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?


Exciting FanGamb Changes, Moving to Europe

Posted: June 24th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: posts | Tags: , , | 6 Comments »

It’s been just over the one year mark since we started Three Screen Games and FanGamb. I left IBM on May 1, 2009, and we began the DreamIt Ventures program on May 18, 2009. It”s been an interesting and crazy year. We’ve learned much about what it takes to make a successful social game, and a successful startup. And we’ve positioned ourselves and our team for much greater success.

Part of what we’ve learned over the last year is that the industry of social gaming is still in its infancy and there is a host of new models to be experimented with. We have some exciting things in the works and as a result, will be moving to Europe later this summer to continue developing our product and business. We can’t yet share all of the details on why we’re making the move, but I’ll share more as soon as I”m able.

It’s certainly quite a change and not one that we expected a year ago, but we’re confident that it’s the best direction for our company and are extremely excited about the next phase of FanGamb. Personally, it should prove to be a valuable experience, working internationally and experiencing the European technology and startup communities.

So, if we”re moving to your part of the globe, or you’re just passing through, give us a shout! We’re very much looking forward to meeting new folks and saying hello. For everyone else, I’ll share the experiences through the blog and photos on my Flickr account.


The Startup Accelerator List Grows – from 93 to 102

Posted: June 11th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: posts | Tags: , , | 2 Comments »

The list of startup accelerators has been getting a lot of attention as of late. It was exciting to see the list recently featured on Change.org’s Social Entrepreneurship blog. This activity follows the continuing interest and growth in seed-stage startup accelerators. Below are some updates and additions to the list.

Updates from the startup accelerator world:

  • TechCrunch featured a nice write-up on Stanford’s recently launched SSE Labs program. Written by Larry Chiang, one of the advisors to the new Stanford Student Startup Lab, the post touches on some of the political hurdles that the SSE Labs program ran into at Stanford in the process of launching. It is interesting (and disappointing) to read of the difficulties students had in launching an entrepreneurship support program at Stanford, typically referred to as one of the gold standards for academic institutional support of entrepreneurship. Still, it is an academic institution and many of the struggles the students ran into sound similar to roadblocks we’ve hit at Penn State and that I’ve heard about at other institutions. I’m glad to see the students are forging ahead undaunted.
  • Lots of activity internationally. The next few updates all concern accelerators abroad. One new program was mentioned in the comments on the accelerator list: The first accelerator for China just opened and will be based in Dalian: China Accelerator
  • XING’s founder, Lars Hinrichs, is launching HackFwd in Europe. It has some interesting twists over the conventional model. Funding will be up to €191,000, depending on the size of the team, and companies will participate in the program for up to a year. This results in HackFwd taking a more substantial equity chunk, though:

    HackFwd will take 27% of a company it invests in ““ that’s a sizeable chunk. In the US, Ycombinator takes around 6% but can do anywhere from 2%-10% while TechStars take around 6-10%, whereas the London-based Seedcamp takes 8-10%. However, those latter programmes only last months, while HackFwd”s backing will be designed to last a year.

    Startups will get funding for one year, with the aim of roughly matching the founder’s current yearly salary. Founders keep 70% equity, with 3% going to advisors and 27% to HackFwd. However, that said, they then take care of ‘legal and admin stuff”¦ so you can focus on your product.’

  • I came across some interesting comments from Kai Fu Lee on China’s Innovation Works accelerator program. It’s an interesting model and certainly unconventional.

    “To remedy the problem [of not having any early-stage funding for young entrepreneurs in China], he founded Innovation Works, a startup incubator with a twist. Instead of just doling out a million dollars here and there to promising projects, the company recruits top engineering graduates throughout the country and enlists them to help its portfolio companies get off the ground, while simultaneously grooming them to found startups of their own in 12 to 18 months.”

    “‘Y Combinator would have a very hard time making it in China,’ Lee says. ‘It would have a hard time finding the startups and qualified people to fund. It could interview hundreds and find only two.’ The American incubator model only works in China if you turn it on its head, starting first with the people before generating the concept. Right now, Innovation Works is funding two external startups and working on five projects that came from the inside team.”

  • TechCrunch announced the launch of accelerator programs in Singapore and Japan: Neoteny Labs and Open Network Lab. The post points out a couple of interesting details:

    “Another difference to the [Y Combinator] model: If the startup chooses a designated mentor, it will have to give away another 2% of stock options. ONL”s mentor line-up, assembled via the Neoteny Labs connection (both labs are partnering), is pretty impressive though, including big names such as Reid Hoffman, Napster founder Shawn Fanning, or Tim O”Reilly.”

