- Guru Khalsa
- Reddit, known as the “front page of the internet,” has weathered a lot of storms. Over the years, the site has been dogged by user revolts, controversial content, and public ousters of its leaders.
- The situation made hiring a nightmare. When Steve Huffman, the site’s cofounder, rejoined the company as CEO in 2015, he learned that very few people in Silicon Valley wanted to work at Reddit.
- This is a story about how Reddit persuaded hundreds of engineers to come work for the company – and give Reddit its mojo back.
Steve Huffman returned to Reddit, the company he helped launch and later abandoned after its multimillion-dollar acquisition, to find that it had become one of the most radioactive companies in Silicon Valley.
Almost no one wanted to work at Reddit in 2015.
Huffman told Business Insider that in seeking to hire engineers, “it was hard to get people to respond.”
“Reddit was in the press for all the wrong reasons – all of them,” he said, adding, “Our reputation was in the dumps across pretty much every dimension.”
Reddit, known as the “front page of the internet,” is the fifth-most-visited website in the US. And yet it has nearly imploded on several occasions over the past decade. The site has been engulfed in controversies fueled by internet trolls and disgruntled users. A revolving door of CEOs did little to stabilize the startup’s reputation or improve morale among a shrinking number of Reddit employees.
Huffman stepped back into the role of CEO to save Reddit, but he didn’t do it alone.
Despite a series of crises, the San Francisco-based company would double its staff over 2016, growing from approximately 75 to 150 employees. They would transform the site from looking like a dystopian Craigslist – or “hot garbage,” as one top Reddit executive described it – into a place where new users could more easily find their people online and share news, images, memes, and videos.
Today, Reddit has more than 400 employees on its payroll, with the biggest gains in engineering. The company raised $200 million last year from several well-known Silicon Valley investors, including Andreessen Horowitz and Sequoia Capital, to continue its hiring spree. It seems Reddit’s renaissance has just begun.
Business Insider spoke with Huffman and a handful of engineers at Reddit and checked out the journalist Christine Lagorio-Chafkin’s excellent forthcoming book about Reddit, called “We Are the Nerds,” to learn how the internet’s front page got its mojo back.
Reddit put out a call to ‘every engineer in the Valley,’ Huffman said
Reddit hadn’t hired an engineer in nine months when Huffman – who left Reddit after his contract with the company’s buyer, the publisher Condé Nast, ran out – rejoined in 2015. And it showed.
The site looked very similar to the version that Huffman and his cofounder, Alexis Ohanian, launched 10 years earlier.
“It wasn’t really hard at that time to look at Reddit and think about ways to improve it,” Nick Caldwell, Reddit’s vice president of engineering, told Business Insider.
Over 15 years, Caldwell had worked his way up from an intern to a general manager at Microsoft. When a recruiting firm approached him about going to Reddit in 2016, he was skeptical.
“I visited Reddit like four times before I took this job,” Caldwell said.
Huffman needed help trying to staff up Reddit. New hires would allow the company to give the site a refresh, replace much of the original, clunky code, and build new products and features aimed at stamping out hate speech and other noxious content on Reddit.
That was easier said than done. Not only did few people want to work at Reddit in 2015, but the San Francisco Bay Area faced a shortage of engineering talent. The problem worsened over the years, as described in a recent workforce report from LinkedIn, as demand for data scientists in particular outstripped supply.
In addition to its struggles in recruiting engineers, the company had trouble holding onto its existing employees.
According to Lagorio-Chafkin’s book, about 50 staffers quit or were terminated in the months following Huffman’s return to Reddit. Some of them left in protest of Ellen Pao’s ouster. (The Silicon Valley power player was asked to resign as CEO of Reddit amid a user revolt.) Others said they couldn’t get behind Huffman’s vision for a new era at Reddit, he told Lagorio-Chafkin.
Reddit hired a recruiting firm that, according to Huffman, “called every engineer in the Valley” in a “brute force” attempt.
After accepting the job, Caldwell also hired as many Microsoft employees who were interested in jobs at Reddit as he could.
“That turned out to be not a huge number of people,” he said.
With his network tapped out, Caldwell had to search in new places for candidates. It required a change in perspective.
