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Standing Out and Attracting Top Talent

Joel Spolsky, CEO of Stack Exchange and Co-Founder of Fog Creek Software Talks About His ERE Keynote

 Joel Spolsky CEO of Stack Exchange and Co-Founder of Fog Creek Software Joel Spolsky

"Move Fast and Break Things"

Dear Talent Acquisition Professional,
Does your office resemble Dunder Mifflin? If so, why? Do you think anyone WANTS to come to work in a cubicle farm with cheap crappy furniture, stained carpets, lousy-stupid computers running ancient software on horrible monitors?

Do you think it matters?

Joel Spolsky does. A lot. He is the author of the definitive book on hiring tech talent; Smart & Get Things Done. "The top software developers are ten times as productive as average developers. Ten times!" These are the folks attracted to Fog Creek and Stack Exchange. And guess what? It's not about money.

TotalPicture Radio's coverage of ERE Expo 2012 Spring in San Diego, California, is brought to you by Riviera Advisors, a premier global human resources consulting firm helping organizations develop stronger internal recruiting and staffing capabilities. To learn more about how your organization can benefit from Riviera Advisors real-world experience and expertise, visit www.rivieraaadvisors.com - Or call 800-635-9063.

Joel Spolsky is a globally-recognized expert on the software development process. His website Joel on Software is popular with software developers around the world, and has been translated into more than 30 languages.

Joel created FogBugz, a popular project management system for software teams, and is CEO of Stack Exchange a growing network of individual communities, each dedicated to serving experts in a specific field. He is the Chief Recruiting Officer and official guide on using the company's $15,000 espresso machine.

Joel Spolsky TotalPicture Radio Interview Transcript

From ERE Expo 2012 Spring in San Diego, California, welcome to a special Talent Acquisition Channel podcast on TotalPicture Radio brought to you by Riviera Advisors, a premier global human resources consulting firm helping organizations develop stronger internal recruiting and staffing capabilities. To learn how your organization can benefit from Riviera Advisors real-world experience and expertise, visit rivieraadvisors.com or call 800-635-9063.

This is Peter Clayton with a special report from ERE Expo. Joining me today is keynote speaker Joel Spolsky. A quick program note before we get started, you'll find a complete transcript to this podcast on Joel's feature page located in the Talent Acquisition Channel of TotalPicture Radio. Joel is a globally recognized expert on the software development process. His website Joel on Software is popular with software developers around the world and has been translated into more than 30 languages. He is the author of the definitive book on hiring tech talent Smart and Get Things Done. Joel created FogBugz, a popular project management system for software engineers. He is the co-founder of Fog Creek software and the CEO of Stack Exchange, a growing network of individual communities each dedicated to serving experts in a specific field. Joel, welcome to TotalPicture Radio.

Joel: It's nice to be here. Thanks for having me on.

Peter: So your keynote at ERE was titled "Standing Out and Attracting Top Talent" and actually on Joel's feature page here on TotalPicture Radio, you'll find a link to his video presentation and I encourage you to have a look because it's pretty unique. You started out your presentation by telling the audience that you couldn't find a single employer in New York City who cared about computer programmers so, basically, you started your own company. So give us some back story on Fog Creek and on Stack Exchange.

Joel: The two companies that I'm involved in, Fog Creek I started in 2000. And it was a situation in New York. If you remember in 2000 - 1999 was the peak of the dot-com bubble and so programmers were in credible in demand and salaries were going up but the working conditions for programmers were awful and the companies that were hiring these programmers basically treated them as typists, as sort of interchangeable commodities. It was sort of no surprise that they're having trouble finding good programmers, good engineers and good talent to build their products because they treated them so badly. They crammed them into the crappy offices and worked them to death. There was a lot of research that I sort of believed in that said that having quiet working conditions, having private offices where the doors are closed, working 9-5, all actually make you more productive over the long run as a software developer. It may be counter-intuitive but the big office with the room where you cram people in is not the most productive way to get creative work done.

Peter: And so you started Fog Creek and then after that you started a company called Stack Exchange. Tell us a little bit about Stack Exchange.

