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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 Jason on April 11, 2011 at 10:00am
Daniel: Sometimes being in Hawaii can be an advantage for recruiting top talent. We've used the lifestyle pitch when going up against larger mainland companies.

I would buy that sell, hook line and sinker!  But, that's just me.  :)  And that's true.  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.  Regardless, it's not out of peoples minds -- it is in their minds -- but, the picture is not usually pretty.  I know people from Hawaii, on the mainland, who would like nothing more than coming home to their family and friends, but, just can't stomach the job market.  But, we have all heard this before, and it's silly to dwell on it!  I'm not trying to sell anyone on it.  I love Hawaii.

 

Brian: Ironically, you could probably argue that - since living in Hawaii has a very high CO2 footprint due to so much being flown in - it's not really the green place we like to think of it. I haven't looked at any real numbers, but I'm skeptical we could even support our population on a food basis alone - not to mention transportation & other energy sources.

 

I absolutely agree with you!  Don't even get me started with all the huge gas guzzling trucks on a very very small island (I guess some people on the Big Island have a good excuse for them).  That's why I said *potential*.  Hawaii has a very natural potential to be green.  I'm excited about that challenge.  I don't agree about the food.  Especially with techniques like aquaculture, enough food can, and should be grown.  There is a lot of ranch and farm land on the Big Island.  I think if Hawaiians can solve it for them selves, they can acquire a specialization that can be exported.  It can be a way to have good jobs, which goes back to the point of this thread. 

Comment by Daniel Leuck on April 11, 2011 at 3:47am
Brian: Ironically, you could probably argue that - since living in Hawaii has a very high CO2 footprint due to so much being flown in - it's not really the green place we like to think of it. I haven't looked at any real numbers, but I'm skeptical we could even support our population on a food basis alone

True, but we fly in a lot more than is actually required. Our population density of 188.6 people per square mile is less than Ohio or Illinois. We have huge tracks of former farmland pushing up weeds and much of the farmland that is actually used is for pineapple and other export crops. Before Cook arrived hundreds of thousands of Hawaiians were completely self sustaining.

Jason: Yes, in my haste I failed to acknowledge all the great innovations going on here.  I really think the pressure sensitive concrete Oceanit has created is very cool.  Now we have to get rid of the portland cement part which is huge contributor to atmospheric CO2...My question is, whether all these companies you listed, are the exceptions to the rules, the ones that succeed despite the situation rather than because of it.

That is a very hard question to answer. I think many of these companies came about because of people born in Hawaii, some of whom were educated and/or worked elsewhere and returned, who are passionate about being able to raise their children in their home state along with enthusiastic newcomers who are inspired by Hawaii's beauty. Sometimes being in Hawaii can be an advantage for recruiting top talent. We've used the lifestyle pitch when going up against larger mainland companies.

Comment by Brian on April 11, 2011 at 2:33am

Ironically, you could probably argue that - since living in Hawaii has a very high CO2 footprint due to so much being flown in - it's not really the green place we like to think of it. I haven't looked at any real numbers, but I'm skeptical we could even support our population on a food basis alone - not to mention transportation & other energy sources.

 

That said, it's probably a good niche for business development along those lines, as, irrespective of reality, we seem to have that vibe. Also while our unemployment is low, as has been previously mentioned, wages are abysmal. I'm no economist, but I'm not sure that having n unemployment is necessarily better than n+k  - seems like some sort of per-capita living wage index would be more useful.

Comment by Jason on April 10, 2011 at 3:27pm

@Daniel, yes, in my haste I failed to acknowledge all the great innovations going on here.  I really think the pressure sensitive concrete Oceanit has created is very cool.  Now we have to get rid of the portland cement part which is huge contributor to atmospheric CO2.

 

I returned to Hawaii because, well... I have always had it in my mind that I would return, i love the ocean, the beauty, the aloha, and, I see Hawaii having great potential in green technologies, and whether I will participate or not, I would like to see the potential realized.  The potential is two fold.  The climate is perfect for developing these technologies.  You have magma, you have wind, you have sun, you have ocean plants and minerals, you have ideal growing conditions.  All these things contribute to year-round experimentation and exploration.  You also have a scientific base here from the influence of military and education, including astronomy and earth and ocean sciences.  The second part is need.  With energy prices souring, Hawaii is going to need to innovate or suffer very serious consequences.

