Last week, StackOverflow invited a bunch of people to their new offices in London for an “Office Warming Party”. For me, it was the perfect occasion to grab a drink meet and talk to Joel Spolsky, CEO and co-founder of StackOverflow, who had flown in from New York.

StackExchange is the mother company to StackOverflow, the global Q&A platform for developers, and Careers 2.0., the integrated job board for developer talents.

Stackparty-London-insta-featuredA software developer himself and “speaking to recruiters” a lot, I asked Joel some questions on what recruiters needed to do in order to attract and retain (!) the hard-to-get target group of programmers to their companies.

Actually, this is relatively easy if you look closely at these two parameters and follow a few simple steps to make and keep your IT-people happy:

  1. the sociology of recruiters and programmers
  2. the professional environment / working conditions

Here’s our talk:

Q: What can, should and must recruiters do to attract top-notch programmers to their company? What is the absolute “killer” workplace for an IT developer?
A: I speak to recruiters a lot and what I see is that recruiters and programmers come from different sides of the tracks. They have different outlooks and different personality types. A recruiter is a people-person, they are very social and they are looking for other people-persons for their organisation as well. Programmers are not like that and they certainly became programmers in the first place because they are not people-persons.

Computers are highly responsive and very predictable. They do things in a logical fashion, which is something programmers really appreciate. People do not behave in that way, and that’s what drives programmers crazy. When you think and act like this you are likely to become a programmer. Well that’s a great generalisation, of course, but there are differences in the two personality types:

If you combine a people-person (the recruiters) with a not-people-person (the programmer), the programmer will tend to say to the recruiter: “Leave me alone, I will send them an email”. The recruiters, on the other hand, will think, as soon as they receive the long, well-drafted email: “Well, just delete it”! They pick up the phone and call the person. But programmers don’t like phone calls. They prefer emails because writing an email gives them time to adjust and predict the outcome of what they write. So they write an email with lots of paragraphs, which, is far too long to read for a recruiter.

Q: So, is this some kind of “cultural” difference between recruiters and programmers in terms of different backgrounds or way of life?
A: I’d say it’s more of a matter of style. Imagine what recruiters-to-be were like at high school, and how future developers acted at the same time. How could they possibly get along afterwards? I don’t know if this applies to any other country, but in the US, recruiters are people whom everybody likes, and programmers are shy and introverted. Recruiters-to-be played in the football team, went to all the cool parties and had lots of friends whereas the future programmers…

Q: … played computer games in their rooms?
A: Exactly! Well, that’s the sociology side of things.
Recruiters will spend most of their time “outside” of the office in order to bring people in. They will try to convince people to work with and for them, but they need to change the gravity in their recruiting approach.

Q: What do you mean by “change the gravity”?
A: One thing, I encourage recruiters to think about, is how to make the company more desirable for developers. For example, is there a professional work environment and a good architecture. I have established the “Joel Test“, in which companies will find out if the workplace offers good engineering practices for programmers. If the test results are poor, companies should work on that.

Programmers will need quiet work conditions. I always advocate private offices for them. When they are in the flow – and that happens for about 5 hours during a week (when you are lucky) – they mustn’t be interrupted. They will store a massive amount of information in their short-term memory and will then code as fast as they can type. If you interrupt them during this productive moment – for example by calling them on the phone or even by shouting across the room – they will get frustrated, lose a lot of time and fall behind the schedule. Their coding gets sloppy and someone will have to clean it up.

Q: Does StackOverflow provide such working conditions for their programmers?
A: Yes, although most of our developers work from home and only show up in the office once in a while. That works fine, and we have people from Israel, elsewhere in Europe up to the American West Coast. As long as everyone guarantees to work in a certain time frame – that is, a few hours during the US morning hours – you can come work with us. This works really well for us. Anyway, I realised that only companies that started like an open source project, lived on the internet and never had physical offices at all, were really successful with remote work.

Q: What gave you the idea to set up your own company?
A: Actually I was dying to start a company on my own. When I was working at Microsoft in the 1990s, they had good working conditions for programmers. But the offices were in Seattle and I wanted to move to New York. I just coulnt’t find a great place to work as a programmer and that’s how I started my first company. 2 years later, Google opened offices in New York – if they had done that before, I would just have worked there, I guess.

Q: When did you the idea to start a job board for developers on StackOverflow?
A: Building a job board was actually always the idea for StackOverflow. Job listings were and are kind of a good business, and I thought they would do well on or site, and they are actually doing extremely well here. I mean, you get the eyeballs from programmers who have a job, whereas they would never look at a traditional job board because they are employed. We thought if job listings can finance the operation of StackOverflow, that’s good, if it does not, the job ads are not an offense to anybody.

Q: What are the future plans for StackOverflow and the integrated job board?
A: Our ambitions are growing and we wish to increase our global footprint. We still fundamentally believe that progammers are unhappy at their jobs (we know programmers really well), that there are very few employers who know how to make them happy at work. Those who do have deserved to get the best talent. We want help and educate them. For example, we tell them to take the “Joel Test“. If you have a good score, you will get good candidates. We are seeking to influence the employers to do some things to improve the workplace. There will always be things that employers can improve easily, others will take some time. For example, there might not be the possibility to set up private offices immediately. But let people work from home, that decision takes only 2 minutes to carry out.

Apart from that, I do very much feel that the future is that job ads need to grab the attention (and they do only get very little of that anyway) of the job seeker. The ad needs to show me a job that is better than the one I have, that it’s in the city where I live and wokr currently and that it pays more than my actual job: that’s the only ad worth being shown, all the others are not. We have billions of page views per month and are planning to get the suitable ads in front of the suitable programmers.

Q: Thank you very much for all the information – that sounds as if StackOverflow will be dealing more with job matching algorithms based on visitor behaviour and their profile on your site…
A: Yes, well, we have many ideas but none of it is live yet, so I don’t want to brag about it.

Q: Ok, please let me know as soon as there is more info on that. Thanks for your time!