Hawaiʻi's Technology Community

Developing a Viable Software Development Workforce in Hawaii

Yesterday I was asked to chair a committee on workforce development for the software industry in Hawaii. Our committee was specifically tasked with coming up with suggestions on how to bring the number of senior software developers in the workforce closer to meeting the demands of software companies in our state. The suggestions are to be presented by the Workforce Development Council to the legislature. At this point some people will raise their hands and say, "But there are already many senior software developers who can't find jobs." To this I generally respond, "No, there aren't, at least not in the in-demand areas - GIS, mobile development, RIAs, etc." I know the companies trying to find these people (Ikayzo is one of them), and these types of positions are very hard to fill. There are a lot of software developers looking for work, but there isn't a sufficient number of top notch senior software developers - the kind who can design complex systems with modern technology stacks, train junior engineers, lead projects, etc. One of the reasons for this is the Great Hawaii Brain Drain of 2009 and 2010, but its always been an issue. Sure, we can also use more innovative technology companies, so there is a bit of a chicken and egg issue, but the fact remains that there are many companies who are in our state actively looking for senior software developers and are unable to find them. As such, my post will concentrate on this area.

I admit, with all respect to my friends in government, that I approach government sponsored events of this nature with some trepidation. Often they end up being a huge number of people in a room (I firmly believe in meetings never having more than 8 people), involve a lot of complaining, a healthy amount of general disarray, long pointless speeches by bureaucrats and politicians, and produce zero tangible results. This isn't a dig on Hawaii, its just often the nature of government. This event, however, was free of long pointless speeches and included a number of smart, motivated people who produced interesting ideas, some of which I'd like to share with the TechHui community. Feedback is always appreciated.

The Three-Prong Problem

1. Hawaii doesn't develop enough senior software engineers. In other words, companies aren't investing in graduating junior engineers into senior engineers via mentoring, training programs, etc. Often this is because small and medium size companies can't afford it.

2. Hawaii doesn't import enough senior engineers. Top programmers don't view Hawaii as a place they can move and continue their career.

3. Hawaii doesn't retain enough senior engineers. The few we do develop or import don't stick around.

Note: Education is also a major issue, and I've written a number of posts about public education in Hawaii, but that was addressed by another committee that deals with entry level developers and, as such, is out of scope for this discussion.


A. Subsidize Mentoring: Many Hawaii tech companies get their funding from federally funded SBIRs and STTRs. These are tiered grants that provide money for projects in areas of interest to departments ranging from the DoD to the FDA (see the SBIR / STTR TechHui Group.) The state could provide a partial matching program for these grants if the company awarded the grant agrees to have the PI (principal investigator) mentor a junior resource while working on the project. This would create a strong incentive for companies to invest in workforce development thereby producing more senior developers / researchers.

B. School Registry for Top Students: Create a registry for top students who graduate from our schools (public and private) but go to undergraduate or graduate programs on the mainland. Several CEOs who attended the committee meeting noted that bringing talented kamaʻaina back to Hawaii is a good, low risk relocation strategy. Often people want to return but aren't confident they can find a job. If they can be found and presented with a good offer, they will often return. Currently its hard to find these people, but the state could easily maintain such a registry (which would of course be voluntary.)

C. Attract a Major Conference: Conferences like Google I/O, Microsoft TechEd, etc. often attract 10K+ attendees. If HVCB was able to lure one of those conferences to Hawaii it would create a great opportunity to market to both engineers and companies (e.g. Why not code in paradise?)

D. Make Hawaii a Reward for the Best and Brightest: Create incentives to encourage larger software businesses to place advanced research and development facilities in Hawaii. We could position the state as a place you can work if you are at the top of the R&D game. This would of course require a tax incentive to attract the R&D centers.

