Last week, I was having the typical modern Silicon Valley conversation about how ridiculously challenging it is to find technical talent.
We covered all the typical bullet points: the best thing you could do is build those skills yourself, you’ll need to be willing to give up significant equity, you might want to offer free food, massages, and funsies at the office, etc.
One of my favorite entrepreneurs (Jason, who happens to be launching an education startup at FormativeLearning.com), piped up, laughing, and quipped…”well, what I did was start reading HTML for Babies to my 1-year-old daughter.”
“Are you joking?”
“No! I’m not!”
“Awww…yeah! That’s so awesome.”
And while I think this is hilarious, and I’m sorta kidding. I’m also not kidding. The thing is, HTML is no more complicated than math, or grammer…and we definitely teach THAT to our kids.
Most kids these days end up taking 4-8 years of foreign languages, and year-after-year of math classes, and oodles of literature and european history, etc.
But how many of our kids are given a basis, at an early age, for learning the technical skills that are so desperately coveted? We are living in the midst of this crazy employment oxymoron…we live in a country where unemployment is extremely high, while at the same time, companies are tripping all over themselves to hire people who know how to program…
Don’t believe me? Check out the graph from Indeed.com, showing the trend in job postings over the past few years. As a hint, the one that is huge and growing is “web design”, while practically no one gets a job because of their skills in “geometry”.
Now, I’m not saying we shouldn’t learn geometry and I don’t mean to pick on this skill. In fact, geometry is important to web design, as well as being a well-rounded individual.
But what I AM saying is that our children ought to be AT LEAST as skilled (and fluent) at software development technologies, like HTML, as they are at things like Geometry and Shakespeare.
So parents, if you really love your children, give them the gift of code this Christmas…and start them on a path toward fantastic job security…start them early…with books like HTML for Babies. (A more serious look at the hot skillsets forthcoming…but HTML is a good place to start).
Yes, your children (along with everyone else) may think you are extremely strange (right now), but they will thank you in 2035 when they’re making plus salary…while coding up apps for your wall-mounted touch screen tablet television.
When I decided to study Computer Science at Stanford, I anticipated many wonderful outcomes. I knew I would be able to better support the companies I built (ie ContractorMarketingPros.com), understand new technology trends (ie opportunities in mobile), and build new prototypes (ie BeTheDuke.com). The experience has exceeded my expectations…
But there’s one aspect of studying CS at Stanford that I never anticipated: the extent to which the tech community covets top engineering talent.
Go to nearly any event in Silicon Valley and you’ll hear one key theme repeated over and over again by entrepreneurs and investors:
“I’m looking for software developers…”
Cisco and Oracle are hiring engineers. Google and Microsoft are hiring engineers. Facebook and Zynga are hiring engineers. Dropbox and Square are hiring engineers. Pinterest and AirBnB are hiring engineers. Your uncle is hiring engineers. My uncle is hiring engineers. Everyone, and I mean everyone, is hiring engineers.
As one of the few MBAs who then went on to become a computer scientist, I get a LOT of requests that sound like this (these are all actual emails I’ve received):
“a friend of mine is creating software that IS very cool…But… he needs programmers. I told him that you might be a great resource”
“I’m going to revolutionize the ___ industry…do you know any good programmers who might be interested”
“do you know of any rockstar android developers who might be interested in part-time work? (longer term, we’re also looking for algorithm and AI engineers)… if yes, can you please fwd this to anyone you know who might be interested? thanks much!”
“I am working on a cool idea in the mobile ____ space. Do you have any iPhone programmers you would recommend?”
“Anyway, we are definitely still looking for developers…Let me know if you come across any rockstars interested in changing the world of _____.”
“Do you know any awesome Rails engineers that might consider joining an exciting _____ startup? Ideally 3-5 yrs experience for a Sr. Eng/VP, Eng role.”
“I am determined to launch this project on my own, but I have no development savvy at all. Do you have any advice for how I can find a programmer that would partner up on a project like this?”
The entrepreneur in me understands EXACTLY where these emails are coming from. However, the frustrating thing about these emails is that I’d love to help out, but I can’t. It’s not that these are unqualified people asking for help. On the contrary…these are requests coming in from some of the most fantastic people I know. These are entrepreneurs and investors who are successful, high character people. It’s a beating-and-a-half to say “um, sorry, I can’t really help you with that” every single time this happens.
But the truth of the matter is…if I forwarded even a small % of these emails onto my CS friends, then we wouldn’t be friends for very long. You see, talented Stanford engineers are so thoroughly bombarded with inbound requests like these, they almost become numb to the flirtations.
Everyone’s a gatekeeper…
In coordinating the FounderSoup events, I’ve spoken with a handful of Stanford CS professors to invite them to our events. Their response, “I actually don’t know that many developers”. To which I reply, “No, I’m asking if YOU want to come to the event…I’m encouraging my non-technical friends to learn CS and we’d love to have YOU there…it could be a good way to recruit new students.” They typically perk up at this point, but nevertheless, their guard is up. And that’s just the professors.
