 2 person team with a USA Dev you get 15 Hours of coding a day (with a 1 hour overlap for skype etc), the internet has made the world small and can get your product to market quicker.

    Tip: Make sure you use senior developers that can take ownership of code if you want to do this.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mitch-Stokely/1403042627 Mitch Stokely

    Great article. But the reason there are so few talented techies left is most left after 2003 because of all the abuses and offshoring and negative press surrounding the industry created by bad management in IT. Businesses thought that IT was about cost savings, not innovation, so offshored many of our jobs. Now thats changing. Im happy for the next generation of techies….they should be paid top dollar, treated with respect and given the creative freedom they need to do their work. Google got this right! But the key is better IT managers who understand the Web. So few do. I say if you want a good talent pool be prepared to have management that understands the online world and understands how to measure tech talent and ROI. So few do…..until the old guarde IT management is replaced in many corporate environments, fewer people will want to work for them and choose to start their own startups or consult. You see that all the time….

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mitch-Stokely/1403042627 Mitch Stokely

    Great article. But the reason there are so few talented techies left is most left after 2003 because of all the abuses and offshoring and negative press surrounding the industry created by bad management in IT. Businesses thought that IT was about cost savings, not innovation, so offshored many of our jobs. Now thats changing. Im happy for the next generation of techies….they should be paid top dollar, treated with respect and given the creative freedom they need to do their work. Google got this right! But the key is better IT managers who understand the Web. So few do. I say if you want a good talent pool be prepared to have management that understands the online world and understands how to measure tech talent and ROI. So few do…..until the old guarde IT management is replaced in many corporate environments, fewer people will want to work for them and choose to start their own startups or consult. You see that all the time….

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_23NGM3WSPCQUYH2EULLQGFKCCI Andrej

    The Great Worker Shortage Lie is Alive and Well:

    http://www.economicpopulist.org/content/great-worker-shortage-lie-alive-and-well

    > Heck, it’s so tough to find good engineers these days that President Barack Obama even cited the labor crunch in science and technology during his State of the Union Address last week.

    Obama has always been very economical with the truth.

  • http://twitter.com/wtruffle Whitetruffle

    The talent war is definitely raging. It can be hard for startups to attract the talent they need to execute their visions – but I think some of that has to do with startups needing to do a better job of selling engineers on that vision. We’ve found that once a startup learns how to pitch to more than just investors, they have a much easier time attracting developers.

  • chris

    Well I’m your guy, What really suck’s is. I’m gifted and you want proof on paper that I can’t meet because of me being on a 4th or 5th grade reading level. Other than that I’m more hand’s on than book smart. I can’t explain into English how I know what I’m doing. I just understand it and can preform.steve job’s albert einstein they did not have that high of an eduction they were just smart our world today does not support these guy’s. I am one of them.

  • Taylor Schwarzchild

    I think this article would compliment another story on how the shortage of tech talent is because none of these companies are willing to hire young developers with no experience. It’ssimplemath, no companies willing to give experience to developers equals no experienced developers bring produced for them to hire. To get experience you need experience. Even with my 2 years of side projects to show to management that is of industry quality and follows best practices, I still can’t find a job because no one thinks I have enough experience. It is so hard to find work in the started that I have resorted to leaving the country for a job that pays better than what you find here that will actually take the time to invest in their young developers. Enjoy that catch 22: you need experience to get experience. It makes it difficult to feel bad for you guys.

    • dr44

      Nor are they willing to hire engineers over 50.
      There are lots of older, experienced, qualified unemployed engineers out there who could do a bang-up job for these startups if given a chance. But the startup hiring managers have preemptively written them off because they’re “dinosaurs”, and because they don’t have the *exact* skillset they’re looking for.
      The startups whining about talent shortages have, in the main, gotten themselves into this quandary. I have a hard time feeling any sympathy, quite frankly.

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