Tony Padovano, Pedro Gutierez, and Aadi Deshpande from the Priceline Engineering team have hired a dozen Flatiron School graduates onto their technical team. We sat down with them to find out what they look for in new-hires, why they started hiring Flatiron School bootcamp graduates, and the career path for a Software Engineer at a company like Priceline. First, let’s meet the Priceline Engineering team:
Tony Padavano is the Chief of Staff of the Technology Team at Priceline. As Chief of Staff, one of his main functions is to make sure that Priceline hires qualified employees.
Pedro Gutierez is a Development Manager at Priceline, where he hashes out macro-level items like overarching technological direction as well as micro-level, team-focused initiatives, such as team growth and project management.
Aadi Deshpande is the Senior Director of Site Experience and Packages and the Team Director for the Tech App among other things. He works to ensure good product by staffing the Priceline teams, improving his teams’ capabilities, and providing guidance and education.
How did you each get to where you are in the tech world?
Tony: For me, it was completely accidental. A lifetime ago I was a newspaper reporter. I have my Master's in Liberal Arts from Columbia University. I had no intention of doing anything computer science-related or travel-related. I knew somebody who was working at Priceline and I thought the company sounded interesting. I gave them a call, came in for an interview, and got hired.
I went from a completely nontechnical career – I started as a Project Manager and have, over the past 20 years, taken on five or six different roles within the company that led to bigger projects. As the company has grown, I've been able to grow too. It's been nice. That's one of the reasons I like students from bootcamps. A lot of bootcampers are changing careers and they've done the bootcamp by choice so they haven't been forced into it. The people we've hired from Flatiron School often come from a completely different career.
Pedro: I have a Computer Science degree from Arizona State University. I worked at a small software company and then a consulting firm. I've now worked seven years here at Priceline. I jumped around but stayed mostly on front end and then worked on the native app.
Aadi: I have a Computer Science degree from New Jersey Institute of Technology, but my story is still non-linear. For most of my career, I was a Back End Engineer. I would do large scale implementations of Java and other projects like that. I got put into a job a number of years back where I was still building a website to scale but I was with a team that was new and inexperienced. Being in that role kind of stuck so I stayed on that route. I got to Priceline honestly by nepotism. I got the job because I knew someone on the inside!
What is the engineering team like at Priceline and why are you hiring engineers?
Tony: Priceline has more than 400 employees in the technical department. More than half of them are people who are writing code. Priceline is part of Booking Holdings and we provide a number of critical services for the entire group and as the company continues to grow and we continue to move further into international markets with Priceline.com we have a lot of work to do.
On top of that, we are a 20-year-old company. While we operate in a lot of ways like a startup, we are actually a fairly mature company. There's a lot of legacy code that can create headaches for people like Pedro and Aadi who are trying to build new products while still supporting our old products. There's always a need for more talented hands to come in.
How many Flatiron School students have you hired?
Tony: I think we've hired 10 by now, maybe 12. That was over the course of two cohorts.
Pedro: I have 5 Flatiron School graduates across my two teams.
What roles do bootcamp graduates usually go into at Priceline?
Pedro: All of the bootcamp graduates that we've hired so far came on board as associates. There is a curriculum for associates coming on board, and Aadi runs this. The curriculum helps them make progress in their career at Priceline. We have 30-, 60-, and 90-day plans for all of our new-hires. We have catered that track a bit more for Flatiron School candidates. While these candidates have high aptitude when it comes to programming, they usually lack experience because they've only just finished bootcamp. We try to escalate those candidates’ onboarding with specific programs for them to get them up to speed.
Tony: I think we can safely say that the people we’ve hired from Flatiron School have been prepared to come in as Associate Developers. They have a good, basic skillset; their attitude is tremendous; they bring new ideas to us. We can learn a lot from them because they bring a new perspective on things. And they all seem to learn very well. We have set up, as Pedro said, programs to extract the best we can out of them and help them along their career path.
