Hawaiʻi's Technology Community

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 Daniel Leuck on September 3, 2010 at 6:19pm
@Reichart - Our model (meaning our business, not TechHui) is along the lines of what you describe - attracting top coders and creatives who want to take advantage of the lifestyle Hawaii offers. These days 85%+ of our business comes from the mainland (mostly NY) and Japan. We love to work with local customers, but the market is limited.

The lifestyle can be a strong draw for talent, especially if they are into surfing, diving, hiking, etc. Sure, California has some nice spots, but having gone to school in LA and lived in SF, I can comfortably say that even the nice spots are Hawaii Light ;-)
Comment by Tim Parsons on September 3, 2010 at 5:24pm
@Mika Leuck Thx working on it.

@Reichart "I would suggest specifically focusing on attracting hermits (like myself and my friends) that can work anywhere, to move here. That simple." Pretty much that's what I am... haha a hermit. Most of the design work I do is for clients on the Mainland.

Also agree with this:
""I read back here through this thread, and everything Brian said, I second. I even second the part where he said "Anyway, I could go on. I realize most people here probably don't want to hear this stuff but thus far while I've found this discussion immensely fascinating I've also felt it's rather disingenuous in the sense that people are unwilling to confront the reality that Hawaii is not good for business and may simply never be very good for many sectors."

That was one of the reasons I moved away from Hawaii the first time. Now back after being gone for 11 years but like I said above most business is still done on the Mainland. Had to come back home even if the business environment isn't the best in the world.

Have a great weekend everyone.
Comment by Mika Leuck on September 3, 2010 at 4:08pm
Good luck Tim! We hope you are successful and create some good tech jobs in Maui.

Interestingly the Manoa Innovation Center is now full, so there are some new tech companies popping up.
Comment by Tim Parsons on September 3, 2010 at 3:44pm
Working on a web startup from the South Side of Maui right now. BegFor.iT I hope in the very near future we can be part of the tech growth in Hawaii.
Comment by Brian on September 2, 2010 at 10:22pm
P.S. Technically since the whole island is the C&C of Honolulu; Honolulu Coders is inclusive ;)
Comment by Brian on September 2, 2010 at 10:20pm
Honestly If I got cut I'd probably leave the state.

And I've told you before, but I know you do more to ameliorate that issue than anyone else on the island.
Comment by Daniel Leuck on September 2, 2010 at 10:19pm
Brian: @Dan, the lack of "hacker meetups" etc relative to other cities is actually one of the big negatives (in my perspective). I think it's mostly due to the lack of a good "anchor" tech company. Perhaps a shopping mall analogy is relevant here.
We are doing our best to address this. We already have a UX design and mobile developers meetup. Per our in-person discussion, we are going to re-start Honolulu Coders (probably renamed Oahu Coders to be more inclusive.) On the social side we have another TechHui Drinks planned for November.

Brian: And if you look at the long-term trend for Hawaii, defense spending is on the decline. This trend will continue in the short term as more cuts even as we speak.
If your job gets cut give us a call and we will put your new Silverlight skills to good use in the commercial space. :-)
Comment by Brian on September 2, 2010 at 8:59pm
@Shiva, Many of the better DoD-related positions don't even make it to the job sites you'd peruse. Anecdotally, I'd say the entry and mid-level positions tend to be disproportionately represented in terms of ads.

@Dan, the lack of "hacker meetups" etc relative to other cities is actually one of the big negatives (in my perspective). I think it's mostly due to the lack of a good "anchor" tech company. Perhaps a shopping mall analogy is relevant here.
Comment by Brian on September 2, 2010 at 8:48pm
@ Dan

Maybe not Iowa, but there are plenty of diverse immigrant communities on the mainland. Take a city like Toronto for example - 11% Chinese, 12% South Asian. Milpitas is 42% Asian. Of course percentage doesn't tell the whole story anyway since even if you have only a 5% minority - that's a lot if you have a million people.

Not to say that Hawaii does not feature this as a significant asset - but I think we get a little too zealous in how "unique" this is. Bottom line is as we discussed in person - I see this is as something that can be leveraged when building a business locally - but it's not the sort of thing that doesn't exist elsewhere and positions as uniquely as DBEDT & HTDC would like us to believe. I believe this type of self-delusion is hazardous.

A more compelling argument may be the proximity to relevant institutions and agencies that would have related requirements; and that certainly exists here - but again you'll find similar ones throughout the US and elsewhere.

And if you look at the long-term trend for Hawaii, defense spending is on the decline. This trend will continue in the short term as more cuts even as we speak. Take a read at what's happening in Virginia with the impending closure of JFCOM. Funnily enough many of those jobs may go to Florida which is one place I have considered moving if I ever leave here..

I'd actually be more interested in a discussion of career lifecycle and the association with regard to emigration to/from Hawaii. Anecdotally I'd say we see a lot of older, more established people come here (once they have $$) and try to start a venture - whereas younger people (often being more tolerant of their environment) go elsewhere to make $$.
Comment by Mika Leuck on August 31, 2010 at 3:01pm
Dan Starr: By the way, I think Techhui is a brilliant resource, and just the activity and quality of ideas in this thread is a sign, to me at least, that this topic will persist no matter which way the brain flow goes at any particular time.
We are really happy to hear you find it useful! Its comments like this that make all the work that has gone into building the community worth it. :-)
@Shiva When I first looked at Hawaii I found the same thing - Its hard to find a high paying job, especially if you aren't a citizen who can get security clearance.


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