the $150k solution

An article was published yesterday in one of Austin’s local papers about Austin’s tech talent shortage. I was job hunting just a couple months ago and get a lot of calls from recruiters and hear about friends’ companies who are hiring and I think it’s pretty damned accurate. And by accurate I mean that it points out how fucking ridiculous some of these companies are being. Flying out to SF to try and steal engineers away but not being willing to match their salaries? Seriously?

Dear Austin companies: It doesn’t matter whether you think developers are a commodity. You can’t treat them that way. You don’t get to set their market value – the market does that. You can’t compensate them with pool tables and tacos. You can’t ask them to spend an extra 20 hours a week making up for your shitty management decisions or commuting to some isolated office park that was cheaper to rent than something on a goddamned bus route. There is a give and take and nobody’s obligated to come work for you. Balance is necessary in all business relationships, even relationships with less business-savvy nerds.

money doesn’t matter until it’s not there

One of the most damning quotes in the article is, “I’m not going to pay the California wages, which can be 30 percent higher.” I’ve had a large number of bosses who believed for some reason that the chance to contribute to what they were building should be more important to me than my compensation for doing so. That’s fucking ridiculous. If I’m making you rich, you pay me to do so. You’re the one getting the big payoff at the end, not me.

Austin companies should be thinking in terms of how much further a California salary will stretch here and using that as a negotiating tool when they offer talented engineers what they’re already making – minimum – to relocate. If those engineers are relocating from the damned Yukon, same thing, because I can fucking guarantee you that if they’re open to relocating they’ve got an offer from somebody in SF, too. A higher salary is going to cost you less than hiring shitty people or not hiring anyone. There are a gazillion blog posts about this from people who actually run software companies, not bratty engineers, so, hey, don’t take my word for it. But if you think you should get some kind of discount cause your business is based in a town that’s figured out how to put scrambled eggs in tortillas, better disabuse yourself of that shit.

your office is not magical productivity land

There’s nothing that makes me sadder than talking to an awesome company about a job, knowing that they want me to move to San Francisco or drive to north-goddamned-Austin every single day and I’m not gonna do that. Is that stubborn? Yes. But I have a challenging housing situation I can’t get out of and commuting goes against the way I choose to live my life. If it was just me, that’d be one thing, but it isn’t. Lots of people can’t move, or don’t believe that spending two hours on the freeway every day is a healthy lifestyle. But guess what! We don’t expect you to move your whole office to wherever it is we happen to live – we’re generally happy to telecommute!

If I could relocate, Austin sure as hell wouldn’t be my first choice. I moved here when I did because my ex-husband and I had blown most of our savings on our wedding but were desperate to get out of Seattle, and I knew the lower cost of living here would make it possible for me to support both of us if he couldn’t find a job for a while. If I’d been single, more confident in my skills, and sans wedding debt I would have moved to San Francisco or New York. Austin’s lovely, but I like being able to get a decent bowl of ramen. And take public transit. Of course I’ve since fallen a little bit in love, but when I moved here everything was brown and ugly and covered in strip malls and I had to keep reminding myself of the spectre of Seasonal Affective Disorder waiting for me if I turned tail and went home. Anyway, it’s not objectively everyone’s cup of tea. Maybe somebody wants to live in middle-of-nowhere fucking Montana all River Runs Through It. Maybe they’re the best Python dev the world’s ever seen. You don’t know.

There’s a popular theory that people are most productive when they all sit together in big echoey rooms at communal tables with no dividers between workspaces. I think that’s horseshit. The only people who are “productive” in those settings, in my experience, are the type of management people who feel compelled to come over and interrupt you in person rather than send you a fucking email you can look at once you’re done tracking down a bug six levels of callbacks deep. YOU KNOW? If your company lacks the tools to communicate remotely, it’s highly probable it can’t communicate at all. As for exposing devs to their peers, I agree it’s a pleasure to work next to other JavaScripters, but I also see better peer interaction between people who don’t work for the same companies every day on IRC than I have in any office I’ve ever been compelled to go to.

