Startups in Connecticut Develop Software Talent Pipeline

Oct 7, 2013

Derek Koch of Independent Software in New Haven.
Credit The Grid New Haven
Ted Yang, a founder of MediaCrossing in Stamford, a digital media trading company.
Credit MediaCrossing

The job of software developer is one of the hottest occupations in the world right now, and demand for developers is only expected to accelerate. That poses a dilemma for startup technology companies here in Connecticut. In an incredibly competitive marketplace, how do they find and cultivate the right talent? One program in Connecticut is trying to come up with a solution.

Ted Yang is an MIT graduate, angel investor and entrepreneur, and he's one of the founders of MediaCrossing. "MediaCrossing is a digital media trading company," Yang said. "Our goal is to be the intersection of Wall Street and Madison Avenue." He said tech startups like his, based in Connecticut, face a tricky talent problem. "We can fund startups; we can offer them places to work. We can do all that, but if we don't have developers, we're going nowhere."

"We can fund startups, but if we don't have developers, we're going nowhere." Ted Yang

To solve that problem, MediaCrossing recently turned to another Connecticut startup, Independent Software in New Haven, where entrepreneur Derek Koch was developing his own talent pipeline, cultivating local computer science students. "We kind of hit upon this strategy for sourcing talent in Connecticut" Koch said, "and finding the diamonds in the rough in the university system, helping them to polish up their skills so they could really hit the ground running and contribute at a startup almost immediately."

Out of that experience, the A100 program was born. Koch said, "We're running around the state doing this. Why should we just be doing it for ourselves? We really should try to pursue it as a program that could help other startups."

Working through the CTNEXT entrepreneurial ecosystem, A100 last year recruited 25 computer science students from universities around the state into its first formal training program. Koch said the idea is to show them what working for a startup might be like, and give them a tool kit of skills they can use in a practical setting -- something he says goes way beyond classroom learning. Koch said, "Something as simple as sketching out what an application looks like in concept, and being able to articulate that to other developers, is a communication skill."

Kyle Charron is a junior at Southern Connecticut State University, and one of those initial 25 students recruited into the program. "It's vastly different from the classroom," Charron said. "In the classroom, you're working on your own, trying to solve problems that have already been solved by other libraries available to you. Whereas, working for a startup, you're working with a team of people, and get some cool software done. So instead of doing an assignment to learn something, you're actually creating something that's solving a problem for the company."

This year, Charron will continue with his studies, but he'll also be working full time as a developer for MediaCrossing, which recruited him through A100. A100 found there was more than enough demand from local companies for the 25 initial students. This year, it's aiming to train four times as many.

Krishna Sampath, who manages the program, said just outlining employment opportunities on the doorstep has been a revelation for many students. He said, "They often hear, if you want to work at a startup, you need to go to New York, Boston or San Francisco. And companies are often told the same thing -- that to access software development talent, you need to go to New York or Boston or San Francisco. So there's clearly a match problem here."

For the startups, the process also reduces the risks associated with hiring someone who's fresh out of college. "You don't have endless resources, obviously," Sampath said, "so if you make a mistake in hiring it can be more detrimental. You don't have, like, six months to spend on getting somebody up to speed."

There's also a hope that the program can open a dialogue between a rapidly evolving industry and the academic programs that are training tomorrow's employees. MediaCrossing's Ted Yang said undergraduates aren't always well served in the classroom. "The frameworks they're being taught," he said, "the language they're being taught, even the languages they do their projects in, are not up to speed."

So think of A100 as a talent pool for a group of companies that until now haven't had the recruiting power of the tech giants, and as a way to allow students a foot in the door of a dynamic industry. Koch said, "It's really designed to a move a student a pretty short distance, when you think about it, from a computer science degree to a job, but it's a really important distance."