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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.

Solutions

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

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Comment by Daniel Leuck on April 26, 2011 at 9:53am
@Vern I wholeheartedly agree with your assertion that the root of many of the problems is our education system. I've written about this. The reason we didn't spend as much time on education in my panel is that we were specifically tasked with addressing the shortage of senior software development resources. The education issue was more the purview of the junior developers panel.
Comment by Vern Takebayashi on April 22, 2011 at 1:44am

Sorry to chime in late.  I think that proposal A is not likely to find support from our state government, but all the proposals sound like they could help.  I know public education has been discussed elsewhere, but in reading the discussion I think it still (partially) comes back to fixing that.  It is not going to be easy to attract top talent to come to Hawaii unless they have ties here.  If students start off here with a decent education, and go off to the mainland for experience, we could get some of them to come back.  But, if they don't start here with a decent education, it seems to me unlikely that they would want to relocate here (as they would rightfully have concerns about their children's education).

To get an idea about the problems our education system cause, consider this.  The average student in my web programming course is more interested in finding the easiest solution to the projects than in finding elegant flexible solutions.  They still look at the projects as assignments, rather than opportunities to learn something useful.  These are not bad students, but the way they have been trained causes most of them to have too narrow a focus in my course.

To address this, our ICS department is thinking of designing a web programming certificate that would require a student to pass 4 courses.  We think those courses would include a course on HTML/CSS, a course on database design, a course on web programming that covers things like Rails and GWT, and a course that covers Android/IOS programming.  At the same time, I think it would be beneficial for the students to take enough ICS courses so that they forced to create linked lists, stacks, queues, binary sorted trees just to hone their problem solving skills.  But, I think it is difficult to get students to take courses that aren't required.  In any case, I am hoping that creating a certificate program (which is easier to do than create a degree program as you might guess) might help us foster better attitudes towards learning.  Then, we might get more students who take projects as challenges and opportunities to do something useful.  I do have one student who really excels in terms of aptitude and attitude, but I would like this to be more then norm rather than the exception.  If we can home grow more of these students, I think they are more likely to come back if the relocate to the mainland.  If all they experienced in education here is mediocre text-book learning, why would they want to come back?  Of course TechHui is a big help (in terms of support), but if they have children or want to have children, then education is probably an important factor too.

Comment by Jason on April 14, 2011 at 9:39am

@Jason very good break down of the issues.

 

Et al., my opinion, and it's only my opinion, is that there is a lot of discussion on a need for people with very specific skill sets.  If you need a contractor for a couple months, I see this as a reasonable request, however, if you are looking for a long term relationship I just don't see the value in looking for those specific skill sets only.  If I had a company that was doing mobile applications, for example, sure, I would look for someone with previous mobile application experience, however, I would be also looking for a smart broad ranged *software* developer.  The principals are the same.  The tools and paradigms don't really mater.  Someone worth their weight can easily adjust.  Furthermore, if you find someone who has those skill sets, and only has those skill sets, but dosen't fully understand the principals of software development, you are going to shoot yourself.  Especially now, with so many stacks, and technologies, it's important to find the right kind of person, and not the one that has skill in the specific technology that you are looking for.  So, if you take examples from the bellow discussion, I would be looking for someone:

 

* smart and well versed in the principals of software development.  proven record.

* compatible and culturally sensitive to the environment in Hawaii.

* compatible to our own company

(then i would list the *desired* skill sets)

 

On a side note but related to these discussions, here is an article describing Hawaii as the worst state to make a living in!  (These "liitle" studies are usually incomplete and simple, but, it gives you an idea of what you are up against when trying to recruit.)

 

http://www.money-rates.com/news/10-worst-states-for-making-a-living... 

Comment by Jason Hoffman on April 12, 2011 at 4:24pm

@Dan.  You are welcome.  just what rolled off my keyboard over lunch.  Great comments!

 

The conflation of IT people for typical enterprise work, startup-type developers and researchers presented a significant difficulty in most of the groups.  [...] There is clearly a shortage of quality people in all three categories.

 

I believe the more specific we can be here the better. 

 

Typical Enterprise work: SA/NA? which systems? (there is a lot of win2K in local companies), PMs (technical or functional), System Integration (which systems, technical and/or functional). Web security comes to mind.