Companies who don’t demand that engineers come to them have power right now. Over the past two years I’ve switched jobs a number of times and have interviewed a shitload. I’m not the best, but I’m good, and I’ve only been turned down twice. Guess what both companies had in common? If you think your company is getting the shit end of the supply and demand plunger, try opening your hiring up to remote employees.

do something interesting

This is harder. There are a lot of companies using the latest, hottest technologies that probably won’t exist in a year. There are lots that do pretty boring shit, are tied to legacy code, but are stable and responsible. This is an Austin-wide problem, but also a problem for individual companies to solve. To attract technical talent, a city just has to have cool technology happening somewhere. It just does. Nothing is exciting when all you and your friends have to talk about is the best jQuery plugins to use in building a fly-by-night groupon clone. People get excited when one of their peers is implementing Node in production or switching over to NoSQL or whatever. It makes nerds feel competitive, it makes them more engaged because they don’t want to be left out of playing with the latest coolest thing, so they go home and put something on github if they can’t do it at work. But if all the companies in town are focused on money first and technology never, too many “tech” conversations are about funding and other business-y shit which gets really boring, at least for this engineer.

If your company makes something entirely uninteresting, that’s fine. We need useful software to fill niches, or our whole industry suffers. If you make a boring thing, there are two things you can do to still attract good talent. First, if you don’t need a senior dev, don’t hire one. Hire a junior person, give them the chance to architect small changes to the system, help them grow as an engineer. If you do need a senior person, hire them, but carve out 10% or 20% time for them to do open source stuff or personal projects or whatever. And don’t get all butthurt about paying them to do things that “don’t create value”. You probably use open source software. Your devs’ skillsets need the support of a larger community to stay current. And bored developers quit producing and, well, quit. If you can’t make your product interesting, that doesn’t mean you can’t make your engineers’ jobs interesting, and you’ll benefit indirectly.

It’s hard not to read an article like this one and feel smug, but it’s also hard not to feel frustrated. At the end of the day, we’re workers. We’re some of the only workers in this economy with any control over our professional lives, who don’t have to live in fear of unemployment. It shouldn’t be possible for companies to bleed talented people dry in exchange for the minimum possible compensation and bullshit perks like foosball tables, yet somehow it is.

A former boss of mine is quoted in that article, and I know he’s one of the good ones, and treats his engineers as respected employees who play a huge role in the success of his company. There’s an opportunity in this for executives like that, clearly, because so many more bring only a mediocre idea and a pile of VC cash to the table and expect to pick up developers as though we were all standing around idle on the corner outside Fry’s. There’s no more sense in competing with those people for bargain-basement talent than there is in working for them, and I think it’s pretty easy to avoid having to do so for companies who can be a little more flexible.


26 Responses to “the $150k solution”

  1. Bob Says:

    Great article. I’m a software developer working in Australia, and agree with everything you’ve said.

    It’s clear we share many of the same frustrations. It’s unfortunate that my managers, and their managers, will likely never realise it. I’m not going to be the troublemaker that tells ’em.

    *Back to reading hackernews for 8 hours in the office before I go home and _maybe_ do an hour of two of work where it’s cold, dark and quiet. But I’ll probably work on one of my own projects, instead.*

  2. Lewin Edwards Says:

    I couldn’t agree with this article more completely. I am not an engineer any more (I was one for ~16 years though :) – I work in marketing. I travel a lot, and even when I’m not traveling, I can do 95% of my work without ever leaving my cube. In fact, nobody except my neighbors would notice if I didn’t come in to work at all. So it ought to be an ideal position for telecommuting – but I know that most companies wouldn’t hire someone to remote-work my job(*).

    One reason for this is that it makes the interview process extra high-stakes. It’s hard to judge how productive someone’s going to be in general. It can be even harder to judge how they’ll perform when you can’t see them.

