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Recruiting in remote locations

First, let me state I'm not talking about remote offices.

Like many of you, I've been thinking of starting my own software product company for some time now. Although I support the open source movement and enjoy using the high quality products that come out of it, I want to develop a quality software product and make a modest living selling it. Ultimately, I'd like to grow the company to about 15-30 people, which I believe is almost the perfect size company.

So far, nothing new or controversial; but here's where I think it gets interesting:

The wife and I would like to move to rural New England, somewhere say in VT, NH or ME. I particularly like the Maine coast above Rockland and below MDI. However, none of these areas are known for their high-tech industry focus (please correct me if you live there and know better).

Does anyone have experience hiring top-notch developers in rural or remote locations?

I recognise this might limit the ability of my nascent company to grow and prosper; so it's something I must address before starting.

What sort of incentives would you expect to offer to qualified candidates beyond relocation expenses? I've already given some thought to re-relocation expenses if an employee simply doesn't like living where we're located; but I'm afraid that sets the tone for failure.

I have lots of ideas about making the work environment one that people will enjoy. Some ideas were stolen from one of the best employers I know: Grumman Aerospace (circa 1970-1984). In addition to regular holidays and 2 weeks of vacation, the office will close during the week surrounding July 4th and the two weeks around Christmas & New Years.

But what would make a really bright and capable software developer move to the wilds of NH or the ME coast? I know I'd be concerned about the shallow job pool in these areas. If a job doesn't work out, I'd be unable to find another without moving.

Jeff
Friday, December 12, 2003

I'm not real familar with that particular area but you state that ideally you would like to have a company of 15-30 employees- I'm assuming you wont start out with that many and most likely you will start with yourself and maybe a partner or two.  If this is the case then I wouldn't worry about it-  I know there are many good small colleges in the area and I'm sure alot of those kids are 'locals' to the area or at least liked something there that they sought out.  So it seems the real trick is to get your name out to the colleges and maybe try co-ops with top students.  My other bet is, if you would place an add in the Boston newspaper (state your vacation/holiday package) you could find plenty of unemployed (or for that matter gainfully employed) people who moved from that area and would love to 'go back home'.  Remember your only looking for 20-30 more peolple not thousands...

MikeG
Friday, December 12, 2003

I would 2nd MikeG's sentiments. I'm certain there are a lot of outoorsy software engineers in Boston who would love to work in Maine or New Hampshire. (I'm one of them)

You might want to consider putting the business itself somewhere like Portland ME,  or Portsmouth NH, or if vermont...maybe burlington, just so it is easy for your employees to grab coffee and or lunch.

rz
Friday, December 12, 2003

also, what is your product idea? If it involves cell phone / palm / pocketPC development, let me know. :)

rz
Friday, December 12, 2003

I'm not quite ready to discuss the product idea yet, because this is all still very early in the development stages. I can say that I've chose to target the Macintosh market. Yes, I've thought about this a lot. I currently make my living writing Windows & Unix software; and I hate it. (Please, this isn't open to debate; so don't tell me I'm wrong, misguided, or stupid.)

Some of the thoughts I've kicked around with the wife (currently the QA resource) and a couple buddies include:

* Hiring a "chef" to cook lunch/dinner - this isn't meant to prevent people from heading into town to grab a bite to eat; but to help foster the team spirit and also allow developers to remain in the zone without going hungry.

* Provide new-hire accommodations - as someone who's relocated before, finding a place to stay while looking for a house or apartment can be a real challenge. We're thinking of buying/leasing a building (either in town or just outside town) and if that building had extra space for a few "dorm" rooms, that would be great. (Note: I'm not trying to replicate the early days of the railroads.)

There have been other ideas; but these are the ones that spring to mind immediately.

One of the good features about Maine: In a few years, there will be a lot of college students looking for co-op and intern positions who grew up with an iBook in public school. I'm very interested in using this company as a vehicle to help others; not just as a way to enrich myself and my co-workers.

I actually hadn't thought about the possibility of "calling home" former Mainers, New Hampshirites, and Vermonters. That's particularly interesting.

Jeff
Friday, December 12, 2003

Too bad it's Macintosh development.  I'm a Windows developer.  It's a dream of mine to relocate to rural New England, but mine is the opposite dilemma:  finding a job there!  A friend of mine recently found a high-paying job in Southen Vermont, and it's our running joke that he got the only one.

GML
Friday, December 12, 2003

Jeff, It sounds like you are trying to create a good place to work but I think I would 'nix the chef idea.  It would probably be pretty expensive (if you are talking daily lunches/dinner cafeteria like setting). 

I think the trick to building team chemistry is simply showing respect for employees, value their opinions, giving them a real 'say' in the development process, good work environment...

Instead of the chef thing- maybe you go out as a team once a month/quarter to a big lunch (half-day work).  Or maybe you go white water rafting, rapelling or something.  I would lean towards every quarter not monthly.  As a startup with employees, you'll burn cash alot quicker than you can imagine- the trick is to not burn it too fast.  If you start out with all kinds of perks (i.e. chef) and the money depletes then you need to kill this stuff- now that will be a moral killer...