Joel: Fog Creek, it was run for about eight years. It's still around. It's still growing. It kind of spins off new products all the time and one of them was an idea that came out of, that I had but we didn't have the resources inside Fog Creek to build them ourselves, so I teamed up with a fellow named Jeff Atwood in California and we started the next company which was initially called Stack Overflow - stackoverflow.com, it's a programmer Q&A website and the flagship sites Stack Overflow got very large and people started saying, hey, I've got questions and answers about other things besides programming. So we set up a whole bunch of other sites on different topics and we called the network the Stack Exchange Network. The origin of the name is Stack Overflow Knowledge Exchange where people exchange knowledge and that was - we really started working on that in 2008. It became a completely independent company which I'm now the CEO. We raised a bunched of venture capital. It's growing and doing well and it's kind of - the business model is mostly based on being a recruiting tool for programmer. So the programmers are asking each other questions and answers about technical topics and that's how they're using the site but it's a great place if you want to hire a programmer to go find them.

Peter: And now you have, what, 85 Q&A sites with over four million visitors per day.

Joel: Something like that. That sounds good. I'll go with that, yeah.

Peter: It's not just for geeks. There are communities on photography and cooking and bicycles and all kinds of different things.

Joel: Yep. I will admit that the biggest ones are kind of geeky, Stack Overflow for programmers and sites for Apple gear like iPads and stuff like that, videogames, that's kind of geeky. Then there are sites on all kinds of smaller topics or smaller, in our world like travel, linguistics, firearms, philosophy, Jewish life and learning... there's just kind of a whole bunch there. I lose track of the actual number because we're setting up new sites all the time but we haven't had a hundred yet.

Peter: You referred to yourself at ERE as the chief recruiting officer. Can you tell us, Joel, what is your philosophy on recruiting?

Joel: It's probably the most important thing that I can do. I don't actually know how to do anything. There's almost nothing I can do in the company that is useful. Basically the primary job is, as they say, get the right people on the bus and sometimes you get the wrong people off the bus but get the right people on the bus and then awesome things will happen and that's what it's all about and it's sort of the number one most important thing. I honestly - and I feel like sometimes this may be a little bit insulting to people that work in a recruiting or human resources as a career, but honestly, I feel like that is the CEO's job that if you outsource the job of hiring the great people, you're not doing your job. You can't just say I want to have awesome people, I'm going to hire a recruiter who'll solve this problem for me. You really have to pay attention to it. You really have to pay attention to what they're doing.

Peter: You shared your top ten ways to recruit top tech talent at ERE which I really think, Joel, could be expanded to just - how do you go about recruiting top talent. I want to talk to you about some of the things that you shared with the audience. Let's start out with the physical work space. Because as you mentioned, so many people especially people in the transitioning right out of college, where do they go? They go into cubicle farms. They go, what am I doing here?

Joel: They hate every minute of it. You've got to go watch and everybody seen it, right, that movie, the Office Space. To remind you of the plot, we've got a young fellow, probably recently out of college working in a cubicle farm, and it's kind of a parody but the reason that movie is so poignant is because it is exactly like so many people's work place is. At some point, he quits and goes to get a job shoveling garbage I believe at the end, if I'm not mistaken. He takes a construction job and he's happy because he's working outside. That really goes a long way to say that people would rather be shoveling garbage outside than working in a cubicle farm.

Peter: Yeah, filling out - what is it? TPS reports.

