Tempt tech talent without Googlesque mega perks

Think global, hire local

Open ... and Shut Forget Silicon Valley's talent shortage. The real tech talent wars are being waged beyond the spiritual home of high-tech - and everyone is losing. In fact, the greatest threat to the adoption of industry-changing technologies like Hadoop and Node.js may well be the dearth of talent capable of deploying them effectively.

It's no secret that west-coast giants like Google and Facebook have been sparring for years over top talent, leading smaller start-ups to resort to hefty salary packages for new recruits, among other things, to attract and retain employees. But what is perhaps different now is that even these companies are struggling to tempt entrepreneurial developers who want to be the next Mark Zuckerberg, not work for him, as The New York Times suggests.

All of which seems very much like a First World problem, in which highly profitable tech companies throw money around in order to come up with the next big Google Plus. No one's life is going to be poorer if they fail.

Except that there's a significant byproduct of this stiff competition for talent: non-tech companies are struggling to hire qualified personnel, which Businessweek points out. Again, perhaps this is a First World problem, but arguably it matters more to the broader economy if Target can't complete sales on its websites than if the next Angry Birds hits the market. And if the Targets of the world can't hire the right technical talent, it's very likely that their tech operations will suffer as a result, as has been the case with Target.com in 2011.

What to do?

I recently spoke to a London-based friend who is building a Hadoop-related company. He told me that his biggest challenge has been hiring qualified Hadoop engineers, to the point that he may well be driven to put off development of his product business to focus on a training business... that provides Hadoop training. In other words, his solution is to build a pool of qualified Hadoop engineers, since he can't "buy" them.

That's one option, but unlikely to fly at Best Buy or JP Morgan Chase. For these companies, another option is to avoid competing with Silicon Valley and other tech hubs such as New York City and Seattle altogether. The analysts at 451 Group have analysed where skills for Hadoop and also NoSQL congregate: by a huge margin, engineers with these talents live in Silicon Valley. But given the open-source nature of these technologies, it is possible to find them elsewhere, including the Ukraine and (gasp!) Middle America.

Therefore, one option for firms desperately in need of tech talent is to hire it where they find it, and let developers stay where they are. This strategy has worked exceptionally well for Ubuntu sponsor Canonical, where I used to work. Canonical has managed to hire a very strong team of Linux talent by paying well and letting developers work from home, whether that home is in Des Moines, Iowa or Villa Gesell, Argentina.

When Facebook hires an engineer, it's a requirement that the person relocates to the Silicon Valley area. For many top-quality engineers, the greatest perk of all, and one that might steer them to a Sears instead of Zynga, is the chance to stay in Canterbury, England, rather than moving to Menlo Park, California.

As I've written before, "open source is the Google Adsense of recruiting technical talent", because it gives recruiters a deep view into an engineer's capabilities without the need for an interview. Savvy companies will look for talent outside Silicon Valley by becoming active in relevant open-source projects, and may well succeed in hiring that talent by giving developers the freedom to stay where they are, rather than relocate to the Silicon-Valley area.

This begins to make more sense if one assumes that a company's recruiting focus shouldn't necessarily be on finding superstar talent, but rather in building superstar teams, as detailed recently on the Avichal blog. This involves finding people that work well together, and not necessarily incredible individual contributors who may actually spike team performance. Again, open source is a great way to find such people, because a developer's team productivity is discernible through mailing lists, code commits and other channels.

The rest of the world is unlikely to effectively compete with Silicon Valley for tech talent. At least, not on Silicon Valley's terms. It's difficult to compel relocation unless you're a Facebook. It's impossible to out-perk profit margin-heavy companies like Google. But the rest of the world has something that Silicon Valley often can't match: proximity to family, traffic-free highways, and housing that is affordable without $10m in IPO earnings. Quality engineers still respond to such perks. ®

Matt Asay is senior vice president of business development at Nodeable, offering systems management for managing and analyzing cloud-based data. He was formerly SVP of biz dev at HTML5 start-up Strobe and chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfresco's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears three times a week on The Register.

Sponsored: Designing and building an open ITOA architecture