Saturday 22 July 2017

Dublin's days as a techie Cinderella are numbered

Zendesk's forthcoming major expansion in its Irish base will create high-level jobs in the capital, the multinational's vice-president of engineering, Colum Twomey, tells our tech editor

Colum Twomey, vice-president of engineering at Zendesk, says the company will also be hiring non-tech staff for its Dublin operation. Picture: Adrian Weckler
Colum Twomey, vice-president of engineering at Zendesk, says the company will also be hiring non-tech staff for its Dublin operation. Picture: Adrian Weckler
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Is Dublin really a 'proper' tech city? Or is it still a place mainly for multinationals to locate support centres? The issue came up again in a recent London jobs announcement by Intercom, the booming software firm that has based most of its high-end design facilities in Dublin.

"In contrast to Dublin, big companies like Amazon, Facebook and Google have firmly established their London offices as places where first-class product development takes place," wrote Darragh Curran, Intercom's vice-president of engineering.

Ouch.

Curran was trying to make a positive point about London's deep-tech skills well. And Intercom is one of the most committed companies to its top-end tech jobs being in Dublin.

Even still, his remarks gently highlighted what many have argued for some time: that for all its success in luring multinationals, Dublin does not play in the same league as cities such as London, Berlin or Stockholm when it comes to design talent.

Instead, the doubters argue, Dublin is largely an outsourcing centre for languages, finance, administration and lower-level engineering.

So when the software firm Zendesk yesterday announced a hefty expansion of its Dublin base - with plans to more than double its workforce here - it was natural to wonder whether this would mean support-style jobs or something more.

"It's a fair question," says Colum Twomey, the multinational's vice-president of engineering.

"In the past, it has certainly been the case that Dublin has been a place where companies come to hire engineering staff inexpensively.

"And those companies would give the local engineers the less exciting work, maybe maintaining a previous version of the software or localising it, nothing very exciting. And you still see a bit of this around."

However, Twomey insists that this isn't what Zendesk is offering for new recruits to its expanding Dublin operation.

"One of the key reasons I actually came to Zendesk was that we build core products here from scratch," he says. "That means we're a peer to our other development centres around the world."

The company, which makes and sells customer-support software, plans to hire 300 new people over the next three years to add to its existing 200 staff already located in Dublin. It is putting money up front for this, with a newly-leased building on Dublin's Grand Canal that can accommodate up to 500 people.

Zendesk, which has a global headquarters in San Francisco, has over 35,000 paid customer accounts in Europe, the Middle East and Africa and is growing at 30pc annually.

Globally, the company has over 100,000 paid customer accounts.

Twomey says that the firm is serious about high-end design jobs being part of the Dublin set-up.

"The first product we took on here in Dublin was the Talk product, which we had to take on and support while we built it from the ground up. That has been a really successful product for us and it's been owned entirely here in Dublin.

"That means we have the engineers, the designers, the QA process, the creative guys, the product management all here. It's full ownership. It gives us a high level of autonomy."

Other Zendesk processes have elements of this philosophy.

"All of the mobile software that is built by Zendesk is built here in Dublin," says Twomey. "And it's all native Android and iOS stuff. So we're building apps, we're building SDKs. Again, it's pretty autonomous.

"That's what keeps people engaged here. We have a very low turnover of staff because people care about what they're building and want to have control. If they thought they were being dictated to from another geography, they may not like it.

"Certainly, I wouldn't have come here if we weren't going to get this kind of work."

The company is also looking for non-tech roles to hire.

"As well as the these tech jobs, we're also looking for sales people, support people and language skills," says Twomey. "Right now, about 40pc of our staff are engineers, while 20pc are in sales, 20pc are in support and 10pc are in finance or back office functions.

"I think it's going to scale fairly linearly."

Zendesk established its office in Dublin in 2012 with two engineers and an idea to globally expand its engineering team.

"Initially, the (Danish) founders moved from Copenhagen to San Francisco," says Twomey. "But while San Francisco is great from a market perspective, it's hard to afford or attract A-list talent there.

"The founders decided to locate an engineering centre in Copenhagen but knew it wouldn't be enough, so that's when they picked Dublin.

"Since then, the decision has been to grow the Dublin operation from an engineering perspective because it's really working very well for us. We're not growing our other sites as rapidly. We have sites in cities like Berlin as well, but we made a decision not to put our engineering there because we're able to meet our needs here."

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