At a town hall for NY Hackers this week, its founder Brandon Diamond announced the creation of the Hackers Union, a unifying non-profit resource for all engineers in New York City.
“We’re still sort of in the early stages of a self-sustaining engineering culture like you might find in San Francisco,” said Mr. Diamond, who also serves as associate director of NY Tech Meetup and a database kernel engineer at 10Gen (the company behind MongoDB). “Our goal is not to become the next big meetup. We want to consolidate all the activities into a central hub.”
The effort has already attracted a potential sponsor–a hedge fund, no less.
With all the anxiety and initiative swirling around building up New York’s tech talent pool, we’re a little surprised no one’s attempted a for-the-hackers, by-the-hackers centrifuge on this scale before. Betabeat talked to Mr. Diamond about what the Union will offer, rebooting the engineering interview process, bringing Wall Street engineers into the fold, and why 10Gen’s like an early Google.
Why does the city need something like the Hackers Union?
When I first started working in New York City, it’s just a vast difference in terms of the number of engineers here. We’re getting better, we’ve got great meetups, great programs. But our goal is to build a place where new engineers can go to meet experienced engineers, where we can publicize the message that New York City is not just a great place to be in a startup, but a great place to do awesome engineering. And we don’t think there’s a single unifying resource focused exclusively on techies.
What was your first job here?
I was at a company called Clickable, which had a very small NYC engineering team. It was mostly a sales culture. The bulk of their engineering was elsewhere, so I was one of three guys. It could get a little lonely.
How is the Union related to NY Hackers?
Well it’s not really. It’s a terrible word, but we’ve sort of “pivoted” over the past year we’ve been around. Mostly I was concerned because there were great tech events, but there was nowhere I could go where I could kind of hang out with a bunch of nerdy people without being in the shadow of a sponsored startups. So that’s where [NY Hackers] came from. We started by giving Unix accounts to any hackers who were interested in New York City, which was good, but we found that face time was really important. Then we started doing town halls as kind of strategic play. We get a lot of people coming to these things, I think we had 300 RSVPs two nights ago, but we really wanted to have kind of a centralized entity where we could furnish the information these folks are looking for.
We can do things like have a guidance counselor program, if you’re looking for a job we’ll meet with you and connect you with the right organization, bigger picture things.
Why did NY Hackers give them Unix accounts?
Well the theory was there’s all these diverse initiatives—like Adopt-a-Hacker was one of them and the NYTM was doing a program to encourage technical folks to come to the event. But I sort of felt like that was not what techies really wanted, because it’s not the sort of thing I thought I would respond to. The idea was let’s not ask them to come to our domain, we’ll go into their domain. That was by providing these Unix accounts where you would be in an open ecosystem, you could write your own scripts, you could share them with other people, you could talk in IRC, you could even play Minecraft. It worked reasonably well, but we wanted to go bigger.
So this is like an evolution of NY Hackers?
Here’s the problem, we stupidly chose the name NY Hacker, even though we’re good friends of HackNY, so we’ve been kind of invisible as a result. That’s part of the reason we’re renaming. We’ve been going at it for awhile. We hosted a bunch of hackers from Mexico, I think it was Mexico, it might have been Brazil, it was called Hackspedition. We showed them around, they did a hackathon. We’re doing our best, but we really need to improve our website, do a publicity push, and part of the money will go to our first hire, which will be a managing director, interestingly not me. Turns out having a full time job and these sort of aspirations does not—I sleep like, definitely not enough. If someone has the time and passion to carry things forward faster, then I want to empower that person.
Are you going to offer the same types of things as say the Freelancer’s Union, like healthcare?
I don’t think that would be our first goal. One of the things we want to do is, there’s kind of a problem with the way interviews happen with technical people. It’s nobody’s fault, it’s just that a lot of hiring managers aren’t aware of how to properly screen technical folks. So you wind up in an uncomfortable situation where you’re trying to solve brainteasers on the phone and its not really fun.
How would you fix that?
One thing we were thinking about doing was certifying or vetting providers and counseling them on how to do a successful tech interview. It’s more about asking background questions, asking about projects, and looking for passion and seeing if they can speak conversationally about difficult topics. Then when it gets to a final round interview where you really want to vet their abilities, start with a code sample and then ask them one or two very CS-y, very computer-y thought questions. But definitely don’t ask the color of people’s eyeballs on a desert island somewhere.
How does the non-profit aspect work?
We’re still doing a little debating about 501(c)(3) versus (c)(6). (c)(3) is more for the common good type thing. Kind of the way you would encourage kids to exercise and eat fruits, [we encourage] engineers to come to New York City. (c)(6) is the same except it’s for industry organizations so you’re allowed to do political lobbying, but they tend to run using a dues system. We don’t want to do dues. The other big difference is that donations aren’t tax deductible, but we want to run using sponsorship money instead of the dues.
Do you have potential sponsors?
There’s a company, but it’s kind of still up in the air. It’s a hedge fund that wants to give us a very large seed investment, which we’ll use for all the expenses we’ll need to worry about while we’re incorporating. One of the things that we really wanted to do is have our own kind of fund, where folks who want to do like a hackathon or a movie night or a class can approach us. We’ll say well here’s pizza pies, we’ll help you reach people who are interested and go do it.
If a hedge fund is interested, does that mean it’s not just for hackers in the startup world?
We have folks from banking, from all over the place.
Do Wall Street hackers get along with startup hackers?
They actually do. Most of the folks in the room are wearing t-shirts and shorts and then a few other guys come in with a full suit on. But we’re all concerned about the same thing, the only difference is where we’re working. And when you do the traditional hackathon, you kind of exclude those people—I think the majority of people are from banks and advertising firms—because that’s sponsored by the startup world. There’s not really a great level of discourse between the two. We’re kind of an unaffiliated central hub for what we hope will become a thriving hacker community, which, by the way, will benefit the startups, the banks and the whole city.
So, how are things going on 10gen, which of course, is Kevin Ryan’s “most promising” investment?
It’s really exciting. I had a whole year doing startup stuff, during which I thought, if I don’t succeed, which is not likely at all, then where would I want to be. There are a lot of good startups in NYC and they’re all solving interesting problems, but 10gen is solving the sorts of problems we studied and talked about in school. I would have to compare it to what early Google might have been like. There’s free food; we have free lunch Friday. The CTO, he basically freestyles on tech topics that we all shout out. It’s a meritocracy. Having the money, yeah, it makes things more chaotic, but everyone’s excited for sure.
Early Google in terms of potential growth or the environment?
Maybe both! It’s really interesting growth-wise, it’s an engineering oriented company, which is surprisingly less common than it used to be in the early 2000s, late nineties. The CEO [Dwight Merriman] sits in the same place where all the other engineers sit, along with the CTO. [Mr. Merriman] comes to work everyday, he actually writes more code than most of us, he’s an incredible guy, he’s extremely inspiring.
Ha, he’s better at it than Zuck. What are you working on right now?
Our focus right now is on improving concurrency, a major thing people want to do right now is map reduce, which is kind of a new way to process data when there’s a lot of it. We’re focusing on parallelizing the database and handling concurrency better. We kind of distance ourselves from MongoDB because we want the community to really own it, so we say 10Gen sponsors MongoDB. We’re continually improving the product.