 

Startup-type developers:  which programming languages and tools. (we need to articulate this to the colleges as a common theme as they had long spin-up times)

 

Researchers: which fields?  again security comes to mind

 

I believe the most culturally sustainable answer is probably educate here, have work experience gained both on and off island and then attract back.  That will have a long development cycle.  You cannot create a Sharepoint PM with 5+ years experience overnight (four currently sought on island as of last week)

 

I forward it will have to be imported to meet current needs.  If there is demand and not a healthy supply, what are the reasons why?  Could it be paying the dues?  Maybe.  I ask what are the nature of the dues, are they too high and are they keeping the talent away?  If you want a senior programmer with 10-15 years experience, he has already paid his industry dues with the entry-level positions.  It would take a special person to pay them again if he has alternatives where he does not have to.  That's realistic if the supply of people permits it.  The answer may be to find a few of them and attract them back. 

Jason:There is a strong, understandable desire to preserve both the culture and physical paradise of Hawaii.

Dan: True, but I don't see this as a competing interest with the development of a viable innovation economy, especially if its playing to Hawaii's strengths.

 

Agreed. If the answer is using imported talent to jumpstart the industry, and backfill with locally educated talent, then there would be a strong need for that talent to be culturally-sensitive.

 

I guess I am of the mind there may still be some fact finding and exploring to do.  The better we can quantify what is needed or what attracts others, the more credible our position.

 

Jason

Comment by Daniel Leuck on April 12, 2011 at 3:05pm

@Jason Thank you for the thorough response. It could be a blog post in its own right :-)

I am not sure it is fully, clearly articulated which specific subsets of established companies (mobile web development, dual-use, etc) are suffering the shortages. I believe understanding this is a necessary first step to orient the actions in line with them.

Very true. The conflation of IT people for typical enterprise work, startup-type developers and researchers presented a significant difficulty in most of the groups. After a few false starts we were able to focus on the latter two. This was mostly due to the composition of the group. There is clearly a shortage of quality people in all three categories.

Perhaps an approach is to look at what is needed to import talent from the mainland.  Do we truly understand what the talent that comes here wants?

That is one of the things we discussed. The answer was - for some companies yes, for most, no. At the state level this definitely is not well understood.

There is a strong, understandable desire to preserve both the culture and physical paradise of Hawaii.

True, but I don't see this as a competing interest with the development of a viable innovation economy, especially if its playing to Hawaii's strengths.

To protect and preserve what this island offers, there appears to be some fairly strong cultural barriers to entry for imported talent:  There is a distrust of off-islanders who have not lived on-island for three years.  A call returned  to a non-808 number is much less likely than to local phone numbers. These are issues that are not encountered as mainland cities attract talent from each other and is at times inconsistent with the Aloha offered to tourists.

That is true. New arrivals have to do their time, which definitely has its drawbacks.

Just as there may not be a perfect husband, wife or child, the same may be true with non-local, off-island talent that have desired skills.

True. Sometimes the best is the enemy of the good.

re: Education

That is the root of many of our problems. I referenced several posts on this subject in the body of the blog post.

Thank you for your thoughts!

Comment by Jason Hoffman on April 12, 2011 at 1:46pm

@Dan

 

I think you raise some very interesting points Dan.  I sat in on the start-up/venture session that day.  I agree there is an imbalance between the supply of trained, experienced technology labor and demand.  I am not sure it is fully, clearly articulated which specific subsets of established companies (mobile web development, dual-use, etc) are suffering the shortages. I believe understanding this is a necessary first step to orient the actions in line with them.

 

I believe there is so much potential here to match both education with industry needs and attract culturally responsible mainland talent.  There is a distinct lifestyle that appeals to those who live here.  Yet that lifestyle alone may not be enough to import the talent. Perhaps an approach is to look at what is needed to import talent from the mainland.  Do we truly understand what the talent that comes here wants? what the talent that considered here but went elsewhere wants?  I believe that training, retaining and attracting back kama'anai talent is a separate theme (good news is there is there is initial outreach to the universities to work on this)

 

There is a strong, understandable desire to preserve both the culture and physical paradise of Hawaii. I value this island because of its diversity and believe reducing it to a resort destination would undermine its true nature.  My experience with friends traveling here is they want to explore the island (the volcanoes, the famed North Shore, Diamond Head, Pearl Harbor) and what the island has to offer.  There are much cheaper mainland alternatives if a week at an all-inclusive spa resort is desired where one never leaves the grounds.  We offer so much more.  I offer the following not as a criticism; it is intended to be a pragmatic look at the cost that preservation carries to attracting and retaining talent and if that balance is what we want. 

