Jason Punyon

Geography’s the Fuck.

Raganwald poses an interesting question. Why do some of the best minds in our industry spend time figuring out how to make people click more on ads? Aren’t there more interesting problems for these bright up-and-comers to spend their valuable time and insight on?

One simple answer to the question is Geography.

How do you know this?

I’ve spent a little time figuring out how to make people click more on ads :)

I work at Stack Exchange on our Careers 2.0. We try to make it easier for programmers to get better jobs. We have two main ways of getting people to the Careers 2.0 website. Our users evangelize on our behalf by inviting their programmer friends to show off their accomplishments on their own Careers profiles (like mine here).

The second way looks like this

Me and the team spent a bit of time trying to figure out how to get programmers to click on this ad. It (and it’s smaller variant) shows up on the vast majority of the pages of Stack Overflow.

The number one way to make people click on this ad is to show them a job from a place near them. It’s simple as that. Showing the user a job near them outperforms every other way of constructing the ad we could come up with by a factor of between 2 and 5.

Location is still incredibly important to job seekers (and employers). If our ad analysis is to be believed, they are more interested in having a job near them than having a job that matches their skills. Or a job that is interesting. Or a job where they work on “super important” problems.

Personally…

I know this to be true from my own experience. I spent the summers of my college years working in Berkeley, CA for Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. We did low energy nuclear physics experiments measuring certain reaction cross sections on radioactive nuclei. Some of this work gets used downstream by the Stockpile Stewardship program. Stockpile Stewardship is the program responsible for maintaining the reliability of the United States nuclear arsenal. The United States doesn’t test nuclear weapons anymore and this program ensures that the ones we have continue to work, and ascertain the failure modes of the ones that aren’t going to work. I think this would qualify as an important problem to Raganwald (and most other people). Most of the work I did was on software for simulating our particle and gamma ray detectors.

After college was over I ended up back in New York because that’s where my life was. I worked at a management consulting company and then a couple hedge funds before I got my head out of my ass and realized I wanted to work on something that mattered a little bit more than the continued aggrandizement of the uber-rich. By then I’d been married for a few years. My wife had a job in New York, my family was in New York (and elsewhere on the East coast). If I was going to work on something that mattered, it was going to have to be something that mattered…in New York.

Wait…haven’t we solved this?

But, what about technology? Hasn’t technology solved the geography problem? Don’t we have Skype, company chat, Google hangouts and shudder the lowly telephone to connect people remotely? All these media come with their own problems. You need people who are exceptionally good at communicating through electronic media for these solutions to work. It is REALLY HARD. Stack Exchange was founded remotely. We built our own chat system because others were inadequate. We hire a bunch of remote devs, sys admins and others. I do internal support for people in 3 timezones (that’s more than any of my international hedge fund jobs). A lot of people aren’t cut out for it. I’ll admit it, sometimes I’m not.

Long story short it’s really easy to say “Hey we’ll just hire the best people remotely.” but much harder to do in practice. Your culture has to be just so.

Star-crossed

Unfortunately you and the “right job for you” (for some criteria of right) are star-crossed. At all times there’s an ordered list of jobs that are a best match for you based on all factors. Rarely anyone has the Juliet at the top of their list. You and your Romeo pass eachother silently (and not so silently) in the night for myriad reasons. Transaction costs for switching jobs are high. People need certainty. I’m harping on geography here, but it’s merely one of the reasons people aren’t working “the right” job or fixing “the right” problems.

Geography is important to programmers. It’s probably at the top of the list of factors that goes into deciding whether a job is “right”. If the company working on “important” problems doesn’t jive with your geography, you’re probably going to leave it by the wayside.

Thanks to Matt Jibson for an edit.

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