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 Daniel Leuck on September 13, 2010 at 5:31pm
Prof. Johnson is world class (grid computing, collaborative computing, AI, etc.) and his students, including Aaron, are doing well at places like Referentia. We just need many, many more of them.
Comment by aaron kagawa on September 13, 2010 at 4:59pm
@Boris past "Dr. Johnson ICS 413 Software Engineering" students they already have started.
Comment by Boris Ning on September 13, 2010 at 4:52pm
I notice that the University of Hawaii ICS 413 class - Software Engineering is starting again.

Even though I am a pessimistic person by nature, I have hope that at the very minimum, some of these students will become a foundation of what will be needed to create sustainable growth in technology for Hawaii's economy.
Comment by Daniel Leuck on September 13, 2010 at 4:24pm
@Johnson Choi - No problem. You and Ray have a great historical perspective on Hawaii that I lack (anything before 95), so your input is always appreciated.
Comment by Johnson Choi on September 13, 2010 at 4:21pm
Daniel - I will stick to the original topics, sorry for stepping outside the lines.
Comment by Daniel Leuck on September 13, 2010 at 4:17pm
@Johnson Choi - Thank you for sharing. Hong Kong's mass transit system certainly is impressive, as is Tokyo's. They are marvels of modern engineering. I agree with John that being attached to China gives HK a distinct advantage in terms of capital :-)

@John - I agree that although a lot of interesting and useful information has been shared, this has devolved into something of a beatdown on Hawaii, which was certainly not my intent. There are already sprouts starting to pop up in the aftermath of the 2009 / early 2010 bloodbath. The point of my post was that the new comers (and there are some, mostly in energy along with a few web startups) and those of us who survived and are rebuilding will have a hard time finding the type of highly skilled engineers we need. We will have to lure back some of those we've lost, use Hawaii's appeal to bring in skilled people from outside, and hopefully begin on the arduous process of fixing our education system.
Comment by Johnson Choi on September 13, 2010 at 4:12pm
In Hawaii, The Fed paid less than 1/4 of the US$6 Mass Transit Cost and taxpayer paid the rest. Worst our children will assume the 10s of millions of loss indefinitely.

In Hong Kong, the Mass Transit Operator was given the development rights of most of the Mass Transit stations in exchange to build the Mass Transit FREE to the taxpayer.

That is the big difference of Free Enterprise allowing the private sector to pick up the cost and assuming most of the business risks verses Government funded projects in Hawaii.
Comment by John on September 13, 2010 at 3:50pm
Johnson, how is this applicable or comparable to the situation in Hawaii? If Hawaii was physically next to the world's fastest growing country/economy, I am sure money spending and money would be flowing like water.

This thread seems to be devolving into a beatdown on Hawaii.
Comment by Johnson Choi on September 13, 2010 at 3:41pm
I thought to share with you a video on the Mass Transit System in Hong Kong. Hong Kong has already spent more than US$50 billion during the last 20 years. It will spend another US$6 billion more in the next 5 years for a new high speed train network connecting to the 1.5 million km of rail network in China. The high speed train travel at the speed of 350km/hour.

If you are interested, I can show you another 7 projects costing US$40 billion. It is for your asking and I love to share it with you.

All these projects were built or going to be built WITHOUT increasing any tax for the taxpayers in Hong Kong

Click on the following link to view the Video - this segment covers only the the largest Mass Transit Network in the world in Hong Kong with a land mass smaller than the Island of Kauai. While the video is in Chinese, please enjoy the video, the video itself tells the whole story

Hope you will enjoy it.
Comment by Johnson Choi on September 12, 2010 at 4:12pm
John, yes you are right. I think the key is each has to make his or her own individual decision.

I will give you 2 more examples.

In the area of consulting, most firm will not have all the experts staff at a fixed location waiting for the job to come in. When the job comes in, they will pull experts from various firms' location to assemble a team to go to the job site whether it is inside or outside of the USA.

If you are an executive in Hong Kong, you are expected to travel a lot and in most cases return home only during the weekends. In other words, the job description involved a lot of traveling. If you will not accept that, don't expect to land a job.

Since Hawaii is part of the USA, each has the option, if they feel Hawaii is not right for him or her, just pack up and go to the other 49 States. Best if he or she will venture out to Asia, while the challenges are different but opportunities bountiful.

More than 200,000 of our brightest and smartest citizen of Hawaii left during the last 2 decades. I have a chance to talk to 100s of them during the same time period, majority of them were glad they made the move with no regrets at all.

If Hawaii has decided to continue to be a welfare State, its citizen has the choice not to be part of it. It is really up of each of us to make our own decision.


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