Tech titan Facebook’s recent acquisition of WhatsApp for the bargain basement price of $19 billion in cash and stock (slightly less than the inflation adjusted cost of the Manhattan Project) generated a spate of news articles noting that both WhatsApp co-founders Brian Acton and Jan Koum had been turned down for jobs at Facebook. Notably, Brian Acton seems to have gone through an extended job hunt in 2009 and was turned down by both Facebook and Twitter (at least according to his Twitter feed ).
Both Acton and Koum had years of experience as paid professional software engineers at Yahoo at the time they were turned down by Facebook. Acton is a graduate of the top-rated Stanford University as well. It is difficult to see a substantial technical difference between Yahoo and Facebook; both are gigantic “free” web sites with a range of services such as search, messaging, and e-mail supported by advertising dollars. Both engineers seem like excellent prospective employees for Facebook at the time they were each turned down.
The widely watched code.org “What Most Schools Don’t Teach” inspirational video contains a statement (starts at about 3:00) by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg:
Our policy is literally to hire as many talented engineers as we can find. The whole limit in the system is just that there aren’t enough people who are trained and have these skills today.
The turndowns of Acton and Koum suggest that Facebook’s problem, if real, lies in Facebook’s hiring practices rather than in any genuine shortage of qualified software engineers. Simply put, Facebook and many other technology companies are excessively and irrationally picky in hiring, ignoring or turning down many highly qualified applicants.
Qualified but Can’t Get A Job
The WhatsApp turndown stories are not unusual even in media coverage of the technology industry, which, with rare exceptions such as Patrick Thibodeau’s coverage at ComputerWorld, tends to parrot industry claims of a desperate shortage of qualified software engineers and other STEM professionals. Every few months, in fact, brings articles and personal accounts that often describe great difficulty in finding jobs in the technology industry despite what appear to be impressive qualifications.
I recently wrote about Chand John’s article The PhD-Industry Gap in The Chronicle of Higher Education about his lengthy search for a job, despite graduating with a Ph.D. in Computer Science from Stanford’s highly rated computer science program.
Jennifer Wedel gained national news coverage when she described her husband, out-of-work semiconductor engineer Darin Wedel’s lengthy and then unsuccessful job hunt after being laid off by Texas Instruments, to President Obama in an online Q&A session. These published accounts match many “anecdotal,” word-of-mouth accounts that I have heard or, to some degree, personally witnessed.
It is always difficult with individual cases to be sure of the reasons and to know all of the particulars. For example, Darin Wedel was (is?) unable to relocate out of Texas due to a child custody situation. He reportedly received several offers from major technology companies for jobs outside of Texas following his wife’s Q&A session with President Obama. Industry apologists have tried to use this to dismiss his case as irrelevant. However, in this era of e-mail, Skype, and many people working successfully in the technology business from a large distance (e.g. India or China), why exactly couldn’t the desperate “starving” technology companies offer him a job he could do from Texas? Not so clear. There are also many technology companies in Texas such as Texas Instruments and Dell. But apparently they are not all that desperate either.
Thus, there may have been good reasons why Facebook turned down Acton and Koum, despite their seemingly impressive credentials and Facebook’s recurrent claims of being unable to find qualified applicants. It is pretty unlikely that the problem was that Acton or Koum could not program — “code” in current parlance. Neither dismal public schools that don’t teach “coding” nor restrictive US immigration policy (Koum is an immigrant from the Ukraine who allegedly lived on food stamps at one point) can explain the turndowns. As veterans of Yahoo, both Acton and Koum certainly look like genuine “purple squirrels” with exactly the technical skills that Facebook was seeking and needed in 2009 — before the current mobile mania began.
Qualified or Young?
One thing that stands out is age. Both Acton and Koum are old by Facebook standards. Acton was born in 1972 and would have been 37 in 2009, well over the magic age of 35 when software engineers often begin to informally report encountering difficulty finding jobs despite impressive qualifications.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has been quoted as saying: “Young people are just smarter. Why are most chess masters under 30?” Incidentally, the statement is debatable. World Chess Champions since the FIDE (the Fédération internationale des échecs or World Chess Federation) chess championship system was established in 1948 are about evenly split between under 30 and over 30. In fact, the world champion at the time of the reported quote (2007) Viswanathan Anand was thirty-seven and was forty-three when Magnus Carlsen finally defeated him in November 2013. Zuckerberg was born on May 14, 1984 and will turn thirty this year.
