Announcing Starfighter

Thomas Ptacek, Erin Ptacek, and I are pleased to announce Starfighter, a company that will publish CTFs (games) that are designed to develop, improve, and assess rare, extremely valuable programming skills.

Starfighter CTFs are not fantastic Hollywood-logic depictions of what programming is like. There is no “I built a GUI interface using Visual Basic to track the IP address.”

You will use real technology. You will build real systems. You will face the real problems faced by the world’s best programmers building the world’s most important pieces of software.

You will conquer those problems. You will prove yourself equal to the very best. Becoming a top Starfighter player is a direct path to receiving lucrative job offers from the best tech companies in the world, because you’ll have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that you can do the work these companies need done.

We’re not here to fix the technical interview: we’re here to destroy it, and create something new and better in its place.

Sound interesting? Our first game will be ready shortly. Give us your email address and we’ll tell you when it is ready.

WHAT IS STARFIGHTER?

We’re going to publish a game in the genre often described as “Capture The Flag” (CTF). It will be a goal-oriented exploration of technology.

You will code to play. You will not pay to code.

Our CTF will be totally free for players. (Not “free-to-play.” There is no catch. We will not ask you to pay extra to buy funny hats or recharge energy or unlock the full version.)

To progress in the game, players will have to use every programming skill they know, and pick up new tricks along the way.

CTFs are a superior way to learn rare and valuable programming skills which you would not otherwise be exposed to. We’ll give you the excuse, and code/test harnesses/documentation/community support/etc, to try that language/framework/problem space/etc you’ve been meaning to learn “someday.” The games Starfighter produces will help programmers all over the world learn these skills absolutely free.

We’ve done this before: our founders ran MicroCorruption. It is one of the most successful CTFs ever created, by any metric, and unlike most CTFs it is still playable years later. Starfighter will run ongoing, supported, progressive CTFs at scale, which will operate indefinitely. Making and supporting CTFs will be our only business.

WHY IS STARFIGHTER GREAT FOR PLAYERS?

Starfighter games will be, first and foremost, fun to play. You’ll get to dig into new tech, on your own terms, in the comfort of your own living room. You will achieve mastery of it. You will be able to show off your skills to other devs, and they will say “That’s awesome how you did that.”

Progress in a Starfighter game will map naturally to skills that top tech employers need RIGHT NOW. Playing will teach you crazy programming skills you can’t learn anywhere else. (Bold talk, right? No, really — some of our levels are so fun that if you did them in real life you’d be thrown in jail. Others put you in charge of highly-lifelike-simulations-of programs that, if the real ones blew up, would rate the nightly news worldwide.)

You will learn what it is like to see the Matrix.

Sounds like BS, right. I know. I’m a generic web programmer (yay Ruby, meh JavaScript, boo low-level anything). The last time I played a CTF, written by my cofounders, they had me breaking into locks controlled by micro controllers which ran embedded assembly code. I haven’t touched assembly in 12 years, because I thought I hated it. But then I found myself in Hanoi finding myself with only a lock running vulnerable assembly code separating me from 25 points.

I pulled my hair out for hours. I tried everything I could to get that lock to open. I cracked open a book on assembly. I read tutorials on the Internet. The opcodes were an impenetrable blob, and then something I could sound out but make no sense of, and then a functioning computer program, and then… then they were a target.

I… I can’t even believe I’m saying this… I exploited a buffer overflow bug to corrupt the value on the stack storing the program counter so that when the function returned it wouldn’t go back to the call site but rather jump into memory that I controlled where I had pre-staged handwritten assembly code to gain control of the lock.

Take that, Neo. [Thomas comments: That’s one of the easier levels, actually.]

You will do bigger, more impressive things.

Starfighter will allow you to develop and show off skills possessed only by the most valuable programmers in the world. Does that make you one of the most valuable programmers in the world? Yes, yes it does.

