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.

Shortage?

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.

Footnotes:

(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.

 

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Comments (5) -

Dan
Dan United States
1/23/2013 2:12:43 PM #

Damon,
  Great post. Maybe I can relate because I'm living in a flyover state and working remotely. I've had many friends and old coworkers ask me what it is like to work remotely. My answer is always that I love it. I don't feel any less part of the team than somebody who isn't remote. With that said, I think that company culture plays a huge roll. Since several people work remotely where I work it has become something that we all live with and embrace. Every project I've been on has included people from the main office, a remote office, and usually up to two remote developers. Not to mention clients across several time zones. The key for this to work well is to get people working together that are motivated and passionate. I'm thankful to be working for a company that is filled with so many people like this.

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Eric Smasal
Eric Smasal United States
1/24/2013 9:33:12 AM #

Just to make some point on the remote work.  I have been working remote for about 10 months now and I thoroughly enjoy it.  We communicate using Skype, the good ol' telephone, instant message, and GoToMeeting.  So far I have not run into a scenario where the actual face-to-face meeting and/or collaboration session has been hampered in any way.  I don't feel my need for information from other team members has been hampered in any way.  This is just the way we work.

The perplexing piece of this “no remote work” puzzle is the fact that in large and small offices, folks are really busy these days.  They don’t want too many interruptions.  I would point to the “office culture” case of a large company that I had contracted with several years ago.  While someone you needed to get answers from may be a cube row or two away from you, the accepted protocol was to either call that person on your phone or instant message them.  A personal visit or request for someone to visit you was highly frowned upon.  I don’t see how remote work would not thrive in this setting.  Also, when being on-site in a situation like this, you are even further hampered.  We did not have Skype or GoToMeeting (lync services were not even around then) or the tools to really make the non-face-to-face collaboration as painless as possible.

I don’t know if it because I am getting older but the “because we have always done it this way” mentality is really wearing on me.

Cheers!

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Dan
Dan United States
1/24/2013 9:47:51 AM #

Damon,
  Great post. Maybe I can relate because I'm living in a flyover state and working remotely. I've had many friends and old coworkers ask me what it is like to work remotely. My answer is always that I love it. I don't feel any less part of the team than somebody who isn't remote. With that said, I think that company culture plays a huge roll. Since several people work remotely where I work it has become something that we all live with and embrace. Every project I've been on has included people from the main office, a remote office, and usually up to two remote developers. Not to mention clients across several time zones. The key for this to work well is to get people working together that are motivated and passionate. I'm thankful to be working for a company that is filled with so many people like this.

Reply

Josh Heitzman
Josh Heitzman United States
1/26/2013 7:28:26 PM #

100% agree Damon.  Beyond just having ties that may keep folks in the mid-west, there is the issue of the cost of living difference.  Even just between Seattle and San Francisco the cost of housing is considerably higher and there are state income taxes taking a big whack right off the top of salary to the point that $100k in the Seattle area provides a better standard of living than $120k in San Francisco, and I've seen comment on "shortage of engineer" articles that its better to make $80k in Minneapolis then $120k in San Francisco.  Split the difference and everyone wins.  Even if some travel is needed that additional cost should be weighed against the company saving money by not having to provide fulltime office space and parking for employees who work from home.

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Paul
Paul United States
1/26/2013 8:39:08 PM #

So as a native Californian who spent most of his career working on the San Francisco peninsula, back in 2003 (dot com bust) relocated to Wisconsin to work as a developer, I've seen both sides.  Don't regret the move to Wisconsin, much better to raise kids and for a better quality of life. I think that the coasts are missing out on quality software developers in us flyover states. I work with some of the smartest developers that I have ever worked with. As for the remote work, the tools are there so that even when we are in the office, we IM and email enough that sometimes we don't even notice when someone is working from home. My only question is how did you get those remote jobs? I keep running into that mentality that you need to be there to be effective and that a local candidate will come along. So if you know of a company that needs a remote developer from Wisconsin...  

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

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