In addition, in 2009, Acton would have had over ten years of paid professional experience as a software engineer. It is rare to encounter job advertisements for software engineers or other STEM professionals with more than ten years of experience. This is even true in exceptionally complex fields such as molecular biology where ten years is almost certainly too short for even very intelligent people to master the field.
One may note that it is theoretically illegal to discriminate on the basis of age in hiring in the United States.
Water, Water, Everywhere, but Not a Drop to Drink
In fact, technology companies appear to be extremely picky in even choosing to interview applicants, let alone actually hiring them. This pickiness alone probably accounts for the perceived “shortage” of “qualified” applicants. It also explains why a minority of software engineers who fit or appear to fit the extremely narrow, rapidly changing, and often unstated criteria of the tech companies report fierce competition and multiple job offers, while many others like Chand John or Darin Wedel (and perhaps Brian Acton in 2009) report a long frustrating job hunt.
Empirically, many factors separately or in combination seem to frequently push software engineers out of the “hot” software engineer category into the “unqualified” category despite impressive actual qualifications. These include:
Note that I am not endorsing any of these often hidden criteria. Some in fact are illegal in the United States. Nor am I arguing that they are consciously used — although I believe they are used consciously in some cases. The requirement of three years of paid professional experience, for example, is frequently explicitly listed in job advertisements and job descriptions for software engineers and other STEM professionals. Neither am I arguing that these criteria are applied by all tech companies or by guilty companies all of the time.
I use the phrase “Hispanic with American Indian Ancestry” in my list for the following reason. The Silicon Valley is located in California. According to census data, about thirty-seven percent of Californians self-identify as Hispanic-Latino. Nonetheless, it is fairly rare to encounter Spanish surnames in Silicon Valley tech companies, especially among software engineers. Among those rare software engineers with Spanish surnames, people with obvious American Indian ancestry seem rare, although this is common among Hispanics as a group in California. And yes I have met software engineers and other STEM professionals with Spanish surnames and obvious American Indian ancestry in the Silicon Valley and Southern California.
I use the phrase “some low-status minority groups” to distinguish these groups from minority groups such as Asians and Indians (from India) who are common in software engineering — heavily overrepresented, in fact, in comparison to their proportion of the US population. Social status seems to be the key issue rather than simply membership in a minority group.
Incidentally, with respect to my list, according to news reports Jan Koum dropped out of San Jose State University and presumably lacks a college degree. According to news reports, both Acton and Koum “took a year off to tour South America” not long before applying to work at Facebook, giving both a recent period of prolonged unemployment.
Yes, Mark Zuckerberg is also a college dropout, but tech CEO’s often appear to apply a different standard to people they hire than themselves.
Facebook turning down the founders of WhatsApp and then paying $19 billion for their company a few years later is probably simply another example of the extremely picky hiring practices of technology companies, a pickiness that frequently appears unrelated to actual technical “qualifications.” Technology companies can probably solve their “shortage” by discarding hidden and/or unconscious non-technical criteria as well as discarding excessively narrow “purple squirrel” technical requirements in hiring software engineers and other STEM professionals. Doing this will save them time and money (possibly $19 billion in Facebook’s case) and even make the world a better, fairer place at the same time.
© 2014 John F. McGowan
About the Author
John F. McGowan, Ph.D. solves problems using mathematics and mathematical software, including developing video compression and speech recognition technologies. He has extensive experience developing software in C, C++, Visual Basic, Mathematica, MATLAB, and many other programming languages. He is probably best known for his AVI Overview, an Internet FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) on the Microsoft AVI (Audio Video Interleave) file format. He has worked as a contractor at NASA Ames Research Center involved in the research and development of image and video processing algorithms and technology. He has published articles on the origin and evolution of life, the exploration of Mars (anticipating the discovery of methane on Mars), and cheap access to space. He has a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a B.S. in physics from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.