James Pearce, former head of Facebook's open source program, asked engineers why they joined the company and whether or not they were aware of the open-source program at Facebook. According to his presentation at O'Reilly's Open Source Convention, it turns out that not only were two-thirds of the company's engineers aware of it, but half of them said that it largely influenced their decisions to work for Facebook.
As it turns out, over half of the 30 of the most-applied-to U.S. tech companies of all time on AngelList host open-source projects, according to an AngelList analysis. In fact, hosting an open-source project might be the key to recruiting engineering talent — if you do it correctly.
"There is an art to leveraging open-source projects as recruiting collateral — you'll need to do more than post a repo to GitHub and hope for the best," AngelList advises. "To get recruiting benefits out of open sourcing your code, you'll need to approach each project with a marketer's mindset."
To do just that, AngelList recommends that engineering firms write readable code and sellable documentation — and then promote their repositories like a product launch.
"The point of open sourcing software is to allow outside engineers to see it and, potentially, contribute to it," according to AngelList. "For that to happen, your code has to be written so it's simple for outside engineers to understand. This means refactoring your code to be as simple as possible; following style conventions for names, whitespace, etc.; replacing private information with environment variables; and commenting your code to contextualize snippets within your broader codebase."
In other words, companies should approach each file as if the person reading it has not seen the rest of the codebase (they probably haven't). The easier it is for outside engineers to understand the code, the more likely they'll want to contribute.
Likewise, well-written documentation is important — it's ultimately sales copy.
Documentation should "articulate your project's value proposition; explain any considerations or processes you expect from contributors; list technical specs, dependencies and licenses; and provide easy-to-access reference material for special use cases," according to AngelList.
"For example, Spotify's Annoy (Approximate Nearest Neighbors Oh Yeah) project, a library that 'searches for points in space that are close to a given query point,' does this extremely well," AngelList recommends. "Its README file includes how to install the library, the background behind the project, code examples, licenses, dependencies, and a deep dive into the underlying software logic. It also includes a benchmark of Annoy's speed versus other nearest-neighbor libraries. With just a single page of documentation, engineers have the information they need to decide if Annoy is a project where they want to contribute."
And finally, promoting repositories is key. More than 82,000 repositories are published to GitHub, for example, every day — this means that companies need to make theirs stand out. They can do this by promoting it in other places such as Hacker News, Reddit and Tech Ladder, as well as across relevant communities like Product Hunt, Gitter, Dev.to and relevant social media channels.
"Think of your repository as a product, and the engineers you'd like to contribute to it as your market," AngelList advises.
While the number of STEM jobs are increasing and at the center of the country's success, engineers are fewer and farther between. The U.S. has seen growth in a number of engineering sectors, but, when it comes to STEM, there's only one qualified individual per 1.9 job listings, according to research compiled by Adeco.
If companies follow in Facebook's footsteps, they may be able to bridge the gap and stop their shortage of engineers.
AnnaMarie Houlis is a feminist, a freelance journalist and an adventure aficionado with an affinity for impulsive solo travel. She spends her days writing about women’s empowerment from around the world. You can follow her work on her blog, HerReport.org, and follow her journeys on Instagram @her_report, Twitter @herreportand Facebook.