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Recruiting: The Next Generation

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Last month in a conference room overlooking New York's Grand Central Terminal a sizable group of businesspeople gathered to discuss a major conundrum: finding developers talented enough to birth digital ideas. They weren't agency execs, rather a group of thinkers many in our business say we'd be smart in emulating: digital entrepreneurs, running web startups. Gathered under the banner of tech networking organization NextNY, the new media professionals revealed that their industry has been stricken with the same talent woes experienced by many ad entities looking to move beyond client service and into innovation.

The problems ad agencies face in recruiting digital talent are manifold, and that group of web startups with their own talent quandary can be counted among them. A recent ad posted by Publicis in the West looking for a digital production artist/designer boasted "We're 200 entrepreneurs," but with the Web 2.0 pot of gold still shining, startups can offer star developers the fruits of real entrepreneurialism—equity. And companies like Google, Facebook and Yahoo! offer the Silicon Valley glitz and a truer, client-free entrepreneurial spirit complete with professional perks like Google's "20 percent time" that gives engineers one day a week to work on projects outside of their job descriptions. For a young developer, the idea that an elevator pitch to a Google bigwig may wind up being the next Gmail is likely a stronger lure than stowing a Gold Lion in his suitcase on the hung over flight home from Cannes (assuming his agency sends his ilk to Cannes). And, in the event a hardcore developer comes into your agency, are you going to have anything for him to do? Will his skills be meaningfully integrated into the agency's brand thinking? How can agencies compete with tech giants and startups alike in luring the best talent? At first glance the answers appear to be "no," "no" and "they can't," but some significant agency selling points are emerging.

ACCENTUATE THE POSITIVE
First, agencies would do well to recognize the transient tendencies of this segment of the workforce. Cindy Gallop, chairman of creative recruiter The Talent Business' U.S. operations and former president of BBH, New York, says "there seems to be much less an attitude of 'I've graduated, I need to earn some money and find a job,' but more of an attitude that 'I have all these ideas that I want to make happen.'" While the concept of a digital nomad may be in part due to the gamesmanship of changing jobs in a hot market, accepting that your agency may be a way station en route to a startup venture or gig at Google (incidentally, one of The Talent Business' clients) can be played to your advantage.

Another incentive for tech talent to go the agency route is practical exposure to branding and client relationships. Given the number of startups that intend to sell ads in some fashion, it can only follow that a startup CTO as versed in exotic coding languages as he or she is in branding will have a stronger position to tweak a business model or build a brand as robust as its code. Startup founders make great products, says Gallop, but "[they] really don't have the first idea about how to position those products or brand them in a way that would drive very emotionally engaging propositions to compete within the marketplace."

Speed and variety of projects are additional differences. Curtis Morales, an outgoing Harvard computer science graduate, followed a Microsoft campus recruiter on a trip to Redmond; he would have been developing the company's Silverlight product but ultimately wasn't too crazy about the scale of Microsoft's enterprise. Many graduates find themselves on a team coding a very specific feature or element in a software set, like an installer or similarly boring interface item. John Mayo-Smith, chief technology officer at R/GA, says his company appeals to developers who need a change. "We're successfully pulling people away from companies where they have been focusing on one specific problem or challenge for many years," Mayo-Smith says. "[They've been] working on a mail program for two years, or on a fantasy baseball community."

The challenge for agencies and production companies is emphasizing the quick turnaround time that'll have potential hires working on multiple brands across categories. "The ideas often come from outside the domain that you're used to working in," Mayo-Smith continues. "If you've been on a consumer package goods company for a year and then have the opportunity to work for a lifestyle company or a financial services company...you're very likely to come up with solutions to problems that other people that are spending all their time inside that domain never would have thought of."

But up against a startup, neither established agencies nor software powerhouses win the openness and accessibility crown. Today's graduate joins Microsoft and finds herself employee number 79,001; the headiest days of even the second dot com boom are now past. Google has around 20,000 employees and Facebook 500, meaning you're much less likely to find a culture as open to new ideas at any level now as you were several years ago. "There are thousands of people working at those companies who may not have as much impact as they thought when they first joined," Mayo-Smith says. You'd think this would be a plus for the advertising set, but few agencies offer a more streamlined, idea-forward environment. Most, especially bigger agencies with lucrative client relationships, have thick hierarchies. "There's a structure in place that militates against the ability to operate entrepreneurially in the way that young tech talent wants to," says Gallop. "A lot of agencies will tell you they welcome ideas from anywhere; in actual practice that tends not always to be the case."

