Published in UT San Diego, March 17, 2014
“Can’t build a big company in San Diego. Not enough software talent and not enough management talent.” This has been the rap on San Diego from Silicon Valley. It is one of the reasons (rightly or wrongly) that has kept our venture funding at less than robust levels.
With the news that two well-known local software companies — Websense and Active Network — are leaving San Diego, Xconomy and the San Diego Economic Development Corp. recently hosted a dinner with industry leaders to discuss what can be done to both retain and expand the number of software companies in the region. Barbara attended the dinner, and here are some of the collective thoughts, including ours.
Let’s tackle the shortage of software talent. It is true, and one of the reasons for it came from Rajesh Gupta, chairman of computer science and engineering at the Jacobs School of Engineering, UC San Diego, who said that the school turns away qualified applicants every year. (With 1,906 students, it already is the largest computer and engineering school in the UC system.) That’s because computer science is an “impacted major,” which means that there is a cap on the number of students who can declare it as a major. UCSD has only so much money, and it offers many courses. So if it hired more computer science professors, it would have to cut, for example, some history or English teachers. We are not suggesting that the humanities should take a back seat to technology, but it is good to understand the math of the problem.
(Other local universities such as San Diego State, California State University San Marcos and University of San Diego also have good engineering programs, and we don’t know if they are similarly impacted.)
In addition, when our budding geniuses graduate, many go north to Silicon Valley or Seattle. Again, some say that the reason is simple — higher salaries. We personally find that answer a bit naive. We think it has more to do with the ecosystem and the future job opportunities rather than just the starting salary. If it is doesn’t work out in the first company up north, there are a multitude of other companies to go to which San Diego is not perceived to have. As an example, Google buses San Diego geniuses to its Irvine office but does not have an office in San Diego.
In the past, City Hall has not really embraced the software community. We think that will change with the leadership of new Mayor Kevin Faulconer and Todd Gloria, the president of the San Diego City Council.
A potential solution is to increase transparency or at least give us a map. It would be nice if the major universities would establish a central easy-to-use website to link small companies to students with skills. Make “hooking up” — at least in the software sense — easier for students who are seeking both internships and permanent jobs. Start to rethink how the universities manage the tech transfer issues, so students are encouraged “to take their brains with them.”
Ask our civic organizations like the San Diego EDC to spend time courting the big companies in software (Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) to encourage them to open operations in San Diego.
We spend money branding San Diego as a tourist destination. What if we used some of that funding to focus on STEM?
Let’s also look at some positive trends. San Diego appears to have almost one technology incubator for every 29 citizens. We are incubating incubators. And we believe there is room for at least one more — think old Central Library — as part of building a major software ecosystem downtown so that the employees can live, work and play without getting in their cars.
Angel groups and crowdfunding portals continue to expand. Their complaint is that there are not enough good companies. The entrepreneurs argue there is not enough money. Come on, boys and girls, figure it out.
And finally, the elephant in the room — after we graduate bright foreign students, we do not make it easy for them to stay in the United States. They go home because they cannot easily get a visa to stay or a green card to work. This is insanity. We train you, we need you, we have jobs for you, but then we send you home. Write your member of Congress.
We are not Silicon Valley and never will be. Accepted. But a few changes in policy, some healthy collaboration, and a continuing focus on a culture of growing local talent and keeping them here would be good first steps.