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The Great 2009-2010 Hawaii Brain Drain

brain drain

At recent developer events, including today's UX Design Meetup, the effect of the great 2009-2010 Hawaii brain drain was readily apparent. Seth Ladd, Anthony Eden, Sam Joseph, Truman Leung, Ken Mayer, David Neely, Sherwin Gao, Seri Lee, Gabe Morris, Alex Salkever, Laurence Lee, Ken Berkun...this is just a handful of quality people I know personally. The list of talented tech industry people who have left or will soon be leaving over this very short period of time is truly depressing. Hawaii has experienced a series of brain drains over the past two decades, the most recent being in 2003/2004, but this is the worst I've seen by a long shot.

As Hawaii tech companies (largely 221 funded) collapse, the engineers and designers who were working for them aren't looking locally for new jobs. They are leaving our state, and it won't be easy to get them back. If we can't retain talented developers and creative personalities in our state the innovation economy is in serious trouble (not that this is news to anyone in the industry.) Any tech business owner who has recruited from the mainland or internationally knows its hard to relocate people to Hawaii. Many people view Hawaii as a vacation spot, but not a serious place for technology innovation. Employers have a hard time with questions such as, "I have three children. How is the public school system?" or "Will I be able to afford a house?" For younger professionals from the Bay Area or East Coast who don't have connections to Hawaii it can be hard to settle socially. Many relocations, which can be very expensive, fail in the first year.

I'm an optimistic person by nature. I believe we can still build an innovation economy in Hawaii, but we need to learn from our mistakes, identify our strengths, apply a healthy dose of pragmatism and a whole lot of elbow grease. Aside from fixing our horribly broken public education system, there isn't a lot the government can do to solve this problem for us. Its up to entrepreneurs and tech business leaders to come up with a plan for sustainable growth of a uniquely Hawaiian innovation economy.

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Comment by Brian on August 19, 2010 at 4:03pm
Everyone brings up the cost of living issue, but I suspect that the majority of people leave because of either massive salary discrepancy or lack of opportunity/stimulation. I.e. they leave to go do something more fun and get paid a ton more - not because they can't afford Hawaii.

Maybe I'm wrong; I just don't believe that someone who moves to Kansas from Hawaii for a 15% pay raise ever really wanted to live here.
Comment by Dan Starr on August 19, 2010 at 12:08pm
A necessity to leave may have also been highly coupled with placing nestegg/investments in the tumbling real estate market of 2009, considering that real-estate is a common way to store money in Hawaii.
Comment by Dan Starr on August 19, 2010 at 12:00pm
Perhaps the strong economy prior to 2009 allowed high caliber developers/innovators enough success to re-locate to Hawaii. If so, I would expect a new influx of talent as business investments pickup again and as developers and entrepreneurs rebuild their own safety-nets. I can't imagine the exodus will last for long.
Comment by Daniel Leuck on August 19, 2010 at 9:08am
Nate Sanders: The emphasis may be that Honolulu was lucky enough to get some of these people in the first place rather than that the emphasis should be on lamenting seeing them go.
Perhaps, but most of these people, like you, wanted to stay in Honolulu. In most cases, they left out of necessity, not because they were simply passing through.

BTW - Did you talk to the folks at Pukoa Scientific? They do work in machine vision, so it would be right up your ally. How about Williams Aerospace? Feel free to give me a call or swing by the office if you want to chat.

Aaron Kagawa: I do see some good signs though. i see more engineers coming back home.
Thats good to hear, but I'm confident we lost many more top notch developers. I'm talking about the type that organize tech events, lead technical teams, contribute to open source projects, write books, etc. I know we did get a few quality people coming in on the back of Avatar Reality's latest investment round and a few quality placements at the dual use companies. As always, your company, Referentia, is a bright spot.
Comment by Brian on August 19, 2010 at 5:14am
Plantation Culture.
Comment by aaron kagawa on August 18, 2010 at 10:57pm
did i see a "deep kimchee" tag a little earlier? haha...

i do see some good signs though. i see more engineers coming back home. i see more local kids that go to good mainland schools looking for jobs in hawaii.
Comment by Nate Sanders on August 18, 2010 at 10:56pm
I just want to open up a dialog and see what people think about the following (as negative as it may sound):


The emphasis may be that Honolulu was lucky enough to get some of these people in the first place rather than that the emphasis should be on lamenting seeing them go.


There are, in my estimation, three locations in the US that really "get it" when it comes to a large number of companies who understand high-productivity programmers/engineers: Seattle, Bay Area, Boston. Obviously, it's a continuum, but I consider these 3 far and away the top -- NYC is still too focused on Finance, though with Algo Trading being hot, you can make a boatload of money there (but you still won't get the same respect as Wall Street guys). I also think it's important to understand what the opposite view is and that's a manager-centric view which can also be called "asses-in-seats". The number of job postings that I see for programmers in Honolulu where they say something like "this job is from 8AM to 5PM" is pretty scary. It's indicative of a culture where managers do not understand high-productivity programmers.

My personal experience here in Honolulu (after 2 years of not saying much publicly):
I've had people skeptical of my skills on multiple occasions here in Honolulu -- multiple people who I won't name who should really know better. I recently interviewed at Amazon's dev center in Seattle and had two teams (RDS and CloudWatch) fighting over me after thoroughly crushing their highly-intensive 6-hour interview filled with data structures, algorithms, scalability, OO design, Java particulars, bit manipulation, various trick questions, various other CS fundamentals, etc. I actually corrected their interviewers on a few occasions and was routinely told (after thoroughly explaining problems): "oh...you just answered my next two questions". In their bar-raiser interview (for those of you familiar with it), I went 3-for-3. Additionally, about a year ago, I had Justin.tv (SF) absolutely ready to hire me after submitting, in Perl, a clever answer to one of their programming problems, finding out they spend their time in Python, and then submitting the answer in Python (a language I had never touched) two hours later.

On the other hand, I had to fight tooth and nail to get jobs AT ALL here in Honolulu.


Great programmers and engineers aren't wrenches that you buy at the hardware store for a commodity price to sit in a chair from 8 to 5 to do a job in an interchangeable way -- they're creative, highly-intelligent people who love what they do and just need to be given an opportunity to build things. Honolulu isn't alone in treating them this way, but the stakes are higher here with tourism being a questionable fallback. I wouldn't have stayed here this long if I didn't love Honolulu (and I will leave and I will always miss this place), but there's a long way to go and I don't see the necessary steps to remedy the problem being taken.

I need to be clear that I _truly_ wish I could say something more positive.

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