What Makes a Company a Great Place to Work for Software Engineers?

Don Tennant
Slide Show

The 21 Questions You Need to Ask in a Job Interview

If you’re a software engineer, how would you describe the ideal company to work for? How about one that’s run like a family-owned business, and that has three-day hackathons where you can work on whatever cool stuff you want to work on? One that’s housed on a vibrant university campus, perhaps? How about one that has an annual theme party, where the five employees with the best theme outfits get a free trip to Hawaii?

It turns out there’s one that’s described by all of the above. It’s Unicorn Media, a digital media services provider that helps companies come up with innovative ways to monetize online video. Founded in 2007 and located on the campus of Arizona State University in Tempe, Unicorn Media is one technology company that makes it very clear how much it values and appreciates its employees.

I had the opportunity to speak with Unicorn Media CEO Bill Rinehart last week, and I opened the discussion by noting that right or wrong, millennials have a reputation for not feeling loyal to any particular employer, and for changing jobs every couple of years. I asked Rinehart if that’s been the case at Unicorn Media, or if the company’s culture keeps them around longer than that. Rinehart said he can’t speak to whether Unicorn Media is the exception to any rule—all he knows is what’s happened with his company:

I can’t think of a single employee we’ve lost that we didn’t want to lose. The reason is very simple—we have a couple of unfair competitive advantages. We run our business like a family business, so people treat each other differently than they would in another kind of company. We’re in a very, very interesting industry, and we’re very unique to the state of Arizona. If you looked at [companies like] Unicorn Media in Silicon Valley, there would be one every couple of blocks. Down here, I can count on one hand the number of cool high-tech companies there are to work for.

Rinehart’s focus during our discussion was on his software engineers, because “without software engineers, we don’t have a company.” He said they’re the most difficult employees to recruit, and he noted that getting them up to speed is a time-consuming process:

We typically bring them in as interns or contractors first, and we get to know each other for 90 days, rather than just hiring out of the blue and making a bad decision. …The rule of thumb around here is it’s going to take six months for a software engineer to even start to be useful, to write production code. So we obviously spend a great deal of time training during that first six months.

If the training and work are rigorous, plenty of fun stuff is included, too. Rinehart said hackathons came to mind:

We’ll do a three-day hackathon, and the winning team not only gets a little bit of money, but certainly a lot of recognition. Typically, the company comes out with some really interesting ideas. That really helps with teambuilding. It gives them the chance to work on something that we’re not telling them to work on. Choose an idea that you think would be useful to the company—you have three days to complete it and demo it to the whole company, and we’re all going to vote on it. A couple of our internal systems have come from hackathons. One of them is called Whopper—it improves our back-end ability to bring up new servers that manage servers. Whopper came directly out of a hackathon, where the problem these guys tried to solve was, how can we get out of doing all of this maintenance stuff all the time? Why can’t we automate it? We’ve also had ideas for patents come out of hackathons.

I found it interesting that the company was founded in 2007, not long before the recession hit. I asked Rinehart if he had to lay anyone off, and if he did, whether he hired them back when times got better. He said they didn’t lay anyone off:

What we chose to do was to make across-the-board pay cuts. The thought process was, we can get rid of 20 percent of our family here, if that’s what everybody wants to do, or does everybody want to tighten their belts so everybody can keep their jobs? It was unanimous that everybody wanted to tighten their belts so everybody could stay. … It’s not lip service—we truly run it like a family business, so that everybody has an equal voice. It doesn’t matter that I’m the CEO, and someone else is the guy who fixes the computers—we all treat each other with respect and dignity. It’s not that we pay a lot more than anyone else. It’s just that people like to work here. Jobs like this are very hard to find.

Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Dec 12, 2013 5:05 AM Finula Finula  says:
Good post! Reply
Dec 16, 2013 7:06 AM jake_leone jake_leone  says:
The first thing you have to ask, when someone says "Family-Run" business model, is "Do you open up your books to the employees?". The answer is typically no. An owner likely has a profit expectation. Without knowing that, you can't tell whether Unicorn is a really maginimous or is just looking to give another 20% in profit to the owners. Hackathons are great. But beware, any idea you present will become company property. A company could stifle personal and business development. For example, the U.S. should be grateful that Hewlett Packard didn't enforce the their rights to the first Apple computer. A lot of jobs and capital would never have been created in the Bay Area, if they had. Hackathons are great for developing items that are related to your work and can improve efficiency in a company. They are not the place to show off unrelated ideas (but potentially profitable), for which you will not be suitably rewarded. In fact, having up/down votes for a single reward, demotivates, and can actually defeat the process. Save that the manager, that organized i,t gets big brownie points and gold stars for the illusion of having spurred creativity that was already their. Reply

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