Yes, America needs more computer programmers.
Schools must do a better job introducing kids to computer science.
But after talking to a few smaller companies here in software city last week, I’m not quite as worried about the purported tech-talent crisis. It doesn’t look like the talent pool is drying up just yet.
Several startup founders told me it’s not easy to find top talent and that recruiting can take some creativity. But they are finding enough skilled workers to keep growing in the shadow of Microsoft, which has said it needs more visas because it’s struggling to fill thousands of jobs.
Local startups are also competing with a stream of California companies setting up branches in Seattle to scoop up local talent.
“It’s becoming easier and easier as we grow,” Marcelo Calbucci, co-founder and chief technology officer at Seattle’s EveryMove, told me last week. “I think it’s both as we grow and get more visibility in the community.”
EveryMove now has 12 people building a wellness-software platform that employers, insurance companies and others can use to reward people for activities that improve their health.
Calbucci said the flow of candidates has improved lately, perhaps because people make resolutions at the beginning of the year to pursue a better job.
About 25 percent of the company’s hires are from big companies such as Microsoft and Amazon.com and the rest are from small to midsize companies.
Overall software employment has rebounded since the recession in King County, home to most of the state’s tech companies. About 2,700 computer-related jobs were added in 2010 and 2011, more than replacing the 2,200 jobs lost from 2008 to 2009. About 90,000 people work in software and computer-related jobs.
Whether the area is suffering from a shortage of talent is unclear in the numbers.
“It sort of feels like it is true; there are definitely some talent gaps,” said Desiree Phair, the state’s regional labor economist, who works with startups in her spare time. “It is also true that sometimes people don’t efficiently use the talent we have.”
Filling engineering jobs is a perennial problem for small and large tech companies here because they set their sights so high, said Greg Gottesman, managing director of Madrona Venture Group and founder of Seattle pet boarding startup Rover.com.
“We’re not just trying to build companies that are the best in Seattle. Amazon’s not just trying to be the best e-commerce company in the U.S.,” he said. “We’re trying to be the best in the world. You’re competing not just in the local area, but internationally.”
Still, the challenge of finding top engineers hasn’t been enough to throttle startups that Madrona backs and the situation hasn’t significantly driven up salaries, Gottesman said.
“I don’t think it’s a new challenge,” he said. “It’s something that all great startups and most companies have been grappling with.”
At Kirkland’s BitTitan, founder Geeman Yip (pictured above, with daughter Sofia) said the competition for talent does make it harder to find software developers. Yet choosing people seems to be as much of a challenge as finding them.
Yip puts a lot of effort into building the right culture, with the right mix of people. He tries to balance the startup mentality of some with the more tempered, enterprise-software background of others.
“It’s definitely very difficult,” he said. “At the end of the day we’re just so small, so we have to be really selective.”
To handle the large number of applicants, BitTitan uses an online test to screen candidates. The company also cultivates talent by working with the French alma mater of its chief technology officer, Dominic Pouzin, to hire interns.
Yip and Pouzin became friends when they worked together on Microsoft’s Exchange server and played countless games of foosball. Yip started BitTitan, then talked Pouzin into helping him build online tools that help companies migrate their email and messaging systems.
Their first employee, hired in 2011, was a French computer-science student who joined as an intern. Later the company obtained an H1-B visa allowing him to become a full-time employee.
Still, finding employees hasn’t been as much of a challenge for BitTitan as accommodating a team that’s grown to 13 locally, plus employees working in Toronto and Spain.
Last year, BitTitan outgrew its leased space in downtown Redmond, alongside offices of AT&T and Microsoft. Space became so tight that BitTitan turned down several big contracts because it didn’t have enough room for people needed to support the work.
Instead of leasing a bigger space, BitTitan used some of the cash it generates to buy a small office building in Kirkland, near the Burgermaster drive-in that sustained Bill Gates and Paul Allen in Microsoft’s early days.
Owning the building may also help BitTitan with recruiting, because it shows candidates that the company is profitable and established. Shares of the company given to employees also give them a stake in the real estate, which cost less than half of what it would have cost to extend its lease in Redmond, Yip said.
When I dropped in last week, windows were masked for painting and tools were spread around the floor. Yip was on the phone with customers at a makeshift desk while his family finished up the painting.
Yip had a tight deadline to finish the remodeling and move employees in last Friday.
“We’ve got another person starting Monday, we’ve got another person traveling in from Texas and another person traveling in from France,” Yip said. “We expect to be 20 by the end of the summer.”
Yip expects BitTitan to outgrow its new space by the end of the year — presenting yet another crisis, but one that can be overcome.