Developers In Short Supply As City’s Tech Sector Boom Continues

November 26, 2016

By: Alex MacPherson, Saskatoon StarPhoenix

The mobile game developer Noodlecake Studios Inc. has more than doubled in size over the last four years, growing from eight employees to 19, while building on the success of its hit game, Super Stickman Golf.

The Saskatoon-based company plans to continue adding employees, but according to one of its senior staff, it faces a problem every other firm in the city’s burgeoning high-tech sector will eventually confront: a shortage of talented software developers.

“Generally, I get the sense that developers are needed, and lots of studios are hiring — us included,” said Arlin Schaffel, a University of Saskatchewan graduate who started working at Noodlecake about six years ago and now serves as its director of publishing.

“There’s a good amount of new talent coming in, especially from the University of Saskatchewan, but there’s a gap that has been forming and it’s been troubling getting more senior developers.”

Multiple Saskatoon-based tech startups have announced expansion plans over the last year. Solido Design Automation Inc., 7Shifts Inc. and SkipTheDishes are just a few examples of new, innovative firms trying to add employees from the same limited pool.

It’s unclear exactly how many software developers live and work in Saskatoon, but the head of the U of S computer science department said the post-graduation employment rate for developers suggests the labour shortage is real.

“Our graduates get almost 100 per cent employment, in their area of interest, at the bachelor’s level and the master’s level,” Eric Neufeld said, noting that while the unheard-of rate implies a shortage, it also indicates that the city’s tech sector is booming.

The problem is compounded by a shortage of experienced developers capable of leading a team, as well as increased competition from major companies with offices in hubs like Silicon Valley, which are increasingly looking to Saskatoon for talent, Schaffel said.

“At the end of the day, attracting that senior talent just ends up being a lot more work.”

Solido, which builds software used to manufacture the chips found in mobile phones and other consumer electronics, announced its expansion plans this summer. The 11-year-old company aims to double its employee count by the end of 2017.

A combination of competitive compensation and interesting work means Solido hasn’t struggled to hire or retain developers, but that could change as the city’s tech sector grows, according to its vice president of technical operations.

“I think as our demand grows, there is going to be a tipping point, but I don’t know where it is,” Jeff Dyck said. “I don’t know if it’s going to happen next year, as we bring on 55 more staff, or if it’s going to happen after that.”

While Solido and Noodlecake haven’t struggled to expand, SkipTheDishes — which builds and operates a tool that lets customers order takeout and delivery from local restaurants — has not been so fortunate.

Last month, the provincial economy minister said the company failed to meet hiring targets necessary to secure $3 million in funding for employee training. To get the full sum, SkipTheDishes had to hire 300 people, including 50 to 75 developers, over three years.

SkipTheDishes has not made a statement since the decision, and its co-founder and president could not be reached for comment on Thursday, but sources familiar with the industry say the company’s expansion plans were likely too ambitious.

Schaffel said there are ways to boost the number of developers studying and staying in Saskatoon, including speaking to high school and university students — which he does regularly — and nurturing the sector as a whole.

The number of students graduating from the U of S computer science program has fluctuated dramatically over the last 10 to 15 years, from a low of about 35 following the dot-com bust to around 70 today, Neufeld said.

Both agree that encouraging more women and minorities, especially indigenous people, to enter the historically male-dominated industry could give the city’s tech sector an edge. Both are optimistic about the sector’s future in Saskatoon.

“I can’t really see it stopping,” Schaffel said. “Everything that we use from day to day has more and more computers inside of it. Computers are getting smaller. And we have a lot of strong companies that are expanding.”

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