Why Hulu, Audible, and others paid thousands to attend a bootcamp demo day

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on November 15, 2013

From The News Desk

This week there was a demo day for a mobile coding bootcamp. But it wasn't any old demo day. This was a demo day where companies like Optimizely and Audible were circling like hawks, having paid thousands of dollars to get their heads of engineering into the event.

We've written a lot about the hiring pain points in Silicon Valley. As everyone who has spent so much as a day here knows, there's not enough programmers to go around. Companies are desperate for good talent. That's the reason behind Silicon Valley pushing for immigration reform for skilled workers, as well as the explosion in coding bootcamps to teach newbies the ropes.

But as we've also written about, companies aren't looking for fresh faced new developers. They want the mid-career coders who are up to date on the latest languages, and don't need their hands held.

Michael Ellison, the entrepreneur-in-residence at Riviera Partners recruiting firm, learned all about this when he started interviewing companies and engineers to understand their pain points. Riviera hired Ellison to shake things up. They felt that traditional recruiting was broken and needed to be fixed. Over the years recruiters had earned an unsavory reputation for their harassing techniques, spamming candidates to try to set them up with companies who they weren't a fit for.

Riviera thought that Ellison, who did not have a recruiting background, could come up with new ways to make the firm more helpful, both to startups and programmers. Ellison was an entrepreneur himself, having founded three companies, two of which focused on education, and one of which went through YC. Education is Ellison's passion, and he suspected the answer to Silicon Valley's talent and recruiting woes might come from that sector.

After interviewing loads of developers and companies to understand their needs, Ellison's suspicions were confirmed. Mid career developers didn't know the most recent coding languages, and recruiters were desperate for that. It was a Catch-22.

Ellison decided to start chipping away at the problem by introducing a Riviera sponsored mobile bootcamp for practiced programmers. Ellison recruited Alaina Percival, a board member at Women Who Code, to head up marketing efforts. He also recruited Nathan  Esquenazi and Tim Lee, computer engineers running Code Path, a mobile bootcamp they had founded.

Esquenazi and Lee developed curriculum that they were teaching to Yahoo employees. But they wanted to scale the brand and become known as the go-to instructors for mobile languages. To do that they needed to leave the siloed walls of the big corporation.

Percival, Esquenazi, Lee, and Ellison started brainstorming how the bootcamp would work. They decided to give it to engineers for free, compared to their brethren at companies like Hack Reactor and App Academy who charge anywhere from $5,000-$20,000.

Since they were offering the class for free they had no lack of qualified applicants. Instead of vetting people based on where they had gone to school, the Code Path founders came up with a programming test that would more objectively gage people's coding skills. A very small percentage of applicants were eventually accepted -- five to ten percent of 1,000.

The requirements for those accepted were clear: students would need to not only attend evening classes, do the homework, and work on a team project for demo day, but they would also need to keep up the quality of their work. If they stopped turning in strong assignments or if their prototypes didn't work, they could get kicked out of the program.

It sounds intense for a voluntary coding class. But Ellison had bigger dreams than just a bootcamp. He wanted the people who graduated from the class to be deemed "Code Path Fellows," and for the certificate to mean as much to recruiters as a degree from MIT.

That way, people who perhaps did not look great on paper to recruiters -- maybe they didn't go to the best school, or had limited professional experience -- could prove themselves. If they could get into Code Path and complete it on the basis of their talent, then they could have a leg up for jobs.

By adding an introductory process where Riviera itself can gage people's technical skills, see how they work over time, study how fast they learn and what their skills are, understand people's personalities, and weed out the good from the bad, then at the end of the bootcamp it will be much easier for Riviera to place said candidates.

And what do the candidates get out of it? Mid career coders who might want to make a jump to a different job can polish up their skills and make themselves undeniably attractive to companies. For free.

