“Data-Driven Thinking" is written by members of the media community and contains fresh ideas on the digital revolution in media.
Today’s column is written by Brandon Atkinson, chief people officer at AppNexus.
Imagine driving to your office, dropping off your dog with a caretaker, leaving your laundry with a drycleaner and buckling up your cycling shoes for an early morning spin class, all before you sit down to work, without leaving your office. And it’s all paid for by your company.
If you work in tech in Silicon Valley, this may describe a typical morning. Anywhere else in the world, it sounds like Disney World for adults.
The question is: Do extravagant perks really help attract and retain top talent? I’d argue, “not much.” It’s not about the stuff; it’s about mission and growth.
There is a popular misconception that millennials, who fill a large and growing portion of jobs in tech, require Ping-Pong tables and free food to entice them to work. Based on discussions with colleagues and peers, reading years of employee survey data and exit interview reports and, above all, my experience, I believe young professionals in tech want their work to feel meaningful and to know that they’re contributing to something important and that they have room to grow.
It’s a knowledge economy, and experiences that provide the opportunity to learn and grow are the most valuable. Work needs to be contextualized in experience that has personal meaning to employees. This meaning comes from solving interesting problems, the belief that you are building something that matters and a sense of shared purpose with a group of passionate people working hard to achieve something significant. Companies with cultures that focus on hiring great people and learning and teaching will not only attract and retain the best; they will also innovate and outperform their competitors.
That’s not to say that all companies enjoy a level playing field in creating this sense of purpose and mission. Two variables play an outsized role in determining a company’s hiring leverage: whether the company is B2B or B2C and if it is backed primarily by long-term strategic partners or venture capital.
Consumer-facing tech and media companies enjoy brand recognition among potential hires who use their products every day. Not so for the B2B companies that dominate the ad tech industry. Simply put, it’s not hard telling your mom that you work for Facebook. But it may take a while to explain to her what Rubicon, Criteo or Pubmatic does.
Yet while B2C companies enjoy an initial edge, many B2B companies actually hold a long-term advantage. Because many B2B platforms often require more processing power and complex architecture than consumer-facing technology, they can provide engineers, coders and product managers with greater professional challenges and opportunities. This dynamic is especially pronounced in ad tech, given the many billions of transactions that our sector powers and clears in real time, on any given day.
The answer, then, isn’t to buy a better Foosball table but to attract and retain talent by offering the bigger career opportunity.
Additionally, tech startups only get off the ground after raising sufficient capital from investors. Where a company gets its financial backing can have a major impact on its ability to build a culture that can keep top talent. Early-stage venture-backed startups can have the allure of perceived growth opportunities and financial upside. The startup mystique runs strong. But for companies that are disproportionately funded by venture capital, investors may prioritize a quick build and a relatively quick exit. In this environment, management is disincentivized from making the kinds of platform and technology investments that excite engineers, data scientists and product managers.
Conversely, where companies are disproportionately funded by long-term strategic partners who build and innovate alongside them, with the intention to stay in for the long game, there can be a greater opportunity to collaborate, invest and grow. Employee surveys suggest that top talent is sensitive to this point. They want to join an organization where there is an opportunity to make a meaningful impact, grow their careers and develop new skill sets. These opportunities require long-range investment and planning.
To compete for great talent, tech companies outside of Silicon Valley don’t need to hire chief happiness officers to build miniature Coney Islands for their employees. They need to leverage their intrinsic assets: meaning, learning and people. The mandate to build something important over the long term, the power and complexity of their platforms and the ability to work with world-class strategic partners offer top talent meaningful career and growth opportunity.
Professionals who gravitate toward tech tend to be entrepreneurial in nature, and they believe in maximizing human potential to change the world. Companies must remember that people are their unique differentiator. Top talent want roles that matter at companies that matter. Big perks are nice, but the benefits are ultimately unsustainable. Employees soon take them for granted and are left wanting more. Stability, career growth and substantive opportunity offer a more sustainable talent strategy and will foster a more innovative and engaged workplace.