On Apple vs Google and the talent drought

December 03, 2010 11:15 AM EST

Apple, [AAPL] Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Nokia -- these big name firms are locked into eternal struggle in the ever-changing world of technology, but Apple may hold the central skill in this new world order, as building tomorrow's dreams demands those old engineering adages, "less is more", and "better is not necessarily better than best". Why? Because they can't get the staff.

The dizzying innovation, exploding iPhone and iPad sales, booming social networking, application and Internet services. the impact of Apple on the wider industry, these are having an effect.

Developers, developers, developers

These are heady and exciting days -- particularly if you happen to be a skilled engineer -- everybody wants you...the old cry of "developers, developers, developers" isn't just a slogan. It is a skill shortage.

Apple's biggest challenge as it tries to maintain the pace of its innovation isn't imagination, the road map for change, or the capacity to predict the future. Apple's biggest challenge is finding the right people to help it build that future.

[This story is from Computerworld's Apple Holic blog. Follow on Twitter or subscribe via RSS to make sure you don't miss a beat.]

It isn't just Apple.

Look around: Google, Yahoo, RIM, Facebook, even Microsoft. These days players are more willing than ever to actually purchase smaller firms wholesale, not just for their existing product portfolios but to gain access to their engineering talent.


Some may argue that it has always been so. And to an extent, of course, it has. But the smartphone wars have put innovation on steroids.

Consider the massive market: combine every iPhone, RIM, Android, Nokia and Microsoft smartphone user and you have millions upon millions of people. The addressable market for end user apps alone is huge.

Never had it so good

Developers face more opportunity than they have before.

Where once they had the choice to work at one of the big software makers, or favor a platform or go it alone, the platform wars mean everyone wants the best talent. There's more accessible platforms, more accessible development environments today than we have had before.

A note at PE Hub confirms this vision. Among other nuggets it tells us about a former Digg software engineer who got placed in a job with a $150,000 salary -- this engineer received seven offers.

"The ramp up is 'really aggressive,' says Morgan Masner, founder of 2-year-old recruiting firm HireUp in Mountain View, Calif. "It's almost like a gold rush right now," he says."

And the battle for developer talent isn't just between operating system makers -- hardware, software, social networking -- all these forces are looking to build teams of the brightest and best.

This, and a skills shortage in the US, also means more foreign engineers than ever before are being hired on H-2B visas.

Staff retention is also competitive: Google, Cisco and others are paying huge wads of cash to keep people in the team. Attempts to recruit talent from Facebook are characterized as "pretty much impossible".

Take a look at Apple's recruitment pages and you'll see all sorts of interesting opportunities for developers. Software, hardware, Mac or iOS devices, there's plenty of opportunity in Cupertino and at Apple locations worldwide.

What does this mean?

It means that all the hope and expectation for fast-paced innovation next year as the various platform wars get critical must be tempered with the realiztion that just because something is possible doesn't mean it is probable.

Android's OS will improve -- but what if the company can't recruit the talent it needs to improve enough? And over at Apple, what happens if it can't recruit the teams it needs?

What this means in practice is that the speed of innovation is heading toward a finite plateau.

In other words, if all the players in these markets have 100 things on their wish list for future development, they may eventually need to settle on 50 or fewer, simply because they can't get the staff.

This challenge is also an opportunity.

Given that Apple, Google, Nokia and others are in some ways aiming at similar markets, some players may derive advantage by differentiation, by focusing their efforts on product features or services not seen as immediate priorities by the competition.

Apple is good at managing finite resources.

I'm not certain of this, but I think Apple is the best-placed to deal with the challenge of the engineer drought. Apple is good at managing finite resources.

One of its primary skills is the ability to imagine a product that's equipped with every bell and whistle and then pare these back to the basic needs that are required, and then to design the perfect product for this: iPod, iPhone, iPad, MacBook, iMac, iBook, the list goes on.

Competitors playing catch-up will need to prioritise features and services the people they compete with already offer, and that's before they even begin to develop anything new.

More evenly-matched competitors will have to hope they make as good a job of managing finite resources as Apple is able, while also hoping to make the right choices from their wish lists in order not to miss what could be the next big 'killer feature'.

Staff-fight

Apple-watching is not an exact science, but given the increasingly fierce battle between Apple and Google, Steve Jobs is unlikely to slow development of his 'magical' products. He'll continue to exercise his skill at seeing where a market is going and recognizing what consumers need before they realise they need it.

But will Apple be able to find the engineers it needs to help it realise its CEO's dreams? And if it does, will competitors be able to attract the talent they need to respond?

Are you a developer? How is the industry treating you and what do you see as the relative advantages between all the competing platforms? How do you see things evolving? Developer or not, I'd like to invite you to drop by again, so please feel free to follow me on Twitter or RSS.