5 Takeaways from TechFest

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of strolling around TechFest at the Steamwhistle brewery and talking with a number of eager professionals from a range of disciplines. It was my first TechFest experience. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I was blown away by the drive and determination of these job seekers. The conversations were thoughtful, the energy was high, the beer was cold, and I came away with a few takeaways that both surprised me and reaffirmed my own interpretations of the current tech climate. Here are some of my thoughts from that experience.

Startup Hype

Most of the misconceptions about startups seem to have died. Years ago, I’d get one of two reactions when I told people I worked for a startup:

  1. Sweet! Do you just sit around all day and drink beer?
  2. Yikes! Do you work 70 hours a week?

These were bad assumptions then and they’re bad assumptions now. Before big investments in tech became the norm, the entity we now call a “startup” was known as a “small business”. The motivation then, as it is now, was about finding a problem that needed to be solved and working hard to be first to market. Do I drink the occasional beer and work the occasional long week? Yes and yes. But structure is the cornerstone of any good business, and it can’t exist if everyone’s drinking all the time or totally burnt out. The new generation of talent knows both the good and bad assumptions about startup culture, and aren’t fooled by any of it. They’re looking for a good career at a good company, no matter what it’s labelled.

Is Culture Dead?

Literally no one asked me about office culture, and I think I know why. The “culture” thing is overdone. Yes, office culture is a must. Yes, you have to like the people you work with. But no, this friendship doesn’t have to be built by throwing axes at a wall or shooting each other with Nerf guns. Do we have fun in our office? Absolutely. Do we have parties, play Mario Kart, go rock climbing and genuinely enjoy each others’ company? 100%. But our camaraderie comes out of the fact that we’re building something complex and each and every one of us is instrumental in making that happen. The business and our values come first – a great culture is the outcome.

A Small Team is a Big Draw

Shiny new office spaces and big salaries are an obvious draw, but it seems as though more and more people are opting for something with more purpose, or something more organic. They are seeking an environment where they can make an impact and see the influence they have on the company. It seemed as though every person I spoke to said something similar. It’s hard to tell where exactly this comes from, but I sense that it could be horror stories about becoming a worker drone at a huge tech company. The draw of a smaller company is the chance to lean towards their interests, and push their own boundaries. That can be difficult to do in a big organization, but it’s a must in a small business.

Don’t Box Me In

One of our employees (who started as a co-op) said that the thing he loved most about coming to work with ThinkData Works was that right off the bat he was given the opportunity to wear different hats and learn a lot of new skills. This kind of flexibility has to be baked into a company mandate before the business reaches a certain size. A number of the people who I spoke with at TechFest said that even though they were studying one thing in particular, they had a range of interests. These interests can turn into careers; they just need to be given the space to grow.

Main Takeaway: Savvy and Sensible

I spoke to more than one candidate who came prepared to ask companies like ours probing questions around what we do and the problems that we’re solving. But it wasn’t just about our technology or product but our values, leadership, and business plans to grow. This is incredible. These are, by and large, people who have some of the most marketable skills on the planet, and they’re hustling like mad. It’s refreshing to meet realists who want to find a career where they make real things with real applications.
When companies grow, certain things have to change. What’s hard is maintaining all the things that work so well, like the extraordinary energy of a small office or the agility to let people follow their interests. But going to TechFest reminded me that these are not only the things that make a company an exciting place to work, they’re also what make a company successful. We’re hiring data scientists, developers, and sales people – and from what I saw at TechFest, I’m confident we’ve built the kind of team they’ll want to be a part of.

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