Thinking Out Loud: David Jenkins, Backcountry.com CIO

By CIOinsight  |  Posted 05-08-2006

David Jenkins is a self-professed open-source evangelist. But to run a truly open-source shop requires a big commitment to IT. In the year since he joined Backcountry.com as CTO, Jenkins has hired 16 new engineers, bringing the total to 22—and counting. Considering the company employs just 260 people, that's a lot of resources dedicated to programming. Jenkins recently spoke with CIO Insight about his IT recruitment strategy.

CIO INSIGHT: Most small companies wouldn't take the approach you've taken, hiring such a large IT staff and assuming responsibility for your own programming. Why did you go that route?
JENKINS:
We have a slogan here: The risky way is the safe way. If you're going to make your mark, you have to take risks and do things other people aren't doing. That means we have to be able to tinker with anything and everything we touch. We want to try crazy ideas, hack things ourselves.

But doesn't having so many programmers increase your risk on some level? It's a lot of responsibility to take on.
It does increase the complexity to have so many programmers, but I think that's the price of being an e-commerce company. Amazon has thousands of developers. This is a very entrepreneurial company that rewards innovation very strongly. Everyone here is encouraged to come up with their own ideas, and sometimes the biggest challenge for us is to pick which ideas will work, out of the 100 harebrained schemes we've got running around. That's the advantage of having an in-house development team. Open source lets us react quickly.

Is everyone who works at Backcountry.com an outdoors enthusiast?
Yes. Everyone here is a skier, snowboarder or mountain biker. Even the engineers, and that's the really interesting part. Normally IT people are a pretty geeky lot. They usually collect Star Wars figures and quote Star Trek.

How do you find qualified people?
You ask the right questions in an interview. Most companies don't think that hobbies matter, but I disagree. For me, hobbies are 45 percent of the interview; the other 55 percent is all about skill. If your hobbies include rock climbing, hiking and a two-week trek through Peru last summer, come on in. If you just enjoy reading books and watching movies, you won't get hired here. That sounds cruel, but the fact is if you don't fit into the culture here—if you don't socialize, don't love the gear—you won't enjoy working here.

Is it difficult to find engineers who fit the Backcountry.com culture?
Not at all. There are plenty of geeks out there who hate that Star Trek stereotype, who want to be something else. Every time I post a job opening, that's the biggest sell. That's worth $10,000 in salary to them. I can't pay programmers as much as they might make at a big company, but qualified people will come here for the entrepreneurial culture. If someone is waiting around for orders, they get let go. I don't have the time or patience, or even the tools, to micromanage someone. And our engineers give me incredible performance, because on any given day they know they can take off and go skiing.