In groups of four, the soon-to-be graduates of LivingSocial’s inaugural Hungry Academy stepped in front of their peers last week to present their capstone projects: a fully functional Web site built to help school teachers raise money for classroom projects.
Just two and a half weeks ago, these same projects were merely sketches on notebook paper. The ideas were only half-formed. No lines of code were written. No Web pages designed.
But after five months incubating on the first floor of LivingSocial’s New York Avenue NW headquarters, tight deadlines and ambitious goals have become second nature for the program’s 24 students.
Put simply, Hungry Academy is an experiment. As Chief Technology Officer Aaron Batalion explained in February, executives wanted to study a straightforward hypothesis: “Can we take raw talent, add on technical experience, add on product development experience and turn them into awesome members of the team?”
The basic answer: Yes. All 24 students who graduated from Hungry Academy last week begin work today as full-time engineers assigned to the company’s various business units, such as Escapes or Merchant Solutions.
But the question of how to best recruit technical talent is far more complex and something technology firms across the nation have been forced to grapple with as demand for Web engineers and programmers far outstrips the number of appropriately skilled workers capable of filling those positions.
Companies have responded to the challenge is multiple ways. Some enterprises create formal training or mentorship programs with hands-on guidance. Others may simply buy the talent outright with hefty salaries or unique perks.
Intelligence and passion
It was three months into Hungry Academy and 27-year-old Elise Worthy from Seattle was on the phone with her mother. The stress of the intensive program and a nagging sense of self-doubt had finally caught up with her, and things weren’t looking good.
“I remember just calling my mom and being very upset about it and thinking I couldn’t make it,” she said. “My group of peers here is incredibly smart and they’re very talented people ... and I didn’t think I cut the mustard, relatively.”
An MBA graduate from the University of California, San Diego, Worthy worked in brand strategy and marketing before coming to Washington in March. She had spent the prior year learning to code with a group that promotes women in tech — and Hungry Academy covered the same material in the first two days.
But Worthy persevered, building her confidence along the way, she said, and will join LivingSocial’s Portland office as an engineer who helps deliver analytics to the merchants that use LivingSocial to offer online discounts.
“We believe that intelligence and passion are far harder to hire for and much more important than a specific technical skill,” said Chad Fowler, LivingSocial’s senior vice president of technology. “We have enough of the kind of DIY sort of mentality here and, maybe it’s a little bit of hubris, we can teach faster than the industry.”
That notion prompted LivingSocial to grow its own talent, rather than just buy it from the market. It’s a decision that has come with a sizeable, albeit undisclosed, price tag that smaller firms might not be able to pull off.
Technical positions at LivingSocial cost $5,000 per hire on average and may require 120 to 150 days to fill, according to the human resources department. For comparison, nontechnical positions cost $3,500 per hire on average and typically sit vacant for 90 days.
The company declined to disclose the cost-per-student for Hungry Academy, but said it likely runs three to four times higher because of training expenses. That estimate does not include the salaries and benefits students are given during the program, or account for the cost of remodeling office space.
The benefit, if all goes according to plan, however, is a fleet of engineers that can be hired en masse with a commitment to work at LivingSocial for at least 18 months. Unlike fresh hires, the academy students are already familiar with the company’s products and culture.
“Anytime you try something for the first time, the only guarantee is that it won’t be exactly what you expected,” said Jeff Casimir, the academy’s director and founder of JumpstartLab..
The academy “succeeded in forming this cohort mentality,” Casimir added. “As a company, it’s dangerous to train people and then they’ll leave.”
That’s a different philosophy than other firms, which prefer to hire talent or buy companies that have experienced teams, said Steve Roberson, who co-founded an employment search site aimed at young companies. He watches postings for Web engineers and developers pour across the job board at StartupHire, which account for about 35 percent of listings, and can often be the hardest to fill.