Value Added: Ballston firm APT battles tech giants Microsoft, Google and Facebook for workers — and wins


Ed McTighe, lead software engineer, relaxes as he talks to coworkers at the end of a work day. Applied Predictive Technologies, a computer database analysis firm in Arlington, Va., aggressively hires the top computer engineers from top colleges. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
Thomas Heath
Reporter April 1, 2012

Dartmouth, Cornell, Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Penn, Virginia, Duke, Maryland, Carnegie-Mellon, Georgia Tech, Berkeley and Stanford.

If you attend one of these schools — or are a parent of a student at one of them — keep reading.

Thomas Heath is a local business reporter and columnist, writing about entrepreneurs and various companies big and small in the Washington Metropolitan area. Previously, he wrote about the business of sports for The Post’s sports section for most of a decade. View Archive

I have been writing a lot lately about the demand for high-performance software engineers, the geeks in the top .000000001 percent who are intensively courted by Microsoft, Amazon, Google and Facebook to come work for them.

Last month, I chronicled some of the alumni from Fairfax County’s Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, describing how gifted software mavens can write their own ticket.

Then I heard about Ballston-based Applied Predictive Technologies and got another glimpse into the rarefied world of software geniuses.

Don’t let the company’s forgettable name fool you.

APT is on the hunt for software engineers to pilot its “big data” servers, which contain reams of data on retail sales and other customer transactions. Its clients include many of the top 100 U.S. retailers, the biggest restaurant chains and the largest banks: Think Subway, Wells Fargo, Walgreens and Wal-Mart.

APT trolls college campuses in search of the Michael Jordans and the Warren Buffetts of software engineering. If you get in its sights — and you may be on APT’s radar if you have a head for numbers and attend one of its “core 13 schools” listed above — get ready for a full-court press and big bucks. These kids right out of college command starting salaries of $100,000 a year.

“Our data people need to be world class . . . the very best,” said APT chief executive Anthony Bruce. “We go up against Google, Facebook, McKinsey, Goldman Sachs, Boston Consulting Group. We have to be competitive.”

‘It’s cool to be a nerd’

In its search for interns and full-time employees, the company targets people it identifies through contacts, job fairs, software events or from other APT employees who are expected to spend 5 percent of their time on recruitment. They take students for coffee, host invitation-only dinners and make personal phone calls to reel in the targets. APT held 90 recruiting events last year alone.

“We spot them as sophomores and begin the personal outreach,” Bruce said.

APT sponsors hackathons at the University of Pennsylvania. It does presentations in college classrooms and hosts computer competitions at the University of Virginia and Stanford. For the hot prospects, APT has invitation-only workshops to learn whether the students are APT material. The company sponsors StarCraft tournaments, one of the computer-gaming altars at which techies worship.

“It’s cool to be a nerd at APT,” Bruce said.

Recruits are wined and dined at the fanciest restaurants in Boston, San Francisco and Princeton. After a battery of interviews, the 3 percent who make the cut from the top schools are flown to Washington for even more interviews. They stay at such high-end hotels as the Monaco and are escorted on guided tours of the Newseum or the Spy Museum.

These geeks have lots of firepower. The common grade-point average for APT employees is 3.8. The average SAT score is 1560. We’re talking Mark Zuckerberg-like whiz kids. For them, calculus comes as naturally as breathing. The unemployment rate among talented software engineers is low because of the demand for their ability to write hard-to-construct algorithms used in business analytics.

“The very best people do that extremely well,” Bruce said.

With 150 employees and grossing what I estimate to be more than $50 million in revenue, APT is well versed in how to recruit elusive, high-priced computer talent. Its owners come from the highly competitive field of corporate consulting, where bidding wars for the best talent are not uncommon.

The firm was founded in 1999 by Chairman Jim Manzi (MIT/Bell Labs), Bruce (Morgan Stanley/McKinsey), and Managing Director Scott Setrakian (Strategic Planning Associates).

Accel-KKR invested $54 million in APT in 2006, buying a majority stake that likely valued the firm around $100 million. The company has increased its revenue by a factor of four since then, making all its original owners happy campers.

It has offices in San Francisco, London and Taipei, in addition to its Ballston headquarters.

The company’s secret sauce is its computer software, which crunches data so that “if I am a big corporation and I want to understand how best to sell my products to the public, I know what to sell, how to market it and how to price it,” Bruce said.

To find the answers, APT creates business ideas and then uses its software to test the ideas to see whether, where and how they work.

‘Friendlier, informal vibe’

Ben Reich is one of the company’s prized recruits. The dual major in mathematics and linguistics at Cornell turned down lucrative offers from Microsoft and Amazon — and walked away from a Google courtship — to work at APT. The 22-year-old, who has been at the firm for seven months, heard of APT while touring a Cornell engineering fair.

If APT’s executives like you, an offer typically arrives within a day of the interview. Many recruits receive signing bonuses along with a six-figure salary — and an APT fleece to wear on campus if they need to finish their final semester. It’s typical for college seniors who have signed with APT to receive chocolate, food or fruit packages to tide them over during final exams.

“They’d call me and ask how things were going,” said Reich, who picked APT because he sensed a friendlier, informal vibe.

“The way APT recruits is to find the best problem solvers, and certainly a math major by far really tries to isolate problem solving. I was doing both of these fields [math and linguistics] from a computer science vector.”

I think that’s the only time anyone ever used the word “vector” in one of my interviews. But remember, it’s cool to be a nerd at APT.

For previous Value Added columns, go to postbusiness.com.

Comments
Show Comments
Most Read Business