Tech talent gap requires action on all fronts

by Jennifer Joyner ([email protected]) 254 views 

When Sean Cannon graduated from Harding University in May, he knew two things: he wanted to be a software engineer, and he wanted to live in Northwest Arkansas.

It seemed reasonable to him at the time. However, armed with a general studies degree and little-to-no professional experience, Cannon’s plan didn’t come together as easily or as quickly as he hoped. 

“I probably could have found a job writing rejection letters by the end of my job search,” he said.

Cannon had dabbled in computers all his life, but he didn’t have the diploma to show for it.

“I don’t have as long a rap sheet as someone with, say, a full computer science degree,” he said. “That didn’t make getting a job impossible, but that meant I really had to stand out in order to be seriously considered for a potential position.”

Despite his lack of a degree, Cannon’s job search ended Aug. 30, when he was hired as a developer by Springdale-based training products company, SVI.

Small- and mid-sized technology companies in Northwest Arkansas disagree on whether a bachelor’s degree in computer science is necessary to work in the tech world.

Some argue a computer science degree does not properly prepare students for the majority of tech jobs available, and it’s time for the tide to turn with employers’ expectations. Others say the degree requirement will only gain strength as the standard.

Meanwhile, many employers are feeling a tech talent shortage, even as young developers struggle to find work.

“No. 1, there’s a talent shortage in general,” said Casey Kinsey, president and principal consultant at Lofty Labs in Fayetteville. “We’re cranking out more engineering jobs than there are qualified workers, regardless of skill level.”

It’s a reflection of a national trend, and projections show growth in the technology sector is not slowing down any time soon. Where the region might differ from more tech-centric areas is in the experience gap.

“We have a hard time finding senior-level talent here, but it exists,” Kinsey said. “Often, it’s a matter of courting that talent — often from other companies — or striking when they’re moving.

“That’s a challenging world, different from Seattle or somewhere on the West Coast, where you can throw out a job posting for people with eight to 10 years’ experience and have 100 people line up at your door. We don’t have that here,” Kinsey said.

The tech industry is still young in Arkansas. A few years ago, Northwest Arkansas didn’t have the entry-level staff, so it doesn’t have that group that is graduating to the next rank, he said.

“That senior-level staff only exists if we have junior and entry-level developers getting into positions and learning the skills,” Kinsey said.


Degree or No Degree?

Kinsey is among the local employers who believe a good strategy for gaining senior-level talent is to build it from the ground up by hiring green developers and teaching them, which requires an investment in a mentor for the individual and giving the employee room to learn. It’s something many area employers seem to agree on, although the temptation to tap into deeper talent pools out of state is still there, and it is often the tactic used, especially by larger companies.

A consensus on the education requirement is a bit harder to find.

Kinsey believes it’s time to do away with the notion, both on the talent and the hiring side, that you need a computer science degree for software engineering jobs.

“I think that a bachelor’s degree in computer science is kind of antiquated. We are probably better off taking really smart, or at least very interested, high school graduates and getting them into entry-level positions,” Kinsey said.

He does point out a degree is crucial for certain, specific jobs, especially those involving hardware, but not for 90 to 95% of the available tech jobs, he said.

Kinsey dropped out of college 10 years ago at age 19 to take a job as web developer for the Log Cabin Democrat in Conway.

From there, he built a career. He worked remotely for companies in large cities, taking on the Public Broadcasting Service as a client while working as consultant for a company in Washington, D.C., and acting as chief technology officer for a startup in New York City.

In 2014, he founded his company, which now employs six staff and is on-track to make between $500,000 and $750,000 this year.

“Traditionally, in a lot of organizations, I don’t think I’d have made it past the first round of interviews, because of an educational requirement,” he said.

Blake Johnston had a similar experience. He took a summer job during college working as a developer for a company called Decisions Made Easy in Bentonville. He got the job because a friend’s mom knew he was “good with computers.”

When the company offered him a full-time job, he decided to take a semester off in 2006 and accepted the position.

One semester became two semesters, and then he ended up never going back.

The company he was working for was acquired by Nielsen in 2007, and Johnston worked there for several years, before taking a job as a developer at RevUnit in Bentonville earlier this year.


Attracting Talent

Ali Mirian, senior vice president of product at Collective Bias in Rogers, has a different take on the college degree requirement.

“In the future it will be table stakes that software engineers come with at least a computer science Bachelor of Science degree or higher. But today there are great engineers without degrees, and we shouldn’t ignore them,” Mirian said. “Tech startups like Collective Bias live and die by the talent they can attract.”

Mirian resides in New York City but travels often to the Rogers headquarters, tasked with staffing the tech talent for the company, now comprised of 30 data scientists and software engineers.

Collective Bias has found a unique level of success building its engineering staff, he said. “Hopefully, Collective Bias will be a harbinger for the region.

“We’ve done a pretty decent job of growing the staff over the last year and a half, but we think we’ll hit the point of diminishing returns soon,” Mirian said.

To Mirian, one near-immediate solution is entrepreneurship.

“The key to getting talent here is to allow entrepreneurs to feed their ideas, and then the talent will come,” he said, pointing to DataRank as a success story, a homegrown startup that sprung from the Northwest Arkansas talent pool and was acquired by a Seattle-based tech company in October 2015.

“The area’s a great place to live,” Mirian said.

Michael Paladino, chief technology officer at RevUnit, agrees that attracting outside talent is important.

“We need to continue marketing the amazing lifestyle that Northwest Arkansas offers and continue to relocate talent to the area,” he said.

Also, as a more long-term solution, Paladino suggests education and industry need to continue to work closely together to grow the regional talent base.

“On the education side, every level needs to participate,” he said. “Elementary and middle schools can get students excited about technology through programs like Hour of Code and AR Girls Code. Junior highs and high schools can help students connect their passions to real-world scenarios through job shadowing and programs like Bentonville Ignite that allow those students to interact with actual employees. Higher education can continue to pursue innovative approaches such as boot camp-style programs like Arkansas Coding Academy and the University of Arkansas Global Campus IT readiness program.”

Johnston is one of the instructors for the UA IT readiness program, which is mostly comprised of adult professionals looking to make a career change to tech.

It’s an example of a program that needs to be in communication with companies, Paladino said.

“As employers, we should spend time working with the various education initiatives to help them understand how to best prepare students for IT positions,” he said.