With Hungry Academy, LivingSocial aims to build its own techies

In groups of four, the soon-to-be graduates of LivingSocial’s inaugural Hungry Academy stepped in front of their peers last week to present their capstone projects: a fully functional Web site built to help school teachers raise money for classroom projects.

Just two and a half weeks ago, these same projects were merely sketches on notebook paper. The ideas were only half-formed. No lines of code were written. No Web pages designed.

But after five months incubating on the first floor of LivingSocial’s New York Avenue NW headquarters, tight deadlines and ambitious goals have become second nature for the program’s 24 students.

Put simply, Hungry Academy is an experiment. As Chief Technology Officer Aaron Batalion explained in February, executives wanted to study a straightforward hypothesis: “Can we take raw talent, add on technical experience, add on product development experience and turn them into awesome members of the team?”

The basic answer: Yes. All 24 students who graduated from Hungry Academy last week begin work today as full-time engineers assigned to the company’s various business units, such as Escapes or Merchant Solutions.

But the question of how to best recruit technical talent is far more complex and something technology firms across the nation have been forced to grapple with as demand for Web engineers and programmers far outstrips the number of appropriately skilled workers capable of filling those positions.

Companies have responded to the challenge is multiple ways. Some enterprises create formal training or mentorship programs with hands-on guidance. Others may simply buy the talent outright with hefty salaries or unique perks.

Intelligence and passion

It was three months into Hungry Academy and 27-year-old Elise Worthy from Seattle was on the phone with her mother. The stress of the intensive program and a nagging sense of self-doubt had finally caught up with her, and things weren’t looking good.

“I remember just calling my mom and being very upset about it and thinking I couldn’t make it,” she said. “My group of peers here is incredibly smart and they’re very talented people ... and I didn’t think I cut the mustard, relatively.”

An MBA graduate from the University of California, San Diego, Worthy worked in brand strategy and marketing before coming to Washington in March. She had spent the prior year learning to code with a group that promotes women in tech — and Hungry Academy covered the same material in the first two days.

But Worthy persevered, building her confidence along the way, she said, and will join LivingSocial’s Portland office as an engineer who helps deliver analytics to the merchants that use LivingSocial to offer online discounts.

“We believe that intelligence and passion are far harder to hire for and much more important than a specific technical skill,” said Chad Fowler, LivingSocial’s senior vice president of technology. “We have enough of the kind of DIY sort of mentality here and, maybe it’s a little bit of hubris, we can teach faster than the industry.”

That notion prompted LivingSocial to grow its own talent, rather than just buy it from the market. It’s a decision that has come with a sizeable, albeit undisclosed, price tag that smaller firms might not be able to pull off.

Technical positions at LivingSocial cost $5,000 per hire on average and may require 120 to 150 days to fill, according to the human resources department. For comparison, nontechnical positions cost $3,500 per hire on average and typically sit vacant for 90 days.

The company declined to disclose the cost-per-student for Hungry Academy, but said it likely runs three to four times higher because of training expenses. That estimate does not include the salaries and benefits students are given during the program, or account for the cost of remodeling office space.

The benefit, if all goes according to plan, however, is a fleet of engineers that can be hired en masse with a commitment to work at LivingSocial for at least 18 months. Unlike fresh hires, the academy students are already familiar with the company’s products and culture.

“Anytime you try something for the first time, the only guarantee is that it won’t be exactly what you expected,” said Jeff Casimir, the academy’s director and founder of JumpstartLab..

The academy “succeeded in forming this cohort mentality,” Casimir added. “As a company, it’s dangerous to train people and then they’ll leave.”

That’s a different philosophy than other firms, which prefer to hire talent or buy companies that have experienced teams, said Steve Roberson, who co-founded an employment search site aimed at young companies. He watches postings for Web engineers and developers pour across the job board at StartupHire, which account for about 35 percent of listings, and can often be the hardest to fill.

“The bias is toward wanting to acquire it outright,” said Roberson, who has no affiliation with LivingSocial. “In many cases they feel like there’s an opportunity, and they’re up against alternatives and competitors, and being quick to market and iterating fast are high priorities.”

“Not to mention that fact that depending on what stage they’re in, they may not have a wealth of that talent already in house that they can lean upon. The better scenario is when you have the senior person who can mentor those junior folks.”

The result

Andrew Thal stood alongside three teammates last Thursday to present their final project, a mock online portal called “Teacher Center” where school teachers using the Web site DonorsChoose.org can solicit financial contributions for classroom projects.

Thal, a 24-year-old Reston native, was one of six students already employed at LivingSocial when they applied for Hungry Academy. Thal worked in marketing because he lacked the qualifications to be an engineer, despite completing a minor in computer science at George Washington University.

“That program was more computer science theory and software development, so things you would download onto your computer,” he said. “But we learned very little as far as Web development goes.”

The past five months have changed that. Thal has sat through several hours of class each morning, toiled away on projects until late at night, and read through a list of technical and business books that includes “The Pragmatic Programmer” and “The Lean Startup.”

But even as Hungry Academy comes to a close, Thal said there’s more to learn.

“I don’t think any of us believes we’re at a place right now where we have arrived at anything,” Thal said. “We have a good set of knowledge ... but if we don’t continue to learn and grow, then we’re not going to be useful five years from now.”

Indeed, skeptics of LivingSocial’s training platform wonder how much a novice can learn in just five months, even with intensive instruction. The languages that Web sites and software are built upon are often changing and require programmers to stay literate.

“I generally believe most of this stuff reasonably smart people can learn when it comes to Web development,” said Roberson, himself a Web developer. “I’ve learned from experience that’s certainly not 100 percent. I’ve worked with people who some concepts are difficult for them to get their head around for whatever reason.”

“Maybe [LivingSocial’s] hypothesis is correct if you do the initial pick right, but I’m a little surprised that no one said this isn’t what I’m interested in and that they’re happy with all 24,” Roberson said. “Like choosing a major in college, you typically don’t know what you’re signing up for. It’s only once you get into something that you realize what it means.”

But LivingSocial extended job offers to all 24 students last week, filling technical slots in Washington; Portland, Ore.; Raleigh, N.C.; and Hawaii. Even Casimir admits surprise that no students dropped out of the program.

Jonan Scheffler, 33, relocated here from Bend, Ore., with his wife and two young children for Hungry Academy. He’ll head back west with an engineering job in LivingSocial’s Portland office.

Before Hungry Academy, “I had passed through a lot of the beginner stage material that was available, but I had this, as I describe it, vast intermediate wasteland in front of me that didn’t look fun,” he said.

Now, Scheffler continued, he can see that wasteland coming to an end.

“I look at some of the code I wrote before I came here or the code I wrote two months ago and ... it just seemed silly some of the things I was doing,” he said. “I hope I get to keep doing that for the rest of my life, so in that respect maybe there is no end.”

Steven Overly covers the business of technology, biotechnology and venture capital in the Washington region for The Washington Post and its weekly Capital Business publication. In that capacity, he has written about start-up struggles, investment trends and major drug discoveries.
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