The Geek Gap

Photo: iStockphoto

New York City has never had a problem enticing people to work within its confines. Come for the dream of running this town, stay for the tiny apartment and redemptive nightlife. But just as the city’s expanding tech sector is looking vaguely bubble-shaped, start-ups are having trouble attracting a critical class of recruits: geeks of the software-developing and engineering kind. “We wrote a blog post looking to hire an operations person, and we received over 1,000 résumés,” says Vinicus Vacanti, co-founder of deal-aggregator Yipit. “We put out a similar post looking for engineers and received five.”

“If you want to be on Wall Street or in entertainment or advertising, you come here,” says Fred Wilson, unofficial godfather to the city’s toddler Facebooks and Twitters. “If you want to be a software engineer, you might not think of New York. Yet we’re dying to hire.” Native venture-capital firms like his Union Square Ventures funneled $1.3 billion to new companies in just the first nine months of 2010, helping New York surpass Boston as home to the second-most new start-ups in the country, behind only Silicon Valley. While mainstay industries like finance and media have yet to fully recover, our start-ups have mojo and money to spend. So why can’t they find the talent?

For one, because New York’s elite universities don’t yet churn out engineers at the rate of a Stanford or an M.I.T. But demand for tech talent is outstripping supply around the country; our problem has more to do with what happens when homegrown geeks matriculate. Those who ignore the call of the Valley (or Google’s $2 billion Chelsea outpost) tend to get sucked into the financial sector. “Put your résumé out there and you’re going to get contacted by four or five headhunters, and within two weeks, assuming you’re a strong candidate, you’ll have an offer or two from a bank. It’s sort of the easy choice,” says Justin Moore, an engineer who worked at Bear Stearns and a hedge fund before moving to Foursquare. Especially considering that banks pay in large stacks of actual money, while start-up compensation typically leans on equity in what may—or may not!—be the next Groupon.

On the other hand, tech jobs in finance tend to involve sitting in some back office, hacking out code in service of the Wall Street money machine, which contributes to the sense that tech jobs here are less life-affirming, and certainly less world-changing (a big thing with this crowd), than those elsewhere. Wilson calls this the local scene’s “marketing problem.” The consensus is that the city’s start-ups need to do better at getting the word out that there are plenty of opportunities in New York to toy with the latest technology and build things real people actually use, all from a sweet loft space in Dumbo or a Flatiron incubator.

New York’s new entrepreneurial class has taken on a certain swagger from building a tech sector out of almost nothing and not having to leave the five boroughs to do it. The geek gap is a threat to its collective ego. If we’re so hot now, whither those engineering résumés? Is Silicon Valley smirking at us from its sprawling corporate campuses? Again? Vacanti, at least, is unworried. Once we get the first batch of recruits, he predicts, “they’ll go back and tell their engineering friends in San Francisco how amazing the city actually is.”

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The Geek Gap