Hawaiʻi's Technology Community

The Great 2009-2010 Hawaii Brain Drain

brain drain

At recent developer events, including today's UX Design Meetup, the effect of the great 2009-2010 Hawaii brain drain was readily apparent. Seth Ladd, Anthony Eden, Sam Joseph, Truman Leung, Ken Mayer, David Neely, Sherwin Gao, Seri Lee, Gabe Morris, Alex Salkever, Laurence Lee, Ken Berkun...this is just a handful of quality people I know personally. The list of talented tech industry people who have left or will soon be leaving over this very short period of time is truly depressing. Hawaii has experienced a series of brain drains over the past two decades, the most recent being in 2003/2004, but this is the worst I've seen by a long shot.

As Hawaii tech companies (largely 221 funded) collapse, the engineers and designers who were working for them aren't looking locally for new jobs. They are leaving our state, and it won't be easy to get them back. If we can't retain talented developers and creative personalities in our state the innovation economy is in serious trouble (not that this is news to anyone in the industry.) Any tech business owner who has recruited from the mainland or internationally knows its hard to relocate people to Hawaii. Many people view Hawaii as a vacation spot, but not a serious place for technology innovation. Employers have a hard time with questions such as, "I have three children. How is the public school system?" or "Will I be able to afford a house?" For younger professionals from the Bay Area or East Coast who don't have connections to Hawaii it can be hard to settle socially. Many relocations, which can be very expensive, fail in the first year.

I'm an optimistic person by nature. I believe we can still build an innovation economy in Hawaii, but we need to learn from our mistakes, identify our strengths, apply a healthy dose of pragmatism and a whole lot of elbow grease. Aside from fixing our horribly broken public education system, there isn't a lot the government can do to solve this problem for us. Its up to entrepreneurs and tech business leaders to come up with a plan for sustainable growth of a uniquely Hawaiian innovation economy.

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Comment by Kevin Lohman on October 7, 2010 at 6:21am
I recently left Hawaii for Silicon valley. I was doing okay with independent iPhone development ( and still regularly get calls from clients and relationships that I had established there (a business that I happily send to Dan) :) Part of the worry was that there wasn't much of a backup plan for me in Hawaii. As a mobile software developer there were little (or no) real regular job positions. The opportunities are there, but it could be thick and thin, and hard to find good support. I miss the Hawaii Tech community (those that are there are very passionate and innovative), but the opportunities here now that I've moved back to the mainland are much better. Which is a shame... it's starting to get chilly :)
Comment by Johnson Choi on October 6, 2010 at 10:52am
Sam: I have tried to explain to all businesses in Hawaii for the last 15 years, tech or non-tech businesses, they could compete like hell in Hawaii. But once they go outside the Hawaii shorelines, they better learn to collaborate to increase the financial size/strength and expertise in order to compete and survive.

The biggest companies in Hawaii is very very very small when they venture to the mainland USA and/or Asia.

Why is it not happening? This is not the place and medium to discover or discuss.
Comment by Sam Craig on October 6, 2010 at 9:34am
Hi Johnson:

I agree completely with the energy level you're describing in some other major cities (Hong Kong specifically) - I think that applies to many technology hubs on the mainland as well. What I'm wondering is where that exists in Hawai'i - and if it doesn't exist, how we might kick-start it. Technology people getting together (executives, developers, and anyone else) and networking - between companies, across roles, and amongst different industries - is something that I find valuable, but haven't found much of in Honolulu.

As an aside, the company I'm working for is not government/military - in fact, it is self/cash-funded and US-based.

The company I work for now
Comment by Daniel Leuck on October 5, 2010 at 1:18am
A few quick thoughts from a guy who is coming off of a long coding binge at 12:30am. Forgive my lack of eloquence.

I think its important to be realistic in this discussion and make sure we are making fair comparisons. In every country in which I've worked - the US, Japan, Russia, UK, etc. cities with less than 1M people do not have the same salaries as cities with 5M+ people. There are many reasons for this. We can explore them or just accept that this is the case and move on. If salary is your sole motivation then you should probably move to the valley, NY or London.

Also, I commonly hear that, "There are no good tech jobs in Hawaii." I have to call people on this. The job forum is full of job openings. There are numerous interesting tech companies in Hawaii. The problem is a lack of qualified people with experience in the areas they require. If you are at the top of your game in iOS, GWT, RoR, Flex, Silverlight or any number of other popular technologies you can get a job in Hawaii. I know this for a fact because we often have open positions that are heavily advertised and remain open for months before we have to start looking on the mainland. The same is true for many other Hawaii companies. If you are content with being OK at what you do and haven't picked up a new technology in ten years then you may have a hard time. Small companies with exciting work can't afford people who are OK, and there aren't many tech giants in Hawaii that can absorb the cost of people who are taking their time on the road to excellence.

