Tech boom! The war for top developer talent

With eight qualified candidates for every 10 openings, today's talented developers have their pick of perks, career paths, and more

Tech boom! The war for top developer talent

It isn't everyone who gets to walk through the Oval Office on their way to work. You could be the President of the United States. Or you could get a job at GitHub's new San Francisco headquarters.

Each day, a third of the company's 217 global "Hubbernauts" pass through a reception area that's a replica of the iconic White House office, including a scale model of the Resolute Desk and a carpet featuring the Official Seal of the OctoCat, the multitentacled feline who serves as the company's mascot.

But on this day in early October, two weeks after an official ribbon-cutting ceremony attended by San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, GitHub's new 55,000-square-foot home is still a work in progress. Outside the Oval, contractors are putting the finishing touches on a full bar that lines one wall of the cavernous "café" that occupies the entire first floor of the former fruit-packing facility.

GitHub's replica Oval Office

GitHub's replica Oval Office

The Oval Office concept started as a joke, explains Tim Clem, who like nearly every other GitHub employee has no official title, but oversees product and corporate strategy for the six-year-old startup. If you could build the coolest room in the world, what would it be? The idea stuck.

"We want everyone who's new to GitHub -- whether they're interviewing for a job, a potential client, or just one of our superfans coming by for a visit -- to feel like a first-class citizen," Clem shouts above the hammering.

Citizenship has its privileges. Last year, the collaborative coding platform received $100 million in venture capital, part of which went toward funding its new digs in San Francisco's startup Mecca SOMA district, complete with couches, pool tables, elaborately themed conference rooms, a library, a gift shop, a yoga studio, heat-map displays showing the location of each employee, an indoor park, and more.

GitHub sits at the white-hot center of a tech boom unseen since the early days of dot-coms. It is both emblematic of an industry where success is often accompanied by excess, as well as a showcase where software engineers can highlight their coding chops to prospective employers. Each month nearly 5 million developers pay up to $200 apiece to share code and swap techniques on GitHub's online project hosting platform. If you want a job with an open source company, your list of GitHub commits is far more important than a résumé on LinkedIn.

In a world that increasingly runs on code, developers are king -- and companies will pay a king's ransom to lure top talent. What follows is an inside look at some of the startups and development firms fueling the hottest market for coding talent the tech industry has ever seen.

The amenities of Neverland

Oval Office aside, GitHub is not unusual in the kinds of perks it offers employees, roughly 70 percent of whom are developers or designers. Across Silicon Valley and beyond, companies compete to see who can offer the most generous salaries, the best benefits, the most over-the-top extras. 

That's because for every 10 coding jobs in the marketplace, there are maybe eight people who can fill them, estimates Avik Patel, senior staffing manager for WinterWyman in New York.

"Demand has grown like crazy, but the talent pool hasn't kept pace," he says.

Not surprisingly, the jobs most in demand are mobile and Web developers, says Patel, and companies will pay handsomely for those with the requisite skills. Nationally, the average salary for software engineers is a shade under $93,000, according to Glassdoor. In the tech-crazed San Francisco Bay Area, it exceeds $110,000.

But it's the extras that get the most attention. Catered meals? Check. Keggerators? You bet. Full-time barista? You wouldn't want $150,000-a-year software engineers burning their fingers on the espresso maker, would you?

Then there are all the toys. Nerf rifles. Scooters. Gaming arcades. Legos. Electric guitars. Slides and ball pits. Climbing walls. Pool, ping-pong, Foosball tables. At many offices, totem animals dangle from the ceiling or peer from behind rows of 32-inch displays. At cloud storage company Box, it's unicorns. HortonWorks -- the Hadoop services firm named after Dr. Seuss's sensitive pachyderm -- is all about elephants. At Yeti, a 10-person mobile and Web development firm in San Francisco's SOMA district, Abominable Snowmen loom atop shelves and lurk under coffee tables.

