Whether debating the need for H1-B visas or discussing the Fortune 500’s ongoing struggles to recruit top engineering talent — there’s a prevailing notion in tech media that we live in an arid and unforgiving “talent desert.”
Yes, it’s true that less software engineers exist compared to the number of open positions. Gartner predicts there will be 1.4 million computer specialist job openings by 2020, while the U.S. Department of Labor estimates universities will not produce enough qualified graduates to fill even about 30 percent of these jobs. But the talent gap isn’t just a simple shortage of skilled and able bodies, rather it’s a multi-faceted problem with several myths that in turn prevent businesses from finding a holistic solution.
Below we’ve debunked five common myths about why you’re facing a talent drought.
Myth #1: “There aren’t enough developers to fill the jobs out there.”
A major factor of the “talent shortage” is a lack of inclusion and diversity. In 2015, women held 57 percent of all U.S. professional positions, but represented only 25 percent of computing occupations, according to a 2016 NCWIT report. The report found that almost 50 percent of women in STEM fields — primarily computing and engineering — vacated their position after 12 years, compared to only 20 percent of women in other professions. This highlights what is likely a hostile environmental and cultural problem within many organizations’ engineering department. (The Atlantic recently did a great piece exploring this gender issue.) Meanwhile, hispanic and black talent are also disproportionately underrepresented across tech occupations. For more information, former Slack Director of Engineering Leslie Miley’s (@Shaft) writing on the subject is a must-read.
Myth #2: “We need new talent to address our engineering needs.”
Before setting to find new talent, invest in your existing team. A recent Stack Overflow survey found that 32 percent of today’s engineering workforce believed their formal education wasn’t important for their current success, while 90 percent of all respondents said they were partially self-taught. While engineers’ domain-expertise is important, companies need to empower these engineers to learn the latest technologies and continue to expand their abilities.
“The culture that you want to harness is one where everyone in the organization understands the value of learning. Top to bottom, everyone understand the higher level purpose is building the future of the organization by working to continuously improve the process, the technology and each other,” says Andrew Clay Shafer, senior director of technology at Pivotal.
Organizations like Galvanize are addressing this enterprise need of “upskilling” their existing employees, helping them build education-supported, product-focused programs that expand existing employees’ skillsets, while also offering a model to provide a solid onboarding experience for new employees.
Myth #3: “We need more developers to keep up!”
It’s not that you don’t have the right talent, you don’t have the right tools.
From cloud-native computing to server automation, the development of new tools is accelerating and at the same time, accelerating businesses’ software development. In a presentation, Shafer compared the cloud-native paradigm’s affect on software development to how the Gatling gun revolutionized warfare. The Gatling Gun, while terrifying in its capability to rapidly inflict destruction, succeeded at greatly reducing the number of casualties in battle. History is littered with examples like this where a technological advancement eliminated a tradeoff to gain a competitive advantage. In this case, the payoff reduced the number of soldiers necessary to successfully engage an opponent in warfare.
If a competitor using new tools can reduce the number of talented people required to deliver software, those people are now freed to develop new applications or features that can erode competitive market share. If you’re not utilizing these tools, you’re likely falling behind.
Myth #4: “We need a ‘rockstar’ developer to lead us.”
Adrian Cockcroft (former Netflix, now AWS employee) shared during his Spring One Platform keynote that during a meeting with a Fortune 100 CIO, the CIO said, “But we don’t have superstar developers like Netflix does,” as an excuse for his team not iterating quickly. Adrian’s response, “Where do you think we got our developers? We hired them from you.”
So much of what holds a company’s software team back isn’t talent, it’s process. Organizations need to empower their developers to invent. This means taking on agile or lean practices instead of waterfall, top-down approaches. If you don’t adjust your process, your existing developers will move on to (and potentially thrive at) organizations that work in this more modern way.
“In many ways we haven’t advanced the way that we think about managing knowledge workers beyond a bunch of things that we inherited from the industrial revolution,” says Shafer. “When you get to these inherently creative activities, of which software is certainly one, and try to manage making widgets the same way you manage digging ditches, then you don’t get very good results.”
“In many ways we haven’t advanced the way that we think about managing knowledge workers beyond a bunch of things that we inherited from the industrial revolution”
—Andrew Clay Shafer
Myth #5: “All the great engineers are based in Silicon Valley.”
The reality is that Silicon Valley only employs eight percent of the nation’s coders, as Clive Thompson’s piece in Wired points out. Growth continues to happen across the US in major cities like Raleigh, Austin, Nashville, and Atlanta. A recent Moody’s Analytics report looking at major cities’ workforce growth between 2010 and 2015, found that the number of engineering jobs grew by 38.5 percent in Raleigh and 37.2 percent in Austin with similar growth happening in other cities.
“In Atlanta there is a tremendous amount of wealth that hasn’t typically been invested in the software space, but you’re seeing that’s changing now,” said Paul Vandenberg, the director of the Pivotal office in Atlanta. “One of the reasons why Silicon Valley has remained successful in cultivating talent is this networking effect: you go there and you’re able to find the capital and the talent, and the ecosystem continues to just grow and grow.” Vandenberg pointed to The Home Depot as an example of a company invigorating the local Atlanta tech scene, as it expands its digital offerings and recruits local talent.
If there aren’t enough talented developers in your specific city, consider building a distributed team that works remotely like Automattic. Or, consider hiring a remote development force using a service like Andela that helps extend engineering teams with the top tech talent from Africa.
Teach, Support, and Grow
There may be a shortage of trained engineers, but there are many ways businesses can address their talent needs. Leveraging the right tools will give your existing engineers a competitive advantage; but, you’ll still need a culture and process that invests in the individual and team’s growth to truly succeed. Meanwhile, it’s important to remember that great developers are out there. And as you hire these new talents, it’s important to build out a culture and process that nurtures their growth and empowers them to innovate.
If the development cycle can be summed up in actions of “build, measure, learn” then perhaps we can define the cycle of hiring engineering talent as “teach, support, grow.”