East coast companies need to win at home in talent war

New York’s mayor Michael Bloomberg has been making the rounds lately exhorting entrepreneurs to help make the city the new capital of technology. But it’s not going to happen unless start-ups and local tech companies start significantly upping their game and competing against Silicon Valley for local talent on their home turf, said Charlie Kim, the CEO of New York-based rewards and offers provider NextJump.

What makes Kim so vocal? Well, he just organized the largest engineering job fair in New York last Saturday called SA500, an event staged at the New York Stock Exchange that brought together more than 50 of the top east coast companies with 500 top local engineering students. The event featured companies like Kayak, Tumblr, Living Social, Stack Exchange and others. Kim said he was pleased with the turnout but he realized there’s a lot more that east coast companies need to do to compete in the extremely tight market for engineering talent.

Though he looks at the issue through the lens of east coast companies, Kim has a lot of good thoughts for any emerging company looking to pick up talent. Engineers are prized commodities and success and failure depends on more than just ideas but talented workers who can put them into practice.

Kim said it comes down to three keys:

  • Exploit home field advantage — East coast companies needs to really focus on recruiting in their backyard, specifically on college campuses. He said the east coast has some of the top engineering schools in MIT, Carnegie Mellon, Cornell and others and yet many of the best students migrate to the west coast because of the lure of Silicon Valley or direct recruitment from companies there. Kim said in a talk he had with Stanford president John Hennessy, Hennessy told him part of the success of Silicon Valley was Stanford’s commitment to local companies, which helped build a virtuous cycle with many entrepreneurs coming back and recruiting from Stanford and giving back to the campus. Kim said local companies need to build those bonds with universities and connect with students, who have a lot of reasons to stick around on the east coast but often feel they must head west. He said a new proposed engineering campus in New York by Bloomberg will be helpful but companies need to start sewing up east coast talent now.”A number of graduates want to stay on the east coast but they get courted by Facebook and Google,” Kim said. “You have to work harder to attract the same talent.”
  • Bring out the big guns — One of the requirements of the SA500 was that companies had to send a CEO, founder or head of engineering. Kim said that’s critical because for companies who are not at the top of the heap, it takes the commitment of their key executives to sell students on their company. He said NextJump sets aside a whole Saturday with top executives to chat with prospective hires and convince them to join the company. The lesson is that to build for the future, CEOs and founders need to get deeply involved in filling the pipeline if they want to attract the next rock star to their team.”The CEO, founder or head of engineers can beat out a recruiter from another company. No one can sell their company and answer questions better than these people,” Kim said.
  • Play for the long haul— Many companies are looking to fill holes, said Kim, trying to hire someone who can start Monday. But he said the biggest pool of  engineers don’t become available until they graduate in May. The key is getting on campus and courting them early, making sure they’re familiar with your company. NextJump, which has only been in stealth mode until only recently, often gets some of the prime position at campus job fairs because the company is very active in recruiting interns and hiring graduates. Kim said the company hires up to 25 interns a year – sophomores and juniors – paying them almost full salaries, which he said helps spread the word the company on campus and convinces many to join after graduate. He said NextJump hired about 25 engineers this year, almost all of them who had worked for the company as interns.”People try to win in the short term but they don’t get better and lose in the long term. You have to look at it in the long term. You need great top talent and if they’re becoming available in May, you need to work as hard for that person as the person who becomes available on Monday,” Kim said.

The bi-coastal talent war

Now, many companies are already doing these things. But there are lot of companies that could stand to invest more in some of these lessons. Engineers are key to the success of many start-ups, and there’s a talent war going on. This is one way in which Silicon Valley has an edge: Because it’s got such critical mass and recognition, so many companies there sometimes don’t have to work as hard to attract top engineers. The start-up scene in New York and the east coast is rising fast and companies are showing there are great ideas at work outside Silicon Valley. But I think Kim is right in that for the east coast in general and New York in particular to aspire to be a rival to Silicon Valley, it needs to take recruiting more seriously.

As Bob Mason, Co-Founder and CTO of Brightcove, who attended SA500, put it:

“A startup or emerging growth company’s success is primarily driven by the quality and passion of the team. Often each new addition can provide an opportunity for a step-function increase in company performance. CEOs, founders and other key executives would be foolish not to play an active role nurturing the emergent culture.”

Images courtesy of NextJump