The slide at Box's Los Altos, Calif., headquarters

The slide at Box's Los Altos, Calif., headquarters

Group outings include dodgeball tournaments, go-kart excursions, trampoline parks, and whiskey tastings. Some companies shuttle employees to and from work, do their laundry, and subsidize their haircuts.

Such amenities are no longer exclusive to Silicon Valley. They can be found virtually anywhere geeks gather to hack code -- if not within the musty offices of old-school enterprise IT shops, then certainly the wide-open cubicle-free spaces of high-tech startups. In these organizations, the Peter Principle -- in which each employee rises to the level of his or her own incompetence -- has been replaced with the Peter Pan Principle. So long as you keep shipping product, you'll never have to grow up.

Perks vs. work/life balance: The central trade-off of the hiring market

But only the naïve believe such perks are truly free. The trade-off for being served breakfast and dinner at work is that you're expected to arrive early and stay late. The toys, trips, and games with coworkers substitute for a social life, as it is not uncommon for developers to grind through 80-hour workweeks. It's a culture designed for the young and unattached.

The gaming industry is especially notorious for its disregard of life/work balance, notes Scott Keller, director of strategic solutions for Yoh, a high-tech recruiting and staffing firm. With billions of dollars riding on the success of a game, coders are expected to do whatever it takes to hit their release dates.

"People end up missing the birth of their children and postponing their weddings," says Keller. "When you get into your 30s and 40s and have a family, you don't want to work 18 hours a day anymore. But if you only put in 12 hours, well, then you're a slacker."

It's a trade-off many developers are unwilling to make. For the last three years Onsi Fakhouri has been an engineering manager with Pivotal, an agile software consultancy built around the concept of paired programming. Employees, known internally as "Pivots," collaborate on code in constantly rotating pairs; aside from occasional breaks for ping-pong -- the firm has two tables in its programming bullpen and they're rarely idle -- the Pivots work intensely from 9 to 6, then call it a day.

Ping-pong break at Pivotal Labs in San Francisco

Ping-pong break at Pivotal Labs in San Francisco

A soft-spoken and intense man in his early 30s, Fakhouri says the perks offered by other valley firms are an unwelcome distraction for both him and his younger colleagues.

"These companies value an environment where you screw around and stay there all the time," he says. "At Pivotal, we value productivity. I don't want to work in a place where they say, 'Here's your array of Xbox 360s with detachable water guns.' I'd much rather be in a place where I can work a solid eight hours and go home."

The pitch: Steer your career

With floor-to-ceiling windows offering an expansive view of the Bay Bridge, chic furnishings, and copious amounts of open space, New Relic's San Francisco offices are not exactly Spartan. What you won't find there, though, are a gourmet chef, Nerf guns, or a climbing wall (though the office does have an espresso machine with a full-time barista).

That's deliberate, says Bjorn Freeman-Benson, VP of engineering for the firm, which provides cloud-based real-time application monitoring. White-haired and avuncular, Freeman-Benson is more old-school engineer than modern code cowboy, even if his LinkedIn profile lists his title as "software psychologist."

Bjorn Freeman-Benson, vice president of engineering, New Relic

Bjorn Freeman-Benson, vice president of engineering, New Relic

"Our philosophy is to create an environment where you can do your best work, but at the end of the day you go home to spend time with your friends and family," he says. "As a consequence we don't put a lot of playthings in our office. We spend our budget making our work areas as productive as we can, and on excellent health care, but we don't have Foosball tables."

(Though he hastens to add, "I am a really good Foosball player.")

The bulk of New Relic's 150-odd software engineers work in the firm's Portland, Ore., office, where Freeman-Benson says the primary perk is plenty of parking for employees' bikes. So how does New Relic compete with the Googles and Facebooks of the world for talent?

