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Sequoia Cofounders Give Career Advice to Young Engineers

Why should a college student with job offers in finance or from a big company like Google go work for a startup instead? That was the big question of debate at this weekend’s ‘Start @ a Startup’ event, which matched about 200 college seniors with 30 startups like Birchbox, Dropbox, Flipboard and Square.

Over snow cones and candy, the students—engineering majors from the Ivy League and largely East Coast-oriented schools like Georgia Tech, the University of Waterloo and Rice University—spent two days in breakout sessions, keynote talks and eventually job interviews. Forbes caught up with the event’s co-hosts, venture firm Sequoia Capital and nonprofit Business Today, as well as three visiting cofounders from the Sequoia portfolio to talk computer science learning, hiring outside of Silicon Valley and diversity issues in tech today. Some of their best advice is below, lightly edited for clarity.

Why is it important to have this event on the East Coast?

Bryan Schreier, partner, Sequoia: The idea came from the fact that there are very few computer science graduates in the U.S. each year, maybe 16,000 or 17,000, and most are from the Northeast. But if you go to Stanford for computer science, there’s a 45% chance that you’ll join a startup. With the Ivy League, it’s just 15%-17%. There’s an under-representation of startups compared to big banks and consulting firms. We want to bring as many startups as we can to the student population out here, to help the startups hire as many people as they can and level the playing field, and to be a service for these students as they look at the next big step in their lives.

Marco Zappacosta, CEO, Thumbtack: The software engineering market is more like a moviestar market or baseball than it is a blue collar profession in that there are returns to being even marginally better. The returns are multiple. We are hunting for the tiniest percentage at the very top, because the leverage is tremendous. We made three offers last year, lost one, and hired one intern.

Steve Garrity, CTO, Hearsay Social: None of us came here with a cap of how many people to hire. If they hit the bar, we’d gladly hire all of them.

Why should these students be joining your companies, instead of a larger company like Google or one they start on their own?

Matt MacInnis, CEO, Inkling: Going out on your own is achievable as a new grad, but statistically about as bad a chance as can be. How do you work with others, resolve conflict, and be a functioning member of a team? If you go to a mid-sized startup you get the best of both worlds. You have someone who will take you under your wing and coach you. It’s the best way to learn these lessons after school. On your own you will learn these lessons the most expensive way possible. You get coaching at Google, but you don’t see the high level peanut butter tying everything together.

Garrity: Imagine you want to go live in the wilderness and start your own civilization. You have three options. You could go try to do it right away and figure out which plants are poisonous. Is that animal harmful or is it going to be a pet? You could build your hut, and a bridge and a rope swing, and you might make it through and not kill yourself. Odds are you will eat the wrong berry or get chased by a tiger or not build your fire fast enough.

On the flipside you can go live in San Francisco, and you’re not going to learn much that’s actually applicable to living life in the wilderness. The berries are delivered to you packaged; the fire is a flick of a switch. Or in the middle, go live in a small tribe that is still living natively, but they say, ‘Hey, don’t do that.’ There’s tribal knowledge. ‘Don’t eat the red berries, go for blue.’ ‘Hey there’s a tiger, everyone go in the fort.’ In my keynote today I am saying that failure is dying, everything else is learning. On your own, the cost of your mistake is the business dying. At a large startup, you eliminate the dying risks, but don’t eliminate all the risks.

Schreier: Starting a company is so much harder than wanting to start a company. You need the right idea, the right time for the idea, and to be the right person for the idea. Recent grads that want to start a company, I tell them that’s fabulous and to go learn the skills until they have an idea that rips them from whatever they’re doing. Fantasizing about a startup is not enough.

What do you look for in young hires?

Zappacosta: We look for a quiet ambition, we don’t want you to wear it on your sleeve, but we want you to be intrinsically motivated and deeply curious, the type who asks questions to build your knowledge.

MacInnis: We talk about ‘No assholes’ and integrity. You want fundamentally good people who are also technical minds.

Garrity: There are companies where superstar assholes are tolerated. They get things done. That’s not even a fundamentally flawed culture, it’s just one one that we don’t choose.

How do you see an event like this in terms of improving the fundamental imbalance in gender and minority jobs in tech?

Macinnis: There’s two ways to solve this problem. There’s the cradle, where women continue STEM as a career path, and then there’s at the source of hiring, which is when someone’s coming out of their university, and can you convince that person that it’s the right career path for them? And then, can you get them? This conference helps solve the second problem. The first is more profound and tough to solve.  But if we have a shot at hiring a few more female engineers out of this event like this, it’s a huge home run.