Pedro: Culture fit is big. You have to be approachable here. We always preach that if you're stuck on anything you're never wrong. You have someone on your team who can help you. You can always escalate something. If you don't know an answer or you can't find an answer for something, you can always find someone else within the company that can, sometimes even in a different department.
Are you meeting Flatiron School candidates when they come in for their first interview or are you attending their demo day?
Tony: Felix Xie is our contact at Flatiron School. He'll set up 25-minute speed interviews for 20-30 candidates that we do over a couple of hours. Our CTO Marty Brodbeck, myself, and another director did the first round of those interviews and Aadi and Pedro did the second round. We identify people in those short interviews who we think might be high potential.
Those candidates then go into the normal interview process. They start with a technical round and then a round that we call “Capacity for Mastery” which tests their ability to learn. In both of those rounds, we are also looking for a cultural fit. Once the candidates have gone through those two interviews we do a final interview. Aadi and Pedro have the final say on whether people get hired because they are the ones who will be managing these new candidates.
Aadi: Pedro and I do those two interviews and we’ve also done phone screens, first round interviews, second round interviews, and final interviews. In some cases, we have even done them together and with our CTO, Marty. We've met Flatiron School candidates at pretty much all phases of the interview life cycle.
How did Flatiron School candidates perform in the technical interview?
Aadi: Bootcamp graduates do pretty well in the technical interview – we don’t do a normal technical interview where we ask them to code their way out of a problem. We ask bootcamp graduates to talk to us about something that they're passionate about in the technical interview. A specific project, technology, or plan. That gives them a chance to shine light on an area that they can capably talk about instead of putting a random set of expectations on them.
The things that stood out to me in the candidates we ended up hiring was their passion about the technologies and the things that they want to accomplish with those technologies. They had the impetus to dive deep because they were trying to solve a problem, not simply because they were trying to pass a test. That speaks well to the nature of their ability to jump into a problem space, understand what they are trying to do, and deliver results. Those are high qualifiers for success at our company.
Pedro: We can see who will be a good individual contributor and that's the ultimate goal. We try to measure the intangibles. That sounds impossible to do but they actually jump out! Whether or not someone is passionate. The learning mindset, that's critical. That's the way to becoming a successful engineer: continuously learning and trying to discover things. And ask the critical questions like "How does this work?" If they can convey that in some form or another to us, it pops.
Is there anything else you look for when you’re hiring bootcamp graduates?
Aadi: On the technical side we ask standard programming questions but the things we are actually looking for are competency and coachability. If we're quizzing a candidate about their technical knowledge or ask them to repeat something and they get frustrated, which some do, that's a big deal. The candidate's desire and capacity to learn need to go together. The Flatiron School candidates, who are now almost 10% of our workforce, responded well to that.
Pedro: I look for communication. Most bootcampers excel better in this area than the traditional candidate. They can express what they're doing. They can usually convey how or why they are stuck. They might not be as skillful as some other candidates but I can so clearly see how we will be able to fill in those gaps.
Have you ever hired a bootcamp graduate as a Senior Engineer?
Tony: The answer to that is “no.” It's not out of the realm of possibility – someone could walk in and blow us away. But we look at people coming out of bootcamp programs as entry-level engineers. There was a time, not too long ago, that we wouldn't even hire someone who was fresh out of a computer science degree. Hiring bootcamp graduates has been a relatively new avenue for us to pursue. I'm glad we're doing it and it has been working well, but the career path at Priceline starts at Associate and then goes to Mid-Level, Senior, Principle, and Fellow.
Aadi: Never say never. But the reality is simple: most, if not all, of the candidates we've seen from bootcamps, don't have the work experience. They might have a technical background but we expect to give new hires a career path to help them succeed. It's not that they aren't capable of doing a different role other than Associate. We acknowledge that they have gaps in their abilities and we want to push them to fill those gaps as quickly as possible so that they are capable of advancing their careers.
I asked a graduate in an interview once, "What was your biggest takeaway from Flatiron School?" and the answer was always, "I've learned how to learn." That's important. The Flatiron School candidates have figured out it's not about reading or writing. It's about trying different things, pushing the envelope to figure out what works and what doesn't. Those things are fundamental.
