After successfully completing Stack Overflow’s in-house apprenticeship program, two graduates of Fullstack Academy and The Grace Hopper Program are now working as full-time developers for the world’s largest online programming community. So what did it take to land those coveted jobs? We spoke to Stack Overflow’s Tech Recruiting Lead Pieter DePree to find out what he is looking for in new hires, why employers should look at a bootcamper’s trajectory instead of traditional experience, and why their new hires from Fullstack Academy and The Grace Hopper Program did so well in their technical interviews.
Tell us about Stack Overflow and your role there.
I’m the Tech Recruiting Lead at Stack Overflow. As a company, we’re obsessed with supporting developers. We are the world’s the world's largest online community for programmers to learn, share their knowledge and level up their careers. As the Tech Recruiting Lead, my team and I are responsible for building out our technical talent pipelines within the engineering, design, and product verticals.
How large is the dev team at Stack Overflow?
We have 42 developers in total. The majority work remotely spanning 12 time zones. We also have 10 product managers and 14 designers.
How did you get connected with Fullstack Academy and The Grace Hopper Program?
Fullstack Academy came highly recommended through word of mouth. We’d heard great things about their program, and it had come to our attention that they were also launching The Grace Hopper Program, which was a place for women to become awesome developers. It was really cool that we got to partner with both Fullstack Academy and The Grace Hopper Program at the same time. And it seemed fitting that we could launch our first apprenticeship program with Grace Hopper’s first graduating class.
How many Grace Hopper or Fullstack Academy graduates have you hired and for what roles?
We hired two graduates, one Fullstack graduate, Ian Allen, and one Grace Hopper graduate, Jisoo Shin, for our three-month apprenticeship program, which is our version of an internship program. Both were so successful in the program that after 3 months they both accepted offers to join the team as full-stack devs.
They both have the same title as any other developer on our technical team. Ian is on the Marketing Engineering team, which is part of the Internal Development organization. Jisoo is on our Profiles team which is part of the Q&A Engineering organization.
Other than The Grace Hopper Program and Fullstack Academy, how do you usually hire developers?
Our primary hiring source for our dev team is our own platform. We advertise our positions on Stack Overflow Jobs which is a place for developers and employers to meaningfully connect with each other. Developers can get matched with jobs and companies they love; employers can engage with the community and recruit the right talent. We also use our own CV search database. We like to “dogfood” our own product.
How do you usually recruit developers for the apprenticeship program?
It was our first time running this kind of program, so we wanted to keep the apprenticeship program very small. One concern we had in the past was that we weren’t sure if our team had the bandwidth to successfully mentor junior developers. We wanted to make sure we weren’t hiring junior developers without giving them the resources to be successful. We kept it small so that if the program required more resources, we would have the capacity to get more devs to help mentor and train these apprentices. Since we were opening two spots and we didn’t want 2000 applicants, we wanted to partner with a few defined sources. In this case, Fullstack Academy and Grace Hopper were the first two bootcamps we partnered with.
What are you looking for in a new hire?
Our CEO Joel Spolsky wrote a guide for “Standing out and Attracting Top Talent”, which pretty much defines our hiring philosophy in a nutshell. He talks about how to attract and retain talent for technical organizations. In the context of the apprenticeship program, we were looking for individuals who showed a promising trajectory. We looked for individuals who were smart, adaptive, could learn new tech quickly, and had gone above and beyond to learn their craft during the course of the bootcamp. We were looking at their passion for coding, what their motivations were in going to a coding bootcamp, and what they had accomplished in the past three months.
Do you notice differences in hiring from a bootcamp versus hiring applicants from more traditional channels such as computer science graduates?
I would say there are only positive differences. People who attend bootcamps tend to be very enthusiastic, excited to learn and develop in their new career. They are coming out of those programs with a go-getter attitude. I think that probably applies to CS majors as well, but I have a very small sample size– we haven’t hired many recent graduates or junior developers in the past.
Fullstack and Grace Hopper have a lot of graduates. When you think about the two graduates that you’ve hired, what got them the job?
During the interview process we were impressed by how quickly they picked things up – the interviewer didn’t have to repeatedly explain things, and they didn’t have to explain basic programming concepts. In general, we were very impressed by how the bootcamp grads we interviewed performed in the technical interviews. Again, I’m speaking from a very small sample size as we don’t hire many CS degree grads either, but I think CS majors often concentrate a lot more on theory, whereas individuals out of Grace Hopper and Fullstack have a lot more practical programming experience from the projects they have worked on.
You mentioned you don’t hire many CS grads, what other backgrounds do your dev hires have?
We don’t hire many recent CS graduates. This apprenticeship program was our first chance to really pilot a junior engineering development program. I will say that we are not credentialists at Stack Overflow; many of our current senior devs don’t come from traditional CS degrees. They are experienced developers but might have degrees in music, or film– there are different majors outside of a CS background.
How do bootcamp grads do in their technical interviews compared with people who have more experience in tech?
