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4/15/2014
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Inside Kayak's Search For Seasoned IT Talent

A few wrinkles won't hurt job candidates at travel company Kayak, which says it's struggling to fill senior technology jobs in its US office. And H-1B visas don't entirely solve the problem.

IT Jobs: Best Paying Titles Of 2014
IT Jobs: Best Paying Titles Of 2014
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Battle-tested IT pros looking for work, drop a line to Kayak CTO Giorgos Zacharia. He's hiring. And he's tired of struggling to fill open positions with top-tier talent, particularly for the travel site's engineering headquarters in Concord, Mass.

Zacharia said mobile engineers, front-end developers, and data scientists especially are hard to come by these days. It's an urgent challenge because, although most consumers probably think of Kayak as a travel company, it's really a technology firm. Technical employees comprise 70% of the staff. It also seems, at the surface, a particularly odd challenge. Kayak's US engineering base is located just down Route 2 from Harvard and MIT. It's also near a wealth of other universities in the Boston area, a region that's no stranger to tech startups and established companies.

In fact, Zacharia doesn't have much trouble finding fresh faces for positions that don't require tons of prior on-the-job experience, thanks largely to the regularly replenished supply of new college graduates in the area. Instead, it's the faces showing a wrinkle or three -- and better-suited for mid- and senior-level positions as a result -- that are much harder to find and hire.

"The challenge is hiring more experienced staff," Zacharia said in an interview. "Mobile is still a young area. However, there is a significant difference in the productivity of somebody who is more experienced than somebody who is right out of school. Don't get me wrong: They're very talented, fresh graduates. But for certain positions you want to have more seasoned engineers."

[Should you be worried? Read 10 Jobs Destined For Robots.]

Even that ready supply of fresh graduates can pose a human resources challenge for the US-based office. "Many of them are international students who require visa support [after their student visas expire]," Zacharia said.

As a result, Kayak has turned to the H-1B application process to help fill its open seats. It successfully applied a half-dozen visas in 2013 and did so again during the 2014 window, which closed on April 7. US Citizenship and Immigration Services received 172,500 applications in less than a week, more than doubling the cap of 65,000 new H-1Bs, plus 20,000 additional visas for people with advanced degrees.

Image: hobvias sudoneighm (Flickr)
Image: hobvias sudoneighm (Flickr)

"The reality is that we have more positions than we can fill," Zacharia said. The company has 12 job openings in Concord and an analytics position in Stamford, Conn. It's also hiring in its Berlin technology center and other international offices. But because Concord is the company's technology hub, IT pros eligible to work in the US are at a premium.

"We pay very competitively. It's not an issue of compensation. It's that we don't find enough of the right talent," Zacharia added. Kayak offers the other trappings of companies elbowing each other out of the way in the cutthroat competition for talent, too: four weeks paid vacation, flexible hours, a stocked game room, and -- perhaps best of all -- "no stupid meetings," according to Kayak's careers site. Health, dental, vision, retirement: yes, yes, yes, and yes.

Zacharia said the H-1B process is "kind of working" for Kayak, but is quick to point out one of the big limitations: "You only get one shot, once a year." Even successful applicants don't get their visas until the following October at the start of the next federal fiscal year, which makes the H-1B process a poor fit for immediate hiring needs. And given the stiff competition for visas -- again, USCIS took in 172,500 applications in six days before closing the window -- they're no sure thing.

"We cannot schedule when we run into an engineer we would love to hire," Zacharia said. "If we find someone next week, we're going to have to wait two years for that person to come to the US if we happen to find them abroad." The same constraint applies to students that need visa sponsorships to stay in the US post-graduation. Kayak's offices in Berlin, Lithuania, and elsewhere enable some hiring flexibility when it comes to non-US citizens, but ultimately there are some people Zacharia wants in the US headquarters. He noted that even successful visa applicants find themselves in a tough spot if they're married; their visa doesn't cover their working spouse. "The biggest part of our development team is in Boston," the CTO said. "The productivity is much higher if we can have people work in the same office."

Zacharia said Kayak's goal is to hire the best possible people regardless of where they're born or live. It's more than a nice sound bite: the Concord HQ's 120 employees speak 20 different languages. He's aware of the contentious discussion around H-1B visas but said he's never experienced any material pushback as a result of Kayak's participation in the system. Asked about the use of H-1B visas by outsourcing firms instead of direct employers, Zacharia said: "Obviously, from a very selfish perspective I would love all [H-1Bs] to go to individual employers like Kayak rather than outsourcing firms." He added another option not likely to happen any time soon given the political implications of immigration policy: eliminating the H-1B visa cap to let the free market decide the right number.

Zacharia expects Kayak's IT hiring needs to increase over time; his preference is to hire in Boston, but if the company can't find the right people eligible to work there, its German office will grow. In addition to current needs like mobile and analytics, he predicts back-end architecture talent will become tougher to find.

"It's a long-term problem. We would love to see more people educated in engineering and the sciences," both at the college and high school levels, Zacharia said. "We'd love to have more supply, obviously. These are high-paying jobs. There should be more people studying these specializations."

