Programmed to Work: Firms Compete for Tech Developers in NYC

//Written for Reporting and Writing 1, edited by Prof. Bill Grueskin.

Kurt Sikora came to New York with no job lined up and no connections to help him get employed. Yet within three months, he found work at two different firms with hardly any time between gigs.

He owes his luck partly to his field of expertise. As a web developer, he and his skill set are in high demand in the city’s booming tech industry. Other sector insiders agree: while many workers outside of information technology are fighting for positions, “technologists” with programming expertise are the object of competition between employers.

What does it take to be a sought-after developer in the city? Sikora says, “A lot of what I’ve seen in New York is, you need to be an expert in one certain field,” although his abilities encompass several aspects of digital design. The first job he landed in New York dealt with CSS and HTML; the one he is at now requires more work with Flash.

Although his web skills are helping him stay in business, Sikora’s entrance to the industry was unconventional. He began in Cleveland, Ohio, making fliers for his band, utilizing his degree in graphic design from a community college. Those fliers attracted graphic design jobs from local music venues, and Sikora eventually founded a freelance venture called Studio Siks, Inc., to create promotional materials. His work then pivoted to web development, using skills he taught himself through tutorials and experimentation. “I knew, moving here, it wasn’t going to be easy,” he says about the transition to New York. He spends a lot of his time each week looking at job listings, signing up with freelance placement agencies, revising his resume, and sending it out to potential employers. But many people who look for work as devotedly as him don’t receive as many job offers.

Experienced web developers in the city see a different job market from most. According to Ryan Brogan, a Principal of Magnet Agency—which helps connect developers to firms in New York—“Players don’t have to go out and find jobs”; instead, the jobs find them.

Brogan has been recruiting tech and media talent for Time Warner, MTV Networks, and other big names for 10 years, and he continues to do so as founder and CEO of Magnet Agency. Recently, he advertised for developers to join the staff of IvyDate, a site for singles who attended prestigious colleges. The perfect candidate, Brogan says, has been hard to find: “The only time you’re going to find someone online… I mean, it’s like a needle in a haystack chance.” But he expected as much considering the medium. In his experience, “99 percent of the people who apply for the job are unqualified… That’s the typical response you’re getting when you put something online.”

The ideal applicant cannot be defined by metrics like work history or educational degree. Brogan is looking for someone with leadership experience and the right programming talent. Candidates at the top of his list know about user experience and interface design. “What makes money on the social web? That’s the place to look,” he says. “People who are strong in social media marketing, who are strong in product development, who have international experience,” and who can utilize advertising technology, digital media, and monetization on the web will never go long without work: Brogan defines them as “knowledge workers, not skilled labor.”

Bob Troia with Affinitive, a social marketing and promotion firm, is searching for a developer fluent in the PHP programming language—and he agrees that not every candidate has the same chance in the field. “The best developers are either happily employed full-time or prefer to work on a freelance basis, where they can pick and choose the projects they want to work on. So, it comes down to a hiring company proving [sic] a great environment and great projects where a developer has an opportunity to innovate.” Companies have to woo high-quality developers with benefits, an exciting project, a strong executive team, and equity, according to Brogan.

Unfortunately, supply of these desirable developers is tight. Brogan estimates that out of the 20,000 working developers in the city, 2,000 are highly experienced and between 100 and 200 are available for work at a given time. For the remaining pool of candidates, the tech sector is as cutthroat as any other industry, facing layoffs and outsourcing.

Every year, more of these novice developers join the workforce as they graduate from computer science programs around the city. At the New York Institute of Technology, around 290 students graduated from the School of Engineering and Computer Science in May and joined the labor force. An alumni survey indicates that 35 percent of the graduates had jobs lined up before they left school, although Charlene DeGregoria, Director of NYIT’s Office of Career Services, warns that the graduates may not be working in their sector or may find themselves underemployed for several years after graduation.

DeGregoria happily points out success stories, though, and advises students that getting involved is the key to employment after the computer science program: “If you’ve done the right things, which means you didn’t just come to class, but you did internships, you networked, you joined professional organizations, you got involved with things—you have a story, in other words—you have experience and you met people, those are the students who are more likely to be picked up.”

In the meantime, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is attempting to boost the tech sector in New York by planning a brand new engineering campus in Manhattan, a move that has earned him both praise and criticism. DeGregoria thinks it will help develop New York’s existing tech workforce, although Bloomberg has irritated local colleges by looking to more distant schools for proposals.

Kurt Sikora feels confident that he will be steadily employed for the near future, and he offers this advise to students and developers alike: “Learn as much as you possibly can about different things that you think you might use, in the field that you want to do.” Knowledge about different aspects of web development and how they work together is the key to finding a job, he says, no matter how the market changes in months to come.

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