No More Rock Stars: Startups Like Swipely Are Hiring Collaborators
This is the story of a student, a mentor, a school, and a startup. Together they highlight the ways in which recruiting and talent development at New England companies have changed over the past decade.
Bart Flaherty was an undergrad at Northeastern University. His major was communication studies, but halfway through he started taking computer science classes and got hooked. He ended up minoring in the subject, which he found very challenging and practical. Plus he loved the logical, analytical aspects of programming.
Nearing graduation last year, he heard about Boston Startup School—since renamed Startup Institute—through a friend of a friend. Working at a startup has become a fairly established career path out of school, he says, though it’s still not the norm.
Flaherty was part of the inaugural class of Startup Institute, which runs eight-week programs designed to prepare students for working at startups. The classes cover software development, product design, marketing, and sales—but, as usual, the people you meet are what’s most important. “I found it to be very valuable for networking,” he says.
One of his classes was taught by engineers from Swipely, a software startup in Providence, RI, that makes payment and analytics tools for businesses. The lead instructor was Anthony Accardi, Swipely’s head of engineering. Accardi, an MIT alum, came from Tellme Networks, the Silicon Valley high-flyer that was bought by Microsoft for $800 million in 2007. He teamed up with fellow Tellme veteran Angus Davis to help start Swipely in 2009.
In class, Flaherty worked on a potential feature for Swipely—a landing page to drive customer interest from restaurants or spas. He grabbed coffee with Accardi in Kendall Square, and by then their interview was basically over. “There’s no clear separation between what we work on in the office versus the workshop versus doing an interview,” Accardi says. “We want to give as pure a taste of what it’s like to work at a startup. To acquire and attract the best talent, you create an environment and see who gets really charged up.”
Flaherty joined Swipely as a software engineer, and in the past year he says his “professional development has skyrocketed.” That’s in large part because he was thrown in with the rest of the 13-member engineering team and expected to contribute right away, working by himself and with a more senior developer.
“We don’t say, ‘Bart is the new guy on the team, so he gets the safe project or the thing that doesn’t really matter.’ No, everyone’s the same,” says Accardi.
Is the flat-organization approach simply a function of working at a startup versus a big company? Surprisingly, Accardi says no. “I think a lot of the startups do play it more safe than they otherwise could,” he says. “As a startup industry, how much are we holding back?”
In Accardi’s view, there was a big shift in mentality during the dot-com boom, which seems to have trickled down to students. “When I was in school, building a startup was a much narrower perspective,” he says. “Particularly from engineers—it was, ‘Hey, I built this cool thing, how do I make some money on this?’ What blew me away in the late ‘90s in Silicon Valley at Tellme, it was, ‘Who are the people I want to work with? Let’s find a problem that matters to the world.’”
And that emphasis is reflected in many more East Coast startups now. “That’s a huge cultural change over the past decade,” he says.
Which translates back into a new set of skills that technical managers like Accardi are looking for in their recruits. “What I’m looking for in a star engineer,” he says, “is a lot more social, more building on each other’s work, because the pace is so much quicker. I’m looking for a much fuller engineer to join our team.”
This culture and mentality “changes the emphasis from finding a rock star programmer who’ll go in the corner and crank out code, to someone who can collaborate with five different people in different disciplines,” he says. “Learning to solve technical problems in school, that’s not enough.”
The Boston area, of course, is fertile ground for finding the next generation of talent. With all the universities, accelerators, and non-traditional education options like Startup Institute and Intelligent.ly, more students are being shaped to work in today’s innovation world.
So, which colleges are doing the best job of producing startup-ready talent? “If there’s any theme, it’s those sort of schools that are not only renowned for their technical expertise,” Accardi says, “but an emphasis on making it real.”