Want to really see what I’m talking about? Try going to the CS career services folks. Maybe say something like “hey, I’ve got this really cool program & I wanted to see if I could reach out to some of the CS students directly…” Hah. They’ll say something like “yeah, you and everyone else” and then repeat the phrase…”the best we can do for you is offer that you sponsor a booth at the career fair.” Ohhh…the career fair. That deserves another post of it’s own. But in short, if you want to see a who’s who of the technology world, the CS career fair is where it’s at.
So why does everyone in the system either have a fortress built up or deny even knowing any engineers (despite teaching hundreds of them every quarter)? It’s not that they have bad intentions or anything like that…they, more than anyone, realize how overwhelming it is for these students to be recruited by seemingly every company in the valley. Their students, who they “don’t know that many of” are so sought after that the professors, advisors, and everyone else within earshot of the ecosystem are bombarded with inbound requests, as well…and all serve as a form of gatekeeper, lest they burn their own bridges.
If I, the MS-MBA, am fatigued by requests to meet software engineers, imagine how tiresome it must be for their professors…or worse yet, the engineers themselves.
As a result, one of the unwritten rules within the CS community is that you don’t bother your friends with intros to “yet another startup looking for a developer”…you just don’t.
Do You Have Some Time To Grab A Coffee?
NO! Every top notch CS student or engineer has an overwhelming array of opportunities…so much so that many top engineers avoid any spotlight that threatens to bring unwanted attention upon them: public LinkedIn profiles, attending entrepreneurial mixer events, or subscribing to the “blast” email lists. One of my favorite engineers, a PhD in the CS program here, simply tells everyone he’s studying “marine biology” in order to avoid all the flirtation…
They certainly don’t want to “meet up for coffee” every with every “idea guy looking for a programmer”. In the much the same way that celebrities avoid the public, engineers are hiding from the bombardment of prospective startup opportunities.
After all, they’ve got 6 hours of coding still to do…tonight. This weekend? They’ll be cranking on code then, too.
What was my response to this? First of all, I started FounderSoup.com. The goal of the organization is to invite all of my entrepreneurial friends (and their friends), both technical and non-technical to one event. It’s efficient for everyone. We aim to make it a high-trust environment and have seen some awesome successes from the event. So if you’re interested, join the signup list.
Second, I continued studying Computer Science.
Third, I’ve started encouraging every able-minded person to either (a) come to FounderSoup, or (b) study Computer Science.
Earn That Technical Co-Founder
Probably the best piece of advice I’ve heard along these lines came from Jason at HumbledMBA
“You don’t find a technical cofounder, you earn one.”
How do you do that? Jason suggests several steps to achieving this…most important of which, IMO, is: 1. Learn to Code. 2. Build the front-end. The key here is doing everything in your power to build trust, gain traction, show your talent & commitment to the project.
In a recent survey we conducted at FounderSoup, we found that even top engineers are mostly looking for other engineers, not MBAs. But of those engineers who aren’t looking for MBAs…you know what they wanted? Entrepreneurial decathletes. In other words…if you aren’t an engineer and you want to earn a technical co-founder…then you’d better be darn good at everything else!
And you’ve got to win them over!
Often, it’s “how” you say it…
So how can you, the entrepreneur, find that special programmer?
Well, first of all, talking THAT WAY, you’ll never find what you want.
You’ve got to show that you respect their skills and know enough about their world to be a great partner. You are not looking for a “programmer”. You are looking for an “engineer”, a “software developer”.
Instead of saying we are looking “for an expert in PHP, Ruby-On-Rails, CSS AND Machine Learning”, or “a rockstar programmer to build our frontend and backend using xyz-string-of-non-complementary-languages.” I suggest you say something like “we are looking for can-do co-founders who have a strong foundation in software engineering and enjoy taking on new challenges”.
It’s Like Dating
When looking for someone to date, you certainly wouldn’t post on Facebook saying, “I’m looking for someone who cooks, fixes cars, loves children, likes to fornicate daily, and is going to make a ton of money.” That would be crazy and even the most socially foolish person wouldn’t do so. Why? It’s obvious…that just doesn’t work!
So don’t be THAT entrepreneur! Don’t ask the world in your first meeting. Don’t look for a programmer to build your app. Recognize that these 21-year-olds are getting offers from the top businesses in whatever industry they are interested in. Realize that you’re going to need to cough up real equity to attract them. Know that your competition is offering them free food and foot massages.
So if you’re going to find that team-mate, you’d better not promise minimal whippings…get to know them, show them you are interested in them, let them see how awesome and trustworthy you are…and maybe that special relationship will develop. But, for starters, know what to call them…they’re software engineers, not rockstar programmers.
Seems like a strange detail to emphasize, eh? One thing we have learned in building this program is that these subtle touches are surprisingly fundamental to how prospective engineers feel about the way they may be treated in an organization.
This is the first part of a multi-part series on the subject…I’ll later cover things like how to build your engineering skills…but step 1 (for the newcomers to this world) is to recognize that there is a fortress you’re trying to enter and that it takes time and awareness to build the trust necessary to earn that technical co-founder.