Attracting Millennial Engineers

By Evan Miller

December 14, 2014

If you hire anyone under 30, you’re hiring a Millennial. Technology companies that formulated their recruiting strategy for previous generations will find that many of their old tactics no longer seem to be working.

When it comes to work, Millennials have different values than their predecessors; and unlike their predecessors, they’re willing to walk away from a good-paying, highly respected job if they feel it doesn’t fit with their values. In technology, it’s a seller’s market, and millennials know it. Free food, “interesting problems,” and foosball tables won’t cut it anymore. If you haven’t updated your playbook in the last decade, you’re going to miss out on some very good talent — as well as valuable connections later on.

What Millennials Want From Work

We crave connection, authenticity, and a good story. This is the single most important point. Most of the rest of this list follows from these. Connection means we want to remove barriers, share experiences, and keep in touch with other people. Authenticity means we’d prefer you to be honest with us instead of pretending everything is wonderful and perfect. We’ve read the same books and blog posts as you, so please, just be on the level with us. A good story means we want to do interesting things now that will be fun to share with people later in life.

We want to work somewhere that shares our values. We want to feel like the company that we’re working for is — in spite of the phrase’s overuse — making the world a better place. The company’s stated “mission” is less important than the leadership’s actions and our coworkers’ values. Culturally, we demand an open, diverse, inclusive, progressive work environment.

We want to keep on learning things. We’re motivated by knowledge, and we’re curious about the world. There’s a good chance we’re only working for you because we think it will help our brains grow. We have an eye on grad school, and we’ll exercise that option if we don’t think we’re learning enough on the job.

We really, honestly don’t care if the company goes bankrupt. We’ll have no problem getting another engineering job if it does; and actually, the company going down in flames does make for an interesting story, now that you mention it. We care about people more than legal fictions. We use the phrase “the company where I work,” not “my company.” Stock options are nice, but they’re not going to give us such a sense of ownership that we forgo a good salary.

We don’t want to feel tied down. We’re looking at Facebook posts from our friends who are teaching English in Argentina and backpacking through China. We feel like we’re making a sacrifice by getting an actual job — if it weren’t for student debt, there’s a good chance we’d be traveling, too — and we don’t want to be reminded about it. We prefer the word “job” to “career,” and we dislike indentured servitude-style policies such as vestment cliffs, “signing bonuses,” paying back exorbitant relocation expenses that we didn’t ask for, etc.

We’re leery of perks, prestige, and overly nice things. We’re well aware that free gourmet dinner is a trick to get us to work more, and we resent it. We have a love-hate relationship with prestige — we secretly want it, but we also realize saying “I work for Google” makes for a boring story, so sometimes we’ll surprise you and do something less prestigious but more interesting. We appreciate aesthetics and design, but we think overly fancy offices are wasteful and inauthentic.

We strongly dislike secrecy. We want to work in a high-trust environment, and cloak-and-dagger management techniques undermine that trust. We hate being told that we can’t tell our non-work friends about the projects we’re involved in at work, because it creates awkwardness and tension with our friends. Besides, regardless of what the employment contract says, we’ll probably tell our best friends everything anyway, because we trust them more than we fear you.

Side note to start-up founders: There’s a perception that founders need to say everything is great when it’s about to hit the fan. Millennials don’t care if they’re about to lose their job, because in this market it’s really easy to find another one. If you build a culture of trust, you can get the bad news off your chest and we’ll help you get through the crisis.

Interesting people are more important than “interesting problems.” We’re savvy enough to realize that even if you promise “interesting problems,” a majority of the work is going to be stupid bullshit like resolving version mis-matches. But we’re OK with that. Working on stupid bullshit with awesome, hilarious people is much preferable to working on “interesting problems” with boring, humorless people. Similarly, working on stupid bullshit for a product we believe in is much better than working on “interesting problems” for a yet another ad network.

We don’t want you to be mad at us when we quit. We’re probably going to quit our job as soon as it suits us — we strive to rack up diverse skills and experiences in our twenties, and that can’t happen if we’re chained to one job for 10 years. And we want you to respect that. When we quit, we want to feel like alumni, not personae non gratae. Stop trying to guilt us into staying. On our last day, figure out something better than Awkward Friday Farewell Lunch. I’m thinking ice cream and cake.

…And What You’ll Get From Us

I know this sounds like a list of demands. And it is, because unlike our predecessors, we’re willing to walk out the door if our desires aren’t being fulfilled. But, if you’re a good Millennial Employer, you’ll get a few things from us in return:

We’ll break down barriers in the office. We strive for genuine connection with people. Just give us a chance — random lunches, “collision opportunities” — and we’ll get disparate people in the office talking and collaborating like never before. We want everyone to get along and have a good time.

We’ll find creative approaches to everything. We love feeling creative. We’ll decorate the office, make silly internal videos, and tackle technical problems from unexpected angles. Sure, we’re relatively inexperienced, but we’ll try a bunch of things that are unlikely to work, just in case one of them pans out in a big way.

We won’t ask for all that much money. As long as we feel that you genuinely share our values, and that you’re not trying to cheat us, we’re pretty cheap dates. We’re optimistic that we’ll figure out how to make a lot of money later, so we’re not too worried about piling up cash in our twenties.

After we quit — and we will quit — we’ll keep in touch if you’ll let us. Have a job opening? Let us know. We have a lot of friends and we’re great connectors. We have fond memories of working for you, and we’re more than happy to help with anything. All you have to do is ask.

Related essay: The Software Scientist

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