Purple Squirrels And Salary Surveys


I need to check if our art department did this on purpose but the colors in the current October issue (Fig. 1) with the 2013 salary survey (see 2013 Engineering Salary Survey: Pressure Up, Salaries Down) use a good bit of purple in the figures. Now I have a reason to write about purple squirrels.

For those doing job hunting, you may already know about purple squirrels (Fig. 2). These varmints are the ideal candidate for a job profile written so that a fraction of 1% or some small number of a subset of all applications will qualify. Yes, these critters are so hard to find and they are obviously the only people that can fill a job otherwise it is not worth filling. We've all seen the ads for a person with 10 years experience in a technology that has only been our for 5 years but somehow HR (human resources) can finds these diamonds.

It was worth looking back a decade (see The 2003 Engineering Salary Survey: Ten Years After) to see how things have changed. For purple squirrels, it has changed very little although they can get more nuts now that they could in 2003.

So why does HR write requirements that only a purple squirrel can meet?

The need for H1B visa applicants comes to mind. Remember, there is a shortage of engineers and programmers (of course) and we have the purple squirrels to prove it. Likewise, there is a shortage of STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) graduates. Actually there isn't but it seems that way. I help run the local science fair (see Mercer Science and Engineering Fair)and the interest and participation has never been higher (see We All Win At The Intel ISEF Competition) . Actually the participation of local technology companies could be higher. We have only a few carrying the burden.

What does tend to be humorous is watching engineers and programmers move up the chain of command and agreeing that they need purple squirrels. Keep in mind that these are people that were trained to learn, not just remain static with their skills. Taking a new hardware or software platform and getting the best out of it is what they did and the kind of people they need to hire to do this kind of work. I've only used half a dozen programming languages for production work but I know and used quite a few more. Adapting to a new one is rather trivial but don't tell that to HR. They won't believe you.

Yes, I know that hitting the ground running is a definite plus but, short of hiring someone from your competition, that rarely happens. Experience always helps and looking for a candidate with the proper background is important but fitting a round person into a round hole with a tolerance of a nanometer tends to be counterproductive.

So let me know if you see any purple squirrels. I am still trying to find one.

Discuss this Blog Entry 5

on Oct 9, 2013

And wouldn't you agree that by "hunting for purple squirrels" HR succeeds in NOT finding domestic workers who would demand REASONABLE wages? And that by using this "gambit" to justify more H1B visas to get more foreign workers coming in at much lower wages they manage to lower salaries overall, and the strategy is successful as seen in the lower salaries in your publication's very own 2013 engineering salary survey? And that as usual "follow the money" will demonstrate exactly why things are done the way they are? These "squirrels" quickly stop being fuzzy and cute when the competition they bring causes our standard of living to rapidly decline or (in the case of job loss) just come to a halt. We need to stop acting naive and start being proactive about putting up opposition to well-funded campaigns like fwd.us to keep importing STEM talent and making the situation even worse than it already is, don't you agree?

on Oct 11, 2013

Its not bad, I guess, for HR to wish upon a star sometimes. Who knows? They might actually need a purple squirrel to replace one they already had.

on Oct 15, 2013

In a lot of cases they wouldn't have to look if they'd treated the one who was there OK in the first place, then again there's two ways to go with that. I had one memorable (but short) contract on which I was one of the last candidates with experience on his resume in a particular, obsolescent computer language. The client was a major SW outfit who told me they "had a policy" against doing phone interviews, they "wanted to see the candidate in person". What they WOULDN'T tell me of course was there was a particular "purple squirrel" who had already left because of incredibly poor working conditions (he was apparently working for one of their customers), they just wanted a "shill" to be used to convince him that he could be replaced at the drop of a hat as part of negotiations to get him back. Once he agreed of course the contract was over, and so was the excuse that dragged me clear across the country leaving me with no resource from which to pay my considerable travel expenses. So not only did the company value his skills too poorly to keep him, they didn't even pay what it cost to bring in the "threat" to convince him he was replaceable which told him he wasn't "worth much" anyway! Just about any time you see these "purple squirrel" reqs to replace an existing employee it's because they wouldn't treat the guy they had there in the first place well enough to keep him because "all engineers are interchangeable", but they partially give the lie to that when they get into a crunch and offer the absolute minimum to get him back, it happens almost every time.

on Sep 21, 2015

Memorex was my first interview in Silicon Valley decades ago. I had been an auto engineer in Detroit, with GMC Truck and Ford Motor. I got to the interview, and I remember the guy told me about vibration problems in the read head arms of their multi-platter disk drives. I told him to check out magnesium, its one of the few metals that has damping properties. He looked real weird when I said that. Either I guessed some secret they were on to, or they never thought of it. I figured I was sure to get the job, it looks like the rec was written for me, and I could learn what I needed in short order. When I didn't get the job, I groaned to the local pal that I was staying with. He pointed out that the rec was not written for a decent engineer that can solve problems and learn. It was written to get some guy from IBM disk drives that could spill all their secrets. I was shocked. That seemed unethical on the part of both parties.

It was only a couple years ago that I saw an ad for an analog engineer. It asked for things across analog disciplines, like RF and servo and power and amplifiers, and I was thinking if they were looking for Leonardo DaVinci. Then the ad said the candidate should know VHDL and FPGAs. I have no idea what kind of moron writes that ad, or if it is a purple squirrel meant to go unfilled so they can hire an H1B. I did have a recent graduate tell me that was what he was seeing too, ads for engineers that can do every single discipline all quick good and cheap.

Also, I am convinced that all hardware design has been done and finished by 2008. So despite the ad saying they want a hardware engineer, you will be writing code, anytime from 2 weeks to 3 months after you hire in. And once you show you can type, you will be chained to a desk and never see the light of day again. Then it goes from code to data-entry.

And experience has taught me there is a shortage of engineers, if by engineer you mean someone with a Master's degree who will work for minimum wage and come in on Saturday and Sunday after her minimum 50-hour weekdays. The work conditions described in that NYTimes Amazon article seem to be more typical than exceptional.

on Sep 22, 2015

The issue seems to have gotten worse over time. It was always the case that HR and the "company" wanted something for nothing. Now they just assume those remaining will pick up the slack.

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William Wong

Bill Wong covers Digital, Embedded, Systems and Software topics at Electronic Design. He writes a number of columns, including Lab Bench and alt.embedded, plus Bill's Workbench hands-on column....
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