Joel: Right. TPS report cover sheets to be exact, yes. That's sort of a parody of the bureaucracy that these workplaces create. Essentially, if I had to summarize the top ten things that I was listing, it wasn't the top ten ways to recruit candidates because if your listeners had to imagine ways to recruit candidates, they would think, go to career fairs. I'm pretty sure they know. But it's really top ten ways that you can make the company more attractive again. It's like ways to change the company culture, the company environment, the company workplace so that candidates want to work there. Then everything else is easy. Like make it so that - it almost seems obvious, right? Like instead of arguing with people why I should come work for you, instead of trying to beat it over their head. You see these recruiting websites that are sort of fake, happy pictures of smiley people in an exciting work environment that the companies use to try to convince the candidates that it's going to be awesome to go work there, right? You see a picture of the company has a volleyball court which is a good thing, don't get me wrong, and then you go to the recruiting page and it shows you the employees playing volleyball on the volleyball court. What part of your day -how much of your job is going to actually consist of playing volleyball on the volleyball court? Most of your job is could be sitting at a desk, typing into a computer. What you care about is, do I have a $100 chair, do I have $900 chair? Do I get really uncomfortable around 2 o'clock and my back starts to hurt or am I comfortable all day? That's a big deal, not the volleyball court.

This is all about like don't fake things out on your website, don't try to create the illusion for candidates that this is going to be a great place to work. Make it a great place to work and they'll figure it out and they'll want to come work for you.

Peter: Stop lying to the candidates. One of the references you used is when you went to a college career fair, and all of these companies like McKenzie were there and they have these very slick brochures and it's like McKenzie Paris, London, Brussels, Moscow. Of course, you're going to get sent to Tulsa.

Joel: I have to apologize to Tulsa for that one but that's true because there is no McKenzie office in Tulsa. So that's where you're going. Paris, they got that covered, don't worry.

Peter: You also mentioned that salary is really the canary in the coal mine. Can you expound on that a little bit?

Joel: I have never seen when the workplace is awesome, the work is exciting and engaging, I have never seen salary be an issue in hiring people. It really isn't. People work in non-profits where they get paid next to nothing. Where you see salary be an issue is when the work sort of stinks. I've done surveys of programmers especially where - now, don't get me wrong, we're not talking about like I need to take a job where I can feed my family. I'm talking about well-paid computer engineers, right? For them, there is a range of possible salaries that they can make work, and the minute you start hearing from your employees and from your candidates, I don't think the salary is high enough or negotiation over minor points of the salary, that's probably a sign that the workplace is just not attractive enough. And so it is kind of a warning signal when you start hearing those things that people are not passionate about their work, they're not excited about the opportunity. That's not to say that you should underpay people and it's not say that you should overpay people, it's just to say that if you're fixing your problems with salary, or if you're hearing about, people don't want to work for us because the salary is too low then don't focus on the salary, focus on the twenty other things that have to do with the quality of life and just the engagement of people because they're going to start to bring that up when they start to say themselves, my job sucks. I hope I'm getting paid a lot at least.

Peter: You did this survey of a large audience of software developers and asked them what motivated them in choosing an employer. What did you find?

Joel: We came up with a list of things that we felt were sort of relevant. We said, are these important, very important, etc.? Least important things stock options, forget about that. Things that weren't important or hard press to tell but the things that were super important all had to do with learning, with growth. I mean, there's a bunch of stuff on the list which I think rather than go over what should be tedious, so let's redirect listeners to watch the talk or look at the slides and maybe we can put the top ten in the show notes. But the number one things, things like am I going to learn, am I going to work independently, am I going to grow in my career. Is this an opportunity? Am I going to be doing the same thing? Or am I going to be working with new stuff doing creative things, inventing things, etc.

Peter: You also talked a lot about people really are looking for some degree of independence in their job.

