Every so often a fairly prominent Montrealer from our startup / tech ecosystem departs. It’s part of the natural ebb and flow of things – you can’t keep everyone in the same place forever. A few days ago, I learned that Yannick Gingras was leaving. He’s heading to Facebook to work on their infrastructure as an Application-Operations Engineer. Yannick has been very involved in the Montreal startup ecosystem – as co-founder of Ajah, and as a leader of the Python community.
This isn’t huge news, but it is indicative of a trend I see continuing, primarily because big tech companies (think: Facebook, Twitter, etc.) that don’t have a local presence, are getting more and more aggressive with their recruiting efforts and casting a wider and wider net. They have no choice – the talent in Silicon Valley is tapped out, it’s insanely difficult to hire, and there are lots of talented developers all over the world. If you can get them to move, it makes complete sense to try. This does have the potential of making it harder for local startups to keep their talent. Developers have lots of ways of showing off online (Github, open source projects, etc.) and if they’re willing to move…
NextMontreal: You’ve accepted a job at Facebook. What will your role be?
Yannick: I’m going to work on the Facebook infrastructure as an Application-Operations Engineer. The short story is that I’m going to make the website run faster. The longer one is that app-ops are the people making the bridge between sysadmins and application developers, ensuring that the infrastructure is providing the services that are the most relevant to the application developers and helping app developers make the best possible use of the platform.
App-ops are the ones building the platform.
NextMontreal: When are you going?
Yannick: Montréal is a great city but even after all these years, I find it kind of cold and challenging in the winter. I’m leaving on the 15th of November, just before the first snow.
NextMontreal: What are your expectations as you get started?
Yannick: I expect to spend a few weeks of intensive learning before jumping in and teaming up with a team of app developers. Beyond that, it’s hard to tell and I do my best not to think about the job itself since I will learn soon enough. Regarding San Francisco, I expect a busy walkable city, a bit like Montréal, but with a better weather. This is not Honolulu, it’s not paradise weather every day, but it’s close to the human comfort zone all year long. There is some value to that.
NextMontreal: Did they find you online somehow and reach out to you?
Yannick: A Facebook recruiter found my profile online and reached out to me. I do my best to maintain an up-to-date profile on Linkedin and on my website and it’s not unusual for me to be contacted by a company looking for top-talent, but after I started getting involved in the Python Software Foundation and with PyCon, I saw a definite increase of top-500 companies contacting me.
NextMontreal: Can you describe the recruitment process? Number of interviews, etc.? Was there a technical test of any kind or technical exercise? Or was it just in-person meetings?
Yannick: The Facebook hiring process includes a series of technical interviews over the phone then an on-site all-day-long interview. The phone interviews include general knowledge questions and live-coding in a shared document. The on-site interview is very intense with lots of whiteboard coding, problem solving, analysis and drafting of
specifications. At some point, I was about to faint, at other points, I wanted to throw-up; it’s that intense. This is also when the people you are going to work with are probing your soft-skills to see if they want to work with you.
What’s the best way to prepare? It’s not the kind of interview that you can game by cramming. You should sleep for ten hours and be yourself. They cover all the expenses of the on-site interview so even if you are not selected, interviewing is a fun way to visit Silicon Valley, and possibly meet interesting people at the airport.
NextMontreal: What convinced you that a job at Facebook was the right move for you?
Ajah (previously covered by Next Montreal), the startup that I co-founded with Michael Lenczner, Daniel Drouet, and Nicolas Cadou made it’s commercial launch in December 2010. At this point, most of the challenges are on sales, marketing, and grant research. Ajah is still a great opportunity but it will never have the Facebook scale and it will never see the kind of technical challenges that Facebook faces on a daily basis.
When balancing all the opportunities that I had, including a few very significant ones from companies here in Montréal, receiving some pre-IPO stock from Facebook was a very considerable factor. Beyond that, I have no doubt that Montréal is an amazing city but I’ve been here for over a decade and I feel like I need to taste the rest of the world. Visiting gives you an interesting perspective on a city but it’s only by living there that you can get a good sense of what truly drives a city and makes it different. Being a geek, San Francisco has this magnetic appeal to me. At least half of the technology that allows me to be a hackers was invented there; there has to be something in the Valley’s tap water and I want to find out what it is.
NextMontreal: Are you going to try and recruit all the good developers out of Montreal to join Facebook? Facebook probably offers pretty good referral bonuses!
Yannick: As the lead organizer of the Montréal-Python community for the past few years, I think that I have a pretty good sense of who are the top Python hackers in town; as a member of the Python Software Foundation, I also have a good sense of who are the top hackers worldwide. When I will see an opening that matches the profile of someone that I know, I will reach out to them but I don’t plan on building massive recruiting campaigns targeted at Montréal. In fact, I really want to keep a few good brains in town.
NextMontreal: What are your thoughts on the Montreal startup community? Facebook is a pretty rare company, but do you think big tech companies can be built in Montreal out of startups?
Yannick: Asking “can we build the next Facebook here in Montréal?” is asking the wrong question. “Can we steadily build the next Freshbooks?” is a much more interesting one. Facebook is nice and impressive but there
is also a lot of luck involved in their success and this is not something that anyone can learn to replicate, not even the Facebook team.
I worked for Radialpoint here Montréal and they strike me as an example that should be moved forward as a source of inspiration for more Montréalers to see. They are the best in their field and they have several top-500 companies as their customers. All of this was built from the ground up right here in Montréal. So yes, we turn startups into large successful here in Montréal.
Can we do it steadily and repeatedly? Probably but I’m afraid that we’re still far from this. As a hacker, one striking difference that I see between Montréal and the Valley is that almost no company is offering equity to their employees in Montréal.
Once in a while you can squeeze a 70 hour work week from someone if you promise them a big bonus. However, if you want to dedicate their idle brain cycles to the success of the company, if you want them to act as a team and to avoid the pursuit of their personal gain in petty office politics, you need to enable them to win big when the company wins big. When a company decides not to give equity to it’s employees, it focuses so much on the short term that it’s bound to become irrelevant ten years from now.
This is not limited to equity; overall, our hackers are doing a very poor job of helping each other get the compensation that they deserve. Take a quick look at Glassdoor.com and see how shy we are to talk about our salaries here compared to the Valley. Why is it the case and how can we help? I don’t now but this is a problem that we have
to solve if we want to keep our best brains here.
Another striking difference between here and the Valley is our education. Stanford and Berkeley are top universities and they don’t only teach the kind of skills that will land you a job as a tenured professor or as a lecturer. I’m not sure that I can say as much from McGill, UdM, UQAM, and Concordia. We have great initiatives to bootstrap more startups like Year One Lab and Founder Fuel but our startup community has been pretty effective at avoiding the confrontation with universities and their aging programs. If we aim to be the next Valley, there’s some work to be done on this front.
Things like language and climate are essentially irrelevant; Montréal has what it takes to become the next Valley but that wont happen until all the actors decide to work together towards that goal.
Image courtesy of Anna Filina.