Unemployment in the United States is still at a brutal 9.6%, but for software engineers the job market couldn’t look much better.
Everyone in tech knows that there is a serious engineering deficit, but apparently no one outside tech knows about it, so new talent isn’t flooding in to fill the demand. We’ve heard from startups like HowAboutWe that have already secured series A funding, and are offering equity, and are still struggling to find good engineers. Paul Dix, a former Google engineer who is launching his own startup, Market.io, tells us he gets multiple job calls per week even though all his public profiles explicitly say not to bother him.
An anecdote to show just how severe this has become: last week, we happened to mention we were working on this story to a junior VC we were meeting with. He promptly opened up his backpack and pulled out a copy of Ruby on Rails for Dummies.
It’s difficult to see how the market for programming talent could be so far out of sync with the wider job market. One would expect wages (or, in the case of early-stage startups, equity offers) for programmers to rise, encouraging more people to learn these skills until the demand was met.
Instead, demand for software engineers has soared ever further ahead of supply. Here’s why.
The most obvious cause of increased software developer demand is that the Internet is still rapidly growing; the tech sector accounts for an ever bigger chunk of the economy. Young companies like Google have created thousands of new programming jobs. More recently, Twitter, Facebook, and Zynga have been throwing money at every engineer they can find.
But the problem is especially bad in the startup community, because of the surge in early stage funding. Getting new consumer web companies off the ground is vastly cheaper today than it was just a few years ago; as a result, venture capitalists and angel investors are increasingly focused on seed stage investments. Since such investments are much smaller than later round ones, that means far more companies are getting funded, and they all need engineers to get them up and running.
This puts non-technical entrepreneurs in a very tough position. The conventional wisdom these days is that great startup ideas are a dime a dozen, and that what matters is execution. Seed funding, meanwhile, is incredibly easy to come by. So a top notch Ruby developer has very little incentive to help you execute your brilliant idea, when he could just as easily start his own company and get funded.
The more difficult question is why the market hasn’t met this surging demand for programmers. A few of the problems:
- A small part of the problem can be accounted for by the fact that the supply of skilled labour simply can’t change overnight. You can’t become a top-notch programmer overnight, and becoming skilled and proven takes years. Of course, this explanation only goes so far, because, with a few brief exceptions after the last two market crashes, this shortage has been around and acute for the past decade.
- Evan Korth, a computer science professor at NYU and cofounder of HackNY, tells us that people outside of tech, and college students in particular, are largely ignorant of how lucrative the opportunities are for programmers. This partly the result of stale media narratives, he thinks. In 1999, everyone was told that becoming a computer geek was the path to riches. Then the dotcom bubble burst, and the media was writing about out-of-work coders with no options. Programming skills were in high demand again before long, but the media was more concerned with the largely make-believe narrative that programming jobs were all being outsourced to India. So opportunistic college students are still focused on Wall Street.
Eventually, we’re sure, the market will provide. But for now, first time entrepreneurs are finding that venture cash is much easier to come by then quality engineering talent. And experienced engineers are writing their own ticket.
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