Perks Don’t Work

Editor’s note: Sophie Kitson is the vice president of Talent, People + Vibe with PagerDuty.

In Silicon Valley and across the technology industry, there is a real risk of commoditizing engineers. What does that mean? Literally treating engineers like a commodity to be “bought” instead of thinking about the reasons they love to go to work.

As the war for talent continues to heat up, hot startups and businesses need to think beyond throwing just money at the problem and gravitate more toward quality and longevity when it comes to making these strategic hiring moves. Throwing ridiculous amounts of money at an engineer is a possible signal that you don’t understand your audience, or your own value proposition – and it is a temporary fix, you’re allowing the market conditions to drive how you treat a very value-based part of the talent community.

Money alone isn’t the end all be all of solving problems or building a technology team when you need to differentiate yourself for the long term and retain the amazing engineers you work so hard to hire.

It’s no secret that it’s really hard to find and hire great engineering talent and I’m not here to talk about all the many potential root causes for this for this problem. I’m more interested in addressing how we can better connect with the engineers we have, both in the talent market and in our existing teams, to better understand what they want and stop treating them like they are “buyable” and start doing the things that matter.

We need to get back to basics, and ask ourselves why engineers choose to work at a given company and what makes them, outside of money, choose one place over another. My company pays well and offers many of the typical perks of a startup. But we wanted to better understand what makes an engineer tick and have come to the following conclusions:

  • Have a grand vision they can connect to, something that matters and connects to something they care about and they’re in.
  • Have a really technical challenging problem to solve. It doesn’t matter wether it’s social, IT, retail or medical. If it’s complex and fun, they’ll be up for the challenge.
  • Have a company that’s doing exciting work and broadcast it authentically. If it excites them, they will find you; you won’t need to find them.

We all know engineers have a passion for building and solving problems. For example, a real-time highly available trading algorithm might not have a noble cause, but it’s an incredibly fun problem to solve for an engineer.

Historically, Apple teams designing circuit boards used collaboration and friendly competition to build better outcomes — two other ingredients to delight your engineering talent. Facebook has also been known to host all-night hackathons to drive internal innovations for building the applications of tomorrow.

Great engineers like to work with other great engineers. If you’re a company that has an amazing engineering team with a focus on a collaborative culture, you can still attract the best talent without having to promise outlandish prizes for joining the team.

Finally, I think companies need to ask themselves the following questions:

Does your organization understand engineering? Can it balance pace with quality and give the engineers on its team the chance to do good work and satisfy customers or revenue goals without compromising either?

Do you have a culture that’s appreciative of engineering and sees it as a vital core, versus a cost center or a team to produce against detailed technical specifications that leave little room for innovation or ownership?

Finally, forget the perks and funny money. Do you treat your engineers like grown-ups? Benefits and the working environment matter to an engineer. Do you give them the opportunity to work flexible hours or work from home and trust them and your team to deliver and collaborate regardless of whether they’re at a desk or on a couch?

I sigh every time I hear about another Bay Area company offering crazy compensation and perks. I sigh when I hear the questions we “talent” folk ask ourselves – focusing on how we can “out-perk” each other versus understanding how to build compelling places to work. I want to know that we in the people and talent industry, we the engineering leaders in the powerhouse companies of the Valley, value the reasons why engineers love their work, and more importantly, that we understand and care about these reasons ourselves.

Understanding who you’re hiring matters. Understanding how to engage them in a great career choice that resonates with who they are as people, matters. It sounds basic and simple, but it’s not often practiced in this current crazy recruiting market.

The tech boom won’t be here forever. We will regret inflating perks and salaries as the way to engage our engineers or any employee. We owe the engineers we are trying to hire a little more respect and an educated dialogue about who they are, what they care about – and why they should make our cause their own.