Something has been irritating me.

It all started with a link to a blog post on my Twitter feed, which was drafted in reply to a public spat in our local business tabloid (see November 7 - 8).

A week later, another Tweet surfaced the same debate:

I felt compelled to weigh in. This post expands on my original argument. Hopefully, it will lay the foundations for a more constructive debate.

A question of talent.

As it stands, one side's reasoning goes something like this: "We can't retain good talent, because VC-backed startups are luring our best employees away with higher compensation and more attractive offers." The other side responds: "In a free market, retention is just as important as recruitment. Employees have every right to pursue greener pastures." To further confound the ensuing debate, throw in a false dichotomy between "service-oriented" companies and "product-oriented" tech startups, and add a false narrative about the changing nature of business in this region. What emerges is a pointless debate about the ethics of poaching talent, that neither side can possibly hope to win.

This debate is pointless because it distracts from - and obscures - the real issue: the supply of technical talent in this region is inelastic. This is what we should be talking about. Supply isn't responding to the increased price of demand, and so the highest bidder is able to corner the market. Lately, the highest bidders have been tech startups, empowered by huge sums of (borrowed) money, and motivated by a sociopathic need to return value to their stakeholders.

The situation is simple: with a more-or-less finite supply of technical talent, whoever can pay the most will win; in the short term, this will invariably be the startups with the deepest pockets. And I believe this is a bad thing.

An analogy from the past.

I'm reminded of an essay written by Wil Shipley over 3 years ago, which is every bit as relevant today, and which I urge you to read as well. He describes a rift in the software industry between "farmers" and "miners" : the former work hard every year, amass a loyal customer base, post healthy, consistent profits, and are good stewards of the land they own. The latter speculate on the value of their land, pillage every ounce of value as quickly as possible, profit immensely from later investors, cash out shortly thereafter, and leave behind a devastated crater as they move on. Tragically, in our industry, miners are more attractive than farmers.

You might be thinking that, in this analogy, the farmers are the "service-oriented" companies, and the miners are the "product-oriented" startups. This isn't necessarily the case (although sadly, there appears to be a correlation). Any company can farm, and any company can mine.

We need to farm more.

Remember that the real issue here isn't technical talent poaching. The real issue is that there's not enough talent to go around. Every tech company depends on the same talent pool, which is made up of university and community college students, newcomers to the region, and the currently employed. That's it. This is our crop to share, and we're harvesting it faster than it's growing back. If we can do something about that, the rest will fall in place of its own accord.

So how do we increase the talent pool? The same way farmers grow more crops. Just as farmers till the soil, plant seeds, and cultivate the land, our community needs to invest in our existing talent, encourage a new generation to pursue careers in our industry, and support and nurture newer cohorts as they join the ranks.

No idea where to start? Here's a list off the top of my head:

  • Internships and co-op study,
  • after-school programs,
  • summer and winter camps,
  • outreach projects,
  • workshops and curriculum development,
  • guest lectures,
  • mentorship and pen-pal programs,
  • hackathons, and conferences.

This sounds naïve and idealistic.

And you sound cynical and jaded. Here are some examples of companies and people that are already doing exactly this. I didn't even look very hard.

It's not purely the domain of so-called "service oriented" companies to invest in their people and their community -- any more than it's purely the domain of "product oriented" startups to create wealth. Let's put aside this irritating false dichotomy, and all the corollaries that fall out of it.

Some companies in this region are only interested in the harvest. Others are here for the long haul. But cultivation is everybody's responsibility.

What are you doing to till the soil?

Ari Najarian