Winning with Code2040

How the hiring crunch and diversity issues in tech are related, and how we can begin to overcome them.

Silicon Valley and Internet startups are all the rage these days, but not long ago this was not the case. The .com bubble’s burst, following the hype and hysteria of the boom in the late 90's, left most people believing that the Internet was a fad rather than the future of business. Not many people were considering the idea of working in tech as the smart career move. CS programs dwindled as students chased more traditional professions like being a doctor, lawyer, or banker.

If you were in the internet scene during these years (like I was) you were likely someone who was doing it for the love of the game, not because you expected to get rich off of it. You were probably someone who dropped out of high school or college, or if you did go to college you probably didn't have a CS degree. The scene was a lot more like the hobbyist computer scene of the late 70s and early 80s than anything that exists today. Just a bunch of nerds playing with technology because it was fun, sharing their knowledge with one another, and figuring out how to do things for themselves.

By the time things started to turn around these hobbyist geeks became the incredibly valuable backbone of the reborn tech scene. With few CS grads to be found, companies turned to “code cowboys” who had a true love for technology, a playful and collaborative attitude towards it, and a big picture vision of the products they were creating stemming from their past creating self-directed projects end-to-end for their own amusement.

And then, something crazy happened, these cowboys helped create some amazing products which were a big success.

How this turned into a big problem

Once billion dollar companies started popping up a gold rush mentality set in, and kids going to school started flocking to CS with the hopes of moving to San Francisco to get in on the action. This brought a load of new people, many of whom had a very different set of motivations and expectations, into the job market. As startups began hiring teams of these classically trained computer scientists the VCs noticed a trend and mis-identified it. What they saw was that some teams that had hired some of this new junior talent were underperforming. So, they began advising their founders to only hire top-tier senior talent.

What they didn't realize was that senior and junior was beside the point. Certainly you need a high level of expertise on your team, but this doesn't mean that there’s no room for junior talent. At the end of the day we're not launching people into space, there’s a lot of work that doesn't require your most expert talent to accomplish. So, why not reduce your cost basis on these tasks?

The point, it turns out, lies not in the talent’s experience as much as it does in their perspective, passion, and motivation. It turns out that a developer who is in tech because they love it is much better at helping shape a product than someone whose sole motivation is a fat paycheck. These are the types of people with the potential to become top tier talent, all you have to do is give them the opportunity to do so.

This hiring perspective had two negative effects.

First, the talent pool was unnecessarily constricted even further. Despite the fact that droves of new talent has entered the market, companies still can't find enough “qualified” candidates, leading to a culture of poaching top talent and offering ridiculous perks and higher salaries.

Second, the talent pool diversity also suffered because most of the O.G. talent that had been part of the “cowboy” class tended to be white guys who grew up geeking out on their computer in the suburbs. So, as companies moved toward only hiring proven senior talent they also began excluding a large number of women and minorities who were now entering the market. (I'm not claiming that no one has racial or gender bias in the tech scene, I'm certain there are many who do. I'm simply noting that I believe the addition of this “hire only proven talent” edict made a national problem of hiring equality even worse in the tech scene.)

How do we correct this?

You might think you're merely rewarding success by hiring in this fashion and believe in your heart that this is a meritocracy, but I'd counter that for a meritocracy to exist you also have to allow those who haven't had the chance to prove themselves to do so as well.

Instead, we need to shift our hiring criteria. While I agree that early stage startups must capture the most expert talent they can find, I also believe at a certain point this narrow philosophy begins to handcuff their ability to scale their team as quickly as they need to as well as costing them more money than they need to be spending to do so.

At a certain point your nets should be widened to include people who have the talent, drive, and passion to become A-listers— even if they don't yet have a proven track record. You should be looking for people who love making things in their own time, who can tell you what their favorite products are and why (and light up while doing so), and are always learning. These are people who are doing this because they truly love it and it will show in their work.