Reddit widened the pipeline for talent
Caldwell has acknowledged that at Microsoft he would scan people’s résumés for top schools and major companies “before taking a deeper look.” This strategy can often surface the usual suspects: white, male engineers in the Bay Area.
In seeking to widen the net, Caldwell began recruiting from coding boot camps, such as Hackbright Academy, whose mission is to help women from diverse backgrounds land jobs in tech. It specializes in providing opportunities to women with a few years of work experience under their belts who want to explore a new career path.
There’s an old stigma that people who emerge from coding boot camps are less skilled than those with computer-science degrees. That’s changing rapidly, according to Caldwell.
“People are realizing that technology changes so fast nowadays that you don’t necessarily get practical knowledge from a college degree,” he said. “And boot camps are only practical knowledge.”
As a bonus, companies that aim to improve the ratio of male to female employees may find that “boot camps bypass a lot of the traditional problems that people have with the pipeline,” Caldwell said. These programs are often much more affordable than college and can be completed in weeks or months, not years, making them accessible to a wider range of potential students.
Building a diverse organization is especially important when you run a site viewed by millions of people each month.
“You cannot build a product that appeals to a diverse set of people without having a diverse set of people designing the product,” Huffman said.
Reddit declined to release its hiring or diversity statistics. However, the company has hired half a dozen graduates of Hackbright Academy alone, and it has even more employees – including Huffman – serving as program mentors to aid in recruiting efforts.
Having an impact matters
With its headcount ticking up, Reddit began shipping product again.
In 2016, the startup overhauled its mobile app, created new tools for tracking site traffic, and launched a new department, known internally as the “anti-evil” team, dedicated to ridding the site of harassment, spam, and abuse. Their efforts slashed the number of spam reports coming from users and moderators by 90%.
Huffman set out to double the staff again the following year.
By then, the team had made a key discovery about how to get people to come work for Reddit: It had to sell them on the story.
Bhavana Shanbhag was comfortable with her gig as an engineering manager at Groupon when she received a cold message on LinkedIn from a Reddit director of engineering in 2017. In it, he described some of the problems the company was trying to solve.
“We need people like you,” Shanbhag remembered him saying.
Shanbhag, who described herself as more of a “lurker” on Reddit than a hardcore user, arranged to interview with 12 employees – more than what was required of her – before accepting the offer.
“I didn’t want to switch my job for the sake of switching it,” she said. “I wanted to make sure that I would actually have an impact.”
Caldwell heard this from prospective hires a lot. The team members started to think critically about how they pitched candidates on the startup.
“What we settled on in those early days was: The value of Reddit was really about building community, and people coming into the company had huge amounts of opportunity to pick up the low-hanging fruit, to help us toward that mission,” Caldwell said. “Once we really understood that, the pitch was pretty straightforward.”
He explained the pitch as: “Hey, you can be the first person to come into Reddit and help us build our machine-learning processes. And by ‘first person,’ I mean literally there’s no one else here – please come help us.”
- Flickr / Anirudh Koul
A more established company like Facebook or Google could pay them better, Caldwell said. But Reddit offered ambitious engineers the ability to have a huge impact on a product under rapid development.
“It’s pretty cool as well,” he said.
In her role as senior director of engineering, Shanbhag often hears the question she asked – “Will I have an impact?” – from people she’s trying to recruit, she said. She gives them a resounding “yes.”
The startup is still hiring, but not without growing pains
There’s still more to do, according to Huffman.
“I don’t think the pitch has changed tremendously,” Huffman said. “Everything is changing here. Like, we’re rebuilding this company that has more potential energy than any company that you’re talking to or thinking about joining. I can guarantee you that.”
Reddit grew its number of engineers by 270% since the start of 2017, and it’s still hiring. There are about two dozen job listings on the website, spanning data science, engineering, legal, and marketing, across offices in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago.
It hasn’t been all kittens and rainbows.
Employees agreed that Reddit grew too quickly, and the situation left some new hires feeling underutilized. The company slowed recruiting this past summer to catch its breath and see what the full capacity of all its new hires was before ramping back up.
“We’re 400-some people now, and fewer than 20 of those people were here in 2016,” Huffman said. “Every quarter, we joke that it’s a new company. And it is a new company.”