Gray + Rainy = Fall

Yesterday was overcast, misty, and the sort of day when I miss Seattle. In Seattle, the weather remains exactly like that from November-March, never too cold, rarely sunny or dry. I love it. But I’m also missing Seattle because that’s where I went to college, and right now I’d love to return to that kind of atmosphere. I don’t think anyone realizes until afterward just how lucky they are to get 4+ years of reading and learning with few responsibilities and the ability to follow odd ideas for hours on end without having to earn money at the same time. It’s worth every cent of the debt that results, but that’s also why you don’t get to go back. Too expensive to do twice, unless it’s grad school and you’ve come to terms with the idea of paying off student loans until you’re 80.

Paul Graham is a well known writer and speaker on the subject of tech startups, and he frequently encourages college students and recent grads to consider starting their own instead of going to work for someone else. I like a lot of what he has to say about the general topic, but the “students of America, you don’t need a corporate job” parts get under my skin after a while, because I feel like he’s only talking to privileged MIT or Stanford kids who can ask their parents to bail them out if it turns out they’re about to be evicted because they’ve been writing code for their own business idea without a paycheck.

I didn’t have steady work for a year after I graduated from college, and it was a miserable experience. I did freelance work during that time, but always with the expectation that I was looking for a full time job, because I didn’t have enough money in the bank to handle any kind of emergency or unexpected situation. So I don’t see how anyone can possibly go straight from college to their own startup without a nice little graduation present of enough cash to not worry about food or rent for 6-12 months. It’s difficult to focus on anything when you’re trying to decide if you’re desperate enough to apply for food stamps.

Thus, we come back to the job market. I think most companies do a lousy job of seeking out qualified people [1], but we’ve been over that topic. So I’ll just point out a change to the 37Signals job board: they’re raising the cost of listing a job so they’ll have fewer listings. The comments on this announcement are mostly a big lovefest, with only a few of us wondering how this is good for the job seeker.

Clearly price does not ensure quality in this setting. And because this is a national job board, limiting the number of postings really hurts anyone who isn’t in NYC, SF, or maybe Boston. There’s no reason other cities can’t have interesting tech businesses, except for the difficulty of connecting people with companies that want them. But this was supposed to get easier, thanks to the wonders of modern communications technology, and I think limiting the number of job posts on this board is a step in the wrong direction.

I know there’s a certain crowd that says “traditional hiring is dead!” and “word of mouth/personal contact is everything!”. This is great in a lot of ways, because the best way to find out someone’s true skills and ability is to work with them or talk to people who have. But I think it can also reinforce certain biases and kinds of discrimination. Open source projects are often suggested as a great way to demonstrate coding skill and ability to work with a group, but far fewer women than men participate in these, for reasons that have been actively discussed elsewhere (this might be a good place to start if you’re new to the discussion). And other kinds of groups that one might use for networking face similar problems.

At Lucky Lab after the last Portland Ruby meeting, I was sitting across the table from a guy who had recently moved from elsewhere. He mentioned that there was a Rails development group in his previous town, but no women attended regularly. One showed up for a single meeting and didn’t return.

Everyone has heard jokes about how the guy who plays golf with the boss gets promoted over a more qualified worker who isn’t in on those outings. Kissing up to the boss aside, there’s some truth in the joke–of course you’re going to receive more consideration from people who have spent time with you. Personal connections are really important.

When groups that might provide opportunities to meet other people in your field are very homogeneous, that can shut a lot of people out of the benefits of those interactions. I know from experience that it can be very intimidating and awkward to be the only woman in a room full of men, especially if they already know each other. This is a problem even in a friendly, welcoming group. There is a lot of cultural baggage that affects how women and men talk to each other, and settings that are somewhere between professional and social can make that even more difficult.

My point here is that you can’t assume that social networks will bring you a wide pool of qualified people. They might, they might not. But an employer (or really any kind of organization) that wants a diverse representation of talent in their field may have to dig a little more. This is getting a lot of attention right now with respect to how conference attendees are selected. I’ll refer you to other people for more on that one.

[1] Not that this is an easy thing to get right. I did the hiring for my group at my last job, and the number of people who apply with terrible resumes and no relevant skills is amazing. But the way most job ads are written, it’s no wonder a lot of people give up and apply at random. My current job was a complete mystery based on their ad on Craigslist. I only applied because it sounded vaguely like something I could do, and I already knew someone who worked there.

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