Want to land a better gig? This is your opportunity to level up. Do well in the game, and we can short-circuit the resume spray-and-pray hiring nonsense and introduce you directly to CTOs who will be happy to hire you. (We’ll only do this if you ask us to.)

Sound good? Give us your email address; we’ll tell you when we have a game ready for you.

WHY IS STARFIGHTER GREAT FOR EMPLOYERS?

The science of hiring practices is settled: work-sample tests are the most effective way to assess skill in potential hires.

The problem? Work-sample tests take time and money to develop, deliver, maintain, and support. You’re not in the work-sample test business: you have a company to run.

Starfighter games are work-sample tests, built by a company which will do nothing else. We’ll treat our CTFs like a first-class tech product, because they will be our only product.

We will market them actively. We will track player behaviors and skill at incredible levels of granular detail, instrumenting them like they were built by the Orwellian MiniPeace. We will iterate on their game design, calibrating it to be accessible in the earlier levels but provide an appropriate challenge even to the best engineers in the world. We will create regular content updates. We will make the supporting documentation/libraries/etc a first-class concern rather than the afterthought of an overworked team building a side project. We will engage our players like our ability to feed our families depends on it.

We will erase all doubts you have about a candidate’s ability. You can guess whether they grok REST APIs based on their Github profile, if you are OK with ignoring 90%+ of the hiring pool with no public Github profiles. We can tell you exactly what happened when your candidates tried to implement a REST API. We can compare their performance against hundreds of other talented engineers (including your current employees) on the same task.

We can bring engineering rigor into your hiring process.

STARFIGHTER WILL REVOLUTIONIZE YOUR HIRING FUNNEL

You do not have enough qualified candidates, because your candidate filter greps resumes rather than ability. Starfighter will dispense with resumes and measure ability directly. We will source a higher volume and higher quality stream of engineering candidate leads than any channel you presently use. (We’re shooting for higher volume and higher quality than all channels you currently used, combined.)

We will love our players. They will love us. We will help the right ones fall in love with you, too.

Your present hiring process is secretive, scary, and stressful for candidates. We can offer an independent front-end to it without requiring ongoing management overhead from you.

Your team may occasionally falter in building hiring pipeline — the business gets busy, the milestones start slipping, so prospecting stops and coffee dates get neglected and interviews get rescheduled. It happens. We will constantly be identifying new, talented, pre-vetted engineers and introducing them deep into your hiring funnel.

Has anyone ever posted a video of themselves interviewing at your company? No. It is a painful experience. Nobody wants their friends to see them struggling in front of a whiteboard. Some companies would even threaten a candidate with legal action for doing this.

People will post Let’s Plays of Starfighter CTFs to Youtube. They will get together with their friends to to talk how awesome your company’s hiring funnel is. We won’t send them a cease-and-desist. We’ll send them a pizza.

“Aren’t you worried about players gaming your assessment?” The only way to game a Starfighter assessment will be to demonstrably possess the type of engineering skill which you want to hire for. Are we worried that players will teach themselves these skills just to play Starfighter? We’re counting on it. That would be an epic success.

You cannot buy hiring pipeline as effective as the one Starfighter will build for you.

STARFIGHTER BRINGS DOWN STRUCTURAL BARRIERS

The technology industry structurally excludes many qualified candidates from their hiring funnels and then is shocked when those hiring funnels disproportionately select for candidates who are not structurally excluded. Traditional tech interviews are terrible ways to identify, qualify, and evaluate top programming talent. Filtering by education level or university is unreliable. Keyword searches are applied by people who don’t understand the underlying technology. The tech industry excludes perfectly viable candidates for no reason at all.

(Case in point: Donald Knuth would be selected out of the hiring process for [senior C programmer with Unix experience] before any human had ever considered him at most tech companies. His CV doesn’t match the keywords C, programmer, or Unix.)

Starfighter is different. We attract the interest of a huge pool of potential talent. Tens of thousands of people will play Starfighter games for fun, and the act of playing improves their skills for free. Some will find them too difficult. Some players will sink their teeth into them, self-studying and rising to the occasion. A small percentage of serious players will breeze through all the levels faster than we can possibly create them.

