It might be my own ignorance, but my hunch is that not too many of us think of New York City as a bastion of software engineering talent. So when it came to my attention that Squarespace, one of the higher-profile website creation platform providers around, is headquartered in Manhattan, I was surprised.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Andrew Burke, head of talent development at Squarespace, who enlightened me on New York’s growing status as a magnet for tech pros. Burke started off by explaining that interest among the top tech giants in establishing an engineering presence in New York is driving much of that growth:
A lot of companies have satellite engineering offices here — companies like Google, Twitter, Facebook, Square, and Dropbox are starting to establish a presence, because they realize the engineering community in New York has really grown quite a bit over the last 10 years. They’re looking at the opportunity to establish a presence where they can grow a fairly substantial and significant part of their engineering operation. And that provides us with more sources to potentially recruit from, as well. So while it creates more competition for talent, it also provides more opportunity. That’s the way we’ve approached it.
We’ve always been in New York, and as a company we’re now close to 600 people. We’re headquartered here, and all of our engineering, design, and product operations have been centralized here in New York, so I think from that perspective we’re probably coming up on being one of the larger technology presences in New York.
Squarespace is located on the border of West Village and SoHo, and I had a hard time wrapping my head around why a tech company would base its operations in Manhattan, one of the most expensive real estate markets in the world. Burke explained it this way:
Our founder and CEO, Anthony Casalena, moved the operation to New York City about three years after he had built the underlying software in his dorm room at the University of Maryland. He felt a real connection with New York — he was inspired by the city, as I think we all are. Economically, is it the most viable option? Perhaps not, but I think when you look around the city, there are a lot of amazingly talented people here — a lot of amazing companies that attract amazing talent. It gives us the opportunity to be a part of that conversation and that ecosystem.
Everything about Squarespace reflects the diversity of the city. New York has a lot of different disciplines — you have finance, art, fashion. The way that we go about designing and marketing our product reflects all of that. Also, if you compare New York City with some other cities, like San Francisco, New York isn’t that much more expensive.
I asked Burke if there are recruiting challenges that are unique to New York City. He said it can be tough:
Certain people have an opinion, obviously, about whether or not they would view this as a place they would want to live. So from that perspective, yeah, it’s a challenge. There are certain people who absolutely love New York, and would never live anywhere else, and other people who would never consider living here. So it’s something you have to explore, especially with people who have had little or no exposure to the city, and have a preconceived notion of it. I think you have to do a pretty good job in terms of selling the opportunity, and what New York City really provides in terms of the value and the exposure you get living here.
One of the strategies Burke and his team have developed to meet that challenge is an internship program dubbed “Initial Commit” that was launched in the fall of 2014. Burke said it was a strategy to help Squarespace compete for talent with the likes of Google and Facebook:
The recruiting team sat together to try to figure out, for the first time, really, what kind of internship program we wanted to put together for Squarespace. In the past it was very ad hoc — we had interns, but we never really put together a fully fleshed-out program. We needed to think about, in order to compete against a lot of the companies that go to career fairs at universities, which are, in essence, very engineering-oriented universities and colleges—places like Carnegie-Mellon, Cornell, NYU, Columbia—how do we differentiate ourselves, and stand apart from a lot of the companies that are going to be there?
A lot of the students don’t know any better — they’re not experienced professionals, so they get attracted by the bigger brands. You see the lines at these career fairs — Google’s line and Facebook’s line are around the corner. So how do we differentiate and brand ourselves in a way that can be a little bit more memorable?
We came up with this idea called Initial Commit. Essentially, the idea was that for the first week of their internship here, they would have the opportunity to go to a really beautiful beachfront property, and spend a week with their fellow interns, as well as some very influential people at the company — engineering and design leaders — to build relationships, learn more about the product ecosystem, and just have fun.
Finally, Burke shared Squarespace’s strategy related to recruiting tech talent from abroad:
If you look at the employee base at Squarespace, it’s interesting — there are a lot of people who come from a lot of different places. Through the experience of having those people who have grown up outside the United States, we’re all products of our experiences, and that shapes the kind of work that we do, and the output we create.
Our strategy has always been, we’ll hire great talent wherever it is. [CEO] Anthony [Casalena] has identified some of these people himself by going onto design-oriented websites, and that’s really been effective. I’ve always seen that as an effective strategy when it comes to hiring in general, when the executive team is really hands-on in the process, and can identify people that maybe I as a recruiter wouldn’t have found. And we have some amazing people here because of that.
A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.