Never underestimate the power of people who 'want to go home'.  I'm in an old steel town and alot of people have moved out over the years- I know alot of companies around here have had great success recruiting people back- the advantage is you get pretty experienced people who are very happy to be 'home' - close to family and old friends.

Just my 2 cents- I hope you find sucess...

Mike

MikeG
Friday, December 12, 2003

Mike, thanks for the suggestions. The chef idea was one of the "when we have enough money" ones that we came up with. I doubt it would be every day; but I'm adamant about having a office kitchen. A real kitchen and not just a microwave.

GML, regarding Windows vs. Mac: I don't expect everyone to be a genius Mac developer. I'm certainly not. Frankly, I'd rather hire an insanely great (to steal a phrase) Windows developer who's willing to switch to the Mac and dedicate himself to the growth of the company, than a Mac developer (no matter how brilliant and experienced) who I couldn't depend on.

I expect my team-mates will grow with the company. Recruiting is too expensive an activity to have high turnover. Therefore, I plan to grow my own -- so to speak.

Jeff
Friday, December 12, 2003

Do they all have to actually *live* in Maine?
What about distributed development?

rhubarb
Friday, December 12, 2003

Yep, they actually have to live in Maine, or Vermont, or New Hampshire. Distributed development adds unnecessary complexity and really isn't how I want the company to run.

I hope the environment will be such that even telecommuting is unnecessary.

Jeff
Friday, December 12, 2003

Why not consider remote employees? My husband has been working like this for the past 15 months or so.  I do it occasionally, too (even more, if my next contract comes through...:-)

Anyone who can set up a home work environment and has the discipline to work a full day at home probably has some of the qualities you're looking for in an employee. I bet it's hard to find such a person just by recruiting, but you could start with someone where ever you are now, and not require him or her to move when you go to New England.

This would give a good argument for locating close to a reasonably-sized city. There will be times when you have to meet with everyone. It would be nice if there were a major airport nearby.

I don't think this will solve ALL your employee issues, but it could be a good option. Good luck!

Lauren B.
Friday, December 12, 2003

No need for relocation.

To get a grasp, check the 'Autodesk files'.

Programmus Interruptus
Friday, December 12, 2003

Totally agree with Lauren. I've been a remote employee for 4 years. I live in a small rural village in europe and work fulltime for a silicon valley software company.
And it works out just fine.

Joel blogged and article on Open Source some time ago and ended it with something like "And thats why I'll never believe in distributed development". This was one the few articles he's written with which I totally disagree.

In other articles he talks about doing what it takes to hire from the 99.99th percentile. Well if you consider that this 0.01 top percentage of programmers in the world is spread throughout the world (not that I pretend to be among them)  then limit you're potential employees to those that live in or will consider living in NY, then - well you do the maths.

rhubarb
Friday, December 12, 2003

P.I., I haven't read the Autodesk Files, although I'm willing to. Would you care to elaborate a little bit; or at least point me in the right direction? The Autodesk Files are huge...

Jeff
Friday, December 12, 2003

Just find other developers who would like to live in the area.  Tons of kids go to school in New England (especially Boston).  I'm sure a lot of them would enjoy staying in the area.  I wouldn't worry too much about it.

chris
Friday, December 12, 2003

Our 30 person company had a full time chef.  She took care of purchasing groceries from the local store and would cook up a storm for lunch.  Breakfast items were self serve (cold cereal, etc, bagels, etc..)... dinner was whatever was left over from lunch.

Employees were asked to take a pre-tax deduction to help cover the cost of the lunch ($2). No one opted out.

I think it pays back in spades for the company.  We'd all be in the office eating at the same time at communal tables, get to know each other, finish in 30mins, and go back to work.  Other places I've worked are cube-hell farms where you never get to socialize, and if you go out to eat, you've wasted one hour by the time you get back (not to mention having problems finding anyone between 11:30 and 1:30).

Yummy
Friday, December 12, 2003

I come from a chip design background, but I'll make the assumption that the software market is just as crappy.

My big problem is simply this: what if you go tits up in six months?  You're a startup so this is likely.  If I relocate to silicon valley or maybe NYC, then I have a chance at finding another job in the area so I don't have to relo again.  In Maine, I'm screwed.  And your re-relo offer isn't worth the paper it's printed on.

I know someone who got screwed by this - he moved to Seattle to take a chip design job and the company laid him off six months later.  Well, there are no chip design jobs in Seattle so now he's back in Toronto.  Had to break his lease too.

David Jones
Friday, December 12, 2003

David, that's exactly the sort of thing I'd be worried about if it were me on the receiving end of an offer. That's why I'd look into putting money into escrow to cover re-relocation costs in the event of insolvency.

On the positive side, version 1.0 will be built during the evenings and weekends. We wouldn't even think of hiring anyone until the revenue stream warranted it. After all, how would I pay them?

Yummy, I knew the cook idea wasn't unique; but I hadn't thought of making the cost a voluntary payroll deduction. That's a really cool idea. My chief concern would be paying the money to have a cook and have people go out anyway.

