After a huge user revolt, nobody wanted to work at Reddit. Three years later, the CEO explains how the 'front page of the internet' rebuilt the team

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reddit sf steve huffmanGuru KhalsaSteve Huffman is cofounder and CEO of Reddit.

  • 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 oustings 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 convinced hundreds of engineers to come work for the company - and gave Reddit its mojo back.

Steve Huffman returned to Reddit, the company he helped launch and later abandoned after its multimillion-dollar acquisition, to find it had become one of the most radioactive companies in the Valley.

Almost no one wanted to work at Reddit in 2015.

In seeking to hire engineers, Huffman told Business Insider, "It was hard to get people to respond."

He explained, "Reddit was in the press for all the wrong reasons. All of them. ... 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's nearly imploded on several occasions over the last 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, growing from approximately 75 to 150 employees, over 2016. 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 video.

Today, Reddit has more than 400 employees on its payroll, with the biggest gains in engineering. The company raised $200 million last year from a number of well-known Silicon Valley investors, including Andreessen Horowitz and Sequoia Capital, to continue its hiring spree. It seems that Reddit's renaissance has just begun.

Business Insider spoke with Huffman and a handful of engineers at Reddit - as well as checked out journalist Christine Lagorio-Chafkin's excellent, upcoming 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, publisher Condé Nast, ran out - rejoined in 2015. And it showed.

The site looked very similar to the original version that Huffman and his cofounder, Alexis Ohanian, launched ten years earlier.

"It wasn't really hard at that time to look at Reddit and think about ways to improve it," Nick Caldwell, vice president of engineering at Reddit, told Business Insider.

Reddit redesignRedditReddit got a new - but still familiar - look in 2018.

Over the course of 15 years, Caldwell had worked his way up from intern to 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, according to a recent Workforce Report from LinkedIn, as demand for data scientists in particular outstripped supply.

In addition to its struggles recruiting engineers, the company had trouble holding onto its existing employees.

According to Lagorio-Chafkin's book, about fifty staffers quit or were terminated in the months following Huffman's return to Reddit. Some of those defectors left in protest of Ellen Pao's ousting. (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, the CEO 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

At Microsoft, Caldwell has admitted to being one of those hiring managers who scanned 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.

nick caldwell redditRedditNick Caldwell, Reddit's vice president of engineering, said the stigma against hiring from coding bootcamps is fading.

In seeking to widen the net, Caldwell began recruiting from coding bootcamps, 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, those who want to explore a new career path.

There's an old stigma that people who emerge from coding bootcamps 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 bootcamps are like only practical knowledge."

As a bonus, companies who aim to improve the ratio of male and female employees may find that "bootcamps 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, which makes 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 product," Huffman said.

Reddit declined to release its hiring or diversity statistics. However, the company has hired half a dozen graduates from Hackbright Academy alone - and has even more employees, including Huffman, serving as program mentors to aid in recruiting efforts.

reddit sf steve huffman 1RedditReddit has over 400 employees today.

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, that was 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 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 one of Reddit's directors of engineering in 2017. In it, he described some of the problems they were trying to solve for.

"We need people like you," Shanbhag remembered him saying.

Shanbhag, who described herself as a "lurker" on Reddit more than a hardcore user, made arrangements 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 potential hires a lot. The team 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: "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."

Reddit Flickr / Anirudh KoulAlexis Ohanian, a cofounder of Reddit, drew the company's little alien mascot, Snoo, while he was sitting, bored, in class at the University of Virginia.

A more established company like Facebook or Google could pay them better, Caldwell said. But Reddit offered ambitious engineers huge amounts of impact on a product under rapid development.

"It's pretty cool, as well," he said.

In her role as senior director of engineering, Shanbhag said she often hears the question she asked - "Will I have impact?" - from people she's trying to recruit. 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 the 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 over the 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."

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