Year 1 of the Revolution

I must confess, I am addicted to anonymity. Not the crass commodity that powers John Gabriel's first law of internet, but the real stuff, anonymity bordering on invisibility. I aspire to leave as little trace on the internet as possible, stopping just shy of creating deliberately misleading identities to conceal my antics. You may notice a few twigs broken here and there, scant castings as digital records become inescapable, but you'll find no proof of me. The sasquatch is my spirit animal.

My dreams of growing up to be Harry Henderson are sas-squashed today because something important has happened, and I'm obligated to announce it.

Almost without fail, the world must move before I'll write. The two are so correlated, an observer may not perceive the causality of the situation. It may seem as if the mere act of putting virtual pen to virtual paper summons apocalyptic tremors. In reality, I'm more of a seismograph for technology, selectively writing about things that move me. What I'm feeling now are simply the foreshocks of a greater shift in the way Silicon Valley hires engineers.

In the past three weeks, some nineteen job offers have been made to Hackbright students. For those of you unfamiliar, Hackbright is a trade school with an atypical proposition: the total time to go from complete novice to skilled developer clocks in at just under three months, or two and a half werewolf cycles. I'll qualify my use of 'skilled developer'. In honesty, the phrase is a bit of propaganda; the reality is that a Hackbright student is competitive with a new graduate armed with a four-year computer science degree...


Now it sounds even more preposterous. 

But is it that unbelievable? If you take a typical college student, estimating that they retain only about half of what they learn, some fraction of which is medieval studies, the bar seems much less altitudinous. Mix a healthy dose of computer science, practical system administration, and modern software development practices, and the playing field is level. With a small class size (less than thirty), Hackbright is essentially the small-batch artisanal house blend of IT. You've probably never heard of it.

You have, however, heard of the employers who believe in our process and our students. Eventbrite, Survey Monkey, New Relic, Facebook, Bitcasa, StubHub, Facebook.... Facebook! Let me assure that none of these organizations are making special dispensation for our students and no punches were pulled during the interview process. If they were lowering their standards at all, I would be employed at one of these places:

The recent Facebook hire serves as final emphasis on a story we've been writing for a year now. With the right person, the right curriculum, and the right instructors, it's possible to train a person in ten weeks to be competitive with a college graduate with a computer science degree, even for a position at a tier-1 engineering organization. Beyond that, it appears to be repeatable.

Let's ignore the obvious conclusion for a moment*, as this raises a few questions about state of hiring in Silicon Valley. If an entry-level engineer can be vat-grown in a couple of months, what does that say when we need a specialist? Can we repeat the same process? Can thoughtful, immersive training replace years of study and experience? Our past successes suggest that it's possible, and at least worth looking into. 

In my experience, the average new hire takes about two months to come up to speed and produce something useful. This is assuming a typical onboarding process, where they're expected to accrete knowledge and osmose it through their semi-permeable membranes without direct intervention. Instead, with careful guidance, we might be able to abbreviate that to a fortnight. Or we could go all-out, and use the two months to train someone up from an average developer to be a great one in almost any niche required.

We're basically replicating the plot of Captain America, but with nerds.

There are caveats of course. Not everyone is suited to having their brain inserted into a particle accelerator and blasted with knowledge protons. It takes certain characteristics which I'm not yet ready to codify here. (I'll save that for another treatise.) Still, hiring processes could be greatly reformed. Imagine if culture fit and potential were the overriding factors, knowing that any gap in skill could be accounted for in the training period. It wouldn't solve all of our staffing problems, but it would be a huge boon.

The thing is, you don't even have to imagine this. One company already does this, sending new hires through a 'bootcamp' experience for their first month and a half: Facebook (I'm sensing a theme, here). By all accounts, this program is a great success. Their only flaw here is that they exclusively accept 'great' programmers to start. Their criteria could be amended to include candidates who are merely 'very promising', and do just as well. It recommends a scenario where the solution to all of the Silicon Valley's hiring problems is not just fixing the hiring process, but the training process as well. In my opinion, this shakes up pretty much everything we know about hiring knowledge workers and the role of college in producing them.

Every offer made to every one of my students is the result of their hard work and dedication, and of them I could not be more proud. For myself, I am honored to have played my small part. Indeed, to all my protégés, scattered to the four corners of Silicon Valley as you are, it has been a great pleasure to work with such talented engineers. I could not have asked for a more wonderful experience. Thank you all for making Hackbright's first year a success.

* Go to college. Seriously. HBA is not a replacement for college. It's the obvious conclusion, but it's wrong.

Follow me on Twitter... when I put it that way, it sounds like an order. Just do it though, it probably won't hurt.