 

To protect and preserve what this island offers, there appears to be some fairly strong cultural barriers to entry for imported talent:  There is a distrust of off-islanders who have not lived on-island for three years.  A call returned  to a non-808 number is much less likely than to local phone numbers. These are issues that are not encountered as mainland cities attract talent from each other and is at times inconsistent with the Aloha offered to tourists.  These are items I think we can address over time by each of use individually at the company level.  Mainlanders come with mainland skills, experience and mentality.  What would the ideal culturally acceptable candidate look like? 

 

Just as there may not be a perfect husband, wife or child, the same may be true with non-local, off-island talent that have desired skills.  Far from saying we should sacrifice the values and heritage of the island.  There is a special sacredness to these islands that can only be understood by living here.  I only ask the question: does the balance we have found today work?  if not what might we realistically change that does not threaten the island?

 

A longer-term issue includes pay disparity and education.  While compelling arguments can be made both for on the comparative cost of living and wages the perception in the minds of the talent is what is important.  Salaries here will probably not be the highest given what Hawaii offers.  I would be interested in a comparable study with other centers of technology excellence, looking beyond the obvious outlier of Silicon Valley, to explore Seattle, San Fransisco, Austin, Triangle Park, Boston, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, etc.  Is the balance we offer competitive, bring in the talent desired that also respects the heritage of Hawaii.  Since there is a lack of talent, perhaps the offer is competitively unrealistic?  I would ask the kama'ania, who have returned and have a cultural desire to return, perceptions of compensation. 

 

Just some first thoughts on what I hope is a constructive conversation.  There is sure promise here to turn Hawaii into a technology hub.

 

Jason


Comment by Daniel Leuck on April 11, 2011 at 11:45pm

You are certainly correct in asserting that Waikiki has a huge carbon footprint which presents some challenges in terms of marketing Hawaii as a mecca for green tech.

I mean Lanai is basically our version of Paradise Island, Bahamas.

Hopefully they will learn to manage the land before they lose all their topsoil and end up like Rapa Nui.

Comment by Brian on April 11, 2011 at 11:20pm

@Jason/Dan.

 

Definitely.. but still the status quo is that we are a very consumerist + urban society. I agree potential is here.. some small steps.. but as long as we have a "core" of our economy as things like Waikiki - the McDonalds of vacation destinations - we're kinda screwed :) It's a lot better once you get out of town + the neighbour islands - though not perfect there either. I mean Lanai is basically our version of Paradise Island, Bahamas.

Comment by Jason on April 11, 2011 at 1:22pm

The next trick is to get that geothermal energy to the neighboring islands.  I guess power lines on the ocean floor would be the least costly but have logistical and political issues.

 

You could have carbon nanotube barges to store and transport hydrogen.  But, since the islands are so close and you could supply daily shipments you could probably get away with compressing hydrogen without that much loss.

 

I suppose you could also "beam" energy from mountain peak to peak.  That sounds like a political and safety nightmare though!  I just talked to an old colleague who said he is starting work on a project, in the bay area, to beam solar energy from space to ground based receivers.  Wow!  Not just in Popular Mechanics anymore. 

Comment by Daniel Leuck on April 11, 2011 at 10:39am

While friends and old colleagues back on the mainland, ones who came from Hawaii and those from elsewhere, absolutely love Hawaii, none of them consider moving here.  I hear all kinds of mythes about it, some categorically false, some true, some with a little truth.

Exactly. A good part of that is a marketing problem, but some of it is of course legitimate. For many people their image of Hawaii froze 20 years ago when they left. I've had numerous people tell me, "because there are no technology companies in Hawaii." They are generally shocked when I start enumerating them.

 

@Jason - re: food and energy independence

I agree - I think the math works for food, or at least most of it. The Big Island is the key for both food and energy. They already get 1/3 of their power (and soon, more) from geothermal. Unlike solar and wind its a firm source of significant energy. If we could feed that energy along with the intermittent renewables (wind and solar) into a smart grid with significant storage capacity we could get off of fossils for everything except planes. Hopefully algae biofuel will get to the point where we can make a dent in jet fuel. Go Kuehnle!

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