How Brooklyn tech firms are hiring talent in a competitive market

We reached out to some of Brooklyn's leading firms to get a sense of what hiring, retention and advancement looks like in the tech sector here in 2014. This is what we found.

Photo by Brady Dale

Updated 4/20/14: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the Rap Genius editor. His name is Shawn Setaro.
There is a national conversation about the shortage of software developer talent for a fast growing technology sector. For many of the creative firms in much of north Brooklyn, there is priority on finding not just anyone who can fill the role, but someone who fits their company culture. That means the industry is reshaping hiring as much as it is reshaping the economy here.

Now the city’s second biggest sector, New York City has more than 291,000 tech jobs, which account for seven percent of the city’s workforce, though just three percent of the city’s firms are in the IT sector, according to a new study, The New York City Tech Ecosystem. The study was conducted by the consulting firm HR&A Advisors, at the behest of a coalition led by the 40 year-old nonprofit, Association for a Better New York.

The study points to dramatic growth in tech work, the lucrativeness of the jobs and the surprising finding that 44 percent of those cited jobs don’t require a bachelor’s degree — but still pay better than jobs for similar workers in other sectors.

As the industry grows here and the national shortage of talent continues (listen to our February podcast), new challenges are presenting themselves.

As Jason Greenhouse, the Etsy engineering recruiting manager, put it, the fight for new hires is only going to get fiercer in this city as big new players settle on the scene. He said, “If you want good talent, you need to get creative.”

To get a snapshot of recruiting efforts from a variety of Brooklyn technology firms of various sizes and focuses, Brooklyn requested perspective from Brooklyn recruiting managers. We heard from the following firms:


  • Amplify — the edtech division of News Corp. with more than 600 employees in Brooklyn, according to previous reporting
  • Huge — the design agency with 500 employees in Brooklyn, according to PR Week
  • Etsy — the maker ecommerce company with 375 employees in NYC, according to the report cited above
  • Rap Genius — the lyrics annotation site with 25 people, according to an email from the company
  • CommonBond — an online lending platform that provides lower-cost student loans with 15 full time employees, 30 by year’s end, according to an email from the company
  • Flocabulary — 16 employees, 24 by year’s end, according to an email from the company

Of course most companies told us that developers are the hardest to find. Mobile developers, in particular, came up a few times, but so did other kids of engineering.

CommonBond was the only company to reply to our question about what they are looking for with an answer the reflected applicants’ biographies, saying they are looking for people who have spent some time in both the traditional business world and in startups. It’s not a hard and fast rule for them, but it’s something they like to see.

Flocabulary spoke to a mindset, one of people who can adapt in an environment that’s changing all the time. These latter answers, we think, spoke to a deeper search on the companies’ part: fit.

Company recruiting managers told us, again and again, in a variety of ways, that what they want in every hire is to make the next hire easier.

Blake Harrison, Flocabulary cofounder, told us, “Every great hire makes the next great hire easier since smart people want to work with other smart people.”

Huge’s East Coast Director of Recruiting, Hannah Lindsey, wrote to us about a company-wide culture of recruitment and creating an atmosphere of “collaborating beyond just their project responsibilities.” Google is said to have referred to this fit as “Googliness.”

This desire to bring people in who fit the company may also reflect why some companies go out of their way to facilitate existing non-technical employees developing technical skills. We wrote about a story along these lines at Pontiflex.

Amplify‘s senior recruiter Matt Yardeni spoke to “career paths with opportunities for advancement and learning new technologies.” Etsy is also known to have facilitated junior women in the company to move into engineering roles. That latter example was largely motivated by diversity goals, but it had the added benefit of drawing from a candidate base that the company already knew worked well in its environment.

Etsy hired 25 women as engineers in 2013. It also conducted workshops on unconscious gender bias, in order to help insure they stay.

Shawn Setaro, Editor-in-Chief of RapGenius, spoke specifically to the company’s editorial staff, saying “we are looking for people who are not just good at the various parts of our job (writing and editing, community management, artist relations), but also interested in the product side and ready with innovative ideas in all of the above fields. Unsurprisingly, this is tough to find.”

Some companies have dramatic recruitment bonuses. Huge pays its employees $4,000 for every employee referred that gets hired. One of their staff members has referred 11 employees that made it through, said one representative.

Etsy also has an employee referral program, a representative confirmed, without giving a specific amount, and we’ve heard engineers talk about it at events we’ve covered.

If you’ve wondered why there’s always pizza at every tech event you might like to go to, it’s because sponsoring events and showing up at events is seen as a key element to recruitment plans. It brings possible recruits to see offices and culture. It gives staff a chance to shake hands and meet people who might be good. We know that people are interested in what offices look like, and that’s why we always try to post so many photos of spaces here. Getting inside is even better.

The Huge UX School is an aggressive program that comes down to being if there’s not enough talent then make that talent. Staff get hired to learn the job the agency needs them to do. More on that in this SlideShare. Huge rep Lindsey told us that they have since copied the model to create a Huge Project Manager School and a Huge Tech School.

The deeper question, though, is that of pipeline. It’s one that only the larger companies really have the bandwidth to invest in, which doesn’t mean every larger company does. Amplify spoke to pipeline in terms of constantly building a portfolio of potential future candidates and staying in touch with them.

As we’ve discussed in the past, though, a longer pipeline is needed, especially as talent runs short. As Etsy’s Greenhouse told us, “It’s a game of inches, and every little bit could have significant ripple effects that yields hire down the road.”

To that end, Etsy has launched an intern program within Etsy Engineering. Huge cited partnerships with CIEE and the Flatiron School. For companies that can’t build that kind of pipeline, the city wants to do it for you.

Other organizations, such as ScriptEd and NYU Polytechnic, are doing it on behalf of this industry, and providing more support to those initiatives might be a way for smaller operations to show they take pipeline seriously.

On Ping Pong Tables
On the metaphorical ping pong tables of startup culture, we found that every company has them — in one form or another, whether it’s Waffle Wednesdays (Amplify), catered Friday lunch (CommonBond), free beer (Huge) or a custom hula hoop (Flocabulary — though we don’t know what that means) —  and most companies seem a little embarrassed by these culture quirks.

A marketing manager of one prominent tech firm here told Brooklyn that his firm is aiming to undermine “the fetishization of startup culture.” They wanted to hire people who wanted to work on their mission, not absorb the cool. Most of the respondents to this survey told us something similar.

Though the quirks have become so synonymous with tech startups, that they are sometimes called gimmicks, they are part of a broader industry strategy to attract and retain talent.

In truth, stepping away from your work for a moment can actually allow your subconscious to work the problem you’ve been working out for you. It’s worth stopping to play some ping pong (or Xbox or to hula hoop, whatever). More importantly, though, this larger theme of the weird things tech firms do to make life inside their offices a bit more of an experience tells of a sector seeking talent.

Fundamentally, all these companies want people who buy into their mission. Flocabulary even tries to reflect that in its fun side. It has a monthly program called The Quarterdeck, where one staff member does a presentation for other staff on a topic that fascinates them (which makes sense within an edtech company, after all).

Amplify listed the chance to transform K-12 education as one of the ways it attracts people. In fact, Yardeni wrote something to us that reflects the attractiveness of this whole sector, “This is a thrilling time. There are amazing things happening in technology: many of them changing our lives. Sure it’s competitive, but when I step back and admire the companies that are truly transformative, and the people we hire and get to work with who bring ideas to life, it’s such a great opportunity to be a part of that.”

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