 

But back to jobs, great challenges, and new ideas.  My question is, whether all these companies you listed, are the exceptions to the rules, the ones that succeed despite the situation rather than because of it, the Bill Clintons of Hawaii?  (Bill Clinton gave a speech about the environment in Washington in which he stated that he knows of many many great thinkers, educators and civic minded people ready to make huge differences in government but the environment there is so hostile that he fears none can enter.  He stated that he had the unique constitution to be able to fend off the hostility.)  I mean your original post emplies that there is a situation in which you can't attract senior developers right?  Maybe it's a unique challenge for software development?  But, maybe there is a cultural aspect of work, here on the islands, that needs to be addressed?   Or a perception problem?  I mean, work does come up as a subject, right away in conversation here in kind of strange, how are you managing, kind of way.  And people seem to protect their own jobs and covet others.  Ironically Hawaii has one of nations lowest unemployment rates.

 

BTW, thanks for the great forum!

Comment by Daniel Leuck on April 10, 2011 at 11:57am

@Jason Thank you for sharing Kamanu Composites' story. That is a great example of leveraging Hawaii's strengths in the creation of an innovative company. Hawaii shouldn't try to be a miniture copy of Silicon Valley. We should learn from centers of innovation like the valley and adapt it to our strengths.

Thank you also for sharing your Netscape story. I also remember those days of sleeping in the office at a hungry startup in SF. You bring up some great examples of how to attract and motivate eager young talent.

But, I don't think you can have it both ways.  I don't think you can protect your traditional community *and* have great jobs, great challenges, and new ideas.

On this point I strongly disagree. There is nothing about Hawaii's culture that is preventing Oceanit from innovating in Nanotech, Kamakura from creating best of bread products in the financial center, Green Car from innovating in tourism-focused electric car sharing, Kanu from exploring new models for social media and community betterment or Kuehnle Agro Systems from innovating in algae biofuel. There was nothing about Hawaii's culture that prevented Henk Rogers from building a technology company in Hawaii and selling it for $137 million. For many people Hawaii's beautiful environment and wonderful people provide inspiration for innovation.

Comment by Jason on April 10, 2011 at 10:48am

If you want a model company, take a look at Kamanu Composites in Kaneohe - Kailua.  The founders, and canoe builders, are all young adults.  They grew up on Kauai, left to the mainland for their education, but, they came back because of their love and passion for the water, canoeing, and Hawaii.  They have ideas and passion -- lots of it.  But, they also got together with John Puakea, an older much more experienced boat builder.  He helped these guys direct their passion with a much higher chance of success, and success is what they have.  These guys are stirring things up.  Their *first* boat, the Pueo, caught on like wild fire.  Everyone wants one.  I have one.  The waiting list to get yours built is 8-10 months, and these guys work long hours.  They are committed and dedicated and they stand by both their good work and their mistakes.  (I just took my boat in, which I bought second hand, and they did not hesitate to take care of my problems).

 

Outrigger canoe racing, in Hawaii, has been, like I said below, resistant to changes.  With their passion and success, Kamanu has been pushing changes too.  They are making new, lighter, faster, six man canoes.  There has always been a rule that canoes weigh no less the 400lbs.  They are trying to make things more fun and accessible for young folks like themselves.  In the process they are making things more fun for old farts like me.  They are succeeding and are bringing more young people to the sport.

 

Kamanu has even made a "green" boat that used resins sourced from plants in Hawaii.  Did I say they have passion?

 

Hawaii has been and is blessed with a lot of really great canoe builders, and Kamanu couldn't have succeeded without those who went before them, but, that young passion has done a lot for our sport, stirring things up, and drawing in more people.  And they are creating some jobs for other young people who want to stay on the island.

 

Comment by Jason on April 9, 2011 at 9:54pm

Daniel, I think the way the workplace culture in Hawaii is, it will always be a struggle.  You can implement plans to try to improve things but if you don't get to the core of it you will always be fighting to patch things up.  I only speak out of observation because I have yet to actually work in Hawaii.  My observations are from reading mostly job postings and from hearing people talk about work.


Hawaii is a fabulously beautiful place, with friendly people, people who are kind to each other and help each other.  One of the things that help create the amiable community is a resistance to change and an intolerance to revolution.  There is a sense of tolerance for different kinds of people but there is also a very severe response to stirring things up.


Software development has traditionally been the arena of misfits, revolutionaries, geeks, and people stirring things up.  There is a sense of pride in that.  At least this is the way it is in Silicon Valley.  Things are changing but those qualities are still there.  When I joined Netscape in the mid nineties they never said, hey, look, we have this great salary, there are good schools to take your children too, health benefits, etc...  They said, hey weirdo, come help us change the world.  We didn't even know there was money involved until Netscape went public and everything changed.  I remember the VP of HR saying, "we want people with blue hair!"  Even now when Google is recruiting, they constantly talk about time given for personal projects and all the free food.  They are selling a life style and a culture to you.  They are giving you the resources to allow you to stir things up, make cools things, and change the world.


