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 yelp.com”) 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. And that means getting 19-year-old students to come to your tech talk instead of Google’s down the hall.

One student put it well: “People are giving out crazy shit to come interview.”

“Engineers are the pretty girls in the room, and we want all of them to come to our party,” says Danielle van Asch Prevot, a senior technical recruiter at Yelp.

Give the pretty girls an iPad, and hope they come work for your company to build the next billion-dollar innovation.

The astonishing part

The 48-Hour Mobile Apps Hackathon is taking place later in the week, and Prof. Solloway — who specializes in mobile technologies and their application in education — is already excited about the weekend of programming he’s organized.

With the advent of the Apple, Android and Blackberry app marketplaces, it’s now become possible to write a commercially viable piece of software – whether it’s one that helps you find a parking spot or check into all your social media accounts – in 48 hours. Solloway offers a course where students build an app over 10 weeks. At the Hackathon, teams compete in rapid app development – a 48-hour pizza-and-caffeine-fueled marathon.

“People always say it’s tough to get experience,” says Engineering senior Prashanth Sadajivan, who participated in the Hackathon. “A hackathon is experience. It might not be on-the-job experience, but it’s building experience.”

Sadajivan’s hacking teammate Torehan Sharman, also an Engineering senior, says the time constraint “forces” teams to focus on simplicity and speed.

“The businesses and the people that are hiring are all really looking for this, like, (ability) to go from idea to a product,” Sharman, a former Daily photographer, says.

The lights at the computer lab are dim as approximately 60 hackers – a handful of them women – drift in before the 6 p.m. kick off. “Here’s plates; who needs plates?” Towers of pizza boxes are quickly demolished as students settle in.

When enough people gather, Solloway asks students to introduce themselves. He speaks with his hands when sitting – in online videos, he often has a smartphone in one to point at with the other – and enthusiastically gestures with full arms while standing to address the room. Hackers should first “slow-ly” say their names and address not what business they’re building, but “what problem are you going to solve?”

This year, the 48-Hour Mobile Apps Hackathon is sponsored by Walmart, who has sent several representatives for the weekend. Solloway explains the significance of the recruiters making the trek to the University: “Walmart is coming from Bettonville, Arkansas to Ann Arbor, Michigan to sponsor a hackathon because they’re hoping to be able to hire some good software people.” He almost sings the last three words, the excitement for his students palpable.

“We want to make sure that we’re getting the top talent to build our business up to compete” with companies like Google, says Ellen Sloneker, a senior recruiter for the superstore.

Walmart wasn’t always sponsoring sleepovers.

“In the past, Walmart did not go out recruiting. We actually had a few sets of schools we went to,” said Paul Antony, a vice president heading the company’s store systems.

But Walmart is evolving with the times. Large companies such as Walmart are in the process of playing with their massive amounts of data to better gauge customer shopping habits.

“For someone who’s really interested in statistics or big data – a big buzzword – it’s pretty appealing and it’s pretty cool,” said Max Seiden, an Engineering senior.

This semester, Walmart is looking to fill 50 internship and 50 full-time positions from the University and other schools.

The recruiters will check in several times over the weekend. The hackers are here to impress.

Back at the Hackathon, students split into project teams. Freshmen nervously standing on the outer edges of the computer lab are chided by Solloway to reach out and meet new people. Mountain Dew and Domino’s pizza are guzzled down. A bag of baby carrots sits untouched.

The degree

“You can’t really be a hacker without collaborating,” Seiden says. “With the exception of, like, savants, who are just insane – just like pillars of programming – for the most part you really have to work with other people, bounce ideas around.”

He’s sitting next to Engineering senior Gaurav Kulkarni, with whom he founded Michigan Hackers, a community of software savvy students whose goal is to “solve problems through the innovative use of technology,” according to its Facebook page. Seiden’s page lists “Broke the Internet” on his timeline of major 2012 events. Presumably, the Hackers are fixing it.

Michigan Hackers started modestly – weekly tech talks hosted at friends’ houses. “Someone would prepare an hour’s worth of material and get up in front of our group of friends and just talk about it,” Seiden says. “That was great; it was a lot of fun; that was a lot of knowledge sharing. But we also on the side started talking about ‘Well, could we do this at a larger scale? Could we actually engage more people?’ ”

Now, Michigan Hackers hosts weekly “hack nights,” where outside speakers and group members present on an area of their expertise. These have ranged from computer security to Android development, and are all broadcast online.

“That’s where you learn most of your programming, most of your skills, from interacting with others,” Kulkarni says.

The role that peer collaboration, online resources and self-teaching play in many hackers’ educations, coupled with the hiring needs of companies, has sparked serious debate about the necessity of college degrees.

Kulkarni describes the “phenomenon” of students dropping out to accept high-paying jobs in San Francisco. “I think they’re jumping the gun a little early,” he says – the offers will still be there in a year. He’s already accepted a job at Facebook after graduation this spring, and said the company approached him about working full-time without finishing his degree.

“On the other hand, I’ve seen a lot of success stories where people will drop out of school because they’re really onto a really great idea that isn’t going to be around in a year or so,” Kulkarni acknowledges.

Seiden, Kulkarni and Solloway seem to be in consensus about degrees.

“I think the degree says something about the doggedness and stick-to-it-ness of students,” Solloway says. “I don’t necessarily think a degree is necessary to write 60 lines of code. But I think a degree shows that you can begin, middle and end something.”

It’s true that learning to program and build products can be self-taught, “but, what your product may lack is efficiency, it may lack ability, it may lack all of these things that make it a solid work of engineering even though it’s a product that exists,” Seiden says.

“So a computer science degree is what really solidifies a lot of that.”

Seiden cites a conversation he’s had with Jesse Volmer, the CEO of Ann Arbor start-up company FarmLogs, on the mentality of students dropping out: You should stay at the place where you’re going to learn the most.

“So if you’re in college and you’re learning and being challenged by your professors and you’re really growing as a person and you have this opportunity to drop out, you have to think ‘If I drop out am I going to be pushed more than I’m being pushed right now?’ ” Seiden says.

Solloway says it comes down to what fits each individual student best.

A former Yelp intern at the tech talk (presumably illegible for the iPad raffle) says many people he worked with didn’t have degrees. “Yeah, it’s a good formality but at the same time I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily a requirement. Strongly suggested though.”

The problem

As flashy as the iPad raffles, $100,000 job offers and companies fighting over 20-year-olds are, there’s a catch.

Yes, it’s true that the talent shortage has forced companies “to make it really, really appealing for those individuals to come work for them,” Kulkarni says. “That’s why you start seeing people like Jack Dorsey come out just to get people get excited and to get people to want to work for Square or whatever.”

But the problem is that these freshly minted college grads lack the industry experience to negotiate good compensation packages, Seiden describes – he’s considered this aspect deeply.

“When a company is approaching people who are just out of college or still in college ... they’re essentially working with a blank slate,” Seiden says. “They’re essentially working with a blank slate. This person doesn’t really have any preconceived notion in what working in the tech industry is like, what the other opportunities might be – it’s an easier sell. Whereas if you try to recruit a former Google employee, the former Google employee has already been involved in all of this ecosystem.”

As a result, these young hopefuls are likely to take the first cool offer that comes their way, Seiden says.
In comes the free swag.

“Companies want to work really hard to get that first conversion,” Seiden says.

It’s not inherently bad, but there’s a clear case of asymmetric information and power – multinational corporations negotiating with a 19-year-old.

“It’s not just companies that have to fight, it’s the families of companies (‘related’ by ties to venture capitalists) trying to attract the different kinds of talent,” Seiden says. “... The recruiting efforts are happening at all levels, not just the HR department.”

There’s debate about whether students and companies should disclose compensation so engineers can make more informed choices.

While there’s not a clear solution, Seiden explains students should be more aware of the situation “so they can look at it and say, ‘That’s great, I got a really good offer, but I need to consider the other stuff that could happen.’”

The winners

About half of the original hackers have dropped out by the end of the 48-Hour Mobile App Hackathon. No women remain. A tired haze has overtaken the disheveled computer lab.

Teams begin to present their apps using an overhead camera. One group has created a multiplayer card game.

Another has built a game of tag that involves literally slamming your phone against another to become the tagger – “Let’s not break your phones,” Solloway says over laughter.

The end of a hackathon doesn’t do justice to its essence. It’s about the process, the hacking, the teamwork, the exhaustion. Looking at a single moment doesn’t hack it.

During introductions 48-hours earlier, a hacker asked Solloway what the winner would get. “Well, everyone gets a $25 Walmart gift card ... ”

The student pressed again, but the professor laughed it off.

“Does it matter? Does it matter?”