Jason Punyon

Rock Stars Went Where?

So I read this article today about how the tech industry is too elitist and thinks everyone who’s good is already rich and can follow their bliss until the cows come home waiting for the olympian software companies of the world to come hire them. I just wanted to provide a data point from Stack Exchange. I’m not gonna bloviate that we’re all rock stars at Stack Exchange (I wouldn’t even describe myself like that) but here’s the list of schools attended by all the programmers and sysadmins at Stack Exchange:

Georgia State University
Arcadia University
Metro State College of Denver
Technische Universität Clausthal
University of Texas
University of Exeter
Boston University
University of New South Wales
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
State University of New York at Geneseo (Plug: The physics department is awesome.)
University of Pittsburgh
Colorado State University
New England Conservatory of Music
Cleveland Conservatory of Music
North Carolina State University (2)
Washington University, St Louis.
Montgomery County Community College
Northern Territory University

You might notice a significant dearth of Ivy there. (And the one Ivy Leaguer we do have has been promoted to management so he doesn’t even code anymore. We still love him though :))

An underlying premise of Stack Overflow and Stack Exchange is that there’s tremendous amounts of knowledge tied up in “ordinary” people, and given an easy way to show it off and a little incentive they can make this knowledge available and help as many people as possible. Given Stack Exchange’s belief in the common (wo)?man it’s not surprising that the educational background of our programmers and system administrators is pretty…well, ordinary.

Locke setup up a straw man straw man by invoking Joel. I know he said the words “Ivy League” but Joel wasn’t really talking about the Ivy League. He was talking about selectivity. Specifically that as a sorting criteria a resume showed that the associated applicant had successfully navigated some process that was highly selective:

Selectivity. Another thing we look for on resumes is evidence that someone has gone through some highly selective process in the past. Not everyone at Ivy League schools is worth hiring, and not everyone at community college is worth avoiding, but getting into a very selective school does at least mean that someone, somewhere judged you using some kind of selection process and decided that you were pretty smart. Our company criterion for selectivity is usually getting into a school or program that accepts less than 30% of its applicants (there are about 60 schools in the US that meet this standard), or working for a company which is known to have a difficult application process, like a whole day of interviews. Highly selective branches of the military like officer’s training or pilot’s courses, or even just getting into the Marines indicates someone that has made it through some kind of difficult application/selection procedure and all in all this is a positive sign.

Tech companies are looking outside the Ivy League and the Dan Shippers of the world for their “rock star” developers. I could list the previous positions of all the Stack Exchange programmers and sysadmins but I’ll save you the suspense: none of us were paying our bills running our own startups just waiting for something awesome like Stack Exchange to come along. In my case I sought them out and quit my cushy yet crappy hedge fund job.

Complaining about how it’s not fair because they went to an Ivy League school and you didn’t or they started a company and you didn’t and these things makes their resume look better than yours isn’t going to get you very far, though. You have to make it easy for employers to choose you from the pile of resumes. You know there’s competition out there for these jobs. If you want to work at a start up you have know you’re going up against some of the best in the industry and you have to make yourself stand out.

Your resume (or your Careers 2.0 profile) has the single purpose of showing them you’re worth it. It has to make them believe you’re worth calling for an interview. Provide some evidence. Don’t have any? You’re a programmer…manufacture some! Make a blog. Write a ruby gem. Answer some questions on Stack Overflow. Write some code for a charity. Make a website for your band. This stuff won’t take forever to do. It isn’t like the old days where you had to apprentice with a master furniture maker for a decade to get some cred. The medium you work in allows you to make things in days, not years. It doesn’t have to change the world, it just has to give the person looking at your resume a reason to choose you instead of the other g(al|uy).

Just in case you’re in the market and looking to stand out…we built Careers 2.0 to help you stand out by enabling you to show off your programmery stuff. It’s invitation only so if you’d like an invite just tweet me @JasonPunyon and I’ll hook you up. You may not have gone to an Ivy League school but if you can show off some evidence that you’ve got skills you rank up there with the best of the Yalees and Browners. You’ve got a section for open source projects hosted at Github, Bitbucket, Code Plex or Source Forge. There’s a section for Apps you’ve written. Write a blog or read any good books lately? Choose your favorites and show them off. When employers search the Careers database for candidates with particular skills we take all of this stuff into account and sort you accordingly.

Also! We’re always looking for great developers to come work with us at Stack Exchange. Don’t let what school you went to keep you from applying today (we’ll even take you Ivy Leaguers).

Oh and again, if you’re into physics…GO TO GENESEO…if only to watch Dr. Fletcher’s valiant yearly attempts to demonstrate quantum tunneling by running full speed towards the classroom wall. He hasn’t succeeded yet, but if he tries long enough probability says…