What start-up recruiters look for in job applicants


A recruiter with Opower, a Virginia utilities management company, talks with a potential applicant at the Join start-up job fair in Washington. (J.D. Harrison/The Washington Post)
January 5, 2012

As is typical at such events, the tables at the Join job fair were lined with business cards and schwag: free totes, sunglasses, even a tray of pigs in a blanket.

But unlike most career fairs, the recruiters had to do much more than screen academic background and job experience credentials: They had to ensure that applicants could fit in with the round-the-clock work habits and unconventional environments common in the start-up culture.

For example, employees at the San Francisco-based Twilio, a platform that helps developers build voice and SMS applications, complete a coding challenge during their first few weeks on the job. If they do well, they get rewarded with red Converse sneakers embroidered with the company logo.

“We have to find people who fit in both technically and with the corporate culture,” said Jack Aboutboul, who calls himself a Twilio “developer evangelist.” “When you’re doing what you love, time really flies by. A lot of times we work until we’re like, ‘Hey, it’s 2 a.m. Let’s go get some espresso so we can do another coding dash!’”

The event, hosted at the GeekEasy co-work space on Florida Avenue NW in the District and organized by the group Startup Riot, allowed start-ups to search out new members for their fast-growing teams without having to dig through stacks of resumes. Many of the open positions were for product managers with experience working on Web and mobile applications. But the most sought-after recruits were programmers with the ability to code using Java, Ruby on Rails, PHP and other languages.

“There are people who have skills in one specific area, but we’re looking for the Swiss-Army-knife type person — someone who enjoys working with small teams and moving ideas around, with a background of working with mobile products and designing front-end systems,” said David Bixler, business development partner at StickyStreet, a loyalty platform for companies.

Atypical benefits

For the right kind of person, it’s nice work if you can get it. In addition to laid-back, nontraditional offices (In StickyStreet’s downtown D.C. location, the walls are adorned with bright paint and a dragon), there are the extensive perks that start-ups lavish on their hardworking teams in order to rival their bigger competitors. The utility management platform Opower, for example, offers free massages, lunches and gym memberships, as well as scooters, ping pong and a dogs-allowed policy — in addition to generous health and retirement benefits.

“There’s a shortage of developers everywhere, so we have to be really competitive to get the best,” said Jennifer Crystal, director of talent acquisition for Opower.

Opower’s stringent interview process involves a coding homework assignment and a technical phone interview, in addition to the standard hoops applicants jump through.

The right kind of developer

For them and for other start-ups, qualified developers are not easy to find — particularly in D.C., where large defense contractors offer programming jobs that are more stable and operate on a predictable schedule. (Several of the attendees said they got the impression that the bulk of the Join job-seekers were marketing and business specialists, not coders.) 

“There is a big ecosystem of employers out here that pay very well and let you work 9 to 5, and that creates a pull away from the entrepreneurial life,” said Geekeasy head Jamey Harvey, who also has a mobile events start-up called Sponto. “We are hoping these events create somewhat of a new renaissance.”

Some applicants weren’t sold on the format — the room filled quickly and a few attendees found it a bit chaotic. But Derek Heston, a Web designer, said the event had an energy that typical job fairs lack.

“I’ve gone to government contractor job fairs, and there’s death in the air,” he said. “Here, there’s a vibe to it.”

He added that even titans of the Web world like Google and Facebook were once start-ups, and he hopes that by attending events like Join, he can get in on the ground floor of the next big thing.

So what makes for a good start-up employee? Turns out it’s not a coding language or an MBA that matters most, but a risk-taking personality, Harvey said.

“The number one success factor is your comfort with ambiguity,” he said, adding that there was a year in which the future of even his own company was up in the air. “If that level of uncertainty makes you miserable, you will hate start-up life. It’s like being in a leaky rowboat with four other people.”

E-mail Olga Khazan here. Follow Olga and OnSmallBiz on Twitter.

