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

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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.

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