Joel: Yes, that's a very important one. It's sort of hard to underestimate - overestimate. I can't overstate how important it is to give people the opportunity working independently. There is actually kind of science of happiness that is recently - the psychology department at universities used to be folks on unhappiness. They used to be focused on schizophrenia; it caused you to be unhappy, depression - manic depression, bipolar, whatever. That's what psychologist do. It concerns itself with - and in the last 10, 20 years, a group of researchers have said, you know what, let's - why don't we study happiness. Let's study what makes people happy. They couldn't say let's study happiness because in the university they would be laughed out of the faculty lounge. So they came up with a funny word for it called Sense of Subjective Well-Being. That's the official technical academic term for happiness. There's a lot of research into what goes into it. One of the most important components has to do with - to use the technical term again - a sense of agency. Agency is the word that means you have a feeling that you control things around you. A sense of agency is a push of button to turn on the light and it went on instantly because it's a halogen light. With a compact fluorescent, you turn it on and it doesn't go on. It goes on a second later. That tiny little difference is like do I control the light or am I merely kind of suggesting that maybe in the future when it gets its act together, it might want to go on. I'm deliberately using example if it seems absolutely tiny because those little tiny examples of exerting control over your environment do actually add up psychologically to a sense of well-being, a sense of happiness. In the job environment, the easiest thing that we know of that is the result that any psychologist will tell you is absolutely true is that you can make people substantially happier by giving them more control even over things which appear to be tiny, a choice over what kind of coffee they have instead of two choices so they can have eight choices, or the ability to make their own coffee instead of having to go wait in line and have somebody make it for them in the Starbucks downstairs. Or the ability to decide when you come in, even if it's just - maybe we all have to be at work by ten but some people can come in work 9-5 and some people can work 10-6. Those little choices where you give people a sense of independence and control dramatically increase their happiness and well-being. None of the stuff, I think, that I suggested in the talk, including that, are things that are really that impossible for the average company to work out for many of its knowledge workers.

Peter: One of the things that I found really fascinating in your presentation when you started talking about location and I hadn't heard this before, you cited some research done by a gentleman whose name is William Whyte.

Joel: William Whyte, yes.

Peter: Who I guess used to write for Fortune and he did this whole study back when companies where moving all of their headquarters out of New York City out to the suburbs of Connecticut back to the 60s and 70s. And what did he find?

Joel: He found that - first of all, most of the companies that moved out of Manhattan failed. These are Fortune 500 companies, not dinky companies. Most of them are gone or did substantially worse. At the time he did the research, they were doing substantially worse than their peers that stayed in Manhattan. That by today I think all of them are gone, except for Alcoa.

The other thing that he found was that even though the reasons that they gave for moving were invariably very high spirited things like more space and clean air or whatever, in every single case, the company was moving to within something like ten miles of the CEOs home coincidentally. It just sort of worked out that way.

Peter: The most dramatic example you gave of that, I think was Blockbuster moving from Miami to Dallas, Texas.

Joel: Exactly, yeah. What happened there is that all the good employees wanted to stay in Florida.

Peter: And they could get jobs.

Joel: They could get jobs. The people that didn't really have great prospects of getting jobs at other places, clung to their Blockbuster jobs and moved to Dallas. Essentially the company was left with sort of the bottom 50% of their employee pool.

Peter: You have $15,000 espresso machine, is that correct?

Joel: We do.

Peter: Can you tell us about the motivation for spending that kind of money on a coffee machine?

Joel: Coffee is really important. We only have one thing at Fog Creek Software for which there is a death penalty. I'm serious about this and that is putting decaf beans in the non-decaf bean grinder. Coffee is really, really important to us. The truth is that when you add those things up and divide them by the number of employees and amortize them over time, we're talking about probably very, very little money here. One quick back of the envelope calculation I did is that you take an aeron chair and it costs $900 and you think that's a lot for a comfortable chair, but they last 10 years, they're very solid chairs and you compare it to the $100 chair from Staples that lasts two years and it costs $400 more, and it lasts 10 years. That's $40 a year. So it's 10 cents a day actually for that chair. The amount of money that you spend on actually toilet paper in your office if you don't get that free from your landlord is probably on the order of 10 cents a day per employer, that sounds about right if you do the math. It's just so insignificant to buy somebody really comfortable chair, to have a really nice espresso machine. Those little touches where you're willing to kind of splash out on employee well-being in the budgets of the company at kind of a corporate scale are absolutely miniscule. Just the fact that we have this $15,000 espresso machine, none of our employees are going to buy that for themselves at home. You have to have an electrician install 220 volt circuit. It's not happening for a normal person at home. But we can give it to them at work and it costs us absolutely nothing over time.

Peter: You also talked about the importance of lunch, which especially for people who are programmers who, as we all know a lot of them are sort of interpreted and they really don't talk a lot.

Joel: Their work is often kind of cloistered.

