Tuesday 23 January 2018

It's the hiring economy, stupid: why top tech firms turn their nose up at northside office hubs and clusters

An office near the Grand Canal Docks benefits from dozens of cafes, restaurants, parks and nice living quarters nearby.
An office near the Grand Canal Docks benefits from dozens of cafes, restaurants, parks and nice living quarters nearby.
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

On PAPER, it looks like an easy decision - a bank of shiny, affordable modern offices less than 1km from the Silicon Docks, now Europe's most concentrated cluster of digital mega-firms.

But there's a hitch: the offices are on the north side of the river.

And that means that they remain vacant, with little interest from booming tech companies.

Welcome to Dublin's 'West Berlin' tech office space conundrum where, even when companies claim to be desperate to land bigger city offices for their own expansion, they won't consider an area a few hundred metres into Dublin 1.

Snobby? Misguided? No, say tech company bosses: it's merely a cold, hard response to what attracts or repels the most sought after engineers and executives.

"Many of the people we need to hire just don't want to work there," said the founder of one tech company that employs 60 people here and is looking to expand to an office for 100 people.

"We'll look at other areas if we absolutely have to - but there's a very different dynamic to having an office in other parts of the city."

This 'dynamic' gets to the heart of work-life balance.

An office near the Grand Canal Docks benefits from dozens of cafes, restaurants, parks and nice living quarters nearby. And that is where the workers that are being desperately chased by Google, Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin and about 100 other tech firms want to be. The best-skilled staff can pick and choose their companies. So if you locate too far away - and that means more than 2km, or on the 'wrong' side of a (perceived) barren social neighbourhood - you just won't get the top people.

To be fair, is it any different for any in-demand sector? (Lest anyone think that lawyers or financial traders are on a higher hiring plain than top engineers, coders or project managers, you haven't been watching the private sector in the last five years.)

There are, of course, exceptions to tech's 'nice city neighbourhood only' rule. For example, Microsoft runs a successful operation in Sandyford. Similarly, Intel runs a cutting edge facility in Leixlip. And IBM is closer to Blanchardstown than Ballsbridge. But these firms are largely self-contained ecosystems with their own processes. They are not, as such, directly comparable to many of the (largely digital and software) tech companies based around Dublin 2.

There is also a distinction to be made between top-tier engineering roles and glorified call-centres, tech support 'hubs' or even startups. To be blunt, it's rarely a problem recruiting for a call centre in a suburban industrial business park. Supply meets demand almost anywhere.

Similarly, startups will venture a little further out from the core Dublin 2 or Dublin 4 clusters.

But if you're a medium size tech firm that's about to step up to the next level in ambition and you need competitive talent, you'll soon find that you can't do it from Phibsboro or Inchicore. And you can't even do it from East Wall, in plain sight of Google's towers.

So is this an intractable West Berlin situation or is there any expansion past the Silicon Docks and the Grand Canal area?

There are a few small signs of movement, probably brought about by market pressure. Yahoo recently moved into the same Point Depot building that holds the Odeon Cinema. (The street sign outside says Sheriff Street.)

Similarly, small tech firms such as Tripadvisor - which is only hiring engineers - is also down around the Point depot. And Dublin's top 'co-working space' for startups and small tech firms, Dogpatch Labs, has just moved from Google-dominated Barrow Street to the CHQ building on the north quays, adjacent to the IFSC.

But migration is proving to be painfully slow. In the meantime, the majority of ambitious tech firms appear content to pay twice as much for a Dublin 2 office that's surrounded by luxury services than one 'stranded' in a new area.

"Commuting is not a big thing for many of our staff," one Linkedin executive told me. "They want to live and work close to the same general area. And it has to be a nice, central area."

Irish Independent

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