CEO challenge: find, retain tech workers

BOULDER – Boulder might be a thriving tech startup hub. But that doesn’t mean the area’s tech companies necessarily have an easy time finding the developers, programmers and engineers they need.

The dynamic is one that’s made business leaders increasingly have to focus on the culture of their companies aside from just their business missions as they compete for the same workers.

The topic marked one of multiple discussions among those gathered Tuesday for the Boulder County Business Report’s CEO Roundtable on technology held at accounting firm EKS&H’s office in downtown Boulder.

“It’s probably our biggest challenge,´ said Boulder-based Connect First Inc.’s chief executive Geoff Mina, who noted that his company reluctantly has resorted to hiring some remote software engineers with hopes of relocating those employees here eventually. “It’s not easy around here.”

Lisa Calkins, chief executive of Amadeus Consulting Group Inc. in Boulder, said the current climate reminds her of the dotcom time when companies’ demand for workers exceeded the supply. The upside, she said, is that it’s much easier for companies to scout out new employees through email and social media like LinkedIn.

“You can reach people who are not looking for a job way easier than you could 20 years ago,” Calkins said.

Of course Calkins acknowledged that the flip side of poaching employees from other companies is that the same could happen to you, which has played a large role in bringing company culture into play and keeping employees happy.

David Jilk, former chief executive of Boulder-based Standing Cloud – which was acquired over the summer by California-based AppDirect – said finding a job has never been difficult for a software engineer.

“The thing that happens during these really tight periods is the engineers have a tendency to get a little high-maintenance,” Jilk said with regard to the various perks that companies will offer to attract talent. “You have to manage to that. They will choose a job because of the workout gym at a facility.”

Kyle Lamy, CEO of Boulder-based Gridkick, officially Venture IO Inc., said the rise of the independent worker and rise of entrepreneurial spirit in general has led to a tech workforce that doesn’t want to merely sit around and take orders, but wants to feel some ownership of a project and feel like it’s contributing to exciting innovations.

“I think the challenge with culture is having an environment that caters to that,” Lamy said.

Location can be a driving factor for attracting talent as well, and it’s an aspect that can prove especially tricky for companies. There’s by no means a lack of office space in Boulder. But affording space in the trendy downtown area gets tougher and tougher as companies grow.

Toby Krout, managing partner of the Scrib co-working space in downtown Boulder, attributes much of the energy and attraction to that spot to the location itself, whether it’s proximity to the university or restaurants or other startups.

“There definitely is a location factor when it comes to this type of work,” Krout said. “Whatever that algorithm is, everybody’s trying to figure it out.”

Shaun Oshman, CEO of iSupportU LLC in Boulder, an IT support provider for businesses, said his company leased more space than it initially needed downtown so that it would have room to grow and remain there.

Other companies, like TapInfluence Inc. have taken a different approach. TapInfluence co-founder Holly Hamann said her company is up front with employees about its location in east Boulder. Hamann said TapInfluence acknowledges that downtown has a great vibe, but that the company can add other perks by moving east, like buying employees lunch on certain days of the week or paying higher salaries.

“There’s other things we can do culturally that we couldn’t do if we had to pay downtown rent,” Hamann said.

Finding and retaining engineers and developers isn’t the only difficult hiring task in the tech industry noted Tuesday. Landing sales and marketing personnel who understand and can speak about the technology they’re selling can also prove difficult, especially as marketing itself changes.

Ingrid Alongi, CEO of Boulder-based web and mobile-app developer Quick Left Inc., said the sales teams lose credibility if they can’t speak to customers’ problems.

“We’re not selling a widget or a thing,” Alongi said. “We’re selling trust and relationships.”

And as a company that aims to avoid leaning on venture capital, affording qualified personnel for such tasks isn’t always easy.

The CEOs in the room Tuesday talked of the increased and diversified range of options for landing angel funding and venture capital. Bank lending, however, has gotten tighter for businesses, especially if they don’t have a lot of physical assets to put up. The combination of factors has led to a dynamic where bank lending was even referred to as alternative funding at one point Tuesday.

“It was a challenging first eight years,” Connect First’s Mina said of trying to build relationships with banks and go the traditional funding route. “But now it’s good to be in that space where we can tap into some of that traditional capital and not sell ourselves short.”

Of course, just because venture funding might be easier to land than a loan from a bank in many instances, that doesn’t mean all venture funding is right for a particular business, particularly in the tech world.

“It’s less whether investors are entrepreneurs and more whether they’ve been technology entrepreneurs,” Jilk, the former Standing Cloud CEO said.

TapInfluence’s Hamann said she’s continually struck by watching the evolution locally, as founders who’ve made lots of money off of a startup, go off and start another company and then eventually turn into angel investors themselves as they accumulate wealth. Those investors, she said, are worth seeking out.

“Our first seed round came from people who we had worked with and for,” Hamann said. “I’ve seen that over and over again, and it’s just been amazing.”

Another issue of note for tech companies that was discussed Tuesday was the rise of the bring-your-own-device culture. Calkins noted that it’s more dangerous from a security standpoint to lose your smartphone now than your wallet, and businesses have to deal with that as employees have increasing amounts of company data on their personal phones or laptops.

In addition to security is simply the logistics of it all, with myriad options for syncing contacts, calendars and emails, not to mention linking several employees’ devices across an organization.

“There’s too many options for syncing,” Oshman said. “We spend most of our time detangling syncing.”

The Business Report’s CEO Roundtable series is co-sponsored and co-hosted by EKS&H and the law firm of Berg, Hill, Greenleaf & Ruscitti LLP.

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