  • Continuing the international updates, King Abdullah II Fund for Development (KAFD) in Jordan is announcing that it will launch a seed fund in August which will operate on an accelerator model. The program is called Oasis 500. From the ArabCrunch.com article:

    Oasis 500 aims to push 500 startups in Jordan in 5 years and will offer several programs starting with training courses for entrepreneurs with ideas.

    [T]he training program will start around August of this year and will take a quota of around 100 entrepreneurs for several rounds every year ( any one with a tech idea according to Usama.) At the end of each program Oasis 500 will choose 10 ideas to invest in with an average of 10,000 Jordanian Dinars per idea and provide incubation (offices) for a period of 2 months. If the startup is qualified there will be additional investment of an average of 50,000 USD.

  • It’s trendy to have an accelerator — PayPal launched an accelerator program, PayPal Startup Accelerator a couple of months back.

 

Programs being added to the list:

Startup Accelerators

University-Affiliated

 

Check out the full, newly updated list of startup accelerators!

Along with updating the main list, I have also updated the Twitter list of startup accelerators – 51 of the programs are included. If there’s a Twitter account that I missed, please let me know!


The Bullshitting CTO – advice for non-technical founders

Posted: June 2nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: posts | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment »

I was chatting with another startup founder recently who was talking a conversation he had with his CTO and what the CTO had told him about a recent issue with their site. Some data had been lost from the site and the CTO apparently immediately started putting blame on some unknown “user error” as the cause of the unknown glitch. This is despite the fact that there didn’t seem to be any relevant connection between any of the functionality on the admin backend and the data loss that had occurred. Fortunately, there were backups and the data was able to be restored, so no real harm done (aside from frustration and lost time). However, what was more interesting was that the situation was apparently only one instance of many similar conversation – strange technology issues occur and the CTO has no clear explanation for what happened.

Startup founders, especially those with no technology background, if this happens to you – stop. Stop letting your CTO get away with providing vague explanations for what happened. Stop letting the CTO off the hook. Everyone who uses a computer knows that technology doesn’t always work right. Startups are, more often than not, dealing with a combination of bleeding edge platforms, compressed time schedules, and lack of sleep – a cocktail that can be exciting, but results in a higher than average percentage of software bugs.

The issue is not the bugs. They are expected. Any founder who expects a system to be bug free is dreaming. The issue is a CTO who can’t explain the issues that occurred, or, more likely, doesn’t want to take responsibility for the issues. And even more importantly, the implications that this has for the technology side of your business.

Founders with no technical experience are in a difficult position in startup world. So much of a startup’s life is centered around the technology. As the company moves from customer development to product development, for someone who doesn’t understand the tech, the startup world becomes a wild roller-coaster ride with the CTO in the drivers’ seat. Make no mistake – you are more or less at the mercy of your tech co-founder if you don’t understand the tech, so you had better pick a good one.

A good way to look at this is what if your CTO walks away – do you know how to access the code, how the architecture is setup, how to get into the various administration tools, how to access the backups? Ideally, the question is yes to all of the above, but startup world is chaotic. New systems are being added, servers are reconfigured – change is ever present. Are you up to speed on stuff?

So, what’s the point? The point is – if your CTO can’t take responsibility for a tech issue that occurs, if she won’t walk you through what caused the issue, if he doesn’t do a root cause assessment and explain the results – then you are living on the edge. If your CTO can’t own up to one issue, how much other stuff is going on that you have no idea about?

Let’s be very clear – if you are in this situation, then you have a relationship with your CTO where the balance of power is skewed and the wellbeing of your company is at risk. You need to get clarity into what’s going on over on the tech side and restore the balance of power, and more importantly, rebalance your relationship where you’re getting truthful explanations from your CTO. Or find a new one. Heed the warning signs and protect the company.


Why I Left IBM

Posted: May 31st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: posts | Tags: , , | 2 Comments »

I was recently having a conversation with an aspiring entrepreneur and the topic of why I left IBM came up. It’s been just over a year since I left the consulting world and joined Three Screen Games full-time to lead the product team – I left May 1, 2009 – so I have a bit of perspective on the decision now.

Why did I leave IBM?

First, let me say why I didn’t leave: I didn’t leave because I hated the company, the work, or the people. Almost without exception, I loved the people that I worked with. If you want to get to know your co-workers really well, go into a high-travel consulting job where you spend each and every week with your co-workers in a strange city. Where you eat more meals with them than you eat with your family. Where you sleep in a hotel room down the hall from them. You get to know them better than pretty much anyone else. I really enjoyed the people that I was working alongside – hugely talented, driven to do the right thing. I have a great respect for IBM in its ability to amass a formidable talent pool. As for the work and the lifestyle, I loved the consulting life – seeing different companies, each with its own culture and unique challenges.

