How to Compete for Top Talent: Design Better Jobs

Scott-Maxwell-500 by

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared on Inc.

Early in my career, after graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering, I got a job at a startup designing robots. I had the time of my life. I was absolutely thrilled to come into work each day. I got to design and program algorithms, design different aspects of the system, and see how all aspects of the systems worked together.

Around the same time, a friend of mine got a job at General Motors. While I was working at a small company with an uncertain future, he was employed at one of the largest firms in the world – an automotive powerhouse that provided job security for coming decades. Yet his job was to work solely on designing the inside of car doors. To me, it sounded like the worst job in the world, and he seemed to recognize it. Big company, nice safe paycheck, boring job.

I thought of those two jobs when someone recently asked me how smaller companies can compete for software engineering talent with the likes of Google and Facebook. The answer is, you can’t go head to head with them on salaries, but you can emphasize variables like a broader role, seeing the complete picture, company culture, autonomy and opportunities for advancement. Unfortunately, too many small companies are conceding defeat in this area. Instead, they should spend as much energy designing roles and marketing their workplaces to potential employees as they do designing and marketing their products to potential customers.

The big guys

Top-tier tech companies like Google, Amazon and Facebook pay software engineers significantly more than the national average salary of $95,195. A Business Insider analysis of Glassdoor data found that Facebook paid the most on average ($177,014) and Google wasn’t far behind at $164,583. Google is also supposed to be home to the mythical $3 million-a-year coder.

Upper echelon tech firms like Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft and Baidu have also been known to pay starting salaries in the seven-figure range for AI talent.

In addition to paying well, such firms are resume gold. Putting in a year or two at any of those companies will open doors at rival tech firms and boost your salary throughout your career.

Why salary isn’t everything

While those are strong advantages, focusing on salary and prestige assumes that people become coders for the money and the ‘glory’. While that’s true for some, motivations range from wanting to create something from whole cloth to building things people use to understanding how things work. As one programmer commented in a Quora thread, “Computer programming is more than a career, it’s an art form. It’s a different way of thinking.”

Some coders will inevitably want to work at Google or Facebook because they’re on a quest to be “the best.” But others will realize they get more autonomy and chances to work on interesting projects elsewhere.

Software engineers aren’t alone in this respect. A recent study by Glassdoor found that the top predictor of workplace satisfaction isn’t pay, it’s the culture and values of the organization. Next was the quality of senior leadership and career opportunities at the company. Compensation and benefits consistently came in last among the six workplace factors the research examined.

Other research has shown that autonomy is a major factor related to job satisfaction. A study in Taiwan of community health centers found that the more autonomy employees had at their jobs, the less likely they were to leave or transfer from their positions.

Contrast these levels of satisfaction to this profile of Amazon’s workplace culture from The New York Times, which detailed how talented workers were pushed to extremes by working around the clock and being constantly evaluated. Ex Apple employees paint a similar picture.

A market advantage for smaller firms

Smaller firms that assume they can’t compete with Apple, Amazon et. al are ignoring a huge market advantage. Unfortunately, most do a poor job of articulating those benefits to potential employees. Small firms should be just as aggressive about marketing these benefits as they are about marketing their products.

Potential employers should target engineers considering Google, and emphasize that at a small firm, they are likely to move up in the ranks quickly and acquire a range of skills that they could one day apply to their own company. Companies need to communicate workplace advantages like flexible schedules, remote work and a family-friendly culture – all areas where most top-tier firms can’t compete.

As my personal experience shows, these are real, tangible differences. We all spend so much time working and thinking about work. While salary and prestige are nice, what most people want is to work at a job they truly love.