Engineer Shortage

Posted: March 1st, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: posts | Tags: , , | 2 Comments »

There’s been an increasing amount of conversation recently about how difficult it is for startups to find qualified engineers. And yet at the same time, recent graduates with strong engineering credentials are saying that they can’t find jobs.

What’s going on here?

(Let’s set aside those who aren’t looking to work for a startup. Nothing wrong with that – but the hiring process for corporations is governed more by the macroeconomic situation and waiting for executives to feel comfortable that the analysts on Wall Street are comfortable with increased hiring expenditures. I can’t provide much insight into that. But I can offer some thoughts for recent graduates who are chomping at the bit to get out there and put the skills that they’ve spent years honing to good use, and they’re hungry for any opportunity, especially at a startup where their contributions will actually move the needle.)

I think the immediate reaction is to try to attribute this apparently misalignment of supply and demand to some generalization that startups won’t hire recent graduates.

In December, Vivek Wadhwa wrote a post on TechCrunch, Shortage of Engineers or a Glut: No Simple Answer. The post made a lot of useful points and quoted some smart people (including a comment that I left on his blog).

After thinking about this again recently, I went back and read some of the comments on the post.

Most of the comments seemed to be along one of the following themes:

1) Schools don’t train me in what’s really being used in industry. All of the job requirements that I read ask for X years of experience with Y skill (that I don’t have). What is wrong with education?

2) Startups don’t just hire anyone. They are looking for engineers who have strong fundamental skills, can pick up new technologies and run with them, and are willing to tackle any problem.

There is truth in both of these themes.


School doesn’t teach me what I need to know for industry

Perhaps the Information Sciences and Technology program at Penn State was unique in this regard, but the Dean and professors would regularly get up in front of students and say something along the lines of, “Technology is an industry which requires lifelong learning. We will teach you how to learn. Then you can use that skill to learn what you need for your career.” Sure, we learned some useful things along with the theories, but it was always made clear to us that we shouldn’t expect the curriculum to teach us everything we would ever need for a career in technology.

Good thing, too. Because the vast majority of the skills that I use on a day-to-day basis in my COO/CTO role were things that I’ve learned myself.

One of the comments on the post spoke to this point: “I was shocked that so many of my classmates didn’t apply what they learned — about how to learn — to themselves. In the time between my CS degree and my first industry job, I’d taught myself version control, design patterns, unit tests, embedded systems programming, user interface design, and so on. It’s easy to get a good job when so many of my classmates thought that college was the last time they’d ever have to learn something!”

This is why so many companies look for candidates who contribute to Open Source. Because contributions aren’t something that you regularly do as a part of school or as a part of most jobs. Instead, it’s something you do on your own accord, and it demonstrates both initiative and the ability to pick up something and run with it.


Startups don’t hire just anyone

That’s true – they don’t. But it doesn’t mean that you aren’t already or can’t become the kind of person that they will hire.

I make this point in my comment on Vivek Wadhwa’s personal blog, that led to the subsequent TechCrunch article:

Just because engineers are graduating, or there are engineers on the bench with decades of experience, this doesn’t immediately solve the issue that a startup CTO faces in trying to staff their team. At the start, an entrepreneur is looking for a driven technologist who can come in and partner with them to translate their vision into reality. If you’re making hire #2 or beyond, you’re looking for specific needs – startups often don’t have the luxury to train someone into their technology stack and are looking for folks who can hit the ground running and get stuff done. As a result, simply having an engineering degree or decades of experience from BigCompany clearly does not make an engineer an immediate fit.

Try to find an engineer with the right experience and the ability to get stuff done — this is what entrepreneurs are struggling with and is what drives the entrepreneurs and investors to complain that there isn’t enough talent in the market.

Startups are looking to fulfill a need. There’s no leadership development program to train a pipeline of technologist for future needs three years away. Startups have a problem. They need to grow their product. Now. Faster. If you’re not the solution to that problem, you won’t get in.

So, become the solution.

Pick the area that you want to work in. Ruby on Rails web development? Great. Objective C iPhone development? Sounds good. Now start writing code. Show that you get stuff done (code on GitHub, contribute to open source, blog!). If you have experience already, find ways to make it relevant to the position that you’re looking for.

And to really get a gold star, don’t limit yourself to the one technology that you start with. If you’re doing Ruby on Rails development, it’s likely that you may need to do some basic systems administration on a Linux server to get your stack up and running. Embrace that opportunity as a chance to prove that you can do whatever it takes to get the job done. Same thing when you need to setup memcached or Redis or whatever additional technologies might come onto your radar. Because a startup will expect you to pickup new technologies, and to become productive rapidly.

Finally, you need to get in touch – I think this point is under-appreciated: startups don’t have big recruitment search budgets (or a lot of time) – if we can’t find you easily, we can’t hire you. Promote yourself. You are a brand. Figure out how to get found.


I sent some very similar advice to my summer development interns at the end of August. I closed with the comment that, if you put some time into really considering the skillets that you’ll need in the job that you want, and then really make an effort to build those skillets (and any supporting skillets on your own), and then do the extra work to publicize what you’re doing, you will be easily heads and shoulders above 90% of the other students you”re graduating with who could do the work, but won”t bother.

Much has been said about the Gen Y folks who are eager to get out there and start making a difference in the world. You don’t need anyone’s permission to go get started. What are you waiting for?