What it does: Big data analysis
Staff stats: Around 2000 globally
The good bits: Important work, whip-smart colleagues
The not so good bits: Long hours
The Palantir story
Palantir was founded in 2004 by German-American businessman Peter Thiel (who had previously co-founded PayPal) and a handful of lower-profile tech entrepreneurs.
Thiel believed the technologies and systems PayPal had developed to prevent fraud could be useful in other contexts. Most notably in the fight against terrorism. After the CIA’s venture capital arm provided funding, Thiel and his partners began providing unintrusive data mining services to government agencies. Initially, Palantir undertook secret-squirrel assignments for major players such as the US Department of Defense. But it wasn’t long before state and local governments in the US, then private companies in industries such as finance and healthcare, were clamouring for the sophisticated big data analysis Palantir could provide.
These days, Palantir describes its mission thus: “We partner with the most important institutions in the world to transform how they use data, bringing our world-class software platform to bear against complex data environments in order to solve existential threats. Together with our customers, we’re building the future of national security, intelligence, healthcare, energy, manufacturing and more”. Palantir is building this future by creating software that “optimises human interaction with massive-scale data, enabling… critical institutions to understand, analyse and act on their data in support of their most important work”.
Palantir now has 20 offices around the world, including outposts in Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney. These offices serve as home bases for small teams of engineers who “operate like mini start-ups”. The engineering teams “deploy and extend our technology for each customer to solve their unique problems”.
Palantir remains a private company and Thiel continues to be its largest shareholder. In 2015, just over a decade after it launched, it received a US$20 billion (A$25 billion) valuation. It is presumably worth much more now.
To “access the broadest and fullest set of ideas”, Palantir aims to “attract and encourage people of diverse backgrounds, perspectives and life experiences”. Managers “work every day to build a truly diverse workforce” and to “celebrate difference and diversity — of background, approach, and identity”.
The company encourages and supports affinity groups for staff who are female, LGBT, military veterans or parents.
Palantir has a ‘Philanthropy Engineering team’. This team supports “initiatives and organisations dedicated to improving and saving human lives”.
In recent times, this team has partnered with [aid organisation] Mercy Corps to analyse data to identify areas at risk of escalating violence and work out how best to deliver aid in “unpredictable conflict areas”. It’s also partnered with the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children in the US to help find missing children and reduce child sexual abuse.
Palantir provides scholarships to students from “underrepresented groups in STEM”. In Australia, the company recently launched the Grace Hopper Scholarship to “encourage women to pursue computer science, engineering and technical studies, and become leaders in the field”.
The recruitment process
If you’ve got any form of engineering (or possibly a maths or physics) degree, you could be eligible to apply for a grad role based at Palantir’s Canberra office as a ‘Forward Deployed Software Engineer’ (FDSE).
Palantir looks for grads who want to make the world a better place and who can collaborate effectively. You should also be keen to learn and a quick study, tenacious and a self-starter who doesn’t need to be micromanaged. You’ll need to be able to obtain Australian security clearance and be willing to live overseas for prolonged periods.
The technical skills Palantir values are:
- Familiarity with data structures, storage systems, cloud infrastructure and front-end frameworks
On top of all that, it looks for grads who can demonstrate:
- Understanding of how technical decisions impact the user of what you're building
- Ability to work effectively in teams of technical and non-technical individuals
- Skill and comfort working in a rapidly changing environment with dynamic objectives and iteration with users
- Demonstrated ability to continuously learn, work independently and make decisions with minimal supervision
The recruitment process starts with an online application. After completing that, you’ll do one, possibly two, phone interviews. The next stage is a round of onsite, face-to-face interviews. You’ll then have to do some or all of the following: a coding interview; a systems-design interview; a UI-design interview and a ‘decomp’ (“decomposition of problems”, aka problem-solving) interview.
If you’re then offered an FDSE role, you’ll be based in Canberra but spend a year working in an overseas office (usually in New York or London). While posted overseas you’ll be part of “one or more existing Palantir deployments in the public or private sector” and will “learn the software”. Following this, you’ll “rotate back to Canberra to lead our work with Australian government agencies”.
While Palantir doesn’t publicly reveal remuneration information it appears staff are well looked after, even by tech-industry standards. FDSEs reportedly start on close to a six-figure salary with plenty of opportunities to increase that as their career progresses. It appears staff also have access to the usual perks, such as stock options, lots of free food and subsidised gym memberships.
Given the type of client list Palantir has, and the high-stakes issues it addresses for those clients, it’s a fantastic place for a grad to start their career. If they want to hang around at the company, there will be plentiful opportunities to move sideways or upwards. (Palantir likes to boast “We’ve only built a fraction of what we’ve imagined”).
If they want to move on, there are likely to be plenty of other tech companies waving their chequebooks around to acquire a Palantir alumnus. Alternatively, as not a few erstwhile Palantir high-flyers have done, they could launch their own start-up.
The vibe of the place
One of Palantir’s slogans is “Small teams, unlimited imagination”. In practice, this means the company is structured around “flat, decentralised teams, each with decision-making authority” rather than “a traditional hierarchy”. This means staff “have the freedom to approach, own and solve problems creatively”.
Whether people enjoy working at Palantir largely comes down to whether they enjoy having lots of autonomy. If you’re the type who enjoys being left alone to get on with things, you should feel right at home.
From the Employer:
At Palantir Technologies, we’re passionate about building software that solves real-world problems. We partner with the most important institutions in the world to transform how they use data, bringing our world-class software platform to bear against complex data environments in order to solve existential threats. Together with our customers, we’re building the future of national security, intelligence, healthcare, energy, manufacturing, and more.
The problems we solve aren't the problems your typical software company addresses. Our engineers aren't building a platform to sell ads or get likes; they're building tools that can — and do — change the world. Not only that, but they're doing it in a way that protects privacy and preserves security.
When Palantir Technologies was founded in 2004, we saw critical institutions struggling to work with siloed information, ever-growing data stores, and incompatible legacy systems. Commercial products were too rigid to handle novel problems, and custom systems ran years behind schedule and millions of dollars over budget. Blanket user access controls forced organizations to make unacceptable trade-offs between collaborating and protecting sensitive data.
We recognized that these limitations had severe implications for organisations, so we created software that optimizes human interaction with massive-scale data, enabling these critical institutions to understand, analyze, and act on their data in support of their most important work. Our first-class data fusion and analysis platforms are deployed globally, ship immediately, and are configurable against a limitless range of use cases. We work with government agencies, Fortune 500 companies, and non-profit organisations, each with their own set of challenges that can be solved with the Palantir platform.
Small teams of Palantir engineers operate like mini-startups as they deploy and extend our technology for each customer to solve their unique problems. We have always recognized that problems aren't confined to Silicon Valley—so neither are we. With more than 20 offices around the globe — including in Canberra, Sydney, Melbourne, and Wellington — we make sure that our forward deployed teams can go where they're needed most with the support they need to succeed. Our offices around the world serve as home base for our engineers, and we work with users everywhere from military vessels to manufacturing plants."