Great People Everywhere

December 31, 2014

Paul Graham’s latest thought-provoking essay has touched a nerve in some circles. His basic premise is spot on:

The US has less than 5% of the world’s population. Which means if the qualities that make someone a great programmer are evenly distributed, 95% of great programmers are born outside the US.

The solution to this dilemma according to Graham: Let’s reform immigration to “let” these programmers in so that they can be in San Francisco. I’m paraphrasing the last part a bit, and Graham doesn’t come out and say as much, but this is what is being implied.

Almost everyone agrees that immigration policies need some work in the United States. I also believe that we’re only hurting ourselves by refusing to allow talented people to legally enter our country.

Graham’s point is valid, but he misses on one mark that Matt Mullenweg, creator of Wordpress and famously remote-only Automattic, writes this week:

If 95% of great programmers aren’t in the US, and an even higher percentage not in the Bay Area, set up your company to take advantage of that fact as a strength, not a weakness. Use WordPress and P2, use Slack, use G+ Hangouts, use Skype, use any of the amazing technology that allows us to collaborate as effectively online as previous generations of company did offline. Let people live someplace remarkable instead of paying $2,800 a month for a mediocre one bedroom rental in San Francisco. Or don’t, and let companies like Automattic and Github hire the best and brightest and let them live and work wherever they like.

Graham’s basic premise is solid, and I completely agree with it. However, I’m with Mullenweg and most of the related Hacker News thread that people should be able to live where they are happiest, and work remotely.

Over the past year, I’ve worked with many people in our Dallas home office. In that same time period I’ve worked with people in Argentina, Germany, London, Canada and a half-dozen other states outside of Texas. We’ve sponsored visas for some and have just worked with others on a contract-basis. We use many of the technologies that Mullenweg mentions: Slack, Google Hangouts, Skype, Screenhero and good old-fashioned phone calls. It works great. We ship software, we produce great work for our clients and we don’t rely heavily on finding perfect people just in one town of one country.

We’re lucky to have a strong base of great people in one location, but we wouldn’t be the company that we are today without great people outside of our base. One of the reasons a small shop with a quirky name in Texas can compete with much larger companies is because we’re not biased by where we find great people. We’re not limited by what’s in our backyard and we hire the best people we can find.

Immigration policy needs reform in the United States, yes. But let’s not wait for that to happen to start hiring great people from around the world. Great people are out there today and they’re ready to make companies awesome.