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Startups and the Great Techie Shortage

Lean Hackman
Lean Hackman

Matt Barrie heaved himself onto his hind legs recently to hold forth about how Australia is never going to have an #ideasboom until someone else fixes his recruitment problem.

In fact, he’s been holding forth on this subject for a while now. At least a couple of years. So it’s surprising that the job adverts on only need a couple of years’ experience. You would have thought, being the smart strategic thinker that he undoubtedly is, that he would have solved this problem by now.

If Freelancer had started a training program for developers back in 2012 when we first heard they were having this problem, then they wouldn’t have this problem. They’d have a continuous stream of trained, experienced developers ready to rock and roll.

I’m picking on Freelancer here only because Mr Barrie spoke out about it at such length. But it’s a common complaint for a lot of mature startups, both here and abroad.

For some reason mature startups don’t think it’s their job to train the people they need as they scale. Somehow that’s someone else’s problem. Universities come in for some flak for not providing graduates ready to work in industry. When that’s blatantly and obviously NOT THEIR JOB. Universities are not vocational – TAFEs and apprenticeships are vocational. We’ve always known this.

This is especially true of Computer Science degrees. There’s a famous quote: Computer Science is to IT as Astronomy is to Telescope Maintenance. Computer science degrees teach all sorts of abstract algorithmic goodness, aiming to provide graduates who can research the next technological breakthrough in AI (or whatever). It’s not their job to turn out code monkeys who know how to turn Idea Guy brainfarts into yet more Rails sites.

There is no reason why a web developer needs a degree in Computer Science, or a degree in anything at all. Most developers teach themselves how to code, and the experience from people who have studied CS at Uni is that students are expected to know how to code already before they even get to Uni. Startups requiring new employees to have a degree in CS is like a supermarket requiring new checkout staff to have a diploma in advanced mathematics.

This problem has got nothing to do with Universities, or visa programs for that matter. Germany has an apprenticeship scheme to train developers. Works really well. Everyone’s happy with it. But no, somehow that will never work here. We need to copy the really bad American model and have unpaid graduate interns.

With no industry training model, is it really surprising that we don’t have enough new people in the industry? Freelancer is looking for someone with 2 years’ experience. So is everyone else. The simple application of logic will demonstrate that if everyone is looking for candidates with 2 years’ experience then the chances of getting any new people in the industry is zero.

Startups need to move fast, and experienced developers is part of that, for sure. But beyond a certain size there’s easily enough room to take on trainees. A two-year “veteran” developer is going to take a while learning the peculiarities of a startup’s code base and procedures anyway. Actually, someone with two years of commercial experience isn’t a veteran, they’ve really only just begun to acquire the ingrained cynicism and jaded pessimism skills that true veteran developers take for granted.

Someone has to take the newbies and train them. And if you’re not prepared to do that, Mr Barrie, then you really don’t have the right to get in the national press and whinge about everyone else not doing it for you.

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Lean Hackman

Lean Hackman

Lean Hackman is a pseudonym for a West Australian startup person who likes anonymity. When Lean isn't ranting here, you can find him near pizza, beer, startups and antisocial behaviour, often all at the same time.
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