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 Chris Hand on January 10, 2009 at 2:04pm
Suppose you are hired into Microsoft. You are completely unaware, but they have been developing facial recognition software and within six months of you starting at MS, they release software that directly competes with your former employer.

Did you just violate the terms of the non-compete?

Your company lays you off, and the only work you can find is for your competitor making facial recognition software. You kids are hungry, your mortgage is due.

Are you going to violate the non-compete and feed your family?

You are a specialist, and your employer knows this. They don't give you pay raises or promotions for 5 years, and a competitor offers you a salary that is more in line with the current industry levels.

Are you going to quit and go work for the competitor?

You are extremely innovative, but your current employer isn't interested. Another company wants to let you head up a new product where you can make your ideas a reality.

Are you going to stay or go?

The company you worked for failed. Everyone is gone, but the owner is keeping the shell of the company around in hopes to revive the effort.

Does your non-compete still apply?

These are all rhetorical questions, I’m not a lawyer, I’ve never even played one on TV. These just seem like very realistic possibilities that make a non-compete agreement seem sketchy, at best.
Comment by Laurence A. Lee on January 10, 2009 at 11:16am
"Keeping it local" is all fine and dandy, but that mentality can only take you so far. No dig against the locals (hey, I'm born and raised here) - just an observation.

Talent Density
I think the issue of Talent Density plays a significant role, and is something that has been largely overlooked in this thread.

Let's try a fishing analogy: Would you spend your day and fuel in the hopes of catching 1 or 2 Trophy Fish to make the trip worthwhile, or would you spend your day at a "Known Good Fishing Spot", where you know you can find a steady stream decently-sized fish to make the trip worthwhile?

Yes, of course we all want to catch the Trophy Fish -- or Talented Superstars, if we move away from that analogy.

Bang For The Buck
When I (personally) say Hawaii lacks talent, I'm not suggesting that Hawaii People are talentless. I'm saying that Hawaii doesn't have enough people trained in the requested skillsets. Furthermore, especially in Startup Environments, the initial members must wear multiple hats to get the job done.

It's fine and dandy if you're a Rock-Star Java Guru; but I just can't afford to use you in the Startup Phase if you can't also set up Subversion, Trac, Nginx, and GlassFish on an Amazon EC2 machine, along with a Nightly-Scheduled full database and Subversion backups to Amazon S3.

If I'm bootstrapping a Tech Startup (which I am, btw), I need to get as much done with as few people as possible. Not only because it saves Salary Expenses, but because I've always had more efficient results with smaller teams of Highly Capable people.

Wherever possible, I'd prefer to hire people who can simply hit the ground running.

While I'd happily take on a few people with that passionate "Fire in their Belly", truth be told, I just can't afford to train people on my own dime. I'm working against the clock, so it's more effective for me to focus on my product and outsource these kinds of menial tasks to the Mainland.

Once the business actually generates a Positive Cashflow, I'll look at training up a few people from the local talent pool for the long-term. Until then, I really need to control the burn rate.

I doubt my overall sentiments would change much even if I had 221 VC funding, as I always run a very tight ship on all projects I lead. Must be the pake blood in me. ;-)
Comment by Daniel Leuck on January 10, 2009 at 10:14am
BTW - GB, you know I am a fan of your work and your company. I hope we grow to make the same level of contribution to our community as you have to yours. Aaron - I'm very happy we were able to retain some of the UH CSDL gang such as yourself.
Comment by Daniel Leuck on January 10, 2009 at 9:57am
Hey GB - Thank you for sharing your stories. You have clearly made a heavy multi-year investment in the Hilo community which is fantastic. Unfortunately, in many cases start-ups can't afford to nurture an engineer for years starting in high school and teach them all the requisite skills for the positions they need to fill. Its not that we are unwilling, its purely a practical consideration. I've volunteered in local high schools for years. In fact, we have an open offer to do so on our website, but this is more of a community service and something I enjoy doing than anything I will directly benefit from during the critical early years of my company's life.

