How Badly Do You Really Need Talented Developers ?

by Damon Payne 22. January 2013 15:34

Software developers, more specifically talented software develoeprs, are unicorns according to a recent venture beat article. (0)

 I am fond of quoting the "Software is eating the world" article. Salaries, benefits, environments, and creative signing bonuses are constantly in flux as the startup communities of Boston, New York, Silicon Valley, and Seattle compete with each other and with more established companies for software development talent. Scopely went so far as to offer $11,000 wrapped in bacon as part of an over the top signing bonus/publicity stunt as they sought out the Most Interesting Engineers in the World.

I think, indeed, it would be hard to overstate the need for skilled software engineers these days. Given this urgent need it's surprising that a huge, energetic, hard-working and incredibly skilled pool of software developers is being ignored by these talent-hungry organizations. I am speaking of course about all the software developers who do not live in one of these recognized technology meccas. To be sure, startups along with established technology giants like Amazon or Microsoft are always willing to interview qualified developers from a flyover state. It is nearly always a requirement, however, that one relocate to one of the coasts. No matter what developers, housing, or Bacon costs in Seattle, you can not work remote.

It's the Collaboration, Silly!

The inability to work remotely for the most talent-starved companies has long perplexed me. I asked a friend who works at a very successful Silicon Valley startup if she could provide more perspective on this topic. She look at me, and, apparently unaware she was stating something so obvious it bordered on cosmic absurdity, she stated "Well, it's just so much easier to work together when people are co-located."

Of course it's easier. The Currents of Information that flow around the office, the impromptu water cooler conversations that lead to a breakthrough, the ability to pull the right few people into a room to whiteboard a difficult problem: these can all be marvels of productivity and problem solving. Not only is this an obvious boon to driving business value, but software developers like it! Gone are the days of the software geek in a dark room littered with pizza boxes and empty cases of Mountain Dew, we like interaction with other skilled developers and (gasp!) business stakeholders too. Yes, it's clearly better to be under the same roof, but we're talking about escalating salaries(1), offices that look like entertainment complexes, and bacon-wrapped cash.

How many trips from Kasas City to Seattle could $11,000 plus the cost of bacon(2) finance for a talented software developer? What is the conversion ratio between attractive relocation packages versus plane tickets, hotels, and food? Given ever improving technology and bandwidth, can US companies figure out how to collaborate across the country? The world? There are certainly precedents. Skype, for example, allows its engineers to live whereever they want and often features customer success stories on its blog. Vertigo has remote people in several states. My friend Steven Murawski lives in Wisconsin and just started work for Stack Exchange. These high profile companies are the exception that makes the rule look extremely odd. 

Cultural Bias?

While I can't precisely put my finger on it, there are also some Vibes of Bias I've sensed when talking to people in other areas of the country.

According to my friends in California, there appears to be no sane reason why you'd want to live in a fly over state. You must clearly value fishing and binge-drinking over technology to live in a cultural wasteland like Wisconsin, Ohio, Missouri, Indiana, or Montana. You must appreciate less than optimal weather to opt for tolerating a cold Minnesota winter every year instead of the superior climated of Sacramento. If you took technology seriously, or if it was more to you than just a way to fund your deer hunting habit, you'd move.

The fact is, there are literally millions of people living in the fly over states, many of them brilliant software developers. Some of these people may have gotten married to people with less yearning for a fast-paced lifestyle on the coast. Some of these people may have close family ties to the area, kids in school, or are anchored to a bad real estate situation. I even know people who have commited the ultimate act of apostasy: left the West Coast to return to the Midwest.


For whatever unfortunate and misguided reasons an enormous percentage of the American population cannot, or choose not, to relocate to a hot technology area on the East or West coast. Yet both attention and Venture Capital flow so much easier to these areas than to a fly-over state. Is there a shortage of Talented Software Developers, or is there a a shortage of Talented Software Developers who had the foresight to establish no roots in a flyover state?

There is a huge opportunity here for the businesses who make this work.


(0) I'm a fan of Pluralsight and not picking on them. That writeup did inspire me to write this article though.

(1) Salaries really only seem to be escalating in certain areas of the country, which I will address in a future article.

(2) Obviously over time the travel costs could start to outweigh a signing bonus. Regional salary differentials due to lower cost of living in non-coastal states likely provide enough room to negotiate a better salary for the employee and cover regular travel costs.



Could We Promote Software Developers Like Nurses?

by Damon Payne 10. January 2013 14:45

The difficulties of finding, hiring, and retaining great software developers does not end with filtering out the non programming programmers during your interview process. Any career minded individual must also be constantly thinking about the future. Am I learning enough here? Am I being recognized for what I'm contributing? Is this organization actually incenting the kind of behavior it claims to value? Do I need to try to get a different title that represents my contributions in order to sell myself to my next employer?

