Writing Code In Fly-over Country
As our clients know, I’ve been writing a lot about strategies for recruiting and retaining developers, and building shop cultures where they can thrive. In the U.S. we’re currently in a sellers market when it comes to development talent. According to the BLS, firms will need to find almost half a million developers between 2014 and 2o24, and yet the best data I’ve been able to find so far on the production of computer science graduates suggests that we produce between 45 and 55 thousand undergraduate computer science graduates every year.
Let’s assume that all those graduates stay in the U.S. and all write code (as opposed to architecture, database administration, testing, ops etc.) and are geographically dispersed to exactly where they are needed. In that happy world, we might balance supply and demand. But if you live outside out the Bay Area, Silicon Alley, the 128 Corridor, Cloud City, Austin or RTP and run a dev shop, you know that dev talent tends to cluster instead of evenly distributing. And even if there are enough developers from a flat out numerical perspective, there never seems to be enough with the emerging skills shops need (2017 examples include Node.js skills, cloud architecture chops, mobile development experience, MongoDB experience etc…)
As a result, I find many dev shops and digital teams in a bind when it comes to hiring developers, especially if they are located in fly-over country like I am. If that’s you, the way I see it, you have five strategies at your disposal to deal with the developer gap:
- Find and hire whoever you can and industrialize delivery. This is a strategy we see many traditional development shops pursue. The goal is that with enough process and standardization of technologies, firms can hire developers with a wide variety of skills and place guard rails around them to keep teams on the path to success. ISVs sometimes refer to this as the “huh-huh” strategy. If you put a mirror in front of their face and they can fog it with their breath, then hire them and let the software factory do its magic.
- Find and hire above-average talent and get “Agile in spirit”. This is the strategy top tier ISVs pursue. They compete strongly for creative developers, pay above market salaries, create authentic workplaces to support their talent, and recruit at top universities with internship programs. Think Google, Facebook, LinkedIn etc. While many development shops aspire to execute this strategy, it results in stiff competition for talent and requires a great shop culture to retain the developers you hire.
- Hire digital agencies or systems integrators. This is the development shop equivalent of tapping the free agent market. If your digital shop is as well funded as the Yankees, then you can execute this one easily and simply pay the luxury tax of high hourly rates. But it’s an expensive strategy, especially compared to a well stocked farm system.
- Adopt more packages/platforms and write less code. As we see cloud platforms become more complete and SaaS solutions expose more APIs than ever, writing less code and integrating with more platform services becomes a realistic option. That’s one of the reasons open source, public cloud platforms and now serverless architectures are taking off in progressive development shops. There’s less resulting code and infrastructure to write and maintain.
- Adopt low-code tools and expand who can develop. While it’s not a strategy that many development leaders think about, it’s a viable option nonetheless. Low code tools from vendors like Kony, Mendix, Outsystems, and Salesforce expand the market. We’ve seen this before: This finance major personally cut his teeth as a PowerBuilder developer back in the anti-diluvian age when firms didn’t specify a comp-science degree as a requirement for a dev job.
For those that would say that you can’t apply strategy #2 in fly-over country, I’d beg to differ. I’ve walked into great development shops from Omaha, to Orlando and many areas in between. These shops have a great blend of talent, and are committed to creating high performance cultures. Yes they draw from smaller talent pools, but they become a preferred alternative in the “non-NFL” cities they call home.
If you aren’t in a developer hot spot, then your strategy for recruiting and retaining talent may need to focus less on strategy number #2, and more on the others listed here. I’m not a big fan of strategy #1, as I think it leads to sub-par business results, but your mileage may vary.
I’m hopeful for fly-over country, because I think more folks in our industry are discovering it. My boss passed on this NYT article from earlier this week about domestic outsourcers (strategy #3 blended with strategy #5). The lower cost of living results in lower salaries, but better costs of living than what you see in the traditional hot spots. This trend could easily blossom as H1B visas for tech workers come under more scrutiny.
Mark Cecere and I touched on these topics among others in our weekly What It Means podcast, so give it a listen and if you have feedback, stories of your own, great shops you’ve worked at in fly-over country, or any other comments give me a holler.
I’ll be here, down on the farm in South Carolina.