How California is Winning the War on Talent

Your toughest challenge post-funding will always be hiring the best talent regardless which ocean dip your toes in. Let’s face it, if you’re an engineer and you fall into the “best of” category, you’re walking around with a target on your back. To companies from Boston to San Francisco, the talent war has become the new normal.

There is a paradox that divides east coast and west coast recruitment and why our Yankee talent seems increasingly more inclined to travel west. Bostonians are notoriously conservative, to the point we are cutting our noses off in spite of our face. We continue to lose startups to California because of the perception that it’s easier to get funded and this concocted idea that the west coast has more talent. The fact is the neighborhoods surrounding MIT and Harvard have more programmers per capita than anywhere in the world. East coast VC’s roots of investing in infrastructure software, security and all things enterprise has rarely swayed off course missing huge opportunities in the consumer space. Unfortunately, it has pushed us down the rankings in VC funding to below even NYC, which is fairly new to the venture backed startup community.

While we are losing ground in VC money, the talent bleed persists reinvigorating our battle to support our own Boston based startups. Conservatism is rampant in even our hiring process. Almost every startup that we engage with has 3 prerequisites;

1) They want “seasoned” engineers – candidates must have proven expertise doing theexact same thing in previous roles. Those “best of” developers want new challenges.

2) Candidates must come from only the “top” companies – known entities. It’s a big world out there where people with crazy talent work at lesser known companies.

3) They want backdoor references to really make sure that the candidate is indeed “best of” or worse to torpedo a strong, perhaps even superior, candidate.

Perception dictates that Boston companies hype reputation and experience over creativity and ideation. The Bay Area boasts pioneering spirit, while Boston thumps its chest as a seasoned expert. While I have experienced this from my work on both coasts, I wanted to confirm my beliefs by connecting with Alex and Andrew, a couple of former colleagues from Boston who joined Dropbox about 18 months ago. While not native to Boston, they attended Harvard and MIT respectively, and are considered exceptionally gifted developers. Their insight supported my observations of why some developers are wooed to the west coast.

Both Alex and Andrew say they feel a sense of ownership and creative freedom at Dropbox where they are empowered to create “something great, not just good.” While every west coast startup may not be as invested in cultivating the sense of energy and passion as Dropbox, the Silicon Valley clearly gets something that we don’t – if you trust your talent regardless of years of experience to create amazing things, they will. A sense of ownership and accountability aren’t exclusive to “seasoned” employees. The Bay Area is far more invested and active in recruiting college students. Boston focus on recruiting “made” talent can be good in the sense that they are very skilled, but we lose a sense of dynamism that comes from young talent. This creates a glass ceiling for less seasoned developers against their veteran counterparts. There may be less of a sense of rigor and process vs. Boston engineering practices, but the passion and desire for excellence balances that out.

Alex and Andrew said they are very attached to the tremendous sense of community that Dropbox has built. Their gourmet kitchen serving 3 meals a day certainly helps in providing opportunities for all employees to interact, often connecting them with employees they don’t typically collaborate with.

Want-you When I asked them about their personal lives since moving to San Francisco, both say it hasn’t developed as quickly as they anticipated, a direct result of the camaraderie at Dropbox. It wasn’t said out of frustration or resentment, quite the opposite. The people care about the work and each other. In Boston, our “beer-thirty” is a one-and-done, where at Dropbox you can expect the camaraderie going on well past 10pm on a Friday evening. From my perspective as a recruiter, Dropbox creates a huge challenge for anyone to try and recruit its team- not only would you be trying to convince someone to change roles, you would also be asking them to give up a lifestyle. As a Bostonian and therefore conservative, the world “cult” pops into my mind, but the truth of it is that they have been able to capture a commitment to a common goal of “creating something great, not just good.” And while all the amenities can seem like corporate extravagance, it is the idea that their time and contributions are valued.

So Boston, what is your battle plan in the war for talent? Sure, we can wait for the next major earthquake and impending tsunami but I suggest we create a paradigm shift in the way we think instead. Below are 5 key points that I personally follow in building my own team- and note, at no point do I suggest expensive perquisites. After all, I’m still a cheap Yankee.

1) Stop being so reserved about hiring shiny, new grads. Yes, there is a cycle from when you begin campus recruiting until they graduate, but chances are YOU WILL STILL NEED THE TALENT.

2) Stop letting a backdoor reference kill a potential hire- not everyone’s personality styles work together. I can give you 3 people that love me and 3 people that hate me so how can one predict how I will function in a new environment.

3) Be opportunistic in your hiring- hire smart over experience with specific tools and hire “fit” over proven. You can’t force someone, regardless of how great they are on paper, to mesh with your team and your culture. The #1 reason why people will stay at a job- they are still learning new things, are being challenged and feel valued by the company and their team.

4) Create a community- Those first few weeks a new hire spends at your company is critical. Create an onboarding program that isn’t just about benefits and policies and that really highlights WHO you are and how they fit in. Have an executive show them some love. Pair new employees with people that they will connect with on a personal level.

5) Make sure that employees know that everything they do counts on an individual basis and at the team level.

It’s simply about changing the way you think about your talent acquisition strategy. Build a culture that 20 years from now when you reflect back on your company, you think to yourself “Damn, we worked hard and created amazing products. My people were energized, resilient and felt valued.” Learn from the success of west coast companies like Dropbox and design a recruiting and talent management strategy that fits your unique culture.

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