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Hackers for hire: High-tech innovation, free iPads and asymmetric information

By Andrew Weiner, Managing Editor
Published October 14, 2012

Jack Dorsey speaks with the kind of calmness you’d expect from the creator of two of the most innovative companies in the country. As an originator of Twitter and the CEO and founder of Square, the mobile payments juggernaut that’s turning established players like MasterCard and Visa into dinosaurs, one has to remain exceedingly levelheaded when pulled between the countless tasks that come with being a high-tech icon and billionaire.

“If you have an idea, get it out of your head,” Dorsey says. “Get it into code, get it into conversation, draw it out. That’s the best way to actually do something, (because) if you don’t get it out of your head, you’re going to make excuses for why it can’t be done.”

It isn’t the ease with which Dorsey speaks that’s surprising. It isn’t the “Game of Thrones” theme song that plays before his remarks – a perfect fit for the North Campus computer science crowd. It’s the forwardness and respect he affords to students at least a decade younger and innumerably less successful than himself.

The biggest shock is that Dorsey is here at all on this brisk September afternoon.

The 35-year-old fields questions about his disinterest in touch-to-share capability – dismissing it an intermediary technology – and makes jokes about eBay’s mismanagement of Paypal.

Douglass Elmendorf, the director of the Congressional Budget Office, the nonpartisan agency that provides economic information to congress, spoke on campus around the same time as Dorsey. Both men are at the very top of their respective spheres of influence. Dorsey is in the exclusive club of modern technology giants, alongside the likes of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg. Elmendorf is one of the country’s most important policy-shapers.

But their visits to the University had one particular difference. Elmendorf was here to lecture on options for reducing the federal deficit. Dorsey was here asking 19-year-old engineers to please, please come work for his company.

The pretty girls

“Should we put out all the swag?”

The question seemed more appropriate for a bat mitzvah than a technical talk called “How To Build a Website.” Yelp, the user-generated review website that’s become the de facto answer to “Is this restaurant any good?” had a room reserved in the Dow Building after running a booth at the Engineering Fall Career Fair on North Campus earlier that afternoon.

“We’re here to talk about some of Yelp’s infrastructure and how we scaled from a mom-and-pop website in 2004 to over 78-million monthly (unique users) today,” explains Ben Chess, an engineering manager at Yelp and a 2004 University alum.

Yelp chapstick, Yelp playing cards, Yelp bouncy balls are spread out on a table – yep, put out all the swag (Or maybe it’s “schwag?”). A Facebook event for the tech talk promised an iPad raffle, free food from Shalimar (“**Four Stars** on”) and “sweet schwag.”

Yelp is an aggressive player in the increasingly expensive recruiting wars to find the next tech superstar.

“Having a second event today is a great way to have people come back and get a little bit more information,” says Chess. “When you’re at the career fair, there’s a really long line of people, you only get a minute or so to talk to each individual person. You can only communicate so much information in that time.”

The solution: Lure students back with a tech talk from experts, four-star Indian food and fairly good odds at leaving with an iPad. The scene almost makes one forget the real reason they’re here.

“We do most of our hiring directly out of college,” Chess says. “That’s always been our drive.”

The job market for most college graduates is grim as 81 percent of recent graduates spent over six months looking for work, and many of the jobs they eventually found didn’t require a degree, according to a 2011 study conducted by Rutgers University’s Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy.

But for those with computer science skills, the job market is strong, flushed with cash and only getting better.

“The need for software is essentially infinite,” said Computer Science Prof. Elliot Solloway. “Software is the gasoline, it’s what makes the engine run and companies know that there’s simply not enough good software developers. No outsourcing to India or China is gonna solve the software problem and everybody wants good software people.”

Software engineering, computer science skills, web and mobile application production – a skill set referred to as “hacking” – is increasingly a necessity for jobs in a wide array of industries.

As a result, companies have to do more and more to attract the best talent.