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A recruiter with Opower, a Virginia utilities management company, talks with a potential applicant at the Join start-up job fair in Washington. (J.D. Harrison/The Washington Post)
January 5, 2012

As is typical at such events, the tables at the Join job fair were lined with business cards and schwag: free totes, sunglasses, even a tray of pigs in a blanket.

But unlike most career fairs, the recruiters had to do much more than screen academic background and job experience credentials: They had to ensure that applicants could fit in with the round-the-clock work habits and unconventional environments common in the start-up culture.

For example, employees at the San Francisco-based Twilio, a platform that helps developers build voice and SMS applications, complete a coding challenge during their first few weeks on the job. If they do well, they get rewarded with red Converse sneakers embroidered with the company logo.

“We have to find people who fit in both technically and with the corporate culture,” said Jack Aboutboul, who calls himself a Twilio “developer evangelist.” “When you’re doing what you love, time really flies by. A lot of times we work until we’re like, ‘Hey, it’s 2 a.m. Let’s go get some espresso so we can do another coding dash!’”

The event, hosted at the GeekEasy co-work space on Florida Avenue NW in the District and organized by the group Startup Riot, allowed start-ups to search out new members for their fast-growing teams without having to dig through stacks of resumes. Many of the open positions were for product managers with experience working on Web and mobile applications. But the most sought-after recruits were programmers with the ability to code using Java, Ruby on Rails, PHP and other languages.

“There are people who have skills in one specific area, but we’re looking for the Swiss-Army-knife type person — someone who enjoys working with small teams and moving ideas around, with a background of working with mobile products and designing front-end systems,” said David Bixler, business development partner at StickyStreet, a loyalty platform for companies.

Atypical benefits

For the right kind of person, it’s nice work if you can get it. In addition to laid-back, nontraditional offices (In StickyStreet’s downtown D.C. location, the walls are adorned with bright paint and a dragon), there are the extensive perks that start-ups lavish on their hardworking teams in order to rival their bigger competitors. The utility management platform Opower, for example, offers free massages, lunches and gym memberships, as well as scooters, ping pong and a dogs-allowed policy — in addition to generous health and retirement benefits.

“There’s a shortage of developers everywhere, so we have to be really competitive to get the best,” said Jennifer Crystal, director of talent acquisition for Opower.

Opower’s stringent interview process involves a coding homework assignment and a technical phone interview, in addition to the standard hoops applicants jump through.

The right kind of developer

For them and for other start-ups, qualified developers are not easy to find — particularly in D.C., where large defense contractors offer programming jobs that are more stable and operate on a predictable schedule. (Several of the attendees said they got the impression that the bulk of the Join job-seekers were marketing and business specialists, not coders.) 

“There is a big ecosystem of employers out here that pay very well and let you work 9 to 5, and that creates a pull away from the entrepreneurial life,” said Geekeasy head Jamey Harvey, who also has a mobile events start-up called Sponto. “We are hoping these events create somewhat of a new renaissance.”

Some applicants weren’t sold on the format — the room filled quickly and a few attendees found it a bit chaotic. But Derek Heston, a Web designer, said the event had an energy that typical job fairs lack.

“I’ve gone to government contractor job fairs, and there’s death in the air,” he said. “Here, there’s a vibe to it.”

He added that even titans of the Web world like Google and Facebook were once start-ups, and he hopes that by attending events like Join, he can get in on the ground floor of the next big thing.

So what makes for a good start-up employee? Turns out it’s not a coding language or an MBA that matters most, but a risk-taking personality, Harvey said.

“The number one success factor is your comfort with ambiguity,” he said, adding that there was a year in which the future of even his own company was up in the air. “If that level of uncertainty makes you miserable, you will hate start-up life. It’s like being in a leaky rowboat with four other people.”

E-mail Olga Khazan here. Follow Olga and OnSmallBiz on Twitter.

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