The Land of the Opportunity-Less Superstar

The internet and new technologies are pushing the future of work into a distributed format. Especially digital jobs lend themselves well for remote employment. There are still advantages to working with someone right next to you in the office. But if we want to stay competitive, our recruiting strategies will unavoidably have to consider globalization. How else will we be able to keep our talent density high if we limit ourselves to people living in our hometown?

Talent shortages

A major problem every tech organization faces at a given moment, is failing to obtain even one single candidate for the position they need to fill. In Belgium alone, there will be a shortage of 30.000 ICT experts. With the KULeuven (Belgium’s largest university) producing less than 300 ICT graduates per year, that does seem like a huge gap we won’t be able to fill. There simply isn’t enough talent in the local market.

Major versus minor league

A second problem arises when we do find someone with seemingly the right profile: is this man or woman really the major league player we need? If we build a house, a great mason can probably produce 10–20% more than an average one. But when building software, the quality difference does not scale linearly with a developer’s talent anymore. An average joe can code well, work autonomously and pass the bar on all accounts. But a great developer solves problems, is not limited to a functional description in the corporate structure, empowers teams and raises the bar for the entire workforce.

So ultimately what we want are those superstars with the cognitive horsepower to learn fast and perform first-class. Sourcing our talent exclusively where we live like a minor league team, inevitably means we’re hiring more average (or worse yet, under-average) joes. Instead, we should play like the major league organizations and get superstar players without geographical restrictions.

What we’re really looking for

Yeah, finding those major league stars and succeeding in hiring them feels like throwing up Hail Mary’s when you’re not Apple or Google. The problem is that typically, superstars get every opportunity to work for whom they want. That makes them hard to get, and very expensive.

So what we are really looking for are superstars without opportunity. Impossible, at first sight, seemingly a contradiction in itself. Where would you ever find those? Obviously, a lot of conditions would have to be met. To not further complicate things, let’s give ourselves the absolute liberty to virtually engineer a place like that.

Engineering the Land of the Opportunity-less Superstar (LOS)

Step 1 — Education: The number one condition to find superstars is that the people in the Land of the Opportunity-less Superstar must have had enjoyed a high level of education. We don’t want to end up training people to merely execute technical tasks. We need analytical problem-solving minds. An outstanding educational system is therefore a must. So we’ll base our LOS (Land of the Opportunity-less Superstar) on a developed country.

Step 2 — Bankruptcy: Now that LOS is a developed country, we’ll run into the aforementioned problem again: our talent will be overwhelmed with job opportunities. Since no actual lives depend on what happens with our virtual country, let’s be pragmatic about this and erase all opportunity the easy way: nosedive the entire economy. That’s right, let’s bankrupt the place until all economic activity has perished. This frees up all the talent we are looking for. Let’s just make sure we do it fast, we don’t want the level of education to slowly go down with it.

Step 3 — Isolation: LOS is now a place with tons of available talent up for grabs. We’re overlooking one final aspect, though. Brain drain is real thing: people migrate to better places and usually it’s the highly educated ones who lead the way. They absolutely need to be contained, so LOS should close its borders!

We’ve got our blueprint for a place with major league talent yet devoid of any opportunity. Let’s go over some actual countries and see if we can anything like that.

Finding the real-world LOS

To find real-world counterparts for the virtual country we just engineered, we can immediately scratch anything in the rich developed nations. A lot of talent, yes, but none of it available because they get overwhelmed by opportunity. The only viable LOS candidates come from areas in which our job offers are a godsend. The Misery Index is a good way to measure this: it combines unemployment rates and inflation to portray an image of how miserable people are career-wise.

source: http://chartsbin.com/view/41166

The yellow and orange areas indicate where people are fine, light purple somewhere in between, and red is pretty bad and dark purple is absolute misery. Note that there is no data for the African continent, but it’s probably safe to say that — for the most part — they don’t have fantastic opportunities either. The map seems pretty accurate: Brazil hasn’t been doing fantastic lately and people want out. Similar scenario to Spain and Turkey, Greece has found itself in a tough spot for some years now and Ukraine suffers from the conflict with Russia. Venezuela seems to be the worst of all, with a Misery Index that’s four times as bad as that of the unfortunate runner-up Argentina.

Let’s go over some of the candidates we get from this:

  • India
     India is not on the list, but it’s the most famous country in the outsourcing business. The pool is big and digital jobs are very welcome there. But the level of the fish still swimming in the pond isn’t spectacular, as all the great fish have already been caught during decades of its growing outsourcing industry.
  • South Africa
    The African continent will soon have the largest workforce on earth, and their Misery Index score already indicates that there won’t be enough jobs for young people. However, the level of education is generally too low. Opportunities for employment follow after educational opportunities, and unfortunately the latter still needs more work. We think South Africa, and most of the African nations, are great places for digital tasks. Just not (yet) for digital problem-solving.
  • Greece
     Greece’s talent level is good, it’s a developed nation and it quite recently nosedived, resulting in a very high Misery Index Score. However, they are part of the EU meaning that all Greeks can emigrate and find jobs abroad easily. The first two conditions to be a LOS were met, but ‘unfortunately’ the people are not isolated.
  • Venezuela
    As mentioned, Venezuela has had by far the highest Misery Index score for three years in a row now. Because they possess the largest oil reserves in the world (more than Saudi Arabia), they were once the richest country in Latin America with a higher GDP per capita than Spain than Israel and only 13% lower than the UK. Followed by a leftist government that invested a lot of money into education, the average level is comparable to its Mediterranean sister (Spain). However, when oil prices collapsed a few years go, so did the entire economy. Combined with horrible management by the ruling political party — who actually did close borders — Venezuela is now a country full of talent that finds itself isolated and without any opportunity. We found our real-world LOS!

Summary

We went looking for a solution to the problem which nearly every Western company faces: the inability to fill in open vacancies for developers. The key was to find a place where a lot of talent resides, yet lacking any decent job opportunity and possibility to migrate: our so-called Land of the Opportunity-less Superstar (LOS). The conditions for a place to qualify as a LOS were defined, and after analysis we found a real-world counterpart: Venezuela.


Originally published on August 5, 2016.