Brain drain?

So, in the past year or so I’ve noticed a pretty astounding number of innovative, capable library technologists move from libraries to vendors. [Just some examples. Roy Tennant to OCLC. Nicole Engard to LibLime. Ross Singer to Talis. Andrew Pace to OCLC. Casey Durfee to LibraryThing. Steve Toub to Bibliocommons. There are probably more I’m not thinking of. ]

Now, first let’s get this out of the way: There’s nothing inherently wrong with vendors or working for them. We do indeed need our vendors to have people who are smart and understand technology and have an idea of library futures working for them. Most of these folks have gone to work on interesting and useful projects. I understand (I think) some of the allure here, and suspect that at some point in a hopefully long library career I’ll end up working for a vendor for at least a little while.

Nonetheless,would it be safe to categorize this as a ‘brain drain’? A veritable ‘giant sucking sound’ (blast from presidential election seasons past)?

What does this mean about the library sector? What does this mean for the library sector?

Some people might assume that money is the motivating factor here. While vendors in general probably can pay higher salaries than libraries in general, I’m not sure this is mostly about money. Rather, I think people who realize the huge and potentially exciting changes that are possible and neccessary in the library environment want to work in change-oriented organizations with clear strategic directions, in environments that value innovation, value these people’s work, and let them work on interesting and important projects with other smart, capable, and future-oriented colleagues.[1]

I think most readers will sadly recognize that it is exceedingly difficult to find that kind of environment working for a library.

I’ve been saying for a while that in order to achieve the change that we all realize libraries need, libraries can’t just rely on the vendors delivering an ‘out of the box’ solution–no matter how much we’re willing to pay. It’s by relinquishing all responsibility for innovation to vendors that got us to where we are today, and it’s not a pretty place. Libraries need to participate in figuring out where we are going, and defining the strategic directions to get us there. To be sure, libraries still need vendors, of all kinds. But libraries need to step up and be partners in innovation with their vendors.

I think that without this, the prospects of change are dim. Vendors can’t do it alone, no matter how many smart people they hire. And, if libraries can’t hold on to smart future-oriented people who understand the role technology can play in creating an exciting future for us–the prospects of libraries accepting the mantle of innovation also seem dim.

When was the last time you heard about a brilliant library technology worker moving from a vendor to a library?

[1]: While already thinking about this topic, I happened to read an article in the nyt about yahoo/microsoft recruiting woes:

“Engineers here want to work on tomorrow’s technology, not yesterday’s,” said Bill Demas… “If it’s perceived that Yahoo or anyone else is not focused on the future, it’s going to be very difficult to recruit top people,”

11 thoughts on “Brain drain?

  1. I think you hit the nail on the head. Engineers in particular aren’t motivated by money. You want to work on interesting projects and have them actually implemented. I’m not sure that applies to something like OCLC, but I’m sure it does at LT, LibLime or Bibliocommons.

    But LT isn’t a vendor, dammit :)

  2. Yeah, that’s what Roy said about OCLC too. (not a vendor).

    You are selling a product and/or service to libraries, and you are interested in growing that business, guess what, you’re in the business of being a library vendor. vendor, one who sells goods or services of a commercial nature.

    OCLC too is in the business of being a vendor too, although they’re unusually owned by their customers, which makes them hypothetically (or would ‘potentially’ be a better word) different.

    Calling someone a ‘vendor’ doesn’t need to be a bad word, but it is a distinctly different part of the library market ecology than being a library. [Then there are those few organizations which are both libraries and vendors, like LC, true.]

  3. To call it a “brain drain” overstates the situation; at best that phrase makes it seem like an “us-versus-them” proposition. In the classic use of the term, individuals emigrate and their talents are lost to the originating country. It’s not like these folks are leaving the profession, never to come back. Some of them are and will probably be just as active in their communities as they were before.

    I’ll go even further and say that each of the organizations into which the professional immigrated is a “different” kind of organization (OCLC included) from the typical vendor mainstream. It may well be that differentness that the newly hired talent finds most valuable.

  4. Thank you, Peter! Well said. I have been reluctant to comment on posts like this, but I hope I am not inherently forbidden for having an opinion on the matter, since I am a named target of the so-called “brain drain,” a phrase I have seen used other time in this manner even before I was a member of the club.

    And though I am relatively assured that Jonathan did not mean it as such, I can’t help but find “brain drain” to be a bit of a back-handed compliment. I take issue with it for a few reasons:
    1) Trying to remain humble about the abilities of my brain, I will say that it works as well at OCLC as it did at NCSU.
    2) To imply that I left NCSU because it was an unfit environment for innovation is both unfair and inaccurate. NCSU was and is a great place to work, filled with innovative librarians, developers, and staff.
    3) It implies that the vendor community is wanting for intellectual powers that it can somehow only attain from the libraries. As someone who has known more vendors than the average librarian, I find this notion very inaccurate.

    As for relinquishing responsibility, I still think there is enough blame to go around. As I have said before, it is arguable that vendors squandered libraries’ money doing exactly what was asked of them. Water over the damn, under the bridge, etc.

    Finally, to Tim, please…to glibly suggest that OCLC does not work on or implement interesting projects? I hope that sentence just came out wrong because I can’t sincerely believe that you believe this. And, yes, you are a vendor–and no emoticon I know of can take that status away from you ;) Just know that there is nothing “inherently wrong” with you…wrongness is apparently an attribute that requires nurturing.