A lot of these problems are due to our population and aren't really anyone's fault. For example, if you are looking for people with experience in finance, strong math and proficiency with WPF, Silverlight or iOS who can hit the ground running you will have a hard time. Believe me, I know :-)

Johnson Choi: I would like to find out if any of you not in the Federal or defense related fields getting private fundings for tech or bio-tech deals in Hawaii?
Hi Johnson. I can think of a number of Hawaii companies who have raised money and are not focused on government customers - Avatar Reality, Sprout, Kuehnle Agro and Green Car to name a few. There are also businesses like IP Video Market and Ikayzo raising money the old fashion way - with customers. :-) That being said, you are right to say that the majority of larger tech companies in Hawaii are dual use or focused specifically on defense.
Comment by Johnson Choi on October 4, 2010 at 5:47pm
Sam :re creating an engaging group - not sure if you have sat with a group of Tech or Bio-tech people in
Shanghai, Chengdu and Hong Kong - I see high energy level probably for some or all of the following reasons 1) there is a lot going on to talk about 2) a lot of time when we sit down, we are actually talking about if they know good people to refer to for hiring as business is expanding 3) flush with cash and fresh capital looking for deals.

When I went to San Jose and Palo Alto in the late 1990 and early 2000 until right after the bust, those energy were equal or more than those in Asia. It has since dropped a lot. But I am seeing new money coming in again during last 18 months or so looking for deals. Those I came across, the money are coming through primary from Asia.

I have tried to convince some of those money to come to Hawaii with no success at all.

I would like to find out if any of you not in the Federal or defense related fields getting private fundings for tech or bio-tech deals in Hawaii?
Comment by Sam Craig on October 4, 2010 at 5:01pm
Non-responsive hiring managers is a problem I can't really comment on; for my particular group, I'll be doing all the hiring directly. Perhaps there are less "big" tech companies here and people are sharing roles rather than having a dedicated recruiter?

The salary gap is certainly a detractor when attracting top talent. I'm a firm believer that (at least where highly intellectual jobs are concerned) pay is one of many factors that will draw excellent people, and not always at the top of the list. Creativity and challenge, in my experience, play a huge role in attracting good people. What feels different about Honolulu to me (when compared Seattle or San Francisco or even Boston) is that it doesn't *feel* high-tech.

I'm new, and perhaps haven't found the right networking opportunities yet, but find that community engagement in technology creates an environment that draws good people. When you can sit at a coffee shop and randomly overhear software engineers debating error handling philosophies ... well, that's a town that top talent will come to.

Does that exist? If not, can we create it?
Comment by Johnson Choi on October 4, 2010 at 3:09pm
Sam: since I travel between San Jose and Alto Alto every month, these are some of the complaints , not necessary in the same orders.

Quality of School

Pay Scale

Those need to travel between USA and Asia, lack of direct flights in Hawaii

Availability of capital - much more private capital (plenty from Asia) verses Hawaii tech project mostly came from federal funding

Career Choices

Tax wise, California and Hawaii are on the same boat, but the 40%+ higher pay in Palo Alto and San Jose do make it up.
Comment by Sam Craig on October 4, 2010 at 11:17am
I recently transplanted from the mainland to take an executive role at a local tech company running a software development team. Even in the short time I've been here, I've noticed that retaining and attracting talent is a challenge. Despite all that Hawai'i has to offer, it seems difficult to compete with the breadth of other tech options in major mainland cities. Is anyone finding that they've been successful in creating an environment that not just keeps high-performing local talent here, but also brings talent here from the mainland?
Comment by Sean Fox on October 4, 2010 at 9:22am
As a mainland transplant lucky enough to marry a local girls and to find a job in Hawaii I am one of the few and lucky people to find a job to move me "Home". I spent 15+ years in the Silicon Valley and was just in the right place at the right time to have Sun move me here. I know at least 30 people on the mainland who would move home if they could find a job. They're typically willing to take a pay cut, like I did, to move home.

Since moving to Hawaii I have been very involved in my kids public school. As my kids have gotten older and are not in High School I am shocked at how many of them "know" as Freshmen in High School that they'll have to leave Hawaii to get good jobs.

My point is that we, as business owners, managers and tech people we need to be move active in keeping our top High Schools students in Hawaii. They're the ones that will build the companies that will build the technology foundation. They'll then bring friends "home" to help them build new companies.
Comment by Johnson Choi on September 16, 2010 at 4:48am
ThinkTech Hawaii: Asia in Review - talk about Hong Kong Advantages on Camera interview.

Covered subjects including UH TIM School, InvestHK, Film Industry, FDI, U. S. Department of Commerce, Hawaii Pacific Export Council (HPEC) and the Advantages of Hong Kong and using Hong Kong as launch pad into China and other Asian economies.

The interview was done by Jay Fidell of ThinkTech Hawaii.

Johnson Choi on Hong Kong investments with Hawaii filmmakers - Asia in Review host Jay Fidell in a discussion with Johnson Choi, President of the Hong Kong.China.Hawaii Chamber of Commerce on his recent (July 2010) trip to Shanghai and Hong Kong and on Hong Kong investments with Hawaii filmmakers or download video click:


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