Last week, I loaded up my blog aggregator and I was pleased to see Joel Spolsky had written a new article on architecture astronauts. He made a good point about how Microsoft is rewriting the same software over and over and no one seems to care. I totally agree with Joel's argument about architecture astronauts as we are wasting precious intellectual resources and solving the same issues over and over.  (Side note: an interesting read about how we're wasting massive amounts of brainpower.)

However, that's not what I'm writing about today. I found myself reading faster and faster as I progressed through the article, reading the last paragraph at a frenetic pace. You can definitely feel Joel's frustration - the big boys in the industry are "stealing" all the great programmers by offering starting salaries leagues above what smaller companies can offer. Why do I think Joel's frustration is paradoxical?

Joel's Premises

  • Hire only the top quality people
  • Treat your employees as if they were superstars in your beautiful New York offices - spare no expense.
  • Build a closely-knit team that works on challenging problems to retain your employees
  • Set an example as being the best damn place for a software engineer to work and inspire millions of developers to follow your example.

Joel's Aspirations

  • Recruitment problem: solved.
  • Develop and commercialize high quality software
  • Thanks to a well-defined (and very selective) hiring process, retire from software at age 45 to start your own avocado grove as a hobby.

The Contradiction

Okay... I'm generalizing just because I find it ironic to see Joel having hiring woes. Even if as a general rule things are going well, that doesn't mean you get anyone you want. Everyone has hiring frustrations, even those who set the example. However, I'm left to wonder... has anything changed in the context of hiring? Is there anything you need to do differently today to grab the best technical talent? I can't answer these questions myself, but I see lots of companies struggle with hiring.

I do agree that it is impossible for smaller companies to compete with some of these starting salaries (unless they are keen on burning VC money) but smaller firms do have (many) advantages. But what are they?

1. Get back in the kitchen and make me some pie

What I like most working for a startup (and it would be the case even if it wasn't mine) is the opportunity to touch a bit of everything (engineering, marketing, sales, legal, etc.). Even if you go work for a 40-person startup, if you're interested in contributing to elements which aren't related to your primary function (software developer), you probably can help out. For example, if you think the company's website doesn't communicate what the company does, you can take a step back, think about it a bit, and propose enhancements. (Complaining doesn't bring you anywhere, but constructive criticism helps everyone out!).

If you're a hardcore coder, you can still benefit from working for a smaller company, because you'll have a greater impact on the final product.

However, this fact is not something that has changed in the hiring context... what has?

2. Not everyone wants to work in New York, Redmond or Mountain View.

This is one key differentiating factor for startups. Not all of the world's most talented individual feel inclined to move to get a job and I feel the number of people who will start their own software business in their home town will increase in the coming decade. In the past, we've seen a few companies such as Eric Sink's SourceGear in Illinois do well even if their offices are in the middle of nowhere, so to speak. This is due partly because of increased high-speed Internet availability combined with the lower cost to start your own software business. I think we'll definitely see more success stories from entrepreneurs living in non-metropolitan areas over the next decade because starting your own business (or working for a local one) is such an attractive alternative. It's funny how making it easy to go global causes the creation of many smaller local hubs.

On a related subject, I don't recall that many local startups trying to recruit us while we were software engineering students at the University of Ottawa... there were a few but we were mostly solicited by IBM and Research In Motion (leading to the infamous "hey! do you want a RIM job?" quote). If you're a competent student today, you should definitely look around at local startups that are working on interesting concepts.

3. You can read about it on the Internet

There are tons of people talking about their software startup experiences on the Internet and it's easier to actively participate in the community today than it was a decade or so ago. I can't really see myself connecting to a BBS with my 14.4kbps modem to learn about software startups. Today, you can find people with similar interests very easily but, best of all, you can learn from their experience.

Rather than enumerate a long list of advantages that you wouldn't bother to read, I'd like to ask you an open ended question.

What do you think will change in the way we hire software engineers in the next decade?

Please feel free to discuss in the comments. Ideas: Outsourcing? Co-working? Telecommuting? Nothing at all?

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