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Business Report

Letting Hackers Compete, Facebook Eyes New Talent

As it readies for an IPO, the social network puts engineers, not HR, in charge of a global search for young programmers.

  • by Tom Simonite
  • February 6, 2012
  • Top coder: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg discusses a software problem during a hackathon event in London.

Late this January, some 75,000 people around the planet sat in front of their computers and pondered how to make anagrams from a bowl of alphabet soup. They were participants in the Hacker Cup, an international programming battle that Facebook organized to help it find the brightest young software engineers before competitors like Google do.

After three more rounds of brain teasers, Facebook will fly the top 25 coders to its head office in Menlo Park, for an adrenaline-soaked finale this March that will award the champion $5,000. In return, Facebook gets a shot at hiring the stars discovered along the way.

“I’m in an all-out land grab for talent,” says Jocelyn Goldfein, Facebook’s director of engineering and most senior woman on its technical staff. The social network builds almost all of its own software, and young, smart coders are the company’s most critical asset as it manages the comments, photos, and “likes” of more than 800 million users. “We are in uncharted waters every day,” says Goldfein. “What’s great about young people is that they don’t know what’s impossible, so they try crazy things and lead us to be the first to make them work.”

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Google and many other companies are chasing the same code slingers as Facebook, causing salaries to shoot up. Average salaries for technology professionals in Silicon Valley rose 5.2 percent in 2011 to break the $100,000 barrier, while pay rose just 2 percent nationally, according to a recent salary survey. One graduating college senior, posting anonymously on the Web, claimed that Facebook offered a $100,000 salary, a $50,000 signing bonus, and $120,000 in stock options. Facebook declined to comment.

According to the prospectus filed in connection with Facebook’s planned initial public offering of stock, the company’s headcount jumped from 2,127 to 3,200 full-time employees in 2011. Unlike some large companies, Facebook does not leave recruiting programmers to its human resources department. “The HR departments are in one building and engineering is in another,” says Goldfein. “Recruitment sits with us.”

Face off: Coders ponder a programming challenge during final rounds of the 2011 Facebook Hackathon.

The best hiring strategies simultaneously test skills and advertise Facebook’s internal culture, which Goldfein says values “clever workarounds that shortcut complexity.” In addition to the Hacker Cup and a series of similar “Camp Hackathon” contests that tour U.S. colleges, there’s a set of fiendishly tricky online puzzles that Facebook maintains online. Solving them with sufficient style can net a phone call from a recruiter. “This is a way to say that if you’re brilliant we don’t care where you worked and if you have a college degree,” says Goldfein.

All that reinforces Facebook’s status as a cool place to work. On Glassdoor, a job information site, Facebook leads technology companies in a ranking by employees of the best workplaces. In another survey that asked workers under 40 where they would most like to get a job, Facebook placed third, behind Google and Apple. Increasingly, other large technology companies aren’t even the stiffest competition for talent, says Rusty Rueff, a board member at Glassdoor. Many talented young people in Silicon Valley are finding that investors and startup accelerator programs will back them to go it alone and found their own companies.

One consequence is that technology companies are buying startups simply as a way to hire their twentysomething founders. Another is that companies aren’t hiring for specific jobs. Facebook  puts new hires through a six-week boot camp where they rotate through projects, choosing one that suits them best. “Facebook and other companies doing this are saying, ‘You can work for us and still be entrepreneurial and create your own thing,’” Rueff says.

Although the coder competition looks like a fun and free-wheeling meritocracy, it also reflects problems in the U.S. education system. Very few women participate, and most of the winners are from overseas. “Facebook [is] aggressively going to other countries because there aren’t enough skilled people in the U.S.,” says Goldfein.

Of the 2011 Hacker Cup winners, all three were foreign men 26 or younger. Facebook hired the second-place finisher. The first-place winner was already employed by Google.

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