A Shortage of Developers

Dan Croak

If we were in China, would the govt mandate the creation of 100K Ruby developers? This shortage is killing us. - Jeffrey Bussgang, VC at Flybridge Capital Partners

Demand for developers and designers at web startups is currently outstripping supply.

I believe this is true because most of thoughtbot’s clients are web startups. Most of my programming buddies along the Red Line in Boston/Cambridge work at, or for, web startups.

Widespread Panic

If you are a good software engineer, you must move to Silicon Valley. I’ve never before seen such an intense war for talent. Engineers win. - Chi-Hua Chien, VC at Kleiner Perkins

I’m not really tuned in to the subcultures in SOMA, San Francisco or Union Square, New York City but folks there seem to telling the same story.

Down With Disease

Considering that the Ruby Community is a group of “doers” – bitching without proposing a solution is weak sauce. - Randall Thomas, good dude at EngineYard

So there’s a shortage (and let’s be honest: we’re short a few thousand developers, not a few million potatoes, so in the grand scheme of things, we’re actually riding the gravy train).

I think there’s a simple solution: Make more developers.

I can think of three ways to do this, and thoughtbot is trying all three:

  1. Teach high school and college students.
  2. Teach enterprise/.NET/Java/PHP/Coldfusion developers new tools.
  3. Convert non-technical founders to technical founders.

Give that Boy a Hand

First, thoughtbot partnered with Greenhorn Connect to organize a free event for 300+ high school and college students called Developers Developers Developers Developers. It was held last week, a good time for them to start looking for a full-time job or a summer internship.

The event was a welcome wagon for students into the web community. Folks from places such as Github, GroupMe, Heroku, ITA Software, and Swipely gave rip-roaring talks.

The man himself, John Resig, was there, talking about jQuery and jQuery Mobile. He also hammered home a couple of important messages:

  • Startups are cool and all, but you can contribute to open source no matter what your company looks like, or even if you don’t have a job at all.
  • Your Github account is a great resume.

Cissy Strut

Second, thoughtbot partnered with Fairhaven Capital to offer Ruby on Rails workshops to local developers who are currently working in .NET, Coldfusion, or PHP. The cool part is that Fairhaven is covering 50% of the cost of the training (usually $1,256) to lower the barrier for developers to make a technology switch.

In addition to doing something nice for Boston, they’re subsidizing accelerated learning. Intensive training can help people learn months faster than they would otherwise.

The Word

Third, I’ve been telling non-technical founders that “everybody codes”. I’d like the class of “non-technical” founders to be “non-existent.” If a startup wants to want to hire us, I think there’s a higher chance of success if one of the founders commits to learning to code by pair programming with us on their product.

Consider the alternative of a young web company without a technical co-founder. They’re doing some combination of:

  • hiring someone else
  • looking for a co-founder
  • learning to do it theselves

I’m thinking the best of all worlds is to hire a firm like thoughtbot to build initial iterations of the product while the “non-technical” co-founders learn how to do it themselves from experts, on their own product that they care about.

This model should work because:

  • Something high quality gets built immediately.
  • Less time is wasted trying to find someone in a competitive market.
  • Founders control their own destiny after the engagement.

We’ve called a similar approach Kick Start in the past, but geared it more towards interviewing and giving hiring recommendations. I don’t think that’s good enough anymore. The founders can’t keep hiring “other people”. A web development firm working with startups should be moving the founding team toward self-sustainability.

Ain’t Nothing Wrong With That

The three strategies we’re trying are all experimental. They all depend on collaboration. Hopefully, some of them will work and we’ll have some new buddies with whom we can identify problems and dream up solutions.