When it comes to recruiting young talent, Silicon Valley giants have the upper hand with lucrative perks and salaries. For instance, according to Glassdoor, interns at Facebook make nearly twice what the average American worker makes, at $8,000 per month--rounded out with free housing, transportation, and meals. But if you're not Facebook, Google, Apple, or Amazon, it can be tough to lure engineering talent in a competitive environment. ​

To stand out from the crowd of tech companies, New York-based startup Cockroach Labs came up with a unique perk that begins at the lowest rung of the ladder: interns can receive equity if they choose to return after they graduate.

Founded in 2015, Cockroach Labs admits it can't provide extensive compensation packages or huge perks like those of the Silicon Valley giants. With total funding at $53.5 million, the company, led by a team of former Google engineers, builds SQL databases for global cloud services. (The name comes from a joke that if a nuclear war or an apocalypse happens, its databases will still be standing.)

But the company aims to offer something that big tech companies, which hire thousands of interns every year, can't necessarily provide--intense mentoring in a culture where interns have a more direct impact on the company's success. Interns start off with projects that help them get familiar with the system, so they can become confident in the work they're doing, says Lindsay Grenawalt, Cockroach Labs's head of people operations. After the first project is over, interns start working on more complex projects aligned both with their interests and the company's needs. They also get monthly check-ins and frequent reviews to make sure they're on track. All of the projects are open-sourced to the public--which may not sound significant, but the company says is key because it shows the project's significance. 

"The opportunity to feel like their work is being valued and that they're learning something within the experience is not something all companies can offer," says Grenawalt.

The goal is for interns to feel like returning to the company is an attractive proposition. Interns also are offered stock options, which are approved at the time of their internship but contingent upon returning to the company after they graduate. Twenty-five percent of the options vest after the employee has been with the company for one year--and the length of the internship counts toward those 12 months. (The company declined to disclose how many shares interns are offered.) 

Of course, such a perk comes with one huge caveat. If Cockroach Labs doesn't go public or get acquired, those options are essentially worthless. But, according to Grenawalt, the worst-case scenario doesn't come up in recruiting conversations. "[W]hen interns are looking at startups, they understand the risks and potential rewards of joining a startup versus a public company," she says.

The program is still fairly new--five out of the nine interns Cockroach Labs employed have received the stock options offer if they return after graduation. Irfan Sharif, a 22-year-old senior studying computer engineering at University of Waterloo, is one of them and interned twice with the company.

"I'm aware of the risks of taking it up given that [Cockroach Labs] is a private company. The same risks hold true for every private company, but what stood out to me was the fact that normally this wouldn't even be a conversation for me to have as an intern," Sharif says. He hasn't decided yet on his future plans after graduation--a year from now--but added that Cockroach Labs is his "top choice." 

The company's unique perk has inspired at least one other startup to follow suit.

Cockroach Labs, which has 52 employees, has also put a spin on hiring in other ways. The company doesn't attend college fairs; rather, CEO Spencer Kimball goes to database classes and group meetings at universities like U.C. Berkeley and Carnegie Mellon to find applicants who are really interested in working on their technology.

The company has also eliminated résumés to attract more diverse candidates. Grenawalt says in the beginning some of its engineers asked how they would be able assess candidates without it. Her answer: don't worry about past work experiences. It's far more effective to evaluate the person's coding and debugging skills based on exercises given to them.

The reality is without the Googles and Facebooks, Cockroach Labs wouldn't have access to such a promising talent pool in New York, Grenawalt admits. "Understanding more of it as a talent ecosystem, it's the responsibility of the company to create an opportunity that is really unique and resonates with the candidates that they want to hire," she says.

How to Be the Intern Who Becomes the Co-Founder

Published on: May 18, 2018