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Alternative Recruiting Strategies Employed by Companies Vying for Top Tech Talent

May 19, 2012
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Games and media executive Tony Ford prefers the term "hacker" when referring to a programmer or coder.

"For serious engineers who really care about their craft, it's a good thing to be a hacker," says Ford, director of engineering for IGN Entertainment Inc., a San Francisco-based media and online entertainment company.

This is exactly the type of "underground" computer whiz IGN is looking for, but so is everyone else.

For some tech executives, the job titles for programmers and coders are used interchangeably, but others contend there is a big difference. Programmers, for example, write computer programs, but also rewrite, debug, maintain and test software and programs that instruct the computer to perform certain tasks to improve efficiency. Coders, well, simply write the code for a program.

No matter what you call them, information technology professionals continue to be in high demand. The war for tech talent has prompted some companies to drop some of the traditional recruitment methods for alternative strategies.

IGN has taken its guerrilla recruitment a step beyond Facebook, LinkedIn and Meetup with its popular Code Foo challenge—a "no résumés allowed" recruitment program aimed at finding extraordinary coding talent regardless of educational background, college degree or experience. The annual six-week program, which was first introduced in 2011, gives aspiring coders with a passion for gaming the opportunity to get paid to learn coding languages and work on real engineering projects while being trained by industry leaders.

Code Foo is a play on words with both the martial art kung fu and a reference to variables in programming. The spelling "Foo" comes from "foobar," a common naming convention used in programming.

Candidates who impress IGN may nab a full-time job. Out of the 75,000 people who reviewed the 2011 application for Code Foo, IGN selected 30 to participate in the program and hired eight.

Instead of a résumé, Code Foo candidates are asked to submit a statement of passion for IGN and answer a set of questions that test their coding ability. Ranging in age from 20 to 30, only half of the group last year had college degrees in a technical field—and not necessarily in computer science.

"This program is an opportunity for us to find untapped talent that's out there that may not have the traditional computer education or who don't have the formal experience as an engineer," says Greg Silva, vice president of people and places for IGN. "This program is a way to find people who could create applications for our company and who are passionate about our business. We are not concerned so much about their résumé as much as we are about their talent and ability to learn and grow."

IGN is not only savvy about attracting workers, but also the company has invested time and money in keeping them happy. One way is through the company's annual Hack Week, a contest that allows coders to show their abilities.

A January 2012 survey by Baltimore-based IT staffing firm TEKsystems Inc. found that 81 percent of IT professionals say the No. 1 consideration when deciding to remain with their employer or move on is the chance to develop their skills. The second condition is career advancements; compensation ranks third.

TEKsystems' director of recruiting, Marshall Oldham, says IT professionals are attracted by a company's business focus and culture.

"IGN's method of hiring makes a lot of sense based on the technology they use," Oldham says. "A large institution, however, may need to take a different approach if individuals need experience across a large enterprise coupled with strong communication skills and the ability to work with different personalities."

While technical skills and experience are important, Oldham says most companies are better off finding the right personality and cultural fit.

"Many organizations are looking for developers who understand the business and how they play a role in helping the organization accomplish its goals," he says. "Some of our customers will at times make concessions on the technical skills if a candidate has strong communication and fits within the corporate culture."

Oldham says in the dot-com boom of the late 1990s that programmers were wooed with high salaries, big bonuses and stock options. Today, IT professionals focus more on work-life balance and career growth.

"The industry's top talent always has a number of opportunities they can pursue," Oldham says. "Many companies are usually successful at attracting IT talent through compensation, but they rarely hold onto them for an extended period of time. If IT professionals are not in a healthy environment where they feel challenged creatively with a runway for career growth, it's unlikely they will stay."

Amy Carr, executive vice president of human resources at San Diego-based Internet services and marketing firm Red Door Interactive Inc., says her company has implemented quick, intense hiring strategies for tech workers and also boosted its budget for training and education after they are hired.

Most of Red Door's 10 programmers were hired through referrals from other employees or by clients, Carr says. A $3,000 bonus adds incentive for employees to refer programmers.

"The two programmers we recently hired had three other offers, so we had to accelerate the hiring process," Carr said. "During this process we immerse them in our culture and offer them access to anyone in our organization. It feels like they are interviewing us as much as we are interviewing them. One of the programmers we hired told us the office environment was a big deal."

Tech workers are in such demand that the interview process can't be allowed to drag for several weeks, Carr says.

"For one candidate, we did an initial phone screening on Wednesday and brought him back in the next day, and then that afternoon he met with people from two different departments," Carr says. "Then he had a social lunch with the tech team and then we did a detailed reference check. We offered the job to him that Friday night because we had to. We don't skimp on the process; we accelerate it. Otherwise we would lose out."

Andrea Siedsma is a freelance writer based in San Diego. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.

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