    (*) – Note. I recently negotiated the ability to remote-work from a low-cost-of-living state. But I’ve been with my company >7 years and established my work ethic with all the stakeholders.

  3. William Sierra-Lenhart Says:

    You hit the nail on the head, I’ve been in the tech scene here in Austin for almost a decade and I’ve been surrounded by this commoditization of talent the entire time. It extends to the music scene as well. I don’t think there is a sole mindset you can target but I believe the reality is executive level decisions here are reactionary to those in Cali and the East Coast.

    But you are incorrect about one thing: We put way more than scrambled eggs in tortillas. Have some taco pride.

  4. garann Says:

    @William – You’re right, of course. I’ve just been bitter since Nueva Onda closed. 😉

  5. Evan Says:

    Thank you for this. I couldn’t agree more. Though smug in tone, as you said, it hits the nail on the head with what employers believe is going on as opposed to the reality of being an engineer in a field that is greatly in demand.

    You also pointed out the whole ‘telecommute paradox’ quite well too in that almost every employer I’ve worked for generally discourages it thinking that it’s clearly better and more productive to have everyone schmoozing side-by-side daily, but in reality, most nerds are just as comfortable and perhaps even more productive headphones ablaze in their own little virtual existence in what might as well be an island in the South Pacific.

    Kudos to your follow-up and again thanks.

  6. Phil Hollenback Says:

    Lewin – you worked as an engineer for 16 years and then moved to marketing? This confuses me. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone making a switch like that.

    Garann – you’ve nailed it in this article. Thanks. The issue of companies requiring people to work in the office is a huge problem. Big tech companies like Google and Yahoo have either explicit or implicit rules to that effect. I think this is really hurting the tech world. I think this state of affairs continues to exist because of the way that managers are compensated – managers who keep everyone in the office all the time are indirectly rewarded.

    Also I’m a sixth generation Montana, and I can confirm it is a horrible, horrible place to try and make a living. Simple economics is why I live in California.

  7. Rohit Manohar Says:

    Totally agree with everything. You hit the nail on your head. First off developers are treated like a commodity and they think that throwing a few bucks around gets everything done. Unfortunately, in developing countries like India, the demand vs supply plays in the hands of a seller. Developers are relocated and worked long hours. For instance, the project manager would promise an american client that he can take on a project in codeigniter and hed ask his developer to learn codeigniter in a couple of days and finish up the project. Long hours in the office under stress, for peanuts. Im still searching for the perfect model and the perfect balance for drive motivation. Money is attractive only as long as I can have a good month ahead. Apart from that, money makes the equation putrid, If Im paid more, Im just expected to work more. How does one quantify the quality of work that you put in, in a programming sense. Motivation comes when your interests are vested with the company. That never happens

  8. Lewin Edwards Says:

    Phil – It’s a fairly common path, actually. I wrote a blog post describing my downwards spiral into the dark side of the Force (grin):

    Thinking of the dept in which I work, we have people from engineering, people from tech support, … relatively few of us actually sat down as teenagers and said “I want to go to school to become a Marketing professional”.

    I still work on honest engineering stuff at home, of course, so I’m not completely beyond redemption. Working on a fun little PIC18F886-based project right now, in fact.

    I’m based out of NYC right now, but moving to central FL and working remotely with ~1 visit to NY per month in my future. There was a LOT more to this process than just asking my boss “can I work from the South?” but the bottom line is, that’s what I’ll be doing come January. Closing on our new house this Thursday in fact. You can appreciate the different cost structure – even if my wife doesn’t find a job immediately, we’re better off on a pure cash basis.

  9. Douglas Muth Says:

    Greetings, I’m a software engineer with 13 years experience, currently working at my third startup.