Riviera doesn't require the people who go through the program to let Riviera place them, however. Anyone can apply: entrepreneurs who are starting their own companies, coders who are happy at the jobs they're already at, or people with no career experience who taught themselves how to code out of their basement. The idea is that Riviera wants to be known as the firm that helps engineers -- over the long haul of their careers, not just during short term placement.

Of course, plenty of the people who take the boot camp are in fact looking for other work, and Riviera becomes a sensible place for them to turn to for help. After the free bootcamp, they have relationships with Riviera employees like Michael, and more trust for the firm since it gave them free classes.

Essentially, it's a win for everyone involved. We wrote about the bootcamp before it ever got off the ground, in August. Now, months later three classes have gone through it and Riviera ran two demo days, the second of which happened Monday at Yammer's headquarters.

Although Ellison had high hopes for the program all along, he had no idea the extent to which companies would get excited about it. He put out the call for demo day judges to a handful of companies Riviera had worked with, hoping he'd get at least a few volunteers. Instead, his inbox was flooded with interest, to the point where Riviera had to start turning companies away from attending the demo day.

"You don't realize the demand until companies start to get aggressive with anything that seems like an opportunity to meet talented engineers," Ellison says.

He was curious exactly how much companies wanted to meet the demo day students, so he decided to put a sponsorship price tag and restrictions on attending. Companies could only send their directors and VPs of engineering, no one below that job position. Furthermore, they had to pay $2,500 or donate high-quality prizes for the student winners of the demo day. And lastly, Riviera would not be facilitating introductions among students and company attendees before or after the presentations. Companies would just have to mingle to meet the students.

Even with those requirements, companies clamored to attend. In fact, some even tried to one up him, offering to pay $5,000 or $10,000 to attend. Riviera didn't want to make money off the demo day -- that wasn't the point -- so they capped the sponsorship once they had enough money and prizes for the student winners. Companies like Hulu donated iPads and Chromecasts to the winners, and premium subscriptions to all participants.

It's official: Silicon Valley has lost its mind. Talk about desperation. If there was any question whether the talent desert was real, this seals the deal.

"'Code Path is like offering a glass of water to someone in the desert.' That's a direct quote from a VP of engineering to me," Ellison says.

We talked to some of the companies about why they were so interested in Code Path's demo day. "Mobile is growing at an incredible rate, and we expect it will account for approximately 15% of Hulu’s consumed videos in 2013-2014," Hulu's Director of Software Development,  Ilya Haykinson, says. "An intensive training course like Code Path is really valuable because it can shorten the time it would take for someone joining our mobile team to become proficient."

Optimizely's head of engineering, Rama Ranganath, says, "We are actively hiring for Android and iOS developers, and having a presence at an event like this is a great way to get that word out."

Ranganath admits he probably wouldn't have been nearly as interested in attending a demo day if the students were programming beginners. "It's an incredible luxury to have people on your team that you can feel comfortable giving any type of technical problem," Ranganath  says.

And as for the students? They thought the whole thing was a blast.  "Code Path was perfect because it's geared towards professional engineers," says Nidhi Kulkarni.  Kulkarni and her co-founder Erin Parker built the app SpitFire Athlete for the Code Path demo day. They've decided to pursue it as a company.

As for whether students decided to let Riviera place them at a job after the bootcamp, it was a mixed bag. Parker and Kulkarni aren't looking for josb since they want to launch SpitFire. "Riviera has been incredibly supportive, though, and they've given us office space for free," Parker says.

Another participant, Oracle engineer Imju Byon, loved the program because the in-person meetings and competitive atmosphere propelled her learning. But the program didn't particularly shift her opinion of the Riviera recruiting firm. "I'm not so sure I'm going to look for work from them because I heard from other folks that they are bad with the spamming too," Byon says.

Ellison has been keeping busy since the demo day, meeting with recent Code Path graduates to find out more about their career aspirations and help set them up with companies. "Hulu is trying to convince us to run the program in LA. Audible wants us to take it to New York," Ellison says. "It's really kind of nuts."

[Image courtesy: Wikipedia]