State’s double-whammy: Not enough schools teach programming, and even students who learn get siphoned off to NYC, Stamford and Boston
Anyone know a computer programmer?
If so, New Haven’s looking for you.
The “lack of talent” complaint has been something of a broken record in Connecticut recently, most notably in the manufacturing industry. But it’s something of a common issue in the tech sector, which poses a hurdle to New Haven’s steadily growing innovation sector.
State government officials in Connecticut have shown considerable interest in stimulating entrepreneurial activity, especially with the launch of the CTNext innovation ecosystem in 2012 that established four “innovation hubs” in New Haven, Hartford, Stamford and Storrs.
CTNext provides an array of resources to entrepreneurs and startup ventures, including access to funding, incubator space, mentors, seminars and more. But that still doesn’t put qualified candidates at employers’ doorsteps.
The Connecticut IT Job Trends report (compiled by Skillproof) for November shows job openings are growing year over year: Compare 620 IT job openings in October of last year to 690 openings this year, with the most needed skills being not just business analysis but programming know-how in languages like SQL and Java.
But New Haven’s blessing and curse of proximity to the major cities and technology hubs of Boston and New York means it’s easy to lose the talent that is incubated here. A notable example of “startup flight” is the Yale-spawned Panorama Education, which decamped last year for Boston, citing a lack of sufficient talent in south-central Connecticut.
Bruce Seymour is managing director of MEA Mobile, an Elm Street software company that develops apps such as Printicular, which allows users to send photos from their mobile phones to Walgreens stores for high-quality printing. The app recently processed its four millionth print, and the company is going public next year.
Seymour is dedicated to New Haven and wants to keep his company here, but that doesn’t mean recruitment hasn’t been a challenge.
“There’s definitely a shortage [of qualified technology workers], and one of the issues is that the universities aren’t teaching the skills that are required,” he says. “It’s a challenge because the technology landscape changes so fast you can’t keep up with it.”
Nevertheless, he adds, students are still learning the fundamentals that straddle multiple disciplines — it’s just a matter of translating those into real-world experiences.
Seymour has taken advantage of Connecticut Innovations Inc.’s (CII) Technology Talent Bridge program, which links small tech companies with undergraduate interns in what is supposed to create a win-win: the company fills positions, and Connecticut retains its talent.
“There should be more programs like it,” he says. The Talent Bridge program gives a $25,000 grant to offset the costs of training the interns, thereby reducing the burden. “I can train people all day long, but I can’t afford to,” he explains. “I have to make money.”
Getting the real-world experience necessary to be a viable job candidate is an especially daunting obstacle when you’re fresh out of school. The A100 apprenticeship program tries to bridge that gap, giving promising computer-science grads a chance to work in real-world settings on real projects. The program is run by local development firm Independent Software. Its founder, Derek Koch is also head of The Grid, New Haven’s branch of Connecticut’s statewide Innovation Ecosystem initiative designed to stimulate entrepreneurism.
Koch has been one of the most visible figures in New Haven’s growing startup scene; he says hooking up students and recent graduates with rewarding work experience will help them not only to learn but want to remain here and build careers.
“A lot of people immediately leave [after college] but if they stay in the local environment they put down roots. Even if they don’t stay forever, it roots them long enough for something else to take shape. At minimum it creates a larger community,” he says. Nevertheless, he adds, “It’s not fair to say the workforce is where it needs to be, because it’s definitely not.”
A100 Program Director Krishna Sampath says the initiative’s apprenticeships provides that extra world experience that a student won’t necessarily have with just school alone, particularly when it comes to collaborating and working with others.
“To get a job and be successful on day one, you really have to have a lot of work experience,” he says. “That’s why we’re doing it this way in a simulated job-like environment. You’re always going to be working with other people. This gives [apprentices] those experiences they can talk about in a job interview.”
There is still an in for those who aren’t the right candidates for A100 though. Independent Software hosts a weekly Study Hall event that allows beginners and experienced programmers alike to discuss and work on projects together.
Rob Steller is founder and CEO of West Hartford-based Stellar Learning Innovations, which develops educational programs and Web apps. He has benefited in hiring a software developer from the A100 program but bemoans the lack of similar resources in the Hartford area, and the challenge in getting funding as an educational startup.
“I don’t think we have a shortage of talent, but a lot of it may go to Boston or New York — which then causes a vacuum here,” he says. “It’s more an issue that Connecticut is not the best place for startups. The state tends to invest more in biotech and pharma companies. A lot of startup people I meet outside Connecticut always ask me why the hell I’m still there.”
The answer to that quandary is that Steller, like most who chose to remain in Connecticut, love living here, have set down roots and built networks here, but in the meantime the promise of greater opportunity in New York and Boston can be tempting.
Jonathan Hochman is the founder of Cheshire-based marketing and technology firm Hochman Consultants, which specializes in Web development and performance. The 1990 Yale computer science graduate says some of the blame for the lack of tech talent can be laid on his alma mater. Acknowledging that the number of computer science majors at Yale has increased in recent years (he says there were only about 50 when he was a student), the department has barely expanded.