Jeff
Friday, December 12, 2003

Jeff,
  I'm currently considering an offer to relocate (to another country) and the re-relocation expenses might be what tips the balance for me.  I'll be moving with my family if I go and it'd cost a lot to move back... I'd probably not use it but it'd be good to know that it's there if things go tits up.

r1ch
Saturday, December 13, 2003

You won't have a problem anywhere in New England.  I used to live in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire. I loved it, even if the single scene was limited.  There are high tech jobs scattered all over the place, especially in tax friendly New Hampshire.  Portsmouth is really nice.  I dreamt of moving there many times.  When I got an offer with Bow Street, I had already accepted work in Lake Tahoe.  Tough life huh?  As much as I love the western mountains, it is difficult to beat the quantness of New England.

We used to have the same worries about Tahoe.  Sure a few people thought their partners would think it was too far from shopping, or the winters would be too cold, but many of us live for the mountains, and we've recruited developers from all over the world and country.  Build it and they will come.  Offer a unique environment and they will thrive. 

christopher baus (www.baus.net)
Saturday, December 13, 2003

Jeff, I expect that you'll find enough people who would rather live on the coast of Maine than in the big city.  But your OP would just about convince me that I don't want to work for your company, no matter where it is.  And Grumman doesn't sound so good, either.

Not that I take vacations much these days, but two weeks isn't quite enough.  If I take a real vacation that uses up the full two weeks, then there are no vacation days left for short trips or just the occasional day off.  The time off around July 4th and Christmas/New Year's isn't very useful.

If you expect vacations to be important to your employees, then you need to look at them from the employees view point.  The factors that would be important to me are:
- Is there enough? For me, two weeks are inadequate, but three is enough, four nice.  Others might want even more.  It doesn't all have to be paid time.
- Can I take it when I want to?  This requires attention to management policy.  Taking a vacation requires some advanced planning and expenditures for airline tickets, lodging, etc.  So what happens if a project deadline gets scheduled around the time that I had my vacation scheduled.  If you tell me that I have to reschedule, what that really means is that I don't get a vacation this year and I lose money.

mackinac
Saturday, December 13, 2003

Consider the school system.  I live in the Washington suburbs.  The people that I know in this area who have children select their housing based on the quality of the school system.  There are a lot of poor school districts and people have to put up with long commutes.

mackinac
Saturday, December 13, 2003

Mackinac, I doubt you'll find anywhere that offers you more than 5 weeks of vacation plus holidays (and the usual 1 week of sick time). Granted, 3 of 5 weeks aren't flexible. But over the years, I've found that I tried to reserve 3 to 5 days of vacation for the Winter holidays: leaving me only 5 to 7 days of real vacation. (I got into real trouble each time I'd suggest I wouldn't be able to visit the parents for Christmas.)

I'll admit to being biased in favour of the Grumman system, because that's what my family enjoyed throughout my youth. But you mentioned the need to consider families, and this vacation policy is very family friendly.

If you assume about 5 days of vacation get eaten up by making mini-vacations out of long weekends (especially the Thanksgiving Holiday mega-weekend), a family could reasonably expect to have a two week summer vacation and a two week winter vacation. All that without having to take the kids out of school.

And if you want a really long vacation, take four weeks in the winter and fly to Mexico or the Southern Hemisphere.

I'm even in favour of making sick time just additional vacation time. So, we'd really be talking about 3 weeks of "vacation" and 3 weeks of paid office closure. Don't forget, most companies allow most of your unused vacation to roll over to the next year...

Jeff
Saturday, December 13, 2003

Jeff, when you decided to locate your company in rural New England, you made the choice based on your personal preference and realized that you might have some difficulty finding enough potential employees who shared your preference for location.

Similarly, you have come up with a vacation plan that meets your  personal preferences.  How many potential employees will share your preference for vacation schedule?  You think that five weeks vacation is quite generous.  I only see two weeks of vacation and a lot of extra holidays.  I usually visit family around Christmas or Thanksgiving time, but don't use up two weeks doing it like you do.

Vacation isn't the only issue to be concerned with.  You have to make a lot of decisions about how to run the company.  If you base decisions that affect employees life outside of work on your personal preferences, then you are limiting the people who can or will want to work for you.  The company has to be somewhere, so you have to decide on someplace to be.  OTOH, there is no particular need for your restricted vacation policy.

mackinac
Sunday, December 14, 2003

Jeff,

I don't know how many developers you're thinking about hiring, but have you considered a raiding party?

Looking at Portland, ME (mmm... Captain Newick's Family Restaurant...), there is 1 well known tech firm and 1 large (200 people) IT insurance shop in town. This means that there is a concentration of talent (some top notch) in these 2 spots. You could learn about the companies and target those employees.

If you do settle on a smaller area, beware of group think. You'll probably be hiring people who have lived in the area for quite a long time. The combined cultural experiences and, to an extent, thinking styles of your organization may end up being inflexible (as compared to firms in larger areas). This can have a serious detrimental effect with vendor and customer relations (different expectations and language).

Mark Smith
Friday, December 19, 2003

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