Pedro: It's also not really the things you learn on the job that makes you a good Engineer. It's what you learn outside. Any interests or hobbies that you have and whatever you learn in those realms is always going to come back to your 9-5 job.
Without giving away any company secrets, can you tell us about the responsibilities that your Flatiron School hires have at Priceline?
Pedro: We're a lean organization, even compared to our competitors. From about two weeks in, Flatiron School graduates that we've hired are given features to write. They get the responsibility of cleaning up our legacy code pieces as well. I have one Flatiron School graduate now who's been here for roughly three months who I assigned a big feature on a new product. He's contributed in multiple ways from designing solutions to front end and back end implementation. He's also been helping the product team.
Aadi: There are no company secrets because Flatiron School graduates are working on what users are seeing. They're working on significant experiential changes. We're fundamentally reframing how the customer experience needs to go and they're a part of that. The great thing about the Flatiron School graduates is that they're enthusiastic and energetic. They have a background in writing A/B testing. We can coach them but they're able to engage and bring their ideas and concepts into it themselves. There's nothing off-limits to them, but we like to make sure they're thinking about problem-solving in the right way.
Now that you’ve all interviewed almost 50-60 Flatiron School students, what's your advice to a bootcamp graduate to stand out in the hiring process?
Aadi: Blend your background. If you come from a client services background, leverage that in UX! If you've been working with spreadsheets all the time, you can bring analytics into play. You can make yourself a better candidate because you're bringing more to the table than bootcamp. The people that we've seen who have been able to speak to their background stood out. When you can construct that story it makes you a much better candidate.
Pedro: Create a project, get it in front of someone, create a situation that has problems that need to be solved. That yields experience that you can bring into interviews. You can show how much you've done, what you've tackled, and how you solved problems. Solving problems is the biggest factor for me. And candidates we’ve hired have referenced that somehow, usually when presenting their projects. It's a telling sign that there is more there.
Tony: My perspective is a bit different from Aadi and Pedro's because I’m not writing code on a daily basis. I focused on why these candidates decided to go to Flatiron School and what caused them to pick the project that they picked. The people who did projects because they had a real problem that they wanted to solve ended up being the people I forwarded to the final interview. The people who came in and did something just to try it out didn't leave me feeling the same enthusiasm. I want someone to come in and be passionate. I look for people who are excited to get up for this job every day.
You’ve all been at Priceline and in the tech industry for some time now – how have you seen coding bootcamps impact the tech industry?
Aadi: The positive impact is the democratization of learning. I got into programming when I was six years old with a Commodore 64 copying code from a magazine into a terminal. That's what it took early on to get into programming. Languages were more difficult and systems took more to understand back then.
Now with the way things are, it's amazing to see how many different kinds of people get into tech. It has this great impact of infusing the industry with great new energy and ideas.
But there's also a dilution of competency. There are people who have spent many years learning computer science and understanding graph theory and complex concepts.
It's less about the bootcamps and more about the industry and how we react to it. Some of the work is easily accessible and should be accessible. Do we gate the door in order to make ourselves feel better or do we change how we build and solve problems? I lean toward solving bigger problems. We should embrace that as an industry.
Pedro: It's a positive on multiple fronts to me. I look back at the bootcamp graduates that we've hired who were extremely talented – brilliant even. There is a possibility that those people would never be in tech if it wasn’t for a coding bootcamp. I also want to point out that hiring is a challenge. It's always competitive. Bootcamps have helped us a lot. You can't have an entire team of seniors. Plus, hiring bootcamp graduates gives our senior staff the opportunity to mentor and coach which makes them a better engineer as well.
Will you be hiring from Flatiron School in the future at Priceline?
Tony: It's a solid yes! We are very happy. Aadi and Pedro have been working with these new employees directly. I'm a step or two removed from that so I'm looking at it from the perspective of how it affects the entire organization. These people have been spectacular hires. They bring a lot of new life and new ideas, and the enthusiasm they bring is infectious. Our more senior engineers, like Aadi and Pedro, have been visibly more excited to do their work again!