Seth Morabito wasn't expecting to find the job that would change his life while at a conference dressed as an animal, but that's what happened at ConFurence 7: He was a newly-graduated programmer identifying as a raccoon when he saw the furry-friendly ad seeking Unix developers.
It was 1996, right in the middle of the dot-com bubble. Morabito, now a 43-year-old software engineer whose furry alter ego is a raccoon named Tilton, was living in Connecticut at the time and feeling restless. He found the ad placed by Silicon Valley consulting company Taos in the back of the schedule for the conference.
"I figured that any company willing to advertise to furries would be fun to work for, and I already knew enough Unix and system administration to be dangerous, so I figured I'd apply and see what happened," Morabito told me over email.
"I remember her running out of her office into my cubicle, and she said, 'Christine, we gotta get on these furries.'"
Months earlier, recruiter Cindy Lee Smith noticed a trend in the resumes coming across her desk at Taos. Why were many job candidates listing "anthropomorphism" under their hobbies?
As Christine Hyung-Oak Lee tells it—recalling her time as a junior recruiter under Smith—hitting upon the tech-talent goldmine of furrydom was something like an epiphany. "I remember her running out of her office into my cubicle, and she said, 'Christine, we gotta get on these furries.'"
In these pre-web days, participating in alternative communities and communicating around the world required building and maintaining your own servers and chat forums. To participate in their lifestyle and connect with others like themselves, furries often needed navigate the pre-web telnet servers called MUCKs, or Multi User Created Kingdoms.
"It was a side skill they developed as a result of the forums they created," Lee said. "Back then, nobody was creating websites. If you wanted a website, you make it yourself. If you wanted a chat server, you'd make it yourself."
Silicon Valley, too, was different than it is today: Finding brilliant systems administration and dev ops talent was a real challenge for recruiters. It wasn't as simple as raking in Stanford and Berkeley grads—the industry was moving from mainframe computing to consumer technology, and required a skillset many people didn't have at the time.
"If you show up looking like a meerkat, you're not going to get the job when you're interviewing with HR."
Things are "extraordinarily different' in Silicon Valley now, Morabito said. "The 1990s 'geek' culture has turned into 2010s 'brogrammer' culture, and I think some of the weirdness has been lost," he said. "It's more mainstream, and I think it's a little less accepting of things that don't fit its mold."
The recruiters at Taos weren't concerned with molds. "At the time I just thought, there's several thousand systems admins in LA that I need to get my name in front of," Smith said.
They made a plan to become a corporate sponsor for ConFurence, paying the organizers $300-500 for ad placement. Smith said they gained around 40 hires from that tactic, and more as they built out their network, talking to well-connected people in the furry community and offering referral bonuses for bringing friends along.
Outside of Taos, the workplaces where furries were contracting—hot computing companies of the day including Sun Microsystems, Netscape and Electronic Arts—varied in acceptance of their animalistic alter-egos. At Taos, Lee and Smith welcomed furries and coach their new recruits on company cultures and conduct later.
"If you show up looking like a meerkat, you're not going to get the job when you're interviewing with HR," Lee said. "With us, we understood and we'd say 'Hey, you can't wear that to the interview.'" But even if it did slip that someone had a counterculture lifestyle, it wasn't typically a deal breaker for employers. Companies were starved for talent, in whatever form they took. Graveyard shifts on systems administration roles didn't require a lot of customer interaction, so who cares if you liked to wear a tail and ears sometimes?
More than 20 years after the 1996 ConFurence, Morabito now owns his own programming business, and Lee is a published author. Smith is still in recruiting, but hasn't seen a talent pool match the confluence of early furrydom and early computing.
"I'm still doing the same thing, Sam, and nothing's changed," Smith said, laughing. "People are people. Their motivations and needs are unique to them… My experience with most of [the furries] is that they were really hard working and sweet people. What they did in their personal life, was personal."