The bootcamp grads performed very well in technical interviews. They seemed to have a lot of practical programming experience, and I think the bootcamps may have done mock technical interviews with them. They generally seemed to understand that the trick for approaching technical interviews is to make sure you’re defining the problem, understanding it, and creating a path forward before just jumping into the code.
Did you put those bootcamp grads through the same interview process that you usually use for every dev applicant, or did you tweak the application process for them?
We did tweak it since our goal was to hire juniors, and our typical process is for hiring seniors. We optimized the interview process for efficiency, so that we could interview a large graduating cohort at the same time. Many of the graduates were entertaining offers. So while our usual process might last two to three weeks, we basically put them through a hiring day, where they go through all the interviews in just one day, so we could get decisions to them more quickly. Because of that, we shortened the interview process somewhat, and removed some of the more academic/algorithmic questions that we typically ask in other technical interviews.
Can you tell me a bit more about the Stack Overflow apprenticeship program– what motivated it and what does it involve?
The apprenticeship consists of a three-month curriculum. Since this was our first time running this program, we defined a very clear curriculum. It started off with a two-week crash course in our technology stack, C# and .NET. Then, eight weeks of pair programming where apprentices partner with a mentor, work on some of that mentor’s current ongoing projects, get involved directly in our actual code base, and then they wrapped it up with a four-week final graduation project to show off their newly acquired skills; and to have something to point to that they worked on for Stack Overflow. The goal of the graduation project was meant to be something that would go live in some small way on the site.
The apprenticeship was never marketed to be a contract-to-hire program, it was meant to stand on its own merits. The idea was that by doing a graduation project, they’d be able to go into the job search and point to something on Stack Overflow that they’d worked on. We thought that would be a nice resume booster early in their career. We were quite happy that it turned out the way it did with two full-time offers though!
In addition to the apprenticeship program, how do you ensure that the new hires are supported to keep learning?
Skills development is very important to us. We offer an annual conference budget that allows individuals on our staff to travel to, attend, and stay at a conference of their choosing. They also get an additional three PTO days, they can double those PTO days and conference budget if they speak at a second conference. We also offer more traditional tuition reimbursement as well as ongoing budgets for books and educational materials. On top of that, we internally try to foster a culture of learning and have a series of educational tiny talks, where members of our staff share areas of expertise with others who are interested. So it could be anything from design topics to development topics. Our data scientists also have a series of talks they do regularly, so we have a variety of ongoing internal initiatives.
You mentioned as part of the apprenticeship program, the apprentices had to do a two-week crash course in C# and .NET. Is that something all of your new hires do?
The C# crash course we put the apprentices through is exactly the same as the program we put any new developer through who has not worked with our technology stack in the past. Our mindset here is if you’ve developed proficiency in one tech stack, it’s not that hard to pick up the nuances of another. The two-week crash course involves building a ping pong score keeping app which is meant to get their feet wet, and then they present to the team at the end for feedback.
Since you started hiring from the bootcamp, have Ian or Jisoo been promoted or changed teams? Do you anticipate that they will?
Yes, they have. Both of them have changed teams, by the nature of how our developers switch around and work with different project teams. As far as promotions, they were never brought in as Junior Developers; they were brought in as Full Stack Developers – everyone at Stack Overflow shares the same title. So they’ve taken on progressive levels of responsibility, and taken on new challenges, which in the way we work, is similar to a promotion. They have certainly proved themselves on a variety of projects at this point.
Do you have a feedback loop with Fullstack Academy at all? Are you able to influence their curriculum if you notice your dev hires are under qualified in a certain area?
I believe it’s available and they can ask for feedback, but we never needed to exercise that feedback loop. We aren’t very opinionated about what technologies students are being trained in, we are willing to take that on ourselves once someone starts with Stack Overflow. We were more interested in them having the fundamentals and basic concepts, the rest is incidental.
Will you hire from Fullstack Academy and The Grace Hopper Program again in future?
We’d love to. If and when our hiring plan allows, we will absolutely run the apprenticeship program again. This past program turned out to be a resounding success.
What is your advice to other employers who are thinking about hiring from Fullstack Academy or any other coding bootcamp?
I always recommend that employers not be credentialists. Hire for trajectory when you’re looking at junior developers; that’s the most important thing. Junior developers are very eager, and their learning curve is very steep. You want to see that someone has a clear trajectory of growth, going above and beyond on any projects they’ve tackled. So hire for trajectory and testability, not what college they’ve graduated from. Stack Overflow makes it easy for employers to evaluate candidates holistically. We also encourage employers to hire junior devs and students: right now, we offer clients the ability to post free internships on Stack Overflow throughout 2017.
I think there is also a lot to be said for hiring people with a diversity of experience. For example, one of our apprentices came from a marketing background before he went to Fullstack Academy. It turned out we had a marketing developer role available, and that combination of his development experience with his background in marketing made him an absolutely perfect fit for that role. So there is a lot to be said for being able to hire people with other experience outside of traditional CS backgrounds – it diversifies the conversation on the team, and helps your team have a wider range of viewpoints.
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