Peter: Right. Why is providing everyone with a nice lunch every day is something that you found to really help your organization?

Joel: The superficial reason which I tell my accountant is that lunch is there because people work for - they spend 20, 30 minutes eating lunch and then go back to work, as opposed to taking a lunch hour and going and to wander around downtown looking for a place to buy a sandwich. The reason that the employees will often say that they like lunch is that it's supper convenient not to have to decide what to eat lunch every day. But the real reason I think is that the idea of sitting down like kind of like a family with a group of your co-workers and bringing bread together is a very fundamental kind of human need and desire and it creates that sense of family, there is a sense of community that I think in a long term it's there for retention, like people are far less likely to leave the company if they feel that kind of extra depth of close-knittedness with their co-workers that I think comes from eating together.

Peter: One thing I've never been able to understand is you hire really top talent programmers, designers, whatever, and then you give them a crappy $100 computer to work on. Can you explain that to me?

Joel: I cannot. I mean, I just assume at some point they're a little bureaucratic imperatives, right, that somebody says, it's much simpler for us if we only have two standard kinds of computers. We got the one for the server rack and we get the one for putting on people's desks. You say, no, I want three. I want one for secretary and administrators and one for programmer. You can overcome that bureaucratic comparative but you have to concentrate on that. You have to think about that a little bit and say, you know what, this is the right thing to do, we got to make it work. At some point, the leadership of the company has to do that because the followship of the company - is that a word, followship?

Peter: I think so.

Joel: The rank and file are not going to do it. At some point, there's going to be an IT administrator who says I don't want to have to support Macs, it makes my life too complicated. So lacking anything else, he's going to say, you can't use a Mac at work. And if the CEO says, you know what, we want to give everybody the best possible tools and if they choose a Mac, give them a damn Mac. And if he makes that a priority then the IT administrator will say, actually Mac's a pretty cool - but if you're not paying attention again it's the CEO. This is where I was talking about like myself as a CEO being the chief recruiting officer. The recruiter has to be able to make a decision that people are allowed to use Macs. Doesn't that seem weird, right? Like what recruiter - I think I might ask a very similar question. But how many recruiters do you know have the authority to authorize, employs to use Macs in their company? Zero. But that's a big thing, right? Like working with a great tool is going to be a major, major part of recruiting. And, yes, it's going to cost a tiny bit of money but not as much as you're spending on going to twenty career fairs instead of three.

Peter: Exactly. Or the turnover, right?

Joel: Right, yeah.

Peter: I interviewed Art Pappas, who now has his own company but he was recruited by a financial services organization to write computer code. He got there, they didn't even have a computer for him. I mean, how can you do that?

Joel: That's really funny. I worked at a computer company, an internet startup, the first week I was there, I didn't have a computer. I sat - like this is absurd, right? I dug up computer books - a lot of my co-workers had computer science books from college that they had up on their shelves and I just read those so that at least I was improving my brain. While I was not doing any work for the company that was paying me.

Peter: This really gets to a lot of what I think your whole talk was about, so much of this is just common sense, right? Obviously, if you give a person a cool environment to work in and there's sunshine coming in the windows, there's no dropped ceilings and as you said dirty carpet, they're going to feel better about going to work.

Joel: Absolutely, yes. So I hope the message got through. I think the message I was trying to get through is like, listen, if you're in HR, if you're in recruiting, this is your problem. Even though it's not traditionally a part of what you think of is your problem, it really is. You need to be the person in the company that's standing up to the CEO and saying, the reason I'm having trouble hiring people is because you're not letting them work on the equipment that they need or you're not giving them the good working environment that the guy down the street gives them.

Peter: Right. You mentioned a lot of this is very hard for recruiters to change because how often do people change off these locations or upgrade their office locations but even something like a current paint colors can help which is not that difficult to do. One last question for you, Joel.

Joel: Sure.

Peter: Let's talk about creative work because a lot of what programmers are doing and technical people are doing is just going in and taking code and improving on current code and updating stuff. So how do you stimulate people and get them to be creative when they're doing just a lot of maintenance?

