At cybersecurity software start-up Invincea, some of the developers building the company’s key products never enter the Fairfax office.
They’re not outsourced talent. Instead, they’re full-time employees who work from home offices, wherever they already are. A 50-inch screen in Invincea’s “developer’s bullpen” in Fairfax projects camera feeds of each programmer, grouped in a Google Hangout, a kind of group video-chat. They chime in from Chicago; Ann Arbor, Mich.; San Francisco; Boston; and Blacksburg, Va.
“It’s almost like they’re virtually in the same room,” said Chris Greamo, Invincea’s vice president of research. “E-mail is used, but even more commonly . . . folks can chat back and forth.”
In the past year, Invincea has responded to the fierce competition for tech talent in the region by hiring four full-time developers who remain outside the Washington area. Greamo’s 35-person lab at Invincea sells software to federal organizations such as the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, also known as DARPA.
“There’s definitely a larger number of [tech] start-up companies in Northern Virginia,” now than in previous years, Greamo said. “We’re all competing for the same set of folks.”
Invincea is hardly alone in casting a wide net. More tech companies are expanding their talent search beyond Washington, according to Sandrine Ennis, president and founder of Vienna-based tech talent staffing firm Talentstream. They are creating what’s known as a distributed workforce, using software to connect geographically disparate employees in real-time. In the past year, Talentstream has helped to place some 100 full-time professionals — about 20 of those have been based outside the Washington area, compared with just a handful in previous years.
At Invincea, employees use several Web services such as Google’s instant messaging service to communicate, GitLab to manage code repositories, and Confluence, an application that helps teams collaborate on tasks.
“These are tools we’d probably have available to our workforce independently, but we just make more use of them during the day with the distributed workforce than we probably would otherwise,” Greamo said.
As it struggled to find local tech talent over the past year, Invincea opted not to outsource core software development to another company, although it does outsource tasks such as setting up data center hosting for certain projects, he said.
“I think a way to foster passion is for folks to have ownership in the company they’re helping to build. All of our [employees] have some sort of equity ownership in the company, whether they work in D.C. or remotely.”
Still, there can be an undesirable effect on camaraderie. “There’s a dynamic that you get when you have folks sitting together — whether it’s the fact that they go to lunch together . . . or they go to happy hour or those types of things,” Greamo said.
The tech talent crunch extends beyond Washington. San Francisco-based tech company Buffer, which develops an app to let people share pages on social media Web sites, embraced the idea of a distributed workforce because of the competition for talent in that area. The setup is now part of the company’s permanent corporate structure.
Buffer’s entire team — about 25 employees — is scattered throughout the United States, the United Kingdom, Asia and Africa, prompting one employee to build an app to keep track of the employees’ time zones. Though the company is officially headquartered in San Francisco, where just a few employees work, chief technical officer Sunil Sadasivan is currently in the District, having moved so that his wife can complete a one-year internship in the area. (He has rented a desk at the Canvas co-working space in the vicinity of Washington’s Dupont Circle.)
“Not all the best engineers are out in San Francisco; they’re all over the world, really,” he said.
The entire team meets three times a year during 10-day trips paid for by Buffer. The company hires developers initially on 45-day trial contracts and takes them on full-time if they seem to be a cultural fit. About 70 percent of candidates make it past this trial period.
“There are some really key nuances to how people communicate [online] and how that comes across,” Sadasivan said. “Positivity is our first value — so if an e-mail or interaction on [instant messaging system] HipChat comes across as negative, those things are very easy to pinpoint and flag.”
Sadasivan said the model has proved to be a draw for potential employees who don’t want to relocate, giving them the flexibility to work from home on their own schedules. But he added that as the team grows, Buffer may need to rethink its communication protocol. Currently, employees are encouraged to include all team members on e-mail correspondence if a message might be relevant to others’ jobs.
“For the most part, we’ve been one monolithic team,” he said. “Now we’re breaking it into smaller and smaller teams . . . so you [might] communicate with your small team of three to four people, and being in sync there might be more key” than being in sync with the larger group.
Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to Invincea’s 35 employees; that number refers to employees in Invincea Labs, not total employees. This version has been corrected.