You will want to hire our best-performing players, before someone else snaps them up.

You need people with skills, and we’d be happy to make the introduction. We run the CTF, then make the appropriate introductions under a standard contingency recruiting arrangement. You don’t need to make major changes to your hiring process to adopt Starfighter. (We’d be happy to suggest some, though.)

Everyone wins.

Starfighter has signed a few marquee clients. If you have hiring authority for 10+ engineers in 2015, send an email with details about your company to patrick@starfighters.io — we may be able to slot your company in for the first batch of candidates.

WHY SOLVE ENGINEERING HIRING?

The 21st century is going to belong to developers and the businesses which employ their talents successfully. Unfortunately, the technology industry is fundamentally unserious as to how it presently identifies and employs engineers.

This is one of the primary causes of the hiring crunch. It is a primary contributor to structural impediments to entering our industry. This negatively affects many candidates, including (but certainly not limited to) those from underrepresented backgrounds.

It is also a multi-billion dollar problem. Persistent market inefficiencies should be music to the ears of a capitalist, because they suggest free money. The technology industry has, through neglectfully embracing hiring policies which are so irrational as to shock the conscience, created a gigantic mountain of free money.

Starfighter claims that lonely mountain as its birthright. We are going to slay the dragons guarding it and then strip-mine it. This will continue until either dwarves sing about how wealthy we are or until every firm in the industry rationalizes its approach to hiring.

WHY IS STARFIGHTER THE RIGHT TEAM FOR THIS?

We have the technical chops to build CTFs, which are virtually impossible to keep in production without a strong technical team and ongoing focus.

We have built software companies and worked with the best teams in the industry. We understand how software firms work, inside and out. We know how frustrating hiring is because we did it for years, too, before we realized how CTFs are a cheat code for life.

The Starfighter founders can talk the geek talk. We have walked the geek walk. Of the three of us, I’m practically the non-technical co-founder, and I solo-shipped two SaaS products. Thomas and Erin spent most of the last decade looking at software systems made by the most talented engineers in the world and then breaking them in ways so horrible that describing some of them could bring down Western capitalism.

We’ve spent years helping engineers level up in their careers. I have a folder in Gmail saving messages from geeks who used my career advice or salary negotiation tips to their advantage. Those two essays are, by the numbers, apparently among my most useful career contributions to the software industry. Now I’ll have the excuse to do more like them every day.

It could be sensibly argued that desire to please clients will make us go against the interests of engineers. Don’t worry. We’re brokers in a seller-dominated market. Our economic incentive is to maintain our reputation as honest agents for the most valuable W-2 employees in the world. Also, again, we’re geeks. We come here not to serve technology recruiters, but instead to replace them with a small shell script.

HOW WILL STARFIGHTER MAKE MONEY?

It’s possible that some engineers might be confused about how we’re going to make money. No worries.

Companies pay “contingency recruiters” a commission, generally calculated as a percentage of an employee’s first year salary, to introduce them to candidates. This is paid “contingent” on the candidate accepting a job with the company.

Starfighter is a contingency recruiter with access to a better way to identify candidates than “Call up everyone on LinkedIn and beg them to take a job at Highly Regarded Tech Firm In Your Area.” We assess for skill first, passively as players play our games and then actively. Our founders — talented technologists — personally reconstruct candidates’ solutions and evaluate them.

We follow-up with players to ask if they have any interest in a no-obligation chat about career options. If they’re interested, we have an honest geek-to-geek conversation.

Then, if appropriate, we introduce the candidate as deep into the hiring funnel at our clients as our clients will allow. It’s not “Yay, as your special prize for winning we award you permission to send your resume into their /dev/null inbox”, it’s “The CTO’s got an hour free at 3 PM on Friday; would you like to meet him to talk about joining their DevOps team?”