So, most of what I see in Hawaii, just a sample of job postings, is a list of required skills, what your task will be.  Usually there is no selling at all of the job -- implying that you need the employer not the other way around.  No, hey, come work with this great team, who respects each other and tries to make a difference.  Most of the postings imply that you will not be hired because you are smart but you will be hired because of your specific skills.  Basically, you will work for us and you will do what you are told.  I think this is a difficult cultural hurdle that will have to change to attract top talent.  You may say, that those are the postings for junior engineers; we are trying to form a program to attract top developers.  And I say to that, without juniors that are excited and experimenting on their own, trying and sometimes failing, there is no exciting job for your top tier people.  They don't want to come to work where people are only doing what they are told.  They can't make a difference in that environment.  The creative energy has to be flowing.  The person with experience will know how to channel that.  Without the younger people trying and experimenting they don't know the right questions to ask someone who has more experience.


Which brings me to my main point.  You could try the bottom up approach and start from the university.  It could start from the young folks, the dreamers, the people who don't know, the people who are trying and experimenting.  One really good professor could create an environment of challenge, attracting more good students, then more good educators, and more good students, then more funding and attention.  From there you might get a lot of kids doing things but making mistakes.  That is where you will get the top tier interested.  If they can direct that tallent and create great things that will be very enticing.  But, this plan would require a revolution, and that would be a revolution of breaking down the tradition barriers in Hawaii to outsiders, and, before you try to create this revolution you have to think long and hard if that is something you want to do.  First the techies come, then the harvard MBAs, then you live on an island that you no longer recognize.


But, I don't think you can have it both ways.  I don't think you can protect your traditional community *and* have great jobs, great challenges, and new ideas.


My 2 cents.Jason

Comment by Daniel Leuck on April 7, 2011 at 10:36am

@Andy I imagine if the salaries were 68% higher we would have a lot more people in Hawaii ;-) You definitely do end up paying a paradise tax, but there are good jobs with decent salaries if you look long and hard enough. I know because we compete with our friends at Oceanit and other Hawaii tech companies for top software developers. Some of the in-demand tech specializations we see include iOS, Android, GWT, Rails, .NET (MVC for web, Silverlight/WPF for line of business), UI/UX people who know the popular scripting frameworks and HTML5. Also, because of Wiki Leaks, there has been a spike in demand for people working in information security at the dual use and defense contractors.

If you are still looking I wish you luck!

Comment by Andy Styles on April 7, 2011 at 8:45am

I don't think many developers would do that comparison... many of the best and brightest are attracted to the large technology centers on the West Coast, and North Carolina. People want to know "if I move from here to there, how does my new salary and cost of living affect my quality of life?".

But even doing that comparison, Honolulu is 68% more expensive to live in than Jacksonville FL, yet the wages are only 17% higher [salary.com]. That's a tough sell.

What I was told an average salary for a software engineer is in HNL is what we would pay a junior (fresh out of college) programmer in San Diego, and the cost of living is similar. 

But thanks for the advice. I do know quiet a few people in the islands, so its probably even easier for me than most. I think its generally harder for a company to hirer top-tier talent when the salaries are so much lower.

Comment by Daniel Leuck on April 7, 2011 at 8:14am

@Andy I agree that compensation is an issue in general but there are a few things to keep in mind. One is that you have to compare apples to apples. Most cities with a population of 900K (Honolulu metropolitan area) don't compete with cities of 5M+ in terms of average compensation for developers. A better comparison would be Honolulu to a place like Jacksonville Florida. You also have to make distinctions between the types of development jobs. While a bank in Hawaii doesn't pay development salaries anywhere near a bank in San Francisco or New York, startups (salary + equity) and research development jobs (usually for dual use companies) in Hawaii are much closer. I know many developers in Hawaii with decent salaries. The jobs are there, you just have to be qualified and work hard to find them.

Recruiters, especially those who aren't experienced, sometimes give bad advice because its a complex market. I don't say this to disparage recruiters in general (I know some good ones), but when I was younger I got a lot of bad advice from them. When I was fresh off the plane in Tokyo I went looking for a job. I went to two recruiters and both told me to give up and go home. I decided to stay and network, network, network. I ended up with the best job I ever had prior to starting Ikayzo.

Honolulu is a hard place to jump into cold turkey. Most people have to spend a few years networking, getting into the right huis and talking story with the right people before they land in a good place.

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