Why tech companies hire 'brilliant jerks'

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dick costolo

To build a world-class tech company, you need top talent, and you have to be willing to pay the price to get it.

At least that's the word from Dick Costolo. To succeed, tech companies need to attract "really world-class engineers," the former Twitter CEO told TV commentator and author Suzy Welch in an interview published on LinkedIn . Those are the people who really make a tech company, and they are "worth their weight in gold," he said.

"A great engineer can be worth ten times a 'regular' engineer, or 30, 40, 50, or 100 times," Costolo said. "These are the very special engineers that the top companies are seeking. That's the game."

What makes these top engineers so special is not just that they have a mastery of engineering principals and technical skills, but more they think creatively and have solved problems no one has solved before, Costolo said. They are the Einsteins of the tech engineer world.

Costolo knows something about building a tech company. He's credited with steering Twitter through its breathtaking growth phase and its spectacular IPO.

After stepping down as CEO when the pitchforks came out over Twitter's slowing growth, he's back in the game of building a young tech company, working at health tech startup Chorus. Chorus has created an app that's designed to motivate users to workout, train, and accomplish big fitness goals.

The focus on rock-star engineers helps to explain Silicon Valley's continual complaints about there being a talent crunch even as big tech companies like Google, Amazon, Microsoft and Twitter are swimming in job applicants. Big companies are most concerned with finding top talent, not just people who know a particular programming language.

Tech companies have gotten so aggressive about finding those rocks starts they've begun prowling colleges, or sometimes even high schools, Costolo said. And when they find one, they pull out all the stops to woo them.

Costolo told the story of how he, as Twitter's CEO, personally recruited a senior from Princeton. While on the phone with her, he realized he wasn't even the only CEO of a big internet company who had called her.

Wait, CEOs of multi-billion companies are calling up college seniors?

"This was not happening when I was in college," Costolo said.

As the competition for top engineers has ramped up, those programmers have also gotten more savvy about negotiating their pay packages, particularly their stock options, he said.

As you might expect, all this fawning and those large paychecks can have their consequences. Some of these folks develop big egos. For all the talk of Valley companies wanting to build great corporate cultures, they often look the other way when it comes to the personalities of these star engineers, Costolo said.

"A lot these companies will say, 'No brilliant jerks,' and generally, they would prefer not to have brilliant jerks, but when you're trying to get world-class engineers, there's a lot you'll overlook," he said.

That could explain a lot about the state of Silicon Valley's these days. Many companies are touting themselves as warm and tolerant places. But we've seen repeated stories from inside particular ones claiming they have instituted a "culture of fear" or a "bruising culture" or " aggressive culture ." If some of the most valuable employees are actually "brilliant jerks," that can't help but impact the workplace.

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