    I feel a bit strange saying this, but I actually hate working from home. That’s right, I HATE it. I have difficulty concentrating and staying on task when I’m in my home, and find it much more easier to focus on my work by coming into the office. (granted, I have a private office and can close the door to block out distractions…)

    But on the subject of the salary, I too agree that you nailed it in the article. Expecting someone to move halfway across the country AND take a pay cut is just plain insensitive and insulting. I would not be surprised if Spiceworks (the company Scott Abel is CEO of) takes a bit of a public relations hit over his comments in that article.

  10. garann Says:

    @Douglas – Someone just raised the same point about working remote on twitter. It definitely isn’t desirable for everyone, I know that. But in such a tight market, I think it’s a strategy companies need to look at to try and recruit people who’d otherwise take a job in a heartbeat based on the type of work, salary, culture, and everything else about the position, but won’t or can’t be in the office. And, again, my impression is that with so few companies offering remote work right now, those that do can have their pick of any devs who like remote work or are interested in trying it out. Tl;dr – I think there can be something for everyone. :)

  11. Robert Says:

    Great stuff. It reminds me of “Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It” and the whole ROWE thing. I think the people and companies that wake up and do the whole remote workforce thing will be the ones that have happier employees, better products, and find that they’ve somehow stumbled upon a huge competitive advantage.

  12. Mike Ickes Says:

    I agree with your pov. I´ll add that a lot of companies do not realize the bang they get for their buck. Before I was laid off I telecommuted full time and I know I easily put in more than the requisite 40 hour work week. Many a nite I liked to relax by working on an assigned project instead of watching the same old ¨fill in your reality tv train wreck¨ or learn some new programming paradigm at my own expense.

  13. Damian Says:

    If you think Austin TX is bad, try the Washington DC area.

    Finding quality people is easy. Finding a quality company is difficult, especially on the government contract side.

  14. Dan Says:

    I think I just found a new favorite blogger.

    I have kind of a dumb question. What does the title of the article mean? “the 150k solution”. Is that meant to be the salary at which a normal software engineer would consider moving to Austin?

    On a side note, and I hope you don’t take offense to this. Your writing style made me think I was reading a guy’s writing, and I hadn’t really looked around on your site yet, so I had no idea you weren’t a guy. It’s not just the bad language, but you’re actually really aggressive in tone which is refreshing considering all the articles lately about how women don’t aggressively negotiate their salaries, etc.

  15. garann Says:

    @Dan – I remember reading something about that phenomenon in writing.. Many people will assume the narrator is just like themselves until they see some explicit indication otherwise. I wonder if maybe that’s part of it, cause to me this reads like something I can imagine any of a number of women I know saying. But I agree, passivity and salary negotiation are not an awesome combo. :)

  16. Chase Farmer Says:

    As someone who has been ‘looking around’ recently for a new engineering position, I think you hit the nail on the head with many of your points. Especially IRC. The fact that I can jump on there at 3am and get help from someone in New Zealand with expert knowledge of what I’m trying to do beats the hell out of any 9-5 interaction I’ve ever had in a pinch.

    I read that article on HN over the weekend and had to take a step back. Something just didn’t smell right. Thanks for the clarification.

  17. Rachelle McKinney Says:

    Thanks for the insightful commentary. As a copy/marketing writer, who moved FROM San Francisco 6 years ago, I am feeling much of the same angst. I’m knocked out of the interview process when asked to be adequately compensated for my skill level and experience or vice versa, rejected time and time again after 5 to 6 rounds of interviews when the hiring mgr becomes threatened by the same level of experience (the one requested in a posting).

    I also get sick to my stomach when I hear of mgmt’s directive to hire someone “fresh”, with “new ideas” or gasp, someone with a new point-of-view. The reality is, they hire the mirror image of themselves every damn time, resulting in the unimaginative and uninspired drones that define the cultures of many Austin companies.

