Tesla CEO Elon Musk recently dismissed media speculation that Apple had been hiring away some of his most important engineers, with his usual aplomb.
“Important engineers?” Musk scoffed, in an interview with Handelsblatt. “They have hired people we’ve fired. We always jokingly call Apple the ‘Tesla Graveyard.’ If you don’t make it at Tesla, you go work at Apple. I’m not kidding.”
Musk isn’t typically one to hold back, but these comments still reinforce the widely held belief that there is a super-elite squadron of top engineers who bounce from leading company to leading company, and anyone not in that precious cadre is just one of the secretly terrible engineers that make up the majority of the available work force.
That notion permeates most discussions when it comes to the disconnect between why so many qualified software engineers can’t find work and why so many companies looking to hire software engineers can’t find qualified applicants.
This is why companies have elaborate software to screen job applicants, and even then force them to prove they didn’t somehow game the system by making them solve puzzles and mental games such as how many ping pong balls would fit into various large buildings and vehicles. Everyone wants to get the elites in and keep the secretly terribles out.
The problem is that companies are being so specific about who they want to hire, they have created unrealistic goals. Another issue is that many companies live in an altered reality where they are recruiting from the same talent pool as Facebook, Google, and Apple.
Only they’re not, which is why when they get a nibble on a job from an elite, they can never convert them to a hire. So they just keep running the same ads, looking for the same people, and getting the same results.
If you keep trying to pan for gold downstream of Apple, Google, and Facebook, you will always come up short.
Once you can accept that, the next thing to ask yourself is equally critical: Is there really a talent shortage? And at that point, the second question has to follow: Are the secretly terribles even real?
Have companies become so hyper-fixated on skill set that we’ve stopped even considering someone with talent and potential that just needs a slight bit of training?
Someone who has never linked the front end framework you are using to your specific backend service isn’t secretly terrible. They know how to do all those things, just not in the exact configuration you are using. That is just a bit of learning, not an uncrossable technology gap in their experience.
Surely we can figure out how to extend the life of our workforce rather than treating programmers like disposable razor blades?
But many hiring managers stay so focused on curating a team of caffeinated full stackers that as soon as the slightest skill set lapse emerges, panic sets in.
The solution is not only simple, but obvious: train them.
Developers always cite “staying current with new languages, frameworks, and tools” as their most pressing challenge. But on the flip side of that equation, the top reason they give for leaving their jobs is a lack of opportunities for career growth and inability to work with new technologies.
Put plainly: If developers don’t learn, they leave.
And there is no evidence that they are unwilling to learn new things. In fact, studies show the exact opposite, that employees stay longer at a company where they get consistent training opportunities.
So, a workforce that is trained stays current with the latest technologies and the side effect of that investment is loyalty. Seems like a perfect system. So why aren’t we using it?
The more you examine it, you might come to the conclusion that we don’t have a talent shortage amongst developers, but an industry-wide vision shortage.
The change that needs to happen is one where employers start recruiting people who have a solid foundation of skills and a desire to keep learning. This means changing your hiring practices from over-screening job applicants and no longer treating job interviews like cross-examining a hostile witness. Instead, focus on more foundational issues like cultural fit, intellectual clock speed, and background.
For current workers, companies need to devote more energy to upskilling initiatives that keep them up to date on the latest technologies they need to know to best do their jobs.
Switching to a mindset of cultivating an engaged workforce, where you nurture their skills and are rewarded with their ongoing talent and loyalty is best for everyone, including Tesla and Apple.
Even Musk has to take it seriously when Apple is moving into his space, hiring his supposedly former engineers, and setting their sights on dominating a new market, no?
“Did you ever take a look at the Apple Watch? (laughs),” he joked before admitting Apple, like every company, has to keep innovating to stay in business.
Jeff Whatcott is CEO and cofounder of Outlearn. He most recently served as Chief Marketing Officer at Brightcove and also launched Acquia in 2007 as the company’s first VP of Marketing. He has also held VP-level leadership roles in marketing, product, and alliances at Adobe and Macromedia.
VentureBeat's mission is to be a digital town square for technical decision-makers to gain knowledge about transformative enterprise technology and transact. Discover our Briefings.