Show me someone who’s talented, loves web and mobile products, has a good attitude, and is hungry for the opportunity to work for you and I'll show you someone who will be working on your product at 3am on a Saturday. (Just ask the people who gave me my first big break in the SF startup scene.) Conversely, show me someone who's experienced, fat (metaphorically, not physically), and entitled and I'll show you someone who will moan about the quality of your lunch catering and check out at 5pm every day without giving it a second thought.

“To teach is to learn twice.”

You might be saying, “My team doesn't have the time to train someone,” but allow me to explain how wrong you are about this…

Your team is not a static entity. As it grows you'll find that you need more leadership as well as more role-players. I believe the key to doing this well is to look at all your hires not solely for who they are today, but where they'll fit in your company in a year, two years, and beyond. Additionally, if you're not looking at your team this way you'll find that you begin to lose your senior talent to other companies as they outgrow their role in yours.

Instead, you should be hiring senior talent that you expect to grow into leadership, while hiring junior talent that you expect to grow into the roles left vacant by the senior team’s upward growth. By assigning your most prized senior team members someone more junior to mentor, help, and teach you're also providing them with the chance to understand their craft better while giving them the opportunity to learn how to lead on the job.

You'll find that your senior people who have the capacity to lead will become more motivated, more enthusiastic, and more engaged as you introduce them to this new challenge. The enthusiasm of their young co-workers will rub off on them and their inner passion will be re-ignited by this experience. You'll develop a pool of people you know to be good leaders to promote when you need them and you'll have talent they've infused with their knowledge and perspective to seamlessly take their place in the trenches.

Our Code2040 Experience

The largest tech companies (Google, Facebook, etc) understand this to a degree. However, when large tech companies go after college grads to hire they focus on talent from schools like Stanford or MIT. Once again they're unnecessarily limiting their options. Do you want a college grad that expects the largest companies in the world to fawn over them or do you want to find one that has something to prove?

In our search for talented, passionate, and motivated junior talent my company turned to Code2040 last summer. We wanted an intern to help us work on some internal development projects for the summer, but weren't sure how to go about it. That’s when I saw a tweet from Tristan Walker about Code2040 which caught my attention. It seemed like a no brainer for a “progressive technologist” like myself to combine both my need for an intern with my desire to do something to further the diversity agenda within startups.

At the same time, being a bootstrapped company means that every dollar matters. So, if we were going to continue to do this in future years it was vital that this was not going to be solely for charity’s sake, but that we'd also receive a return on our investment. We also weren't sure how our team would react to having someone around that needed a lot of guidance and help. So, we decided to bring on one intern last summer as a test.

I started getting a little excited once the interviews began. Everyone they put in front of us was so enthusiastic, driven, and hungry to get a chance to come out and experience the SF startup lifestyle. We eventually chose an intern who had a fantastic attitude, a product-centric mind, good engineering chops, and loads of potential named Tenji.

Immediately it became clear that he had brought a palpable excitement to our company. His enthusiasm and desire to learn rubbed off on the team starting on day one. The ability to share their knowledge with someone so hungry for more of it brought excitement to otherwise quiet devs, and we quickly identified a senior developer who would be a great Lead Developer based on his mentorship of Tenji.

Today, Tenji is a full-time employee at Must Win. He’s worked on client projects (that made us money), furthered our internal projects (which will hopefully do the same), and his growth has been a constant inspiration to the rest of our team. This year we invited two more Code2040 Fellows to join us for the summer, and (of course) we're giving Tenji the chance to grow by being their supervisor!

This alone isn't going to solve the talent shortage and diversity issues before us, but it’s a small thing that has made a huge impact on our company and the lives of some talented young people. It’s my hope that more companies will follow our example and start to consider the talent ecosystem our companies depend on as a whole, as well as their responsibility to put as much into it as they take out.

Of course, this is just my rather long winded opinion. I would love to hear your thoughts on the subject. Feel free to tweet at me or drop me an email. To learn more about the Code2040 program check out their website.

Wil Everts is a founding partner of The Must Win All Star Web & Mobile Consultancy.

Wil is a product-savant who loves conceptualizing products and features, designing user experiences, and improving company culture. He has a cat named June, is a St. Louis Cardinals fanatic, and was the First Blogger Transmitted into Space.