Hawaiʻi's Technology Community

In Dave Takaki's forum post Action Committee for Threatened Hi Tech Tax Credits John raised an excellent point, "But maybe the issue is: Hawaii has insufficient tech talent so we are simply throwing money at the wrong problem." This is definitely a serious issue for a number of reasons.

1) Hawaii's top graduates often leave to take jobs on the mainland. There is a perception that there are no good tech jobs in Hawaii. I once had a conversation with a student at UH lamenting the fact he had to leave the state to find a good job doing Flex/Flash work on the mainland. At the time I knew four local companies desperate for Flex developers, Ikayzo being one of them! He never thought to look locally.
2) Its surprisingly difficult to get mainland talent to relocate to Hawaii. There are exceptions, but I've had several candidates flirt with the idea for months, waste inordinate amounts of my time and chicken out at the last minute. This is especially true for people with families.
3) Its hard to retain talent once they are here if they have no connection to the island. The exceptions are usually young, unattached people with a healthy sense of adventure and those with a significant other in the state. My attorney has advised me against asking candidates "Are you a young unattached person with a healthy sense of adventure?" :-)

A few years ago Sandi and I joked that HTDC should start a dating agency for techies that relocate. For some reason she never ended up taking the idea to her boss...

Hau’oli Lanui! I hope everyone is having a fantastic holiday season!

Ikayzo - Design • Build • Localize | Web • Desktop • Mobile

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Comment by John Hardin on February 11, 2010 at 3:56pm
The pay for software engineers in Hawaii is really abysmal because of the lack of demand compared to supply. Convincing companies employing significant numbers of developers to relocate to Hawaii, or even open a dev center here, is pretty much impossible. I've been connected to Hawaii since I spent a year at UH Manoa in 1971/72 and married a local girl, but I worked in California until moving to Maui in 2007. I can attest to the prevalent mainland attitude that Hawaii is a play land, not a place where people work. But until there are enough employers over here to have to start bidding up the salaries of local developers, you will have to go to the mainland to get a decent salary.

It seems to me that the obvious solution is to start developing companies right here. I just don't see any other way. It would make a lot of sense for the state to offer tax advantages to tech start-ups, grants or other incentives and aids to struggling new ventures. It sure doesn't make sense to just sit here and depend on tourism alone as the ag industry dries up.

Small tech ventures generally need some seed money. In my mainland experience, this is often provided by some angel funding at the very beginning. The key is knowing how to tap into that. Generally, you need someone with the right contacts. A state supported tech incubator would really help.

Hawaii seems to have a mix of experienced developers who have moved here late in their careers and local grads looking for work. Many of the senior people may be retired or semi-retired, or at least able to support themselves for a while without a salary. New grads may be able to live with parents for a while if they were working for a piece of a new company. It usually takes a few months to build a product to the point where you have something to demo to VCs or angels. Once you get some seed money, you can start paying benefits and at least a small salary.

I have to wonder if new grads would be willing to take a risk like this rather than try to get a better paying job right away but have to move to the mainland. I know from experience that you learn way more in a few months of getting a start-up off the ground than you can in several years in college.

Sorry if this sounds nuts, but I've worked for a big company on the mainland (14 years at HP) and also participated in a few start-ups, and I just don't understand why a start-up in Hawaii wouldn't work. Especially since the salary expectations are so low here. Things are tough right now, but very recently on the mainland an experienced developer could command a $100K+ salary. I spent decades checking Hawaii every few years because I was interested in moving back here, but salaries always topped out at less than half of what I could get in California.
Comment by Don Gilmore on November 11, 2009 at 9:16am
After a long and successful career in software development, I moved to Maui in 1997 due to my wife's health issues. Somehow, for almost 10 years, I managed to earn a good living by developing software from my home office. But times have changed. My wide died. Contracts have dried up. Economy has collapsed. Before I leave Hawaii and return to the mainland for appropriate work, I'd like to put it out to the TechHui. I'm very experienced, I'm already here, I'm available, I understand Hawaii and the low wage situation. Email me at and let's discuss possibilities before I too give up on Hawaiian Tech.
Comment by Chris Hand on February 8, 2009 at 3:36pm
I can summarize this whole thread down to a sentence:

As a generalization, people hiring tech workers are content to hire mediocrity to keep costs down.

If it were my call, I'd repeal that tax credit and use the money to hire quality people to build out and maintain the state government computer systems.
Comment by GB Hajim on February 8, 2009 at 1:45pm
This is exactly why companies should be involved with talented youth. These young people are given an opportunity to learn and earn while helping the company grow to a point where it can sustain top-tier wages. Hopefully, the company can grow quickly enough to retain the youth it trains (which is largely the case with our company)
Comment by Laurence A. Lee on February 8, 2009 at 11:38am
I think part of the problem is that we're confusing two completely opposite ends of the Job Market.

