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 Boris Ning on April 1, 2011 at 9:10pm
I fail to see how solution B. would solve the "senior software developer" problem.
This seems to be a solution that fall under the entry level developer problem.
Is it assumed that once a so called "top student" graduates from college, he is automatically a senior software developer?

Couple of these solutions deal with more incentives. I am not familiar with the Hawaii government and technology business incentives but I recall there were at least a few over the past couple years.
Why do you think that solution A) and D) would work given that Hawaii might've tried it before (or at least I think)?

There's certainly lots of resources we can pull from that explains why Hawaii have these issue (lots of which are already on the Brain Dump thread). While it's good to have an overview of the on-going brain dump problem, there needs to be a more statistical approach to address these issues at once.
It would be also be great to see some accountability on how these proposed solution will eventually solve the problem (theoretically and statistically) in the future and perhaps a forecast of the future if Hawaii don't follow these solutions.


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