Code in your underwear: Publishers get flexible to keep tech workers

With a shortage of tech talent in the U.S., publishers are in a precarious position of competing against platforms flush with cash when wooing in-demand candidates.

Since pubs can’t match tech firms dollar for dollar, they attract tech employees by giving them flexible schedules and letting them work remotely. Publishers emphasize that they give their engineers a lot of freedom, but pubs must keep their tech work challenging and rewarding to retain talent.

One way to attract tech talent is to open up where people can work. This is part of the reason why Condé Nast, Vox Media and BuzzFeed set up offices in tech hot spot Austin, Texas. Publishers large and small adhere to this strategy.

About 10 percent of The Washington Post’s 200 developers and engineers work remotely in cities like Portland, Oregon; San Francisco; and Charleston, South Carolina. Axios, which is based in Washington, D.C., has just a handful of tech people, but a few of them work outside of its headquarters in places like Chicago and San Francisco. Mashable said that at least half of its 20 tech employees work remotely from cities like Portland, Oregon; Denver; and Phoenix.

To keep in-demand talent happy, publishers also adhere to engineers’ schedules. Haile Owusu, chief data scientist at Mashable, said that at Mashable it is understood that leading up to a product’s debut, engineers might work past 2 a.m. one day and then come in past 2 p.m. on the next day.

Publishers have to pay competitively for people to stick around as well. Joey Marburger, director of product at The Washington Post, said some of its engineers make about $85,000 right out of college and earn six-figure salaries by their mid-20s. While that rate may be competitive among publishers, Marburger acknowledged that deep-pocketed tech firms like Google and Facebook can easily outbid large pubs like the Post.

Since tech firms have larger hiring budgets, pubs emphasize to recruits that their tech teams have a lot of independence and that new hires will have freedom to create their own projects.

“We are scrappier and might not pay as well as those companies,” said Matt Boggie, chief technology officer at Axios. “But we have a place that is really open where you can easily reach out to people in editorial and advertising to ask them questions. We try to make walls as low as possible between departments.”

Giving tech people more freedom over how, when and where they work can be an effective strategy in luring needed talent. But it can also backfire if non-tech employees perceive favoritism, which can create clashes between departments and hurt company culture.

“I don’t think the editorial folks have ever gotten mad at places I’ve worked,” said a publisher engineer requesting anonymity. “But it makes sense [that they would get mad]. … However, editorial folks need to work set hours because, well, they gotta be around to cover the news. Whereas a lot of tech concerns are more like, if you’re building a house, you can kind of do it whenever the hell you want.”

Another challenge is that making publisher tech work consistently interesting can be difficult.

To intellectually stimulate tech talent, pubs must invest in building out their own products, even though the initial development phase will return minimal results, said a publishing exec requesting anonymity. This can be problematic in publishing because for every Washington Post that emphasizes replacing vendors with products built in-house, there are many more publishers dependent on third parties.

“The dev team now wants to build real things, rather than implement third-party services and software,” this exec said. “Providing meaningful projects that are technically challenging over a number of years is really, really hard. But your best chance is to choose a few awesome things to build in-house, and then build them with pride and purpose.”

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