Bring in talent—and screen for compatibility—by offering office space. Giving open cubicles to independent programmers opens up the possibly of tapping their talent when you need a bit of advice—or want to hire. Anna Thomas of Loosecubes, an office-space brokering site based in New York, says her company keeps about five desks open so a rotating cast of new talent can use the space. "Invite people who are relevant to projects you are working on, and it could lead to serendipity in a very casual, non-networking way," she says. "It's a mechanism for screening that's very natural and easy."
If it seems like all the best tech talent is employed, that's true: but lots of highly skilled programmers work in independent small agencies. PayPal’s senior director of mobile, Laura Chambers, says when PayPal needed to beef up its programming staff, it acquired Critical Path, a Portland development shop. "When you're growing so fast, and there's so much to do, it's really hard to hire them one-off," she says. So a large talent acquisition works well. Now, the roughly 60 new staffers are working on developing new products for both eBay and PayPal.
Tech talent poaching could reach frenzied levels this year, according to Dice.com. A recent study showed that more than half of hiring managers and recruiters anticipate that tech talent poaching will get more aggressive this year. "The best developers are in really high demand," said the general manager of RedLaser, Rob Veres. "Competition begs for talent." One strategy some agencies have used in the past is IP-address targeting, so when competitors' employees visit your site, they're immediately directed to your employment page.
Remember the scene from The Social Network in which programmers were racing the clock, coding, and doing shots—with the goal of landing a job at The Facebook? If you can put together a great challenge for programmers, you're not only targeting the best, most competitive hackers with a passion for what they do, you're also screening for skill. Plus, you're showing candidates you understand what they do, appreciate their talents, and can stimulate them. Can't hack the all-night coding marathon? Post a challenge online, or on a billboard, a la Google.
If you have a great candidate, snag them by offering more than just a good salary. Ask what would make them absolutely love the job, and throw down. "In April of 2000 while on a business trip I received a near-frantic e-mail from someone with an unusual request. It seems that she represented a fellow with a company in Seattle (no, NOT Microsoft). Turns out that last September this guy was hired, and in his contract of employment it stipulated that he wanted a desk made out of Lego," writes Eric Harshbarger, a tech-industry veteran who also builds things out of Lego bricks. The company hired him to build the desk out of $2,000 worth of bricks and seven pounds of glue. And he made one geek's dream come true.
Some of your company's best advocates are your own employees, and you can be sure your tech team has a strong network of qualified friends in similar fields. When Web development company ArsDigita wanted to expand its programmer force in the spring of 1999, founder Philip Greenspun went extreme: He parked a yellow Ferrari F355 in the parking lot, and promised it as a reward to any employee who referred 10 qualified programmers. You can bet employee-referrals went from zero to 60, fast.
Novelist Douglas Coupland wrote in Microserfs: "I think all tech people are slightly autistic." Hyperbole, sure, but perhaps Asperger's syndrome has been called "the engineers' disorder" for a reason. Back in 1999 the Autism Research Institute listed "computer programmer" as a top recommended job for an adult with Asperger's, due to intense concentration ability and memorization skills associated with the disorder. In 2001, Wired pondered the unique high concentration of Asperger's diagnoses in Silicon Valley. Today, some firms see a candidate's diagnosis as positive; others say it's mandatory. Aspiritech, a Chicago non-profit, looks exclusively for programmers with the Autism-spectrum syndrome. —Christine Lagorio, with contributions from Michael Krakovsky.