Joel: I had a team here at Fog Creek that was doing maintenance for a long time and they were the most demoralized team I've ever seen. And we basically came up with a way for them to write a lot of new code essentially. We said instead of maintaining this whole area which is a big pain in the butt, let's just rewrite this using the latest awesome technologies. That team is on cloud 9. I mean, they absolutely freaking loving what they're doing now and it's a short period of time. It'll be a few months if they get to do this and then it's back to the goldmines. Realistically, you kind of have to have that real relation that there's some great parts of the job and there's some just sort of manual labor parts of the job. Just paying attention and trying to interweave them and stage them and make sure everybody gets and opportunity to work on the new things that come out is kind of a good way to address that.

Peter: What was some of your takeaways from ERE? Did you learn anything from the recruiters that you spoke with out in San Diego?

Joel: I was a little bit surprised. I sort of suspected this but I think when I asked how many of you actually have the ability and the authority to do any of these things that I'm suggesting, and it was five in the whole room that raised their hand saying that they actually had some kind of authority. I guess the takeaway is something I always thought really which is that HR and recruiters really need to be much more in power because they're kind of working on the input function. It's like to use - I don't know what the metaphor is but you've basically got a vacuum cleaner and it's all gummed up inside and it's not picking up anything and you're not going to be able to make a pickup things unless you clear some of the gummed up inside in your vacuum cleaner. It's not going to work until you replace the bag and clean the filter and it's going to start working really well and that's the sort of the same situation that recruiter is in. It's like if you're out there having trouble recruiting and you're trying to optimize for should I go to University of Texas or the University of Oklahoma but nobody wants to work at your workplace, then you're focusing on all the wrong things. And it's so much easier just to fix the workplace.

Peter: Careers 2.0 by Stack Overflow, what is that?

Joel: So that's a tool for - so Stack Overflow is as I said at the beginning, it's a Q&A community for programmers where they ask each other program questions and millions and millions of very detailed programming questions and answers on there. We have most of the world's programmers on our site all the time. When they're on our site actually, if they're actively participating, we know a lot about what their skills are, we know what programming languages they know and what technologies they know. The idea of Careers 2.0 is if you're looking to hire software developers, we can identify some great ones and you can tell us things like what region they're in, what technology. You can say I need people that know Java in New York and we'll find people that are posting from New York that are getting highly rated answers - one thing we have at Stack Overflow, the programmers rate each other. So the ones that are getting the highest rankings for their questions, you can identify them and then you can actually look at their work and you can have a hiring manager look at the code that they've written and post it and decide if they're worth interviewing and that's kind of a great, great way to recruit.

Peter: That's pretty cool. Joel, thank you so much for taking time to speak with us today on TotalPicture Radio and I really enjoyed meeting you out in San Diego.

Joel: Yes, me too. Thanks very much for having me on.

Peter: Thank you.

We've been speaking with Joel Spolsky. Remember, you'll find a complete transcript of our interview with Joel on TotalPicture Radio, that's totalpicture.com. This podcast was sponsored by Riviera Advisors. To learn more about how your organization can benefit from Riviera Advisors internal talent acquisition consulting services, visit rivieraadvisors.com or call 800-635-9063. Be sure to click on the interviews tab on TotalPicture Radio's homepage and visit the Insights Amplified Channel featuring in-depth podcast with HR leaders and successful talent acquisition practitioners. Star Roundtable Press offers RecruitCONSULT! Leadership: The Corporate Talent Acquisition Leader's Field Book written by Jeremy Eskenazi, Managing Principal of Riviera Advisors. Visit recruitconsult.net to download our free sample chapter from the book. Riviera Advisors is a member of the ASHER Talent Alliance, a global alliance of talent acquisition providers working together to benefit the unique and individual needs of their clients. To learn more about ASHER, visit ashertalent.com. This is Peter Clayton reporting. Thanks for listening.

Peter Clayton

About Peter Clayton

Peter Clayton, Producer/Host, is an award-winning producer/director of radio, television, documentary, video, interactive and Web-based media who has created breakthrough media for a wide array of Fortune 100 clients.


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