People like Minh and John are obviously at the top of their game, and are rightfully deserving of the higher salaries they seek. They are among the minority of people in the Hawaii Job Market who I'd consider "Highly-Skilled Talent" we're seeking.

Unfortunately, Hawaii doesn't have enough challenging/rewarding opportunities to sustain such Talent. It's to the point where, when a great Top-Tier opportunity becomes available, the best Talent is either already employed elsewhere, or has already left the Islands for better opportunities.

It's a chicken/egg problem, and sadly, the scarcity of Talent is equally as low as the scarcity of Top-Tier opportunities. This is unlike the late 90's, when recruiters and head-hunters just couldn't fill positions fast enough -- which led to a rapid rise in compensation packages.

It's harsh, but the majority of Employers in Hawaii know that Locals will settle for lower pay -- as long as it's at a level that's not insultingly close to Minimum Wage. With multi-generational Families being a common part of Hawaii Culture, it's no wonder that Locals sell themselves short of what they're truly worth. They accept the low pay because they can "afford it" by living with parents. It's amazing how little you can get by on if your only major payment is for a car loan. :-)

Again, the best way out for Top-Tier employers, and Highly Skilled Talent is to network, network, network. I've yet to check out the scene at Manoa Geeks (maybe the next meetup), and have recently become impressed with the Eclipse Users Group and the .NET Users Group.

If I were to offer a Top-Tier position -- which I might in the distant future -- I certainly wouldn't do it in a local Classified Ad. I'd be perusing the Engineering Blogs of Philip Johnson's students for insightful, articulate articles, for example; and I'd be seeking out "Intelligent" side-discussions with people at a local Users' Group.
Comment by Chris Hand on February 7, 2009 at 8:35pm
As employers, are any of you surprised that the best talent is going where the pay is higher and the cost of living is lower? If I asked you to pay your own relocation expenses to take a 20% pay cut to live in an area that had a higher cost of living ... but we have a mountain view and an ocean view from your cube - what would your response be?

This thread is about finding and retaining talent in Hawaii - at least from my perspective, the problems and solutions seem clear. Am I missing something?
Comment by Laurence A. Lee on February 6, 2009 at 1:33pm
John Wang said:
I wonder though, how widespread this "island fever" really runs though. Also, for those who have tried to go to the mainland, I imagine it could be very difficult as well. I've had co-workers who have tried getting jobs back on the mainland, but were rejected due to having "worked" in Hawaii for so long (6+ years.)

Wow. Thankfully, I've never experienced that yet.

I've been very fortunate to apply for positions where the "3-Stage Interview Process" is used. The first interview (the Technical Interview) is the only way you can outshine the competition by solving a (hopefully difficult) problem in real-time. Once you're past that stage, it's just people-skills to win over the Managers (stage 2 interview) and the Owners (stage 3 interview).

In my limited experience, companies that employed the 3-Stage Interview Process were great workplaces. The techies/engineers who do the "stage 1" interview are empowered with who is allowed through the hiring process. The Managers and Owners put a lot of trust in them, and it has worked remarkably well.

In fact, I'm at a point in life where (if I had to become a Salary-Man again) I wouldn't ever consider working for a company that didn't do interviews this way. It offers a way to prove I'm worth every penny of my salary requirements; and it offers me a way to asses the skills of my future colleagues. If the interview question is too easy or feels like it "came out of a book", chances are it's a team that's not as passionate as I am. :-)

Let's not forget the though. The salary you ask for, is the how much you believe you (your skills, knowledge, etc) are worth. Of course you need to take into account the going market price of your skills and talent. But in the end, I think that it's how much you value yourself.

I couldn't agree more.
Comment by Nate Sanders on February 6, 2009 at 11:57am
...for the Culture thing. I find that there is a period of time every day that must be spent "talking story." So far, where I currently work, this averages between 2-3 hours a day...

good god...I've never worked anywhere where this was possible
Comment by Daniel Leuck on February 6, 2009 at 11:56am
John Wang: Dan, Re: Obviously living in Hawaii is part of the pitch and many consider it a significant perk. That's a pretty hard sell if you ask me. An employer trying to hire someone to live in Hawaii and not pay a comparable cost-of-living salary is basically asking the person to work 2 jobs.
The engineers and developers relocated by the companies I mentioned have competitive compensation packages (cash, equity, etc.) They are at the top of their game and can take jobs anywhere. For many of them, Hawaii was a selling point.
John Wang: Their salaries are exorbitantly high due to the facts that they are friends of their supervisors.
Having worked in a number of states and countries I can assure you, nepotism in the workplace is not unique to Hawaii.

The best way to ensure a good compensation package it to work hard to get to the top of your game and network, network, network.
Comment by GB Hajim on February 5, 2009 at 8:09am


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