Zappacosta: It’s also something you can only improve through outbound efforts. If we just hired based on incoming notes, we would perpetuate the culture. It’s only by coming to events like this and working to find people that you think are underrepresented that you change it.

Garrity: You get a different mindset with people from the East Coast versus the West coast, a different mindset. I want diversity on beliefs, viewpoints and backgrounds. I don’t need diversity on whether you have integrity or not.

How do you find that in a 22-year-old?

MacInnis: It’s like, “Yea, brah!” There are many short-hands, any single one of which is insufficient to avoid, but you get to understand how someone operates as a person.

Zappacosta: The hard part is how you test for your values. Early on, my cofounders and I would say, ‘Test for culture fit,’ and someone would say back, ‘I know we have a distinct culture, but I don’t know how to articulate it.’ So we had to sit down and come up with questions that are revealing of these values.

Garrity: We still haven’t cracked that code. My cofounder or I still interview everyone who joins the company. [As it turns out, a cofounder at all three startups still interviews every hire.]

What about the students outside the Ivy League who maybe need more help?

Schreier: That’s why we expanded a little bit outside the Northeast to schools like Rice and Virginia that are great programs. Technology levels the playing field, but finding people is part of the struggle.

Paul Dornier, Business Today: That’s also why I read all 1,800 applications. We all know there are students out there who would be a perfect fit for something like this who never hear about it.

Zappacosta: An engineer is a role where it’s easier to test true ability. We hired a guy out of Appalachian State. Who knows why he went there, and if we just saw that, we might have passed. But he did our coding challenge, killed it, and he got an offer. Engineering is more meritocratic than a bank or finance. 

And startups that aren’t backed by the likes of a big firm like Sequoia, at least yet? 

Zappacosta: As a startup, we had to compromise early on. There was a guy who was super effective but not a culture fit. We knew it, but it was a tradeoff we had to make. There weren’t a lot of people knocking on my door and I needed to fill that position now, and I didn’t know if I could do it without him. So we hired him, and it was worth it but it caused problems. [The employee’s no longer at Thumbtack.]

Garrity: We did some heinous stuff with our code base. I was the only engineer, working from 8pm to 6am. When we raised our Series A [funding round] from Sequoia and hired our first engineer, I spent all night refactoring our code base so he wouldn’t see it in the morning and quit, and I apologized that it was terrible. He asked me if my valuation would be any higher if the code was prettier, and I said no, investors didn’t look. So he replied that the code did its job, now we could work to make it better. You can do the same thing with employees, but there’s probably a line there if you can’t fix it too fast.

Macinnis: What they’re describing is technical and cultural debt. You take it on early because you won’t get the best at first. But eventually you have to pay it off, whether it’s by replacing people or code.

What do these college seniors know that you didn’t at that age?

Blair Shane, CMO, Sequoia: These students know what they don’t know, they’re aware of what they’re asking and learning each time, more than many students I’ve encountered in the past. And they know more about the stage of company, from seed to Series A or Series B.

MacInnis: The questions have been really smart. They’re mission driven, not money-driven, so their sophistication has impressed me.

Zappacosta: They just know a ton of companies! I don’t remember knowing this many startups when I was a senior in college.

What would you like to un-teach C.S. majors in the U.S. today?

Garrity: How to ship. People say, ‘Oh, ship software.’ ‘You did the project, now ship it!’ But that’s not at all how it happens. You have to build, test, deploy, support and deal with everything else. The assignment isn’t over. A couple people are starting to indicate they know that, but most kids coming out of any college—including Stanford—don’t get this.

Zappacosta: I think people do a bad job of distinguishing computer science as a science from software engineering that you do in the day-to-day. Students love algorithms, and that’s great, they’ll come into play. But there’s a ton of work you’ll do with systems so that the algorithm works for the actual product.

MacInnis: Being grades as an individual in school, versus a fluid team without a fixed assignment.

Schreier: A couple of startups are trying to address this problem. Koru takes people who are well-educated and puts them through a three-month intensive learning process the summer after they graduate, and then they have placement programs in companies like LinkedIn. They take you from a liberal education to being a field-ready data scientist, which is an incredibly powerful idea to help people get more interesting jobs straight out of school.


Alex KonradThis article was written by Alex Konrad from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. SmartRecruiters is your workspace to find and hire great people.


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