Death of the signing bonus: Open source recruitment works
The referral's in the code
Open...and Shut Venture capitalist Fred Wilson recently derided marketing as "what you do when your product or service sucks." Great products market themselves. In a similar way, paid recruiting is what you do when your insight into the movers and shakers in your corner of the industry stinks.
I'm not referring to the courting of talent. Instead, I mean finding talent in the first place, which many companies pay top dollar to recruiters to do for them. The recruiters throw the equivalent of nets into a big ocean and hopefully dredge up something useful for you.
At least as pertains to technical talent, this is suicide at worst, and stupidity at best.
I've noted recently that some of open source's benefits are lost in a world of mobile app stores and the web, where the immediacy of downloading source code is trumped by the immediacy of polished, easily installed code or web services. But one area where open source reigns supreme is in hiring technical talent, a benefit open source is unlikely to cede to its recently sexy peers, cloud computing and mobile.
This is so because open source is the Google Adsense of recruiting technical talent.
At every open-source company where I've worked - and I've worked at five so far - it has been easy to identify top talent: they're the most active and/or useful community members. These are people that find the project (and company), rather than the other way around.
Importantly, these engineers aren't necessarily confined by Silicon Valley's borders, with all the Darwinian recruitment competitions that go with limited supply and heavy demand. One of the best engineers at my current company hails from the hinterlands of Nova Scotia, Canada. Before Strobe I worked at Canonical, where we had employees scattered throughout 29 different countries. We hired the best Linux engineers wherever they happened to be (and many "happened to be" in some pretty remote locations).
This is a far more efficient (and sustainable) model than Silicon Valley's current hiring binge, which apparently requires $5m retention bonuses at Google and outsized salaries everywhere else, simply to hire - often - middling talent.
Some of the fat paychecks will undoubtedly be well earned, but for many companies, they're hiring on hope. Open source, again, provides a better way, because it offers employers the chance to fully vet a candidate before he or she is hired. I don't need "referrals upon request," as I already have a wealth of information on how well someone codes or gets along with others among other useful information.
No, open source is not a solution for most kinds of hiring. It probably won't net you a great marketing lead, or your next sales vice president. But if you're looking for great technical expertise, you're wasting shareholder money if you're not scouting relevant open-source projects, especially if they happen to be ones that your company sponsors. ®
Matt Asay is senior vice president of business development at Strobe, a startup that offers an open source framework for building mobile apps. He was formerly chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfreso's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open-source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears twice a week on The Register.
I call bullshit
How about some numbers to back up the central argument that open source involvement is a good predictor of engineering talent?
At my current employer, I work with a huge team of bright engineers, none of whom have any direct involvement in open source. And it's not because we don't use Linux or open source software, it's because when we come home after 10 hours of daily struggle, the last thing most of us want to do is stare at text on a display and do more work.
I always wonder who it is that actually is involved in OSS-- certainly people who are paid to do it as part of their day job (you can get the same people by poaching from your competitors-- a time honored tradition to be sure), I imagine some students, people who are out of work or retired and looking for something to do, and maybe people who find their job boring and spend their effort on a more interesting project instead. Seems then that the additional talent pool available if you scrape OSS projects has a probable bias towards inexperience and intransience (ever read the postgres or perl6 forums? There's a reason for some of the stereotypes of the linux ubernerd, and it's not just RMS's fault). Digging through a community's forums and monitoring IRC to figure out who is talented and who is problematic sure sounds like an awful lot of work.
Look at what they've written and published.
An OSS developer, even if not one of the high profile people, can at least give you some URLs showing their discussions, code etc.
A typical interview question goes something like: "Tell me about a problem you worked on and how you worked with other people to solve it." If the discussion was on a mailing list then you can provide backup showing how you communicated with others and did that work.
I strongly suggest involvement in OSS to anybody. trying to improve their employability.
Worked for me
I have been hired by some big name companies because of the OSS I've written. When they Googled for the subject of interest, articles, documents and code I had written dominated the first page of results.
Being a successful OSS contributor also puts you head and shoulders above unproven competition. You can actually demonstrate your skills so the employer knows you are not embellishing skills.
OSS participation also tends to be a meritocracy. Hacking it in OSS proves you can do the job.
Of course that doesn't mean that those who don't play OSS are idiots, they just have to work harder to prove their worth.