HOW DEVELOPERS DO IT
Back at the Midtown conference room, the NextNY developers revealed their best practices for hiring and being hired and the litmus tests they apply to companies to determine the right fit. Joel Spolsky, founder of Fog Creek Software and writer of the Joel on Software blog, says his company recognizes the very top developers are going to be successful in whatever programming language they encounter once they've got foundation of skills. Spolsky gives applicants a battery of programming problems when they apply, beginning with easy problems to test speed and working up to problems not even the current employees can solve. Spolsky also advocates campus recruiting because "those people have a good excuse not to have a job," and notes that the best programmers can tell from how they're being interviewed if the company will work out.

Nathan Corvino, a developer at Meetup, says the trial extends into the hiring period, and if one developer feels good about the situation he'll encourage friends to get involved. "[It's about] building a culture and a set of values.. [so] people have a sense of what good code is," Corvino says. "Teaching people how to do that so they're maintaining efficiency and not having to help people be efficient." For all the strange motivations that drive programmers, participants noted they should be valued and pushed up the food chain and that winning companies foster a community of coders. More helpful notes: ask what developers have done for no pay to gauge innovation, and check to see how the oldest job on their resume relates to what they do now to draw a path from their present to their earliest motivations.

NOMAD'S LAND
As it stands, the relationship between coders and agencies is still evolving, and the way freelancers work in an agency setting varies from place to place. Adam Scott Paul, a 23-year-old freelance Flash developer, is a great example of the digital nomad, having worked at TBWA's Media Arts Lab, Crispin, Porter + Bogusky, 72andSunny, Wieden + Kennedy (Amsterdam and Portland), 180 Los Angeles, Deutsch and more. Paul's approach to his Flash work is like that of a ski bum—he works when he's not slated to go on tour with rock bands and live life on the road. His entry into the ad process varies: sometimes he picks up remote work on the road, sometimes he moves in to an agency to pick up a project once the main programmer is called away on something more pressing. In an extreme case, when an agency doesn't have much of an interactive department to speak of, Paul says he goes in for weeks or months and concepts, pitches and handles multiple tasks, occasionally with a partner. From what he's seen, Paul thinks hardcore programmers should be employed as vendors. "If you have one guy at the agency who knows that stuff, he can be a technical supervisor," Paul says. "Somebody like that is good to have in-house but not to be doing programming everyday, more of a teaching role. Even the Flash interface, at a higher management level. . .most people don't know what's going on with it."

While surely some companies will want to push digital work to vendors and have an in-house wrangler, it's unlikely this way will result in the kind of new applications and systems that a dedicated group might produce. But as things evolve, different agencies will find their niche. Keith White, Wieden + Kennedy, Amsterdam's recruiter, goes after tech talent tailored to specific projects, but acknowledges when a different order of developer may be necessary. "You look at [production companies] in Sweden, they have proprietary programming or coding or technology that enables certain things to exist, but the guts of the application or the coding is something they develop in-house, for web or digital. That's a whole other recruiting stream than what we are recruiting for." And for programmers who aren't whipping up the next digital revolution in a cave with a 40Gbps connection in the north of Sweden, decamping at an agency with astounding developing skills won't make ideal projects appear out of nowhere. "The way it needs to work," says Mayo-Smith, "is that along with that opportunity, the people who are thinking creatively and technically, they have to have a little bit more initiative and steer things in that direction."

But with no great case study of application- or software-based marketing yet on the agency side, the arms race is all the hotter—a breakthrough applied to advertising is building somewhere, and it could be coming from dozens of different places, be they digital agencies like R/GA or companies like Google. From wherever it arrives, you can be sure technologists will be integral. "They are a really important part," Gallop says. "They design the structures that enable things which are completely different from the structures of traditional advertising."

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