So, why did I leave? In short, I’ve known for a long time that I wanted to be involved with a startup. After doing independent consulting during high school and college, I knew that I had the entrepreneurial bug. I initially went to IBM to see how the “big guys” solved all of the consulting issues that I ran into when I was working with clients independently. Finding that many of the issues were the same, just multiplied by millions of dollars, gave me a lot of confidence in my abilities.

While the people were great and I enjoyed the lifestyle, I was frightened of becoming complacent. I was afraid of getting to the point where I became used to the salary and the lifestyle. Flying around in first class, working on high profile projects, earning a nice salary, stock options, etc. – it’s all really easy to get used to. I knew that once I became used to it all, I would reach the point where I wasn’t able to take the 100% paycut to join an early stage startup. And so, I was afraid of somehow missing the ability to pursue one of my goals – helping to create a company from the ground up.

James Kwak does a really great job of describing what I was afraid of in his recent post Why Do Harvard Kids Head to Wall Street?: “…[O]nce you’re in the door, the seduction begins….Your expenses grow to match your income. As the decades pass and you realize that no, you’re not going to save the world, the money becomes a more and more important part of the justification. And when you have kids, you’re stuck; it’s much easier to deprive yourself of money (and what it buys) than to deprive your children of money.”

I think often we know what we should do, but it’s hard to actually go and do it. It certainly doesn’t get any easier with time, and in many cases, things just get harder. It wasn’t exactly an easy decision to make, to decide to leave my position last spring, with the economy still uncertain, and still getting a lot of experience and having a lot of mileage left in my career at IBM. But I knew that it was one of the few opportunities I’d ever have to take the leap, and I’m very happy that I did.

Part of this is the self-awareness that I believe is needed to be effective as an entrepreneur and wrote about earlier. In this context, do you know what you need to feel confident enough to make that kind of a jump? Is it a strong team, some validation of your concept, an early customer? Figuring that out will help you recognize when you’ve made enough progress to make the move. For me, some of that was having a business partner and a team that I was confident could hold up their end of the bargain, and having a top notch group of advisers through DreamIt Ventures. (Having people in my life that supported the decision and encouraged me was a big part of it, as well.)

Who knows where things will take me next, but I consider myself fortunate to have had the courage to take advantage of an opportunity and accomplish one of my goals for myself.

….

Back to the anecdote that inspired this post – the aspiring entrepreneur that I was talking with was unhappy with the ‘big company’ internship that he had for the summer. It wasn’t going to give him the experience that he was hoping for and would be essentially worthless busy work day after day. He had pretty much already made up his mind before talking to me, but perhaps some of these thoughts helped him feel less crazy for walking away from a “perfectly good job”. In my mind, as I discussed with him, if you’re not getting the experience you want, especially when you’re young, there are few reasons why you should stick it out and so many reasons why you should take the leap to follow your dreams. After all, you may not get another chance.

I have a quote from Steve Jobs on my personal home page that I think speaks really well to this point:

“We don’t get a chance to do that many things, and every one should be really excellent. Because this is our life. Life is brief, and then you die, you know? So this is what we’ve chosen to do with our life. We could be sitting in a monastery somewhere in Japan. We could be out sailing. Some of the [executive team] could be playing golf. They could be running other companies. And we’ve all chosen to do this with our lives. So it better be damn good. It better be worth it. And we think it is.”

This is your life. Make sure you’re getting what you want out of it.


White Bear Yard – home for startups in London

Posted: May 28th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: photo, posts | Tags: | 2 Comments »

Last month, while in London, we met up with an American friend who’s building a startup in the UK. His company and five others are working out of a new space in Clerkenwell called White Bear Yard. If you’re looking for an example of a great space for startups to work in, this should be one of your models. The space is fantastic and the companies are equally exciting – I’m sure we’ll see great things from this cohort.

The space was originally part of IDEO’s London studio, but is now the home to a bunch of motivated entrepreneurs (IDEO is still on one floor of the building). Below are two photos I took with my Blackberry, though they don’t really capture the essence of the space. It’s a very contemporary space, very airy and open, with nice areas for the companies to collaborate. And, for those times when you need to unwind, the space comes complete with a rooftop garden (also very nice!)!

If you’re in the area, I highly recommend you check it out. Follow White Bear Yard on Twitter and read more in this post on VentureBeat.

Located up a fairly nondescript alley in Clerkewell:

A vibrant home for startups – after hours…:
White Bear Yard - London Startups White Bear Yard - London Startups

EDIT: Added link to White Bear Yard: http://www.whitebearyard.com/