We spent over six months trying to build a local team of high end Flex and Java Swing developers. The work had to be serviced locally for security reasons. We offered compensation competitive with San Francisco, advertised heavily (many here will recall our ads), took local professors out to lunch, and networked like madmen with no luck. We couldn't find people with the necessary skills and we lost two highly lucrative contracts. It is for this reason I feel confident saying it is a real issue. It has bitten me, twice, and I have a reasonable amount of experience locating people. I was also highly motivated to do so.

I'm not throwing up my hands. We have changed our focus and we are rebuilding. One of the reasons we started TechHui was to help guys like you and me find people, possibly on other islands or in corners of our own island of which we were unaware. We also hope TechHui will provide a window into all the interesting things happening locally for our best and brightest students so they consider staying. We already received one message from a student saying the site gave her hope she could find a good local job. This put a smile on my face that lasted all day.
Comment by GB Hajim on January 10, 2009 at 8:07am
Mahalo nui loa!
Comment by aaron kagawa on January 10, 2009 at 12:43am
i totally agree... talent is never enough. its all about passion. believing in what you doing, believing in your company, believing in your peers and believing in yourself. i'd take passion over talent any day. and i think thats what makes hawaii unique and potentially even more awesome. and what i was trying describe when i wrote: We need to maximize the strengths of Hawaii to create a tech industry that thrives off of our own unique culture.

hey GB, i'm totally digging what you are creating out there on the big island. you rock.
Comment by GB Hajim on January 9, 2009 at 11:44pm
There is a ton of talent here. Go to any high school. You will find a dozen or more kids that will blow your mind. Building robots in their garages, building computers in the back room, making movies in some cellar that the school didn't need anymore. Hilo High has its handful of graduates each year that go to Harvard and Stanford. There is another handful of equally talented that can't afford to go.

The key to developing and retaining that talent is keeping their minds engaged while letting the horizon of their imaginations expand.

It is easy to post a job on or some other headhunter service and find dozens of already qualified people from around the country. It is also even easier to go overseas and find those people for even cheaper, BUT if you want to retain them you are competing against all the other offers out there. You need to look in your own backyard. Born and raised in Hawaii means a lot towards retention. One of the first questions I ask my prospective interns and future employees, "Do you like living here?" and then "Why?" If they want to be close to their families, can't imagine living somewhere else, or would rather work in any job than leave their home, retention is not a problem. Creating a solid business is not necessarily putting the most talented people into a box. IMHO, I think it is more akin to building a community. Reaching out to the local school. Getting the best and brightest involved. Leaving no stone overturned. My most recent intern poked her head in our offices after doing the groundswork outside. She asked what we were doing. "Making an animated movie" She said that was her dream job. The next day she brought by her portfolio. She was computer illiterate, but has an amazing artistic ability and imagination. After 4 months of working with her she has already begun her first animated scene.

There is a lot of wisdom in the phrase "Keeping it local" and even more in "Think Globally. Act Locally."
Comment by Daniel Leuck on January 9, 2009 at 11:01pm
Haken: On the subject of non-compete, I had to sign a non-compete agreement that would prevent me from writing a particular type of software for two years should I quit or be fired.
Check with your attorney, but I think your employer would have a hard time enforcing a broad non-compete agreement in Hawaii. Our state has specific legislation that requires the agreement to be reasonable and necessary. Historically courts have looked unfavorably on such agreements, especially those that are broadly scoped.
Comment by Daniel Leuck on January 2, 2009 at 3:20pm
Comment If I were to land in Hawaii tomorrow with the expectation of finding a 100K+/year salaried position within one week, what technical skill(s) would be the most likely to get me that job? This includes accounting for the current economic conditions.
In Hawaii you would probably need to find a CxO (CTO, CEO) type job to make that amount in salary, but I know many contractors that make $100K+. For technical skills I would say enterprise Java (Hibernate, Spring, GWT, etc.), enterprise .NET or Flex. In terms of contracts I would look at the big defense contractors, hospitals and banks.
Comment by John on January 2, 2009 at 1:21pm
Yes, such non-competes are fairly barbaric and generally laughable in most parts of the country. They may also be unenforcable in Hawaii. The problem is simply the threat of a lawsuit can make other employers not want to hire him as well as make him scared of the costs of defending himself. It's minimally a FUD strategy.


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