E. An Industry Funded Non Profit for SBIR / STTR: A number of successful tech companies in Hawaii (Oceanit, Referentia, etc.) were built partly on SBIRs and STTRs. Often smaller companies are afraid to dip their toes in the SBIR water because it takes an investment to write the proposals and, if you aren't experienced at writing them, you probably won't win. HTDC provides assistance in this area, but their resources are limited. Peter Kay put forward the idea of having an industry funded non-profit who collected profiles for all member companies, monitored SBIR / STTR solicitations, and proactively pushed matching solicitations to the appropriate member companies along with assistance in writing the proposals. This would mitigate the risk of a large investment in writing the solicitations and perhaps allow more Oceanits and Referentias to be born.

*Note: This is more to industry development than workforce but, as already noted, they are clearly intertwined.

F. Market Hawaii as a Place Tech Happens: Most people who visit Hawaii have no idea that we have companies designing iPhone apps, software with neural interfaces, software for UAVs, and systems used by the world's largest banks. Other cities advertise their technology industries in the airport. Why not us? Our own students aren't aware of all the great technology being invented all around them.

Many other ideas were discussed. Hopefully I'll have more time to enumerate them over the weekend.


Related Group: Innovation Economy Workforce Development

Views: 1694


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Comment by Daniel Leuck on May 17, 2011 at 11:37am
An interesting article on the comp sci job market in Seattle and on a national level: Red Hot: The Computer Science Job Market. Thank you for the link Ken!
Comment by Jason Hoffman on May 12, 2011 at 6:07am

One of the overwhelming recommendations from the Software Skills Workshop was that mentoring and connections between the professional community and students are essential to fostering talent here.  I worked with Professor Galen Sasaki at UH (also a workshop participant) to set up a just such a discussion with his class.  Myself and Sean Fox talked with about two dozen design students at the CE program.  I am further working with Professor Gerald Lau to include the MIS department and make these meetings regular occurances.


A couple requests of the community:


1.  Which colleges or universities should be approached next?

2. Does anyone recall the name of the vice chancellor (?) who was at the entrepreneurial panel at the workshop?  I believe he was with one of the community colleges


Comment by Jason Hoffman on May 3, 2011 at 8:26am
think the primary equation being balanced here is not supply and demand, though I believe that is an important one that will naturally follow.


I return to the principal cultural bias on the mainland (mostly western) and that on the island (Hawaiian,Asian, Pacific Islander) are different.


Some that come from the mainland consider Hawaii "just another state" (and the associated assumptions, expectations that come with being "just another state.")  But the reality is much different.  Perhaps the wrong lens is being used.  Some (self included) have looked at Hawaii with the disposition that the island technology sector should be more like that in mainland cities to be successful. 

Perhaps, since the predominate culture here is not western, we should look East for our model on how to grow our technology sector.

Comment by Andy Styles on May 3, 2011 at 6:45am

I continue to follow this thread with interest! 


I have to say though, I keep coming back to my original point that if Hawaiian companies are serious about hiring top-notch talent, they need to offer competitive salaries... and I mean offer competitive life styles with the West Coast, because that's where most of the talent and experience is.


I find it odd that business people and entrepreneurs aren't applying the basics of "supply and demand" to this! If there is demand, but no supply, you need to pay more to attract the goods!


In my experience, the benefit that a single, highly experienced technical manager or individual contributer can add to a company cannot be under-stated. That person's skill and experience become part of the company's culture, and easily (easily!!) repays the additional premium the individual commands.

Comment by John Robert Egan on May 2, 2011 at 10:18am

Aloha Dan and everyone:


I have been following this thread, and as an immigration attorney I try to track where foreign talent fits into the workforce picture, and follow the federal programs related to that.  I have just received a notice of a federal grant for workforce development that may be of interest here in Hawaii. When a foreign job applicant gets an H-1B visa, also known as the "tech visa" because it is used by so many tech-oriented firms, a fee is imposed for job training for U.S. citizens and residents.  The proceeds are now being offered for workforce development programs targeting the fields most impacted by the H-1B program.  Technology jobs are a prime target for this program.