After the introduction is made, the decision is up to the candidate and the employer, but we’ll be following up with both to make sure the process is running smoothly. Clients will give Starfighter-sourced candidates their full attention immediately and process them in an expeditious and dignified fashion, as befits skilled professionals.

Contingency fees are not paid by candidates and don’t come out of their salary, any more than the company’s rent or marketing budget comes out of employees’ salaries. They’re a cost of doing business. Companies are happy to pay them because companies understand how hiring engineers makes-or-breaks their businesses. (Potential clients interested in getting the best terms possible should get an engagement letter signed before I convince the other founders “Why are we only charging market?! We’re better than all our competitors! Charge more!”)

READY TO PLAY?

Thomas, Erin, and I are presently hard at work building Starfighter’s first game. It will assess a variety of programming skills, including general systems programming aptitude as well as a few more… esoteric fields. We’ll have challenges appropriate to your skill level, whether you’re new to these fields or a seasoned pro, and we’ll have study guides, skill trees, and friendly geeks who love helping other geeks level up.

We plan to launch the game publicly in the near future. If you’d like to hear when this happens, sign up here.

A quick note from Patrick (in my totally-not-the-CEO voice)

I’m super-pumped about Starfighter, which is my main gig as of now. I’ll talk later on what it means to be quitting the whole self-employment thing. This was a major decision for me.

What does this mean for my other projects?

Bingo Card Creator: Bingo Card Creator will be sold. I hope to close the sale before the end of March. Our broker is FEInternational. I’ve enjoyed working with them so far. If you’re interested in BCC, please talk to them.

Appointment Reminder: I have no announcement to make about my involvement with Appointment Reminder at this time. We will, naturally, continue keeping all commitments to our customers.

Kalzumeus Software: Kalzumeus Software is going to continuing operating and will continue to be home to my eclectic side projects.

I have one major upcoming commitment on this front, the A/B testing course that I’ve been working on for far too long now, and am hoping to get it out ASAP to get it off my plate and clear the way for Starfighter. My co-founders have graciously let me delay full-time involvement in Starfighter while I get this out. Expect news on this front soon-ish.

We haven’t done any consulting in a while. We will continue doing no consulting, to the best of our inability.

Blog/speaking/podcast/etc: Software seems to be my life’s work. Yay. I’m going to keep writing and speaking about it, in all the usual places and under the Starfighter banner as well. I look forward to applying old tactics in new ways (what happens when you give a hiring funnel to an engineer who sees conversion funnels in everything? We’re about to find out!) and figuring out some new tricks as well. As always, I’ll be happy to teach anything I learn.

About Patrick

Patrick is co-founded Starfighter, founded Appointment Reminder and Bingo Card Creator, and presently works at Stripe on Atlas. (Opinions on this blog are his own.) Want to read more stuff by him? You should probably try this blog's Greatest Hits, which has a few dozen of his best articles categorized and ready to read. Or you could mosey on over to Hacker News and look for patio11 -- he spends an unhealthy amount of time there.

28 Responses to “Announcing Starfighter”

  1. Noah Gibbs March 9, 2015 at 1:03 pm #

    This looks absolutely amazing. And it’s one of those, “how did I not think of that?” things, which is even better.

    Well done!

  2. Paolo March 9, 2015 at 1:20 pm #

    I loved Microcorruption! I learned soo much, and in a way that was interesting. I hope Starfighter will be the same, too.

  3. david March 9, 2015 at 1:52 pm #

    Microcorruption is really really good, and I wonder why you are not talking about Cryptopals. People already do/play them just for fun and it already looks good on your resume (I personally used to say I did microcorruption and cryptopals in my interviews). I remember seeing some “quiz” hiring websites, but it doesn’t work as well as a microcorruption for sure. I signed up (just for fun), looking forward to the first CTF!

  4. Andy March 9, 2015 at 2:11 pm #

    I’m very excited about this. Will there be any financial incentive for someone who *doesn’t* want a full-time job? Or will all of your customers be looking for full-time employees? Could I possibly land a contracting gig if I deftly navigate your challenges?