Does your organization have a universal and transparent system for evaluating title changes? Is it clear to you what you'd need to do in order to Level Up ? Unfortunately, it's likely not the case where you work. In fact, many people may find themselves with titles (and therefore salary ranges, recognition, and opportunities) that are unhinged from their contribution relative to other employees. Why is that slacker over there a Senior Software Engineer III while I languish as a mere Entry Level Software Grunt II. Your may not have titles, as many titles, or such boring titles, but keep reading.

My wife is a Registered Nurse. The hospital system where she works uses the odd title of 'Staging' as a rough descriptor of skill and therefore salary bands. A nurse can be from Stage 1 through Stage 5. Leveling up is done through the process appropriately called "Staging". The organization has guidelines around staging. When you are a student nurse in training you should be a Stage 1. A nurse who's recently graduated and passed the state Boards (examinations) should be a Stage 1 or 2. Once you have some work experience you will be invited to Stage again, and after a year you ought to be about a Stage 3.

The requirements for successfully Staging at each level are published and transparent. While there is some subjective evaluation: talking to people who have observed your work, etc. there are also various objective requirements, written work, and an oral interview with a small panel that evaluates your fitness for whatever Staging level you are seeking. If you successfully Stage Up, you get a merit increase outside the annual cycle and are more or less considered more of a Senior nurse (in terms of ability, not age) than people of a lesser Staging level.

This carries appeal for a lot of reasons. For one, the process seeks to be evidence based rather than purely due to putting in your time, hanging out with the right people, or job hopping to get a new title. The fact that Staging to a new level requires a significant amount of effort on the part of the nurse also resonates with me: I'm not going to promote you just because it was time. Rather than wondering how your co-worker got to Stage 4, it should be very clear to you what you'd need to do in order to get to Stage 4. If you want to.

I'm not sure what the hospital would do if a nurse tried to stage three times in the same year, but presumably a failure would be accompanied by strong evidence of what was lacking.

In software development, one sought-after title by some is "Software Architect"; to some this is distinct from and superior to being a mere Developer. I happen to agree quite a bit with Joe Duffy on the role of the Software Architect, but in my own way I try to also provide an objective path to anyone who approaches me and says "I'd like to become more of an Architect..." There are things I think you should understand. There are seminal works I think you probably ought to have read. Ultimately, though, in our field, you become a Software Architect by hanging a sign outside your door that says "Damon Payne: Software Architect". (You may want to consider replacing my name with yours) You may succeed, you may fail, but if you're paying attention and you're open to thinking about why you've failed you will learn a lot. You'll keep those things in mind and ask better questions next time. One day you'll leave work and think to yourself "Hey, I really am a Software Architect".  Does "fake it till you make it" work sometimes?

In our world of fakers, pretenders, non-programming programmers, and job-hopping, could we promote software developers more like nurses?



Personal | Technical Community | Career

Can Windows Phone Survive?

by Damon Payne 3. January 2013 21:08

I recently traded in my Samsung Focus for a shiny new Nokia Lumia 920. I like the hardware very much, and generally Windows Phone 8 is nice. I appear to be among those afflicted with what appears to be a poor Bluetooth stack, but I’m hoping that gets patched soon so I’m willing to suspend judgment on that facet.

I continue to be frustrated by the adoption and market perception of Windows Phone. I mean, really frustrated.Nest

My wife got me a Nest learning thermostat for Christmas. Not only does this thing tickle my interest in machine learning but it’s wicked useful in its own right. One selling point, for her, was that “we” could control it remotely. Except the nest app is available for iPhone and Android only. Not only this, but IE10 is the black sheep of the mobile browser world and no amount of rotating or failed resizing makes the mobile version usable on my WP8.

Of course it’s not just Nest. Fitocracy, Pinterest, my bank, and nearly everything else I have interest in is an exclusive club where membership is available only to those who know the secret handshake of the Ancient Order of the Not-Microsofts. Of course it would be great if all these folks started making Windows Phone apps, but why should they? Android continues to sell one trillion phones per millisecond and the iPhone is still considered cool. I can’t even claim to be a part of the solution myself. I am involved in a side project/startup with some folks right now, and the question of a Windows Phone app has never come up. Although it’s entirely my decision and my time I simply cannot justify it. Maybe when absolutely everything else is done I’ll circle back and build one for the home team, but when I put my Business Owner hat on it’s easy to see why the decision to not build a Windows Phone app is so easy.

Microsoft has some of the smartest people in the world working for it. I have to wonder, though, if any of them are in marketing? I’m tired of not being able to participate in Mobile because I bet on the wrong platform. I’ve had well-meaning Microsoft folks ask me which apps are missing: the intent is to contact these companies and try to educate them on the opportunity. Sadly this merely kicks the can down the road a little. When the next new mobile app hotness comes out the overwhelming likelihood is that it will come to Windows Phone last, if at all.

Until it is a must that companies also release their software for Windows Phone, they won’t, and their users will feel the sting of second class citizenship.  Microsoft needs to Fix It, or lose mobile entirely.


Technical Community | Personal | Windows Phone

About the author

Damon Payne is a Microsoft MVP specializing in Smart Client solution architecture. 

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