Proposals must be from a "public-private partnership" and include on-the-job training or other training strategies.  We have some public entities with tech workforce development interest, and if there are some private tech firms willing to take on some subsidized trainees there might be some value in bringing some of this fee-generated training money to Hawaii.  A link to the Solicitation for proposals is here:


This sort of program is obviously not a panacea for the totality of our workforce development challenge, but if there are interested parties, it might be a useful assist in bridging the gap between graduating tech majors and the job market. Personally, having seen so many local clients paying into this fund, I would be happy to see some of this money returned to the advantage of our local tech community.

Comment by Elyse M Petersen on May 1, 2011 at 4:55pm


Great write-up, it's a subject that is very important for Hawaii. I hope that The Solar Decathlon is helping with challenging our ICS students to be capable members of Hawaii's workforce. We are really trying to push this, to us it is even more important than the actual house we are building. Check out our latest blog about Workforce Development here. I would love to talk to you in more detail about this.


Comment by Daniel Leuck on April 29, 2011 at 9:26am

Aloha Nizwer,

Nizwer Husain: So it is now more than 3 weeks that I indicated I am doing ios iphone ipad development but not even one interested caller! Mobile app developers not as hot as they make out in Hawaii.

Are you referring to your wall post in the mobile developers group that mentions you are working on an iPhone project? A simple mention that you are working on a mobile app isn't likely to elicit job offers. Most employers looking for mobile developers want to see multiple apps that have been successfully completed and released.

I hope your project is going well and that you will post again when it has been released to the App Store.

Comment by Brian on April 29, 2011 at 6:48am

@ Vern


Does the ICS department at UH still rabidly support Java/Open Source (I like open source!) to the exclusion of everything else (which is a terrible idea)? This was a huge problem when I was there and I hear it has not really changed.


I think the mindset is that "If you're a good developer, you can code in any language" Since.. let's face it.. most mainstream languages are pretty similar.  I mean sure it takes much longer to be a master, but I do believe anyone with a solid grasp of fundamentals in data structures/algorithms who knows say.. Java, C, and Haskell.. can glance at Python.. learn the syntax nuances, and be writing moderately complex code pretty quickly. And I'd venture to say that everyone here would agree with me on this point (or not?).


However.. while that's all fine and dandy for an established developer - for the junior developer - not so. You may have a good grasp of some fundamentals but it's a heck of a lot easier to learn your 6th programming language than your 2nd. If you've been coding Java for 4 years you're not going to be immediately useful to someone who wants a .NET coder. That transition is going to take longer because the concepts in your mind are more closely mapped to the specific tool you have been using to employ them.


This isn't specific to just coding - you find it anywhere. If you remember driving your first car, you had poor motor memory skills and spatial awareness. You wouldn't teach someone to drive giving them a different car every day, would you?


However by the time you've driven several you are much more comfortable converting what you want (the ideas/concepts) into actual commands (inputs to the vehicle). I don't know about you, but I didn't need an instructor to help me with the last rental car I picked up. You adjust your mirrors, figure out how to work a few things.. and you're basically on your way.

Comment by Jason Hoffman on April 29, 2011 at 6:39am

@Nizwer  I understand that can get frustrating.  Under which group did you post here on techhui and not get a response?  Did you see the posting yesterday on by Scrum-Masters looking for a mobile developer (I cannot recall if it was iphone or ipad)?  Where have you been actively looking without success?

Comment by Nizwer Husain on April 28, 2011 at 6:36pm
So it is now more than 3 weeks that I indicated I am doing ios iphone ipad development but not even one interested caller! Mobile app developers not as hot as they make out in Hawaii. No, I am not going to sit and doctor my resume. I am off to attend a conference in Cologne, May 8 to May 11 to demo the app to potential interested parties :) for my startup.


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