  18. Devin Says:

    I’m in the SF Bay area, and asking around it seems like companies here are happy to do total telecommuting (as contrasted to work-from-home a few days a week from across town) for the right candidate, but some telecommuting friends say they were asked to take a bit of a pay cut because it’s more difficult to validate that they are putting in the hours, more time-consuming for their supervisor and team to communicate with them, and without random hallway conversations, they make less of a contribution to the team.

    That said, the conventional wisdom from a few years back is that there are other risks to a telecommuting employee that are worth worrying about – not being visible and getting less or none of the credit for their work can leave them vulnerable during layoffs and less likely to get raises and promotions (hello Mike at 12:28 pm above?).

    Some reasonable excuses for not being able to offer telecommuting might include a company is too small or new, or the company deals with (notice triggering) sensitive data like health or financial records (although they should then be building non-sensitive sample datasets and development systems).

    Not many good excuses come to mind for not making it available at all, not for a well established company/team hurting for talent.

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    […] the $150k solution Garann Means: "If your company makes something entirely uninteresting, that’s fine. We need useful software to fill niches, or our whole industry suffers. If you make a boring thing, there are two things you can do to still attract good talent. First, if you don’t need a senior dev, don’t hire one. Hire a junior person, give them the chance to architect small changes to the system, help them grow as an engineer. If you do need a senior person, hire them, but carve out 10% or 20% time for them to do open source stuff or personal projects or whatever. And don’t get all butthurt about paying them to do things that “don’t create value”. You probably use open source software. Your devs’ skillsets need the support of a larger community to stay current. And bored developers quit producing and, well, quit. If you can’t make your product interesting, that doesn’t mean you can’t make your engineers’ jobs interesting, and you’ll benefit indirectly." (tagged: business recruiting hiring ) […]

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  24. Julia Says:

    I lived here for 3 months and now moving back to the Bay area. With companies screaming about lack of talent and my skills being seemingly in shortage, I cannot get a job here. After things started to fall under certain patterns, I don’t see how it would change.

    1. A lot of sales talks and the same is expected from engineering applicants. It feels like if an applicant cannot “impress” and “sell”, they are dismissed right away and nobody bothers what code they can write.
    2. Plenty of jobs advertised, with companies casually burning through qualified candidates, then positions going unfilled and managers screaming about lack of talent. Including Junior positions. If nobody is good enough for us, our own balls look bigger. This is big ego, guys, not people needed to do the job.
    3. Noticeable lack of diversity (outside of any explanation by statistics) and a white boys club spirit. Would it explain the “sales” culture?

  25. Code Machine Says:

    Excellent article; it needed to be written. These jackasses think because they have a ping pong table in the lunch room they should get developers at half price. When that plan fails they whine about how they can’t find any top developers.

  26. Kyle Says:

    OK, brief back story: I’m a former Firefighter/Paramedic with a blown out knee. As of 9 months ago, no more fire service for me :( Through various connections, I find myself working as an IT recruiter (HATE IT. I’m pursuing an education in software development and teaching myself Javascript as we speak).

    To the point, I’m sitting right in the middle of this equation all day long, every day. A lot of these companies come to us because they’ve had a hard time finding quality developers (they don’t want to pay market value, of course). So, they throw the description to a recruiting firm and let them scour the candidate pool for the right fit. The right fit generally means: knocking the candidate down as far as you can and getting the bill rate up as high as you can (this is why I make a shitty recruiter; apparently I have a soul). And guess what usually happens? Companies paying almost the same amount as they would have if they’d decided to compensate appropriately in the first place! Of course, that usually ends up happening after they’ve have their little “coming to Jesus” and realize they need to pay more if they ever expect to find anybody at all (and they missed out on that awesome dev who passed up their cheap asses up 6 months ago).

    For those of you who hate recruiters, I understand why: The last thing you need on top of cheap ass companies who won’t pay what you’re worth, is some money grubbing middle man trying to scrape even more off the top. Hell, I even hate myself right now. Can’t wait to get on the other side of these damn phones.

    Sorry, derailed a bit. Good read Garann!