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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

An odd way to find good employees- it might work

I recently got the following email. It is not spam in that it is a legitimate company asking a fair question and it has only gone to a select group of people. However, a very similar email may have gone to other select groups of people, perhaps millions of select groups of people. Italics are mine.
I found your name while researching scholars who have served as teaching fellows under Professor Harry Lewis at Harvard. The D. E. Shaw group is currently looking to hire a small number of truly gifted individuals with outstanding backgrounds in math, physics, computer science, and other technical fields. As an organization, the D. E. Shaw group goes to extraordinary lengths to identify such candidates and introduce them to the firm. Based on your work as a teaching fellow in one of the most challenging CS courses at Harvard, you seem to be especially well-placed to help us find people with strong academic backgrounds whose areas of specialization might be particularly relevant to the work we do. Do you have any students or colleagues who stand out in your mind as possessing unusual raw ability even among a relatively gifted population of peers? If so, we would be enormously grateful if you'd bring them to our attention. If you yourself might be inclined to explore opportunities with us, I encourage you to send us a copy of your resume.

So, this person researches scholars who have served as teaching fellows under Professor Harry Lewis. How many people do research on that? Do they have their own Journal?

The sender did get one thing right and one thing weird. RIGHT: I was Harry Lewis's TA for Automata Theory in Fall 1981 and Fall 1984. WEIRD: The course was challenging for the students, but I doubt it was one of the most challenging CS courses at Harvard. Actually, I doubt that phrase even makes sense- for me Automata Theory was easy and programming courses were hard, and others felt the opposite.
Harry Lewis has on his website a list of all the people who ever TAed for him, which is where the sender got my name (other TAs of Harry Lewis, some further back than myself, have gotten the same email).
So, why did D.E. Shaw choose this group of people to send the email to? Harry Lewis has no connection to the company, so thats not it.
  1. They believe, rightly or wrongly, that ugrads at Harvard who get to TA courses must be pretty good, and grad students who go to Harvard must be pretty good. But see next item.
  2. They did not say that they want me to apply. They think I might know people that should apply. At the end of the letter they have an after-thought-type-statement saying essentially, `oh, and you too, I guess'
  3. The list of Harry Lewis TA's is available! I also TAed for Michael Rabin, Gerald Sacks, and Leslie Valiant, but they don't have lists of their TAs on their websites. Hence people who do research on (say) scholars who have served as teaching fellows under Michael Rabin or the others have a much harder time.

19 comments:

  1. As a TF, you had to run section and grade papers. So you would be in a position to directly evaluate more than just your immediate group of friends. Moreover you'd notice the people each year who really "took" to CS121 even if they weren't in your section. Makes sense to me. Probably some alum at D.E. Shaw was thinking about how to hire great people, came across the list of TAs, and figured "why not?"

    In other news, the blogger captcha of the day is "sucka." I wonder if that's a sign.

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  2. DE Shaw often sponsors some of the IACR conferences. They have always really creeped me out.

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  3. Oh, this is so 1998. In Web2.0 they find you on LinkedIn.

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  4. Shaw is quite the business shark I will give him that. Didn't know he was recruiting much outside out of high performance computing. His main business is arbitrage on Wall Street. His latest project is designing a massively parallel machine from scratch to do VERY high performance molecular dynamics (no RAM, just cache and some network connections)for small simulations (think drug design).

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  5. DE Shaw is actively recruiting cryptographers and (perhaps) theoretical computer scientists at large. Personally, I find this flattering and it can only bode well for our students (and those of us who may want to try something different).

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  6. DE Shaw has always recruited heavily from Harvard Math/CS. I'm sure they've hired dozens of Harry's TFs, and I'm sure they've done well there. DE Shaw isn't that huge a place; it's natural someone would make this connection.

    I've been getting regular e-mail from DE Shaw since... well, certainly since I was an undergraduate at Harvard. I always found it comforting that there was a potential career back-up. I totally agree with Jonathan Katz there -- it's a good sign for our students.

    And also, I didn't get this e-mail (even in my spam folder), even though I'm a proud once-TF of Harry Lewis. So maybe they just have a dossier on you...

