Business Irish

Sunday 24 June 2018

Are we looking at Silicon Sligo? Winds of change blowing through the North West

Raft of job announcements from global and indigenous firms

Tech Life Credit: James Connolly
Tech Life Credit: James Connolly
Patrick Byrne, CEO of Utah-HQed Overstock Credit: James Connolly
Credit: James Connolly

Ciaran Byrne

On a beautiful Thursday summer evening, a group of men are fishing from the bridge over the Garavogue, the river that winds through Sligo town.

Inside The Building Block, a funky and bustling co-working space perched on the nearby river bank, a string of big tech companies are fishing for talent.

At a jam-packed event called ‘TechLifeBalance’, organised by the local IDA office, US ecommerce retailer Overstock is joined by fellow US firms LiveTiles, E3 Retail, Pramerica and by SL Controls, a Sligo-based engineering and technology firm.

“I’m from the old country,” jokes Patrick Byrne, the CEO of Utah-HQed Overstock, a €2bn business that established a presence in Sligo five years ago.

Credit: James Connolly
Credit: James Connolly

Looking more like a rock star than techie, Byrne, an American, wears a black shirt and shades as he tells a gathering of 100 people that Sligo is at the heart of Overstock’s future.

That this is Byrne’s first ever trip to Ireland underlines his sincerity. “We love our Sligo colleagues, our comrades,” says Byrne.

The crowd is starstruck. The applause is heartfelt.

Read more: LiveTiles brings AI workplaces - and Plynk co-founder - to new innovation centre in Sligo

Patrick Byrne, CEO of Utah-HQed Overstock Credit: James Connolly
Patrick Byrne, CEO of Utah-HQed Overstock Credit: James Connolly

Overstock, like a number of others, is hoping to fill a variety of tech roles that offer competitive salaries – and a lifestyle that many claim would be hard to find anywhere in Ireland.

In fact, Sligo has had an extraordinary run of game-changing employment news in recent weeks, with over 500 jobs announced by firms such as Abtran, E3 Retail, from North Carolina and New York-based LiveTiles.

Now the battle is on to fill those posts. There are vacancies for software developers, analytics experts, coders, digital architects and back end web developers.

The positions are certainly big league; in the case of LiveTiles, its new Sligo centre will support the further development of its design and artificial intelligence (AI) products.

Collins McNicholas has been chosen as its exclusive recruiter and has launched a nationwide campaign to fill the jobs at www.collinsmcnicholas.ie/live-tiles

In The Building Block, the vibe is relaxed and typically tech: as well as hearing from the companies, guests are treated to food from local producers including chilli prawn nori rolls, canapes with pulled pork and sesame, ice cream and chilled beers from a local craft brewery.

It becomes quickly evident that all are sold – even blown away - by the lifestyle available in Sligo and the North West.

And it also becomes clear from all of the employers present, that lifestyle is front and centre of their pitch to potential new hires.

“It takes me 10 minutes to get to work, or to hit the beach or play golf,” says Pramerica’s head of innovation Joe Dunleavy.

“As I walked, yes, walked, to work yesterday,” says LiveTiles general manager Elaine Murphy. “I thought about the incredibly supportive climate and positivity in Sligo.”

“It’s about getting out of Dublin, getting out of Galway, and getting to Sligo to enjoy life and do a little bit of work too,” says David Kenny, director of Overstock’s Sligo operations.

“The community spirit impressed me beyond belief, I was overwhelmed,” says Barry Henderson, the COO of E3 Retail, which announced last week it is to establish an R& D development centre in Sligo.

“We are confident we can find the people we need who want to come here and who want to stay,” he added.

Read more: SL Controls invests over €1m in new software set to transform face of manufacturing

For years Sligo has played second, third, or even fourth fiddle to Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway, as companies established operations and snapped up the best employees.

But surging living costs, particularly in the housing rental sector, are becoming a hot button issue for employers and employees,

And more affordable centres such as Sligo are reaping the benefits as companies look to match rewarding career progression with less pressured, better quality lifestyles and experiences.

“It’s a war for talent, it’s as simple as that,” says Niall McEvoy, the head of innovation at IT Sligo. “For years, we’ve known that Sligo offers a superb lifestyle option, with its beautiful Atlantic setting and stunning beauty.

“But there has been trojan work going on behind the scenes to lay the groundwork for sustainable employment and to create the conditions for what we are now seeing – the emergence of a genuine tech cluster,” says McEvoy.

The slew of recent IDA and Enterprise Ireland-supported announcements, stacked with fresh recruitment drives by local employers like SL Controls and a healthy number of local firms in the county’s startup eco-system, has even resulted in a new name being bandied about – ‘Silicon Sligo’.

“There is a real sense of critical mass now,” says Aidan Doyle CEO of Sligo Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “A sense of momentum that has been a long time building, and which could be unstoppable.”

Adding credence to that view on Thursday night was the presence in Sligo of Clive Foley, co-founder of social payments app Plynk, who has joined LiveTiles as Lead Architect. As the search for talent gets underway, there is optimism that the North West is finally stepping up to grab its fair share of the spoils.

Ciaran Byrne is the co-founder and content director at PR agency StoryLab

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