“The talent pool is weak because our top university in the state isn’t training as many computer scientists as we need,” says Hochman. “Imagine what Connecticut would be like if Yale was putting out as many [computer-science grads] as Stanford. MIT was responsible for all the technology companies on Rt. 128 in Massachusetts; they’re anchored around universities. I’d say it’s a missed opportunity for Connecticut and Yale.”
Hochman argues that turning out more computer science graduates from Yale would have a profound impact on the economy of the region and state. It’s those graduates who would put their ideas to use and start new companies. Connecticut already has a strong presence of venture capital on its side.”
And then would come the ripple effect: “They will go and become professors in other universities in Connecticut, they’ll become the hot startups, the mentors and the angel investors that will then fund a new generation,” Hochman says. “Even if the community colleges wanted to train people in coding, you need qualified instructors — and those are few and far between.”
Data-management software developer Core Informatics, however, doesn’t seem to have had a problem finding qualified programmers. The company has not only found talent through such programs as A100, but through Connecticut universities as well. He says Core may be at an advantage since it works in the bio- and life sciences — both surging industry sectors in the state — but whether there are sufficient qualified workers depends on the employer.
“It depends what your requirements are: If you’re looking for general-purpose programming experience and computer sciences, there’s plenty of that available,” he says. “But if you’re UBS and you want a programmer who also has an MBA in finance or any domain experience in your industry, that does make it more challenging. You’re shrinking your pool of possible candidates” by remaining in Connecticut.
New Haven Economic Development Administrator Matthew Nemerson, longtime president of the Connecticut Technology Council, says that regardless of fluctuating talent availability in New Haven, businesses here will still get things done even if it means outsourcing.
“If a business person wakes up this morning and has money to develop a new product, one way or another they’ll get it done,” he says. “They might be annoyed that their developer is 3,000 miles away, but it gets done. Otherwise they can’t compete.”
But that doesn’t mean New Haven doesn’t need to up its game.
“Having said that, we absolutely need to have more great developers here,” Nemerson says. “If a businessperson wakes up and there’s no electricity, they’ll think ‘I have to move to a better town.’ Labor is the same way. Anyone who can’t get the job done will have a board of directors telling them, ‘Move 70 miles [to New York], you dummy.’ We’re trying to avoid that.”
When it comes to avoiding that circumstance, the universally accepted solution is to ramp up efforts in high schools and universities to churn out tomorrow’s developers. Nemerson would like to see an institution that takes the idea of A100 and expand it to allow newcomers, career-changers and others a chance to join the pool.
“People are looking for that great developer and we need to make sure they’re here,” says Nemerson. “Everyone understands what we should be doing, but I’m not convinced we’re doing it quickly enough.”
Koch would like to see that too, but it remains to be seen how the idea will come to fruition. In the meantime, he stresses that schools need to start teaching programming at earlier ages and in ways that provide not just theory, but experience. Corporate engagement is key, too.
“In a lot of the successful apprenticeship programs around the world, the corporate community is involved,” Koch notes. “If we have a strong community and can build on corporate involvement and university involvement, and there were a real sense of working together. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say we’d be a leader in developing talent locally. That’s a real prescription for moving the needle.”
Some argue more talent leads to more opportunity. Hochman says if there were more computer-science graduates moving through the local incubators, that would function as a catalyst.
“The state should look at its job-training program and see what can be done to get people into the field, and the universities need to think of what they can do to get more graduates — and Yale is at the top of that pyramid,” he says.
That could in turn lead to more vigorous businesses development, which Gregory says is the key element.
“Business activity begets more business activity,” he says. “If I know I can always get another job in my field just a short drive away, it’s less risky for people. If we can build that critical mass, we’ll not only retain the talent coming out of UConn and Yale, but they’ll actually want to stay and won’t feel like they’re forced to go to Manhattan or Boston.”
But in spite of all these concerns, many industry observers maintain a positive outlook for New Haven and Connecticut, thanks not only to its location and resources, but to a palpable buzz in the startup community and a growing sense of vitality in the city that wasn’t there even a few years ago.
“The fact that you can jump on Metro-North and be in New York in an hour and a half, or Stamford in 45 minutes, makes New Haven an ideal location for startups. You’re close to big money,” Hochmann explains. “The state is also willing to put money into startups.”
It helps for some that Connecticut is an attractive place to live, too.
“One thing we really have going for us in south-central Connecticut is quality of life. The shoreline is a great place to grow up and raise a family and the cost of living is much less relative to the suburbs of Manhattan or Boston,” Gregory says. “That message may resonate more with people who are a little older than with kids who are just out of school and want to go where they can have a good time. But we have things in our repertoire that are attractive even against New York and Boston.”
“We have everything we need to keep and attract people,” Seymour adds. “New Haven has a very bright and lively tech scene and the outlook is excellent. We just need to get the message out.”
Koch agrees, and says it’s merely a matter of time before it all comes to fruition.
“We have all the right ingredients,” he says. “I think in two years we’ll look back and say this was an amazing time that we all got to be a part of, and New Haven will be an example for other places.”
Sampath is himself a transplant to New Haven who fell in love with the community once he got here.
“There’s a vibrant community and sense of place in New Haven,” he says. “It represents what Connecticut is all about. We wouldn’t settle for just ‘all right.’ I don’t think Connecticut is the type of place that settles for mediocrity. It’s pushing for something excellent and glorious.”