Tuesday, August 30th, 2011
One of the most common memes I come across in the tech world is that there is a huge shortage of quality software developers out there. No matter the market – Silicon Valley, Chicago, New York – you’ll soon enough hear about the talent shortage.
For example, someone recently told me that if I wanted to work as a developer in New York, “I’d have a job by noon.” A couple of recent articles in Chicago highlight supposed challenges there. Technori notes that “the #1 question we get every day is ‘How do I find a good developer in Chicago?’” and they recently put a lengthy primer on how to find one. And Alex Wilhelm recently chimed in with a piece on “Chicago’s Great Web Developer Drought.”
But is the developer shortage really as bad as it is portrayed? I’m skeptical.
First, when someone says there’s a shortage of talent and that they can’t find a good programmer, what that shows me is that the market is actually sending a very clear and important signal: your salaries are too low. In New York, I hear that the banks have sucked up all the good coders. Well how did that happen? Maybe they offered a market price. What this tells me is that there isn’t a shortage of developers, just a shortage of developers willing to work for ramen noodle money in a very expensive city.
Not once in its lengthy advice piece on hiring programmers in Chicago did Technori suggest paying a generous salary. But maybe that ought to be the first thing you try. Wilhelm notes that Groupon has sucked up a huge amount of Ruby on Rails talent. But that’s not just because of the options. Groupon also pays its developers very well. Unsurprisingly, it’s fairly easy for them to recruit.
I think what’s happened in a lot of places is that in trying to build the next great tech hub, they’ve basically tried to copy the entire business model of Silicon Valley. But perhaps other places ought to rethink that. Maybe in Chicago people aren’t willing to work 24×7, sleep on a sofa, and make peanuts in order to have a shot at a big exit one day, someday, maybe. Perhaps in these markets the compensation focus should be heavier on cash money, at least for funded startups. You build that into your business plan and raise capital appropriately.
Realistically, if there are more would-be buyers than sellers, then the market price has to go up to bring balance. It’s that simple. I don’t think startups need to put a deal on the table that’s based solely on the headline salary. Startups are generally great places to work, let you do really cool and interesting stuff, and do offer upside potential. But the cash side of the equation can’t be ignored either. Because while one business model after another has been upended and destroyed by the globalized, networked age, there’s one thing that’s remained as steady as the Rock of Gibraltar: Want to secure someone’s services? Open your checkbook.
Second, my own personal experience makes me wonder how big this so-called “drought” could be, at least in Chicago. I personally coded an entire Ruby on Rails SaaS application (www.telestrian.com), wrote the only program ever I’m aware of to recover data from corrupted gzip files, co-founded and was a principal author of an open source, clean room implementation of the Java standard class library prior to Sun open sourcing Java, etc. Yet no one has ever even so much as inquired about hiring me as a developer. Granted, I’m not really looking to work as a pure coder. But if you are really as desperate to find a developer as you say you are, wouldn’t you be turning over rocks to find one?
Lastly, most development problems aren’t rocket science. Even if it’s hard to find Rails hackers, there are tons of solid, competent Java and .NET developers all over our major cities, even in corporate IT shops. Why not hire one of them and let them skill up on Rails? That’s basically what I did with myself. When I wrote Telestrian, I wanted to learn Rails too, so I solved both problems at once by buying a Ruby book, buying a Rails book, and starting to write code. (Incidentally, IMO Ruby is the best language I’ve ever used, at least from a programmer perspective). I think you could probably get a competent web developer on one platform doing useful work on a different one inside of a month.
Now we all know that a great developer is 10-100x as productive as an average one, etc, etc. But do most straightforward development problems require a truly elite programmer? I would suggest that most web site development in cities like Chicago or New York is not what Mark Suster has called “a San Jose problem” – that is, a problem that requires deep, arcane technical skills best brought to bear by a Stanford CS Ph.D. And for those, maybe you’d be better off going to Silicon Valley anyway. (Given the rarity of niche skills in some of these areas, I really can believe SV companies have some recruitment issues). For most problems, maybe there’s an answer closer to home. Because a good coder in one platform is likely to be a good coder in another after picking it up.
Obviously the better the programmer you can get the better. And I’d never suggest hiring someone that can’t cut it. But I think the talent pool is probably a lot deeper than we suspect.
Now I’ll be the first to admit I haven’t personally tried to hire any programmers lately, so I’m willing to be convinced that I’m wrong. And I’m not going to say there isn’t something of a tight market out there. But it strikes me that there can’t be the absolute shortage of talent that I keep hearing about. More likely, the aspiring tech communities in these cities simply need to bring their compensation in line with marketplace reality in order to attract that talent that already there out of the banks and other shops and into the tech industry. Please feel free to share your opinion in the comments.