"It's a buyer's market out there, so you need to have a compelling story," he says. "We actually have two. The pitch we make for engineers in San Francisco, where we do our internal business enablement tools, is, 'Are you the sort of person who maybe should have gotten an MBA instead of a computer science degree? If so, come here and we'll pay you to write code and learn all that business stuff at the same time.' In Portland where we build our core product, it's, 'Do you like working on user interfaces, hacking on compilers, and fiddling with pointers? Then have we got a job for you.' For a certain set of people, that's a very attractive pitch."

The subtext of New Relic's hiring strategy is clear: Whether they're inclined toward business or hungry to delve deeper into the bits, talented developers now have an unprecedented ability to control their own destinies.

Culture, community, code

In many ways, the most visible perks of coding culture are no longer a differentiating feature in attracting talent. Even salaries and stock options aren't always the deciding factor. The most appealing thing is often the nature of the work itself, as well as the community of coders they'll be part of.

Last year, developer hub Stack Overflow surveyed 9,000 programmers to discover what was most important to them when evaluating a potential job. Nine out of 10 said they'd accept less money in exchange for a more rewarding environment, says Bethany Marzewski, marketing coordinator at Stack Overflow.

"Number one on their list was the opportunity to learn and grow on the job," she says. "Number two was the caliber of the existing team, and number three was working at a place with good management and no bureaucracy. So if you wanted to create the worst environment for developers, make sure it's an incredibly bureaucratic one with a subpar team where they won't have a chance of learning anything new."

Paired programming at Pivotal Labs

Paired programming at Pivotal Labs

That's a boon for small firms like Yeti. Starting salaries at the self-funded startup are often half what a talented engineer could demand from Google or Facebook, admits Director of New Business Will Harlan. But Yeti's consistent growth and informal environment -- the company offers flex time and hosts barbecues for employees and friends of Yeti on the rooftop deck every Friday -- help close the gap.

"If you go with one of the big dogs, they'll promise you a lot up front, including probably a six-figure salary," says Harlan. "But once you get inside one of these companies, you can get pinned to a specific part or feature of a project for months or years at a time. Here you're working on a new project every three or four months. Within the first year, you'll have helped create two or three websites or apps that you can tell your friends, 'I made that.'"

At Pivotal, the primary appeal is a cultlike devotion to the concept of paired programming, coupled with the ability to ship code every day.

"We are delivery junkies," jokes Associate Director Davis W. Frank. "It turns out I get much more of a dopamine rush knowing I can ship code at any time than some testosterone-driven 'I just solved this big hard problem I've been working on for months.' Solving tens of problems a week is way more gratifying."

Davis W. Frank, associate director, Pivotal Labs

Davis W. Frank, associate director, Pivotal Labs

At cloud storage vendor Box, the real attraction lies not in the spiral slide that extends from the second floor of its Los Altos, Calif., HQ, the profusion of unicorns, the whiskey tastings, the arcade machines, or the glass-blowing classes offered to employees. It's the opportunity to work on something that's useful to large enterprises but their friends and family can also understand, says Engineering Manager Tamar Berkovici.

"It's cool that people can relate to what we're doing, while at the same time going after real challenges in enterprise computing," she says. "We want mom to be able to use it, but also for companies like Procter & Gamble to get value out of it. You don't get many opportunities to do that."

Despite having grown from 35 employees to more than 900 in a little more than four years, Box tries to maintain the mindset of a startup, says Senior Vice President of Engineering Sam Schillace, while staying competitive with top-tier companies for talent.

"Every candidate we look at these days has an offer from at least one of the following companies: Google, Facebook, Twitter, Square, Pinterest, or Palantir," says Schillace. "If you want to play at a high level and recruit the best engineers, every single piece matters. You need to have a good story, compensate fairly, engage directly, and have a good culture they want to come work with. You need to make some kind of human connection. You have to do all of it, and you have to do all of it pretty well. Because everyone else is doing it pretty well."

With an algorithm like that for courting new coding talent, is there really any question whether today's top developers are king?

This article, "Tech boom! The war for top developer talent," originally appeared at Follow the latest news in programming at For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.