Tech Start-Ups Reeling In Talent With Competitions, Cash Prizes

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For one day last month, talented engineers had a chance to win $100 in a minute.

All they had to do was solve a programming bug — one that could be found in a standard college textbook — in 60 seconds or less.

By the end of the day, 81 out of 385 contestants had each won $100 — and Quixey, a startup in Silicon Valley, had identified many more talented engineers to recruit to join its fast-growing team.

It’s a strategy that Quixey and other high-tech startups have begun to deploy as they compete against the likes of Google and Facebook to attract and hire coveted software engineers. With the technology industry booming(or at least bouncing back), some technology companies are dangling perks such as free food, gym memberships, and stock options. For others, they’re looking to set themselves apart by tapping into people’s gaming instincts.

“It’s a competitive environment for hiring engineers,” said Liron Shapira, chief technology officer and co-founder of Quixey, who came up with the idea. “We wanted to distinguish ourselves and get our name out there.”

Of course, challenging applicants with puzzles and brain teasers is not entirely new. Google has famously asked quirky questions of its job interviewees. And Facebook has invited prospective developers to submit solutions to programming puzzles posted on its site. But as the battle for talented engineers heats up, startups that want to stand out to prospective employees are giving the idea a new twist.

With $3.8 million in funds raised from the likes of Google chairman Eric Schmidt’s Innovation Endeavors, Palo Alto’s Quixey has been aggressively beefing up its engineering crew. But traditional recruiting, such as hitting college job fairs and hiring headhunters, wasn’t enough.

The search engine for apps started the Quixey Challenge in November. To qualify even to participate in the contest, engineers must first solve three practice problems ahead of time. On the big day, held monthly, they face the one-minute challenge with a Quixey operator on the line.

All the winners are automatically invited to interview with Quixey. The startup also identifies other potential candidates through the initial screening. All told, Quixey has interviewed more than 150 candidates it found through the contest. From the December challenge alone, it hired three full-time engineers and three college interns.

“There's so much competition to recruit from well-known sources of engineers in Silicon Valley,” Shapira said.

The Quixey Challenge allows the startup to throw a wider net.

“The biggest bottleneck is starting the first conversation with somebody,” he said. “Once we’re talking to them, we have a lot of success.”

Now the Quixey Challenge has become so popular that it has limited contestants to U.S. residents and those who haven’t won before.

Another startup, New York’s SeatGeek, also found that creating a challenge let it find candidates it might not have otherwise met. Something about the challenge whet their appetite.

“You already know they’re intellectually curious,” said SeatGeek CEO Russell D’Souza. “The applicants who fill out the hiring challenge are the ones who are talented and already have a job.”

SeatGeekintroduced its first challenge in late 2010 when it asked prospective engineers to hack into its site to submit their resume. It worked so well — for one position, it received more than 100 high-qualified applicants — that it now asks all prospective programmers to do it. The stellar ones can complete the task in about 10 minutes. For those who take too long or just can’t hack it, well, SeatGeek isn’t interested in them.

More recently, SeatGeek decided to apply the same strategy to find and hire non-engineers, including a new communications director, sales director and even its office manager. For the communications job, contenders had to analyze a set of SeatGeek data, publish a sample blog post and promote it via social media. Office manager candidates took a basic Excel test.

Ultimately, the kinds of people these challenges attract are the ones that the startups want to hire.

Said Liron, “The best engineers are looking for a challenge. They want to slay dragons.”