After a long day of interviews, I wrapped up with a candidate the other day. Among other things, I tend to ask our guests what they’ve learned about the team, the position, and the company. Turns out, this particular candidate kept a close tab on her interviewers and noticed that all of them had Ph.D. degrees in databases or a closely related field. “So, what’s up with that?” she asked, “Is this a requirement for the job?”
Well, fact is, about 30% of our core engine development team are Ph.D.’s – with even higher numbers in some teams. Having said this, it might sound a bit unbelievable but we actually do not care much about degrees. So, how come we have such a high density of Ph.D.’s?
Well, it’s easy to confuse cause and symptom. Remember, I’ve written in the past about what kind of people I’m looking to hire: smart people who get stuff done. And although I value experience in engineers, it ranks lower than raw smarts and attitude – I know that’s quite a contrast to most of our competitors: the more established a company becomes the more it slows down and focuses on tried-and-true rather than on can-do.
Anyhow, what really matters is education – formal nor not – and attitude. People who find pleasure in solving hard problems and come up with elegant solutions that will enable not only products but also lay the foundation to addressing the next harder set of problems.
Not quite coincidentally, people with this sort of mindset are often the same people who are pursuing an advanced degree. Naturally, once they are done they are looking for new challenges – and that’s where we come in. If you’ve seen our UAP pitch lately you noticed we’re quite proud of the teams we build and the results they produce; be it in the area of analytics and statistics or core engineering. We do like to take on hard problems and celebrate success!
By the way, if you find yourself in the above description, are passionate about building systems, and happen to be graduating soon, shoot me an email with your resume and we’ll take it from there!
Hi Florian, nice post!
Your criteria of “smart people who get stuff done” is a very good one for software developers. Many people follow it, I think Joel Spolsky wrote about this a few times for example.
About PhD – we have a similar issue. I recently had a candidate who said he felt almost intimidated by “highly educated people”. And you are right – PhDs often show the attitude you expect in your co-worker. And not only attitude – being able to grasp abstract concepts and complex systems is something some really good programmers often struggle with. But I think there is yet another reason companies in our field end up hiring so many of them (proportionally) – strong connection to research. First, many of us keep reading (and publishing) scientific papers, so it’s easy to spot good new people. And then, if you’re looking for people with background overlapping with our activities, it’s very hard to find them. But universities and research institutes every year release great people educated on database technology and related fields who are looking for a new home.
But in the end, PhD is only some indication – we all know really smart people without it who get the job done. And the other way around, I dare to say :)
I couldn’t agree more with you — that’s exactly why we actually do not care.
Almost everyone I know in this industry has a story of a coworker who’s a brilliant engineer without a CS degree. I have one of a former coworker who doesn’t even have a high school diploma, yet, is one of the most well-read engineers and the most solid developer I have had the privilege to work with. He embodies the best of R AND(!) D.
I’ve certainly met enough people whose degree is of no value to my company or — as far as I can tell — any company because they have no practical edge. These are the ones who never made it out of the pure-research quadrant.
My experience is a bit different. I almost never had success with PHDs as software developers ,although I suspect that the characteristics in USA and Israel are different. In Israel PHD’s are usually the ones who usually seek an Academic career and are less interested in the “practical” aspects of the work. This is fine by itself , but problematic in software engineering, which requires a lot of “boring” domain specific craft. The other issue is that universities do not attract or educate great team players, IMO. They are very competitive in nature and work is quite individual, which is a big minus in software development teams.
I fact, I believe there are very big cultural(?) differences among PhD programs the world over.
In Israel, many of the vetting functions that a PhD program provides for employers in the US are taken over by the military. Having served in IDF’s Unit 8200 is a great recommendation for excellent education and the ability to implement ideas. Much like what I’m looking for when hiring folks. In many — if not all — other countries, having served in the Special Forces or the local counterpart of the NSA qualifies folks much less for a job on my team though.
Good point you’re making about the type of work though — I always try to hire folks who will be highly interested in what I’m working on. Having people getting either bored or overwhelmed is a recipe for disaster.