Blog Article 11 Jan 2018
Engineering smooth global growth: software companies share their scaling secrets

Building great tech companies starts with hiring great people. That’s easy to say but harder to do. Competition for the best talent is so tight, while pressure to scale fast can also hinder good HR practices. That challenge is exacerbated when the company is expanding globally.

IDA Ireland is well positioned to spot this trend. Over the past year alone, we helped 50 companies from the west coast of the U.S. to set up operations in Ireland. Increasingly, these are not just ancillary support operations or back office functions, but strategically important engineering sites. But what’s driving this trend, and what’s the key to managing this process successfully?

The opportunities for locating global operations outside headquarters include accessing a wide pool of skills without incurring the costs of hiring at Silicon Valley prices. So, the upside is talent and cost. The downside risks include complexity in managing disparate teams across multiple time zones and languages. 

Shared insights
To get an insight from the front lines, IDA Ireland invited engineering leaders from Zendesk, Altocloud and Workday to share their experiences with other scaling companies at a Go Global meetup in San Francisco