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  7. Wow! What a mystery. Not that they would use that list -- look at it, there are some pretty smart people on it in addition to Bill. (Joan Feigenbaum, David Karger, Bonnie Berger, Michael Kearns, and Salil Vadhan, for example.) And of course these folks are all excellent at communications and good team workers. But why would they leave Mitzenmacher off? Hah, we will have some fun with this classification problem -- infer the hyperplane DE Shaw uses to separate those of my TFs who are worth recruiting from those who are not ;)
    Reginald Clifford "Cliff" Young and Yeong-Yeow Yeoh are former TFs of mine at DE Shaw, but I doubt they could be the source, as they would be smart enough not leave Mitzenmacher off. There is a mechanical method, dammit, but I have no idea what it is. Wait -- isn't Larry Summers there? That must be it. Larry walked in and the first piece of advice he gave them was to hire anyone I had ever hired, except MM for some reason ;)

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  8. Oh, also Rabin and Valiant's classes have usually been much smaller than Harry's class, since Harry has historically taught the "intro" or "gateway" CS theory course on Computational Complexity, required for majors. (Salil also teaches it now.) Indeed, Harry's TAs must be close to a superset of Rabin's and Valiant's, so DE Shaw is just being efficient in their recruiting practices. :)

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  9. maybe because they already recruit at Harvard, they decided to leave MM out...

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  10. I was also a TF for under Harry Lewis for CS 121 and also got the email. I took CS 121 my freshman year and TFed it the next three years. All the very smartest CS students took the class--it was a required class for CS majors. I either took the class with or TFed the class for every single CS student in the class of 2004 (and a lot of CS majors in the classes 2001-2007). I have not obtained the status of MM or the others on Professor Lewis’s list, but my current claim to fame is that Mark Zuckerberg (founder of Facebook) was one of the students I TFed (he was in my section even). Maybe I should recommend him to DE Shaw :)

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  11. I'm looking for the company that wants to pay huge salaries to graduates who did OK in CS121 but didn't stand out particularly.

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  12. For the really good jobs nobody recruits like this. The really good people will apply anyway, and the recruiter will not be too lazy to sort through the candidates.

    The only reason this ridiculous recruiting method might work is that it appeals to the vanity of those approached - "you have such valuable information, we value your opinion so much!"

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  13. I didn't TF CS 121 but I tutored it for the bureau of study counsel, does that count?

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  14. Update -- DE Shaw called me today, to ask if there were any Harvard students I would recommend for their open positions. Perhaps I am now simply on a different list.

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  15. For the really good jobs nobody recruits like this.

    Sorry, but you are wrong. DE Shaw is recruiting like this (these efforts in the TCS community have led to at least 2 interviews and one offer that I know if in the past year), and I would consider it a good job. (And not just in terms of money.)

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  16. I agree with anonymous #15. DE Shaw is somewhat specialized, and hence "smaller" than most big Wall Street firms. They're focused on quality over quantity. So they recruit heavily at Harvard. :)

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  17. I believe DE Shaw is an investing company founded by a computer scientist, one that obviously understands the value of hiring computer scientists with a strong background in theoretical aspects of the field. I laud their hiring strategy, and agree with the earlier posts that this is *good* news for cs students with special skills in theory.

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  18. It's an arbitrageur's approach to recruiting. The email is free and so is the machine time to read any resumes it shakes loose. There's a miniscule chance of finding a prospective employee who's undervalued by the job market, but if you send out 10,000 such emails its likely to yield a hire or two.

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  19. I worked in DEShaw for quite sometime. That's right, they hire extremely talented and extraordinary individuals.

    But what how they treat them after joining is completely different story altogether.

    My experience was extremely negative, infact they crossed all the limits (legal,moral,ethical). They continuously threatened me, and harassed me for so long. They made me work like donkey 16-18 hours everyday including weekends, didn't allow me to take leaves.

    My experience might not reflect the experience of other fellows there as I was specifically targeted by my group head. Because I knew few of his unethical practices, and I wanted to escalate those. So he started harassing me, and senior management is bullshit there -- they don't care how managers treat as long as they're delivering. I left them without any job, and was so distressed that it took me 1 year to be normal again. After 1year, I joined Goldman Sachs, it's a different world altogether or atleast I feel like this as I came here from hell.

    I advise everyone to do your research about the company/group before joining.

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