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« The Adjacent Possible | Main | The year ahead: 2011 »

250 Developers

Back in the 60’s, JFK make a bold proclimation that we were going to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade.  The details of exactly how this was going to happen were a bit sketchy, but having a big hairy audacious goal galvanized the innovation community into achieving something spectacular. 

In today’s world, one of the bottlenecks we have to innovation is the lack of software development talent.  This is particularly acute in New York City, where you have several industries undergoing serious disruption, a critical mass of creativity from the cross pollination of ideas, and lots of capital.  It’s not so much that we have a shortage of talent as much as we have an overabundance of opportunities for innovation.

There have been some pretty good grass roots efforts at creating more development talent in the community—but they’ve been on smaller scales and heavily reliant on the volunteer efforts of a small number of dedicated people.  I’ve heard a lot of ideas floating around from different people trying to solve this problem—but haven’t seen any real movement.  What I’d like to figure out is how we can create a much more sustainable and much more robust pipeline of developers into the NYC innovation community and I’d like to propose a lofty goal to inspire some solutions:

Let’s add 250 new developers—roughly a little more than one at every new venture backed startup this year—to the startup workforce this year.

I like starting with the big goal, because it then naturally leads to the most critical questions:

  • Are we talking about educating new developers?
  • Are we moving them from other workforces?
  • Are we moving them from other cities?

My sense is that it would be most interesting and most effective over the long term to think about educating new developers.  Bringing skilled developers in from other cities or moving them over from banks is also helpful, but I think it’s the kind of thing that skilled recruiters can also do a good job of.  Plus, my fear is that there are barriers in those areas that may be difficult to scale—namely salary and lifestyle.  If you’ve already got someone that optimized for making the most annual salary, joining a startup might be a difficult sell.  Even if that’s not what they were going for, if they’re already on that track, it might be hard to get them to delever their life.  Furthermore, if you have a developer who lives in Wisconsen, I really don’t want to get stuck explaning to them why they can’t have two spare bedrooms at a reasonable cost in the West Village. 

Not only that, but addressing the existing developer pool doesn’t really solve NYC’s most major human capital barrier to innovation—that it’s too easily to wind up mindlessly tracked into being an accountant with a CPA in a NYC school than it is to wind up a moble app developer.  I see it all too often—that if you don’t really know what you want to do, the default tracks that have the most suction pressure aimed at warm bodies are the least innovative fields.  We send scores of college kids who have no clue what they want to do into dead-end jobs.  At least if we empowered them with tools to compete in the most dynamic and growing fields, they’d have a greater chance of finding their niche.  When you live in a world on the verge of a smart device in every pocket and a tablet in every home, you’re doing young people a disservice to train them all to account for and pass dollars around in financial jobs instead of actually pushing the envelope in the innovation world. 

I also suspect that if you exposed young people early to small teams of people trying to chance the world through technology, integrating them into the social graph of the innovation community, they’ll be more resistant to hedge fund job offers down the line.  I’d bet anything that fewer students that participate in hackNY—will wind up in finance jobs relative to their computer science peers who just follow existing recruiting tracks. 

So where to start?  Here are a few key to do’s:

  • Identify what’s possible: How many actual hours of learning, and with what resources, would it take to get a developer up to speed to be usable as an entry level employee?
  • Find the target market: I think I’d like to go after computer science and MIS grads who have prior inclination towards technology, but haven’t yet gained enough applied training to be usable to a startup—taking someone from a few school JAVA projects or maybe even nothing more than IT management courses to Ruby proficiency.
  • Create a model for learning that is both effective and economically efficient.
  • Try not to reinvent the wheel—use the learnings from existing programs and try to leverage the work of those who have already attempted solutions to this problem. 
  • Find a small group of technical advisors to oversee syllabus creation, program structure, etc.

I may not be technical myself—but after working with Jean Barmash on CTO School, I’ve learned a lot about finding the right technical people and enabling successful education by and for the more technically inclined innovation community.  If you’re interested in helping out, or have ideas around this, let me know. 

And yes, I’ve heard of the NYCEDC’s initiative to develop a new engineering and applied sciences campus.  They’re taking answers to an RFP from the very institutions that have failed to educate enough technical innovators in the first place—and then they’re going to stick them in a big building somewhere.  I figure by the time the NYCEDC gets through just the vendor selection process, we’ll already have 2500 new fingers pounding away usable code.  That’s the lesson the city needs to learn from programs like hackNY.  If you take a small group of the right people with limited financial resources, they can accomplish a lot more without a lot of structure than you can through an official government programs. 

Speaking of hackNY, you might as whether or not what I’m trying to do here overlaps or relates to what Hilary, Chris, and Evan are doing.  To me, I’m trying to increase the number of people in the top of the funnel—to get more students to switch from being book publishers to mobile developers and from accountants to Rubyists.  hackNY takes the best of the students that have already made decision and connects them to the startup community for employment opportunities—bolstered by educational events.  This is absolutely critical—and if I’m successful, I’d like to flood hackNY with applicants next summer.

At the same time, I’ve already promised the hackNY founders that I would help them get the necessary funding and resources to become a more sustainable entity.  If folks like the NYCEDC have access to dollars aimed at growing the tech base of the city, they absolutely need to be funding programs like hackNY and even more importantly, getting out of their way.  It’s really important that the key institutions surrounding our community—the VCs, the big tech companies, the government, etc.—get behind the efforts that are native to the community itself, as opposed to recreating wheels.

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