    I’ll probably try either way. Just curious.

    • Robby March 9, 2015 at 2:47 pm #

      Yeah, I’m not interested in changing jobs, but this sounds pretty fun regardless of prize. I guess if people really need motivation, then maybe some free technology licenses or hardware from event sponsors?

  5. Joe Norton March 9, 2015 at 2:28 pm #

    SIgn me up Patrick! Sounds awesome.

    Though I will admit, I am going to miss these awesome SaaS emails you have been sending out.

  6. travis hubbard March 9, 2015 at 4:03 pm #

    The end of an era? I love your writing, you have motivated me in many ways over the years and I thank you for that. Looking forward to Starfighter.

  7. Rob March 9, 2015 at 4:45 pm #

    glhf!

  8. Tim Romero March 9, 2015 at 6:50 pm #

    Great idea. Look forward to seeing it in action.

  9. Ivan March 9, 2015 at 7:43 pm #

    I was thinking of something like that (I mean play to learn). Glad you’re doing this :)

    I’m in!

  10. Oliver March 9, 2015 at 8:06 pm #

    I like this idea, but i also like this other hiring process describe here: http://ortask.com/a-better-way-to-hire-developers-and-testers/

    Thanks for the interesting post Patrick!

  11. anon March 9, 2015 at 11:00 pm #

    Sounds familiar… https://codecombat.com

  12. DGFDGFD March 10, 2015 at 2:11 am #

    FDSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSDFGDG BN

  13. Nicolas Antoniazzi March 10, 2015 at 4:11 am #

    Cool idea!

    We push this way and this philosophy of recruiting too: http://www.codingame.com

  14. Vincent Fieldman March 10, 2015 at 10:36 am #

    Seems like relying on canned tests might arbitrarily filter for engineers with good test bias. I would see this only as a single column in a grading rubric consisting of in person interview (manager), thought exercise (different person), code challenge (graded by different person or some code challenge app), pair coding ( different person).

    relying on any one thing will introduce selection bias.

  15. j March 10, 2015 at 11:05 am #

    well… now you should made another site so we can assess companies willing to pay proper salaries for the skills.

  16. izrada sajta March 11, 2015 at 3:09 am #

    As cheap as the offer of services that a
    company has, you want to pay for someone with experience.
    You should contact the customer service
    team for a design company. All product descriptions need to be easy on the
    eye.

  17. Jeff March 11, 2015 at 9:53 am #

    Sounds awesome. Minipax.

  18. Anonymous March 11, 2015 at 11:20 am #

    A CTF is security-related. If you are refering to programming, then it is a hackathon.

    Source: My experience.

  19. Gray March 20, 2015 at 6:36 pm #

    Can’t wait to see all the Indian guys on forums begging for cheats in these games.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. 5p – Announcing Starfighter | Profit Goals - March 9, 2015

    […] http://www.kalzumeus.com/2015/03/09/announcing-starfighter/ […]

  2. Announcing Starfighter | Ceiba3D Studio - March 9, 2015

    […] Source link […]

  3. Anonymous - March 11, 2015

    […] […]

  4. Ep. 76 – Contrivance of Humans (#NoEstimates) - March 14, 2015

    […] Starfighter […]

  5. Les liens de la semaine – Édition #123 | French Coding - March 16, 2015

    […] annonce a piqué ma curiosité: Announcing Starfighter. Un du style Capture the flag où vous réalisez vos objectifs en […]

  6. Daily Hacker News for 2015-03-09 | Xucifer - March 17, 2015

    […] Announcing Starfighter (comments) […]

  7. Video games beat interviews to recruit the very best | The Today Online - March 19, 2015

    […] post announcing Starfighter is unequivocal: “Becoming a top Starfighter player is a direct path to receiving lucrative job […]

  8. Video games beat interviews to recruit the very best | Trend Inside - March 22, 2015

    […] post announcing Starfighter is unequivocal: “Becoming a top Starfighter player is a direct path to receiving lucrative […]