2014.02.23 The War for Talent

Even with the constant inflow of talented techies there are more people who want to hire them than there are talented people.

One reason is that there are so many companies who feel the need to be in or close to Silicon Valley. Headquarters may be in Portland, Oregon, Bjerringbro, Denmark, or Stockholm, Sweden, but if you are in tech, chance is that you have or want to have a presence in the area.

Another reason is that many companies have too narrow a focus: Male, Software engineering degree, 24-35 years old, with min 3 years of experience. It is not worded quite like that, that would be illegal, but there are more discrete ways you can segregate if you are uncomfortable with a heterogeneous work force. If you evaluate creativity by asking questions referring to gaming you will, not surprisingly, get most eloquent responses from gamers. That, however, is a discussion for another day.

According to a sample of HR leaders and head hunters who spoke to a gathering of C-level executives in early February, the market for talent is about as hot as back in the crazy dot-com days in the last years of the previous century. Back then, the Internet was taking off and if you knew HTML you had a job. Today, The Internet of Things, 3D Printing, Big Data are front and center. If you know statistics, you have a job.

The same HR insiders estimate that more than half of all positions are filled through referrals. Referrals can be that you hire one person from another company and soon there is a whole team joining that first person. Without poaching, it is quite possible to make a job opening known in one's network and cut the requirements so they fit the person you want. Or referral can be dropping a name of a former colleague to somebody who needs such a person, and the job opening needs never be public if there is a good fit. Even if this is all done with the best of intentions, ref Harward Business Review it also leads to homogeneity - the above "discussion for another day".

For recent immigrants the hot market is in itself a boon if you have the desired qualifications. But the referral part emphasizes how important it is to network. I talked to a seasoned expatriate and he told me that his first action item when arriving in a new location was to contact the local Chamber of Commerce, Expat organization, or whatever was a good networking organization and offer his help. They usually needed a board member or a helping hand and within a month he had a network into the local community.

Mind you, he offered to help - he didn't just join for them to help him. And all networking research shows that this is the correct sequence. Networking is first and foremost about "What can I do for you?" followed not by quid-pro-quo but by pass-it-forward. Eventually you will benefit.

A hot market means sign-on bonuses (compensation for stock options that the employees must wave good bye to by switching employer), naturally stock options in the new company, perhaps relocation compensation, and for many employees of Facebook or Google or other bigger companies in the South Bay it also means free bus transportation from their homes in San Francisco.

On the plus-side, there is very low high-tech unemployment. The flip-side is a traffic nightmare, a housing nightmare, and a labor market that is so segregated that communicating across the ever broader gorge between highly paid techies and normal people is getting difficult. Too often very inflammatory rhetoric must be apologized for, "explained", or both. A brilliant example was Tom Perkins' letter to The Wall Street Journal drawing a parallel between Occupy Wall St. and Kristallnacht, the most ever commented on in WSJ's history.

Having experienced the crazy dot-com days, the burst bubble, the slow climb, the recession during the teens and now a crazy new job market, it makes me sad that great companies with mottos like "Don't be evil" (Google), "Facebook is a social utility that connects you with the people around you", or "Relationships matter" (LinkedIn) can become so tone deaf to anything that is not within their own confined circle. At times it appears as if their motto is only related to their products, not to their place in society.

Who got the fine idea of parking big busses in the public transportation pockets without voluntarily offering compensation to the transportation agency or the city? Why does it take a public uproar for these companies to think about the community they live in, not just their own interests? Don't they understand that we are all their customers?

The job market for very intelligent people is so hot that some now behave as if they own the San Francisco Peninsula. Let us hope that the lack of empathy for the people they squeeze out of the community displayed by a minority of very immature loudmouths doesn't turn the "War for Talent" into the "War on Talent". Because Silicon Valley has in the past had a very good track record for giving everybody a slice of an ever bigger pie.

"Don't be evil to the people around you. They matter."