At Spotify, we take Hack projects seriously. Some of our very best ideas have stemmed from working cross-collaboratively in unstructured and highly experimental teams to see what the output could be.
(Ever heard of Discover Weekly??) But the results of these hacks aren’t always product related; we’ve used our hack days to tinker with big questions like how to recruit a more diverse workforce and how to continue growing and developing our engineers.
One initiative that stemmed from this type of hacking is the NYC Technology Fellowship Program, an 18-week development program for aspiring engineers hailing from non-traditional technical backgrounds. Now, we’re listening in as Hannah Wolf, Campus Recruiter and Road Manager for the program, sits down with one of its founders, Engineering Manager Chris Angove, to discuss its origin story and where we are today.
HW: Chris, thanks for sitting down with me today. Maybe to start, you can tell us how Spotify first came up with the idea to launch their Associate Engineer Program?
CA: It really started as a hack project. We had just gotten out of an evaluation of a candidate who was super smart and had a lot of promise. She had just finished a boot camp but we were looking for someone more senior. We were lamenting the fact that we had no place for this awesome engineer and we were joking that we should start an incubator program. That evolved into, “Wait, why are we joking about this and not doing it?” So, we took it on during a company-wide hack week. Out of that came some really interesting ideas that eventually warped into this idea of a fellowship or an associate engineer program. We went around to all of our stakeholders and said we need a headcount, we need this, we need that. And surprisingly to us at the time, people were interested and said okay, let’s do it.
Besides finding a spot for this awesome engineer, what other challenges were you looking to address with your AE program?
Initially it started just as, how do we get more junior engineers in a place where we can easily move them up the ladder to more responsible roles? We have the internship programs that run in the summer, which are great for people in traditional four-year college or university programs. What we didn’t have was an onboarding process for people coming in January, February, or March. We also realized that we were lacking diversity in relation to job experience. So many of our entry-level employees were from similar four-year programs and the same handful of schools and companies.
If you were finding good candidates from the same schools and companies, why develop a new pipeline?
One of our core values at Spotify is that everyone’s voice matters. That gives us the freedom to say the more ideas that we have, the better. When we started talking to the leadership team about the Associate Engineer program, we led with the fact that we need more voices. More voices and more ideas equals a better product.
Makes sense. Chris, can you tell us a bit more about Spotify’s program? How long is it? How is it structured?
We have done three rounds so far. The first one we set up as an 18-week session. We spent the first 14 weeks on what we called project work, which was bringing al the Associate Engineers together as a squad. We made a senior developer from Spotify the tech lead for this new squad. Then we set up mentors across the different domains. The [presence of a] tech lead and mentoring itself is a great opportunity – it’s a great skill to learn to teach and to lead. And for some of these mentors this was their first opportunity in that role. It was really important to us that this program didn’t just act as a hiring funnel but also was good for the people who were supporting them.
The project that the apprentices worked on… was it theoretical or a real project?
It’s real work. We pick projects that are important but not mission critical, as we know there is a learning curve required. It’s typically stuff just below the fold on our list. Projects we want to do if we just have the time. It’s a good way to scratch that itch a little bit.
What happens after the project?
We then go through a placement process, identifying the teams that have headcount and need people. Once we find the teams, we do a four-week embed. And the team, and the manager on that team, owns the decision on whether we hire the candidate. So far, we’ve hired about 87% of our Associate Engineers into full time roles following the program.
During the program, are the Engineers paid like interns?
Our Associate Engineers receive a salary during the 18-week program and are eligible to opt into a number of our Spotify perks and benefits.
It sounds like a great program. Now that you are heading into year four, have you evolved it at all?
We spend more time with on-boarding now. The first few weeks we focus on training, exposing the cohort to our technology, how the teams work, etc. These are classes that most of our entry-level hires go through. And now we spend less time on the projects and more time with the embed. It’s one thing to work on a project with the rest of the Associates, but learning to work within an actual squad is a different animal. We wanted the candidates to have more time in that role before making a hiring decision.
Where are you finding candidates?
A number of the candidates come from Tech Talent Pipeline’s bootcamp partners. We have had a lot of success working with Full Stack Academy, Flatiron School, and Pursuit (formerly Coalition for Queens). These boot camps offer a really intensive program to teach the practical skills of software development, focus on actual coding, on tools, and how to build software in a practical sense. Basically, they are trying to teach somebody as quickly as possible how to code at a level where they can be a professional developer as opposed to a hobbyist.
How do these boot camp candidates compare to candidates coming from a 4-year school? Are they as technically proficient?
Like any new hire, they are coming in with really great development skills but not a lot of software engineering experience. How do you work on a team building a product instead of working with maybe one or two other people? That is what our Fellowship Program is designed to solve for. What so many of them do have is focus and drive. One of the things that I’ve seen from people at boot camp is that however they got there, into the boot camp, whatever life challenges or path that they took, generally they come out with a focused energy, ready to get after it. That means a lot to us. We feel like we can teach the technical skills. But you can’t always teach focus or drive.
Okay, last question… if a company is considering launching their own Associate Engineer program, and trying to weigh the ROI, what would you tell them? What company would stand to benefit from a program like this?
For us, this program has been a huge value add, helping us find really strong, diverse candidates, expand our talent pool, add a new hiring layer, and offer the internal Spotify team members some really invaluable experience. But, I would say that for a new company you have to have a certain scale to offer this program. It is a significant time resource commitment and you need to obviously have head count. I think any team of significant size though can really benefit from a program like this. And, once you launch it, your Engineering and HR team will continue to fight for it because they will appreciate the results!
Learn more about how Spotify’s NYC Technology Fellowship Program works and how to apply by visiting https://ttp.nyc/spotify-fellowship-2019
Interested in building an Associate Engineer Program like the NYC Technology Fellowship? Check out the resources available through Tech Talent Pipeline: https://mailchi.mp/d0de5485c3f9/get-started-tech-talent-pipeline