The Tech Talent Shortage Is a Lie

Everybody knows hiring is difficult for tech companies.

The Huffington Post called the shortage “devastating,” and the Obama administration’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology predicted a shortfall of 1 million technical professionals by 2020. What’s more, 90 percent of executives report that they struggle to recruit and retain tech talent.

But as an engineer, founder and tech executive, I see a certain absurdity in this conversation — I’ve never thought talented people are particularly tough to find. Perhaps I don’t understand because I’m lucky and haven’t faced the same challenges as other tech CEOs, but I don’t think so. I think I, too, have lived those experiences.

In fact, I’ve come to believe the so-called “talent shortage” is a lie — the real shortage is of companies that are willing to invest in talented people.

Talent Is A Euphemism

If you weren’t aware, there is a so-called talent war raging around us, borne by fear of competition for top-tier engineers.

Experienced engineers have their choice of employers, and they’re regularly lured by opportunities boasting a higher salary, a better culture or more meaningful work.

Unsurprisingly, this has spawned an arms race where companies like Facebook and Google keep swapping engineers like they’re pawns in chess. It’s also closed the doors for talented people who need an opportunity to develop and demonstrate their skills.

On the surface, this fierce competition seems to support the talent shortage narrative. But when we look at it more closely, it raises some awkward questions.

Talent isn’t a finite resource; it’s abundantly present.

We frame the discussion as if people are talent. In reality, people have talent. This euphemism isn’t without consequences; it limits the scope of solutions we’re willing to consider. I’m certain there’s no shortage of people with inborn talent, and I don’t like the euphemism’s implications that talent is a limited resource and we’re somehow lacking enough raw ability.

No, talent isn’t a finite resource; it’s abundantly present. But for talented people to meaningfully contribute, their talents must be developed in the right environment.

Developing Tomorrow’s Engineers

Who should be responsible for developing talent? On one side, we have enthusiastic, curious people without much experience. On another, we have employers who want experienced people but don’t want to invest in the training themselves. And between them, we have colleges that offer students educational groundwork in computer science but don’t want to transform into coding trade schools.

Budding engineers are talented and eager to learn. And schools are right — their job is to educate, not to train. The duty of cultivating talent lies with employers.

And therein lies the problem: The real shortage isn’t of talented people; it’s of employers (and, by implication, society) who are willing or able to nurture talented people.

Some companies try to bridge the gap with internships, but this strategy often fails. Few businesses give interns real coding assignments or support them adequately. Many can’t or won’t pay interns, which erects a privilege barrier by excluding anyone who doesn’t have savings to weather working for nothing for a few months.

Proficiency in software development takes five to 10 years to mature.

And internships aren’t enough, even if we did remedy these problems. Proficiency in software development takes five to 10 years to mature. Employers want to reap those rewards, but many are disinclined or unable to sow the seeds — much less wait for those seeds to grow.

This problem won’t be solved through squabbles over today’s best engineers; it requires us to invest in promising, smart people and recognize the talent we currently ignore.

Barriers To Entry

Although we have plenty of talented people interested in technology, two factors are holding back more than half of society from the tech sector.

Racial And Gender Inequality

Opportunity inequality has become so pervasive that minority tech employees are banding together with the explicit purpose of increasing their numbers in the space. If you’re a tech leader, you must fight against this inequality to benefit from talented people of all stripes.

Racial minorities are woefully underrepresented in the tech industry. And it’s not just a matter of race, either. Many don’t remember it, but women were once much more prevalent in tech. However, the proportion of female computer science students has halved since its heyday in the mid-1980s. And the women who do enter engineering are leaving at an astonishing rate.

These problems aren’t self-correcting; their resolution requires dedication from leadership. We’re all obligated to take the first step to reverse this worrisome, decades-long minority flight by acknowledging the issue and magnifying diverse voices.

If our industry has any hope of becoming more inclusive — which is a key step to solving our so-called “talent shortage” — we must be understanding, empathetic and open to others’ viewpoints.

Institutionalization Of Privilege

I was raised on a rural farm. By American standards, I was poor. I used to think I wasn’t privileged, but I now recognize that as a white, educated, American male, I am inherently more privileged than most.

The so-called “talent shortage” is a lie — the real shortage is of companies that are willing to invest in talented people.

I am — like so many others in the tech industry — part of the institution of privilege and power that has driven diversity from our ranks. Despite the tech industry’s propensity to hire people of privilege, research shows that people with different backgrounds are no less capable or successful as software engineers than those from privileged circles. And there are strong bottom-line arguments for a more diverse workplace.

I understand entrepreneurs’ reluctance to gamble on someone who doesn’t come from their network. A bad hire puts the company at risk, so putting competent people in the right roles is critical. We naturally hire people we already know, but it perpetuates privileged cliques and ultimately adds risk.

Fixing The Real Shortage

Unfortunately, the solution to our woes is the last thing employers want to hear: We have to work to address the cause, not the effects.

The brightest people want to work for the best companies, so the best way to retain talented teammates is with a culture where they want to stay and grow. The rising tide lifts all boats, and nobody wins in the “talent grab” game until we collectively conquer it.

It begins by changing the conversation. Instead of squabbling over an artificially limited talent pool, we must invest resources to develop talented people — even though another company may snatch them away. And we need to work for justice and equality, embracing the differences between us. Both efforts will be difficult, but at least we’ll be digging at the problem’s roots instead of hacking at its leaves.

We can solve this if we commit ourselves to it. When we do, we’ll finally realize how much talent has been in front of us the whole time.