Hiring Rubyists at a large company

A few months ago, at an NYC.rb happy hour, I had an interesting conversation with a technical recruiter. He was trying to hire Ruby and Rails programmers for a large company in the city, and was asking my advice because their goal was in the double digits and the company had been trying for some time with little success. This is sort of the inevitable result of the Railsification of the web programming business: As Ruby and Rails move from super-cutting-edge to comfortably middling, bigger and bigger companies decide to make the switch. And, for their efforts, they’re rewarded with the same recruiting pain that small startups have been living with for years.

It’s tough for a large company to hire in a technology like Ruby. Sure, you can proclaim loudly that you pay above market rates—but to work for a larger company, your typical senior Rubyist is going to need not just good money, but ludicrous, eye-watering money. Because no matter what happens, you’re not giving that programmer a chance to build the next Twitter or Facebook. And that opportunity is key to what a cutting-edge programmer gets psyched about.

It isn’t really about the equity, though that’s a nice bonus: It’s about the chance to learn. We know that the best way to be part of technological progress is to be thrown into a situation where you have to solve a million-dollar problem with way less than a million dollars, which forces you to try with some unproven set of tools and techniques. We read blog posts and listen to talks by the people who’ve been through that sort of trial by fire, and we wonder how well we’d do at it. And then we go look for somebody to hire us to try.

Larger companies rarely do this. They’re more likely to avoid the hard problems, or solve them in ways that risk less but cost more. That’s their prerogative, of course, but if that describes your company, and you’re trying to hire Ruby programmers, you’re going to run into this issue a lot.

Unless you look in a different place. That night at the bar, another Rubyist pointed out that there are plenty of .NET and Java web programmers who would love to get into the Rails game, but don’t see a good way in. For one thing, there’s the issue of experience: Most Rails teams are small, and accordingly there aren’t many entry-level Rails jobs in the world. And another issue is of risk: There are plenty of smart, curious programmers in the world who aren’t at the point in their lives where they can take on the risk of being the fifth employee at a seed-funded startup. (But if instead you get excited by that sort of opportunity, Profitably is hiring.)

So we suggested to the recruiter that they try to find those candidates—who largely don’t come to Meetups, and thus are harder to reach—and tie Ruby and Rails training into the final job offer. Of course, it’s a risky move for a company to hire somebody who doesn’t know Ruby yet, and I don’t think anything came of our suggestion. But it seems like there’s a match here that can be made. On one side, you have a large company that can’t easily hire Ruby programmers but has cash and can offer stable employment. On the other side, you have programmers who want to transfer their skills to Ruby, but need a stable employer and maybe some help with cash. There should be a way to connect the two sides.

I’m not sure who exactly this is an opportunity for. Maybe it’s an opportunity for a recruiting firm, which could find people with raw talent and experience in other technologies, and get them a sort of transitional offer which involves training and a job offer at the end. Or maybe it’s an opportunity for a consulting shop like Pivotal Labs, which already offers recruiting + training services as part of what it can do for clients, but would probably have to tweak the offering a bit for a different recruitment base.

But it’s got to be an opportunity for somebody. The severe pinch of technical talent in NYC isn’t getting better—if anything, it feels like it’s getting worse. It’s time to get creative with our solutions.

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Tagged: ruby, nyc, hiring

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