  5. Ooh boy, I tried to head off this wrong impression with my first paragraph, but apparently failed. Certainly I do not think vendors are libraries enemies. Certainly I think all of those people I mentioned (and maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned anyone by name, but, hey, it’s all public information–I hope I didn’t imply that I have any inside information about any of these individuals individual motivations, because I do not!) are doing as good or better work at their present employers as they were at their previous ones–and that they all chose their current (or soon to be) employers precisely because they were organizations doing interesting work, and I fault neither the individuals for choosing to work there nor their employers for hiring them! And I do not think the vendor community is wanting for intellectual abilities, which is good, because a strong and intellectually healthy vendor community is absolutely vital for us.

    I in fact do agree that “vendors squandered libraries money doing exactly what was asked of them” is probably a more or less accurate statement.

    My intent with this post was to accuse libraries of not being innovative and forward-thinking (and acting) enough, not to accuse vendors of anything! So maybe you can quite fairly accuse me of being “anti-library” for making such anti-library statements. I guess I partially made this post to raise discussion, being intentionally controversial, exagerating my opinion a bit for the sake of conversation–but I’ll stand behind what I said or implied about libraries, which is what I meant to do. I don’t think I said or implied anything negative about vendors!

    I think that libraries and vendors both need to be partners in innovation at this point. You’ll note that I didn’t accuse any of the vendors I mentioned of not doing their part. If you want to fault me for being too anti-library, now there’s where you’ll get me.

  6. Andrew, I don’t think Tim was trying to imply that OCLC doesn’t innovate. But there’s a huge difference between going to work for a start-up and going to work for a $200+ million dollar a year company, and the sorts of people each attracts. You have to have a strong desire to do new things and a certain lack of common sense to want to go work for a tiny little company. See like every Paul Graham essay ever for more on that.

    As far as calling LibraryThing a vendor, I guess that’s similar to saying “Google is a web portal” in 2000. Yes, we’re sort of in the same space as library vendors. I’m not sure that makes us one — in some senses we’re the un-vendor, and that’ll become more clear the bigger we get. More importantly, people who work for library vendors wear denim shirts. I do not wear denim shirts. Therefore, LibraryThing is not a library vendor. QED.

  7. Ooh boy, and the last thing I wanted to do was instigate vendor-wars on my blog.

    Please, I think it’s very poor form to brag about your superiority to other vendors in public. One thing that can make you a ‘different kind of vendor’ is collegiality and cooperation and openness even with your competitors. Please do not use my blog to insult your competitors or explain why you are better than them. In fact, please don’t use my blog to insult anyone!

    Anyone in the business of selling products to libraries is a vendor. I don’t know what “un-vendor” means. There’s nothing wrong with being in the business of selling things to libraries, it’s a fine business to be in, especially when done well. I’m not sure why some people in that business are taking pains to try to claim they are not in that business! I think all of the companies I listed are doing interesting things, which is why I think all of those people went to work for them.

    I regret mentioning people by name now. While it was all public information, it has made the discussion rather too personal.

    Maybe I should delete this whole post? It seems to have been misunderstood, and to bring out real personal negativity. My first horrible mistake blog post, it had to happen sometime!

  8. Jonathan:

    As one who has been publicly flogged on more than one occasion for saying something too politically incorrect to be stated in the library blogosphere, I urge you: stop apologizing and for goodness sake, don’t delete anything!

    This is a good start to a much needed discussion of the role of library vendors (all kinds) as well as what part libraries need to play in the development and nurturing of new ways of doing things.

  9. Thanks Diane.

    I should mention that I tell OCLC the same thing when they claim that other vendors are not their “competitors”. They talk about some service which will rely on cooperation with other vendors, many of whom are in the same business(es) as OCLC (like being a content platform in particular, one part of OCLC’s business)–and inevitably the OCLC person says “Oh, we don’t consider them competitors.” That’s nice, but I don’t think they see it that way, and I don’t really believe you do either! You’re selling competing products!

    [ I realized this when I was talking to an ILS rep about their workset-grouping algorithm, and I said “Oh, do you use the OCLC algorithm for that?” And the rep said “Well, we don’t like to refer to it by that name… but yes.” Ha!]

    Anyhow, for those who think discussing the state of library _business_ and the ‘market ecology’ is important, like Diane, you might be interested in this Talis (another vendor!) panel discussion I was part of.

  10. Jonathan, I’m sorry you took my comments as disparaging OCLC. That really wasn’t my intention, nor to disparage any other library vendor; we have great relationships with a wide variety of vendors, large and small. It takes a mighty uncharitable reading (or completely missing the point) of what I wrote to pull out what you did. You know why all those vendors work with us and why I’m pretty sure none of them would be insulted by what I said? Because they, like I, like the customers who choose to purchase both their product and ours, feel that what LibraryThing is doing and how we’re doing it is fundamentally different from them.

    Now, if I seem a bit prickly about the term vendor, it’s because I’ve been in this business for too long (on both sides of the phone), and I know what is usually meant by the term. “Vendor” is usually used as a shibboleth which describes a certain set of business practices, corporate culture and type of software. It’s a dog whistle term, often uttered (to my ears) with a sneer of contempt by customers or a sneer of superiority by the companies themselves. The way that most people use it in the library world is not strictly as the dictionary defines it, and you’ve been around enough to know that. Acting like the problem here is that Tim and I don’t know the definition of a simple English word would be insulting — far more nasty and personal than anything I wrote could be interpreted even in the most uncharitable terms — if it weren’t so amusing.

  11. I’ll just leave it at saying again that I think all the vendors I mentioned in my post are doing interesting and important work, or I wouldn’t have mentioned them. (And it’s true I don’t think that about every library vendor, but I do think it about the ones I mentioned). And I meant no disrespect to any of those companies or the people that work for them in my initial post or any comments on it, and regret if people took offense. It’s tricky discussing sensitive topics on the internet, and these have certainly been sensitive ones. I meant no disrespect to anyone, and I’m sorry for implying anyone else did either!

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