Underneath the glowing purple lights of NYU’s Rosenthal Pavilion, a crowd of more than 400 people gathered last night for “Made in NY: Tech Panel,” a discussion of the state of Silicon Alley affairs. The panel featured seven prominent, NYC-based tech leaders: Gilt CTO and Co-founder Michael Bryzek, ZocDoc CTO & Co-founder Nick Ganju, Etsy CTO Kellan Elliott-McCrea, Knewton COO David Liu, Charity: Water Tech Director Brian Honohan, LearnVest CTO Hrishi Dixit, and moderator Alex Cavoulacos, COO of The Muse. For more than an hour, the panelists shared their thoughts, wisdom, and experiences on topics ranging from culture, technology, scaling, retention and the growing tech scenes both here in New York and in Dublin.
Among the many highlights:
Bryzek’s brief yet thought-provoking discussion of antifragility, a concept discussed by scholar, NYU professor and author Nassim Nicholas Taleb in Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder. Just as the “right” amount of stress, strain and uncertainty can all strengthen a person’s muscles or character, so too can they strengthen a company. At Gilt, we face “a constant stream of errors,” Bryzek told the audience, “but they’re so small, and people are always fixing them.” With systems in place to account for and manage mistakes, Gilt gets stronger every single day.
The panelists’ candor in discussing hiring and firing. “Hire as fast as you can. Fire faster,” Liu from Knewton told the audience. Being lackadaisical about offboarding a hire who isn’t working out can endanger your team’s motivation and morale. “You’re not only avoiding the issue, you’re condoning it,” he asserted. As for picking the right people, Liu suggests hiring “as though it’s your last hire.” Ganju of ZocDoc added to Liu’s points by describing his personal “litmus test” for retaining an employee. If he were to create another company, would he take that employee with him? If not, then why keep them at his current company?
Bryzek joked that “of course at Gilt, we’ve never made any mistakes in hiring.” He then touched upon one of the more poignant issues Gilt has occasionally faced over the years: Sometimes the right people have shown up at the wrong time in the company’s life cycle. When it’s necessary to part ways, he said, Gilt’s goal is to come up with a way for both parties to split on “incredibly good” terms. “It’s work, but it’s doable,” he said. He also noted that some people have left Gilt voluntarily, only to return and forge successful careers.
Retention tips. With a tech market as competitive as New York City’s, keeping your best employees can be just as difficult as hiring the right ones. If your star engineers aren’t being barraged with phone calls from persistent tech recruiters, then they’re probably spending their off-hours creating their own companies. What’s an employer to do? One by one, the panelists formulated a solid working answer: encourage personal growth, create a culture of learning, give your employees opportunities to work on their own projects, and strive for a culture of transparency.
“Made in NY” was just as informal as it was informational, with lots of subtle tech humor and witticisms to keep the discussion lively and spontaneous. After Cavoulacos asked the panel about technologies one should consider when building a company, Bryzek pitched the audience on the Typesafe framework of Scala, Play and Akka–the platform that we love and use here at Gilt. “There’s no other way to do it,” he said wryly.
View of the crowd.