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Kevin Casey is a writer based in North Carolina who writes about technology for small and mid-size businesses. View Full Bio

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factchecker2000
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factchecker2000,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/19/2014 | 6:29:37 AM
Re: Karma is a ....
So, you're neither a proponent nor a critic of H-1B visas? Why not? Does that mean you think there might be some reason that makes this ok? http://www.computerworld.com/s/article/9247744/H_1B_loophole_may_help_California_utility_offshore_IT_jobs_
KevinRCasey
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KevinRCasey,
User Rank: Moderator
4/16/2014 | 10:01:23 PM
Re: Karma is a ....
Like Rob, I'm neither a proponent nor critic of H-1Bs. Rather, I just see it as a relevant topic for the IT community. But I think there are a couple of misconceptions below, one of which I covered in a previous story (http://www.informationweek.com/strategic-cio/team-building-and-staffing/h-1b-visas-6-most-misunderstood-facts/d/d-id/898928). First, there's no rule in the H-1B process that employers must show they're unable to hire for the position(s) locally/domestically before applying for visas on the behalf of employees. (That's true of green cards, not H-1Bs.) Second, experience isn't really one of the key requirements for H-1B eligibility. Rather, the visas are for "specialty occupations" (including non-IT roles, like fashion models) requiring very specific skill sets. Certainly, experience is one way to develop those skills -- and something that plenty of employers are looking for. But education/degree is the more clear-cut factor for H-1B eligibility: http://www.uscis.gov/eir/visa-guide/h-1b-specialty-occupation/understanding-h-1b-requirements
RobPreston
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RobPreston,
User Rank: Author
4/16/2014 | 12:47:35 PM
Re: Karma is a ....
I'm neither a proponent nor a critic of H-1B visas -- employers will do what's in their own interests -- but the program isn't reserved specifically for seasoned and highly experienced roles. And in fairness to the Kayak CTO, he isn't saying it's H-1B or bust. He sees the program as just one of the options at his disposal.
VinceN487
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VinceN487,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/16/2014 | 11:49:39 AM
Re: Karma is a ....
H1B's are only supposed to be brought over here for seasoned and highly experienced roles, where you can't find local candidates - legally.  By  hiring H1B's for entry level/low experience roles, the CTO is openly admitting to breaking the law.
VinceN487
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VinceN487,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/16/2014 | 11:47:26 AM
No More H1b's
what makes stupid employers think that they can just bring anyone over here to work, becasue they think they are offering a "good deal"..?..where did they get these crazy ideas.  Kayak can't find who they want, but somehow india is full of all the right fake-resume'd H1B's to make these right, what a bunch of b/s that is.  That's not how our society works, and H1B was never intended as a vehicle to replace American workers on American soil.  There are all  kinds of options available to an H1B-lovin' employer, but none of them include bringing over H1B and L1 job robbers for the purposes of wrecking our economy. And if the intentions and motivations are sincere, then blame your canundrum on previous H1B users who've complete raped the system for the last 15 years, you can thank those who've come before you for spoiling the H1B party.  No sympathy for H1B abusers, H1B needs to end right now
bglynn064
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bglynn064,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/16/2014 | 11:37:27 AM
Re: Your reaction?
here's a suggestion. like all idiot industries stop requiring "prior travel site experience". technology doesnt know what industry its being used in
RobPreston
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RobPreston,
User Rank: Author
4/16/2014 | 11:09:19 AM
Re: Karma is a ....
The CTO clearly said that he's considering H-1Bs among the pool of fresh graduates Kayak is interviewing, not for the seasoned talent it's going after. 
factchecker2000
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factchecker2000,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/16/2014 | 5:52:16 AM
Karma is a ....
This guy has a talent shortage all right, but it's in his HR department. He says he wants seasoned talent and boasts a game room? Something's not right here. And seasoned talent is not what you get from India. Creative writing (their resumes) is more like it. Does he offer telecommuting? He can go to the ends of the earth, but he doesn't want to expand his local range by offering telecommuting? Sounds fishy to me. I wouldn't buy stock in this company, or any company that invests in H-1Bs.

Over the past 15 years, literally hundreds of thousands of American IT careers were destroyed by bringing in H-1Bs and by sending jobs overseas. I run into ex-IT Americans everywhere. The man who measured my son for his graduation suit, the husband of a coworker who now works in a bicycle shop, a woman at a craft fair ...

So we kick a large percentage of Americans out of the IT field, to the point where parents like me are telling their kids to be good with computers but major in something else, and this guy wonders why he can't find talent?

The answer is simple. He should pick gifted Americans who have most of what he wants and let them grow in the job. The only thing "seasoned" about an H-1B is their brown-bag lunch.
Laurianne
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Laurianne,
User Rank: Author
4/15/2014 | 4:09:22 PM
Re: Telework?
Telecommuting has its pros and cons depending on the group's culture. I have heard several CIOs tell me that they must be within reach of public transportation in the Boston area in order to attract and retain developers. However, I also know CIOs who recruit talent to out of the way locales like Springfield MA. Anyone have advice to share for hiring managers outside of city centers?
Lorna Garey
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Lorna Garey,
User Rank: Author
4/15/2014 | 3:36:55 PM
Re: Telework?
I kinda like downtown Concord, but that's not the point. Complaining about not being able to hire very specific talent in a very costly geographic region, is. 

Banning cars won't fly even in Massachusetts!
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