Talent Wars: How Boston-Area IT Companies Are Dealing With A Severe Staffing Crunch

12/5/07Follow @wroush

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when companies get acquired. Everyone knows that when their company gets bought, they might not have their jobs in six months.”

In fact, Andrews says ExaGrid has already hired at least one engineer from Westborough-based business forecasting software maker Applix, which was purchased in September by Canadian business intelligence company Cognos, which was in turn purchased by IBM this month. “A lot of developers are wary” in such situations, says Andrews. “They don’t know if they want to work for such a big company.”

Don’t be afraid to recruit candidates who are considering going to startups.

“The small-scale startup scene around Boston is remarkable,” observes Sturtevant (who ought to know—the former Eons CTO has either started or worked for nearly a dozen of them). That makes recruiting harder, because the types of people who like entrepreneurship, and who are attracted to the idea of having a big chunk of equity in their companies, can be tough to attract to a big company. But “It’s a challenge I kind of brought on myself” by agreeing to head a Microsoft innovation group in Boston, Sturtevant says. “Because that’s the profile of the person I personally believe would be great to have in this environment.”

At Google, Vinter has a unique solution to the problem of attracting ambitious young entrepreneurs: let them start a business inside the business. “My philosophy is that somebody who is capable of building a startup should be given an amount of latitude to do that within Google—because that’s what they’re exceptional at,” Vinter says.

Try unconventional recruiting methods and messages.

Those Red Line ads that ITA Software has been placing? They’ve generated a huge amount of buzz for the company, Lawrence says, thanks to their unusual content. One series of ads features mathematical or cryptographic brain-teasers, such as “Write a program to compute the sum of all the integers between 1 and 1011 both divisible by seven and, when the decimal digits are reversed, are still divisible by seven” or “Given a T timetable, write a program to compute the quickest route that passes through every station on the Red, Blue, Green, and Orange Lines, ending at Kendall Square.”

The ads, which include URLs leading to the company’s careers page, attract people who like a challenge, Lawrence says. “The kind of person who likes to solve a puzzle is probably a good fit for the kinds of complex, algorithmically based computer-science problems we’re solving here at ITA,” she says. “It’s as much a screening tool as it is an announcement to the world that we’re a serious software company.”

Well, pretty serious anyway. The company’s latest series of ads has been a bit more irreverent, featuring pictures of real employees sporting scowls and tattoos along with enigmatic sayings such as “BOFHs Welcome” and “TANSTAAFL. Except on Fridays.” If the acronyms don’t mean anything to you, you probably aren’t cut out to be a systems engineer at ITA.

(Incidentally, Red Line riders happen to be the type of people ITA wants to attract. “We have a lot of people who live quite close—it’s a lifestyle choice,” says Lawrence. “They live in the Cambridge, Somerville, or Arlington area and they they want to be able to ride the T or bike to work. We’ve tried the Green Line and Park Street Station but we find that the Red Line is the right demographic.”)

Most important of all: promise people work that will energize them and suit their ambitions—and follow through on the promise.

Boston can be a beautiful and interesting place to live, but let’s face it: It’s no Palo Alto. Our winters suck, it rains a lot, housing costs are rising through the roof, and Boston drivers do their best to live up to their scary reputations. Attracting talented salespeople or software engineers who could just as easily find jobs in the Bay Area or Seattle means being honest about what your company offers, and giving all employees the opportunity to do something meaningful.

“You can’t hide the weather, you can’t hide the cost of living,” says Minichiello. “So I think you have to continually drive the conversation back to where your company is going, and what the work is that [the potential employee] is going to be involved in, and does the culture in your company provide everyone with the opportunity to have an impact.”

While today’s hiring frenzy may have the feel of the dot-com bubble days, people aren’t looking for all kinds of crazy perks, says Sturtevant. The real question on people’s minds, he says, is: “What can I get done? Can I really get people to use what I’m building?”

The number of ways to do that is multiplying, which means that from the qualified candidate’s point of view, today’s hiring situation could hardly be better. “This is a great time for very talented people to wake up and look around,” says Gasdick at Sermo.

But in fact, while the scramble for good employees may be exasperating for employers, the expansion drive is good for the whole high-tech ecosystem—especially right here on Xconomy’s home turf of Kendall Square. “We view Google and Microsoft as the new competition, and we keep an eye on what are doing, to make sure that we stay in the game,” says Akamai’s Minichiello. “But I actually view it as positive. Microsoft and Google, with their name value and their money, are going to pull more folks from the marketplace to consider opportunities in this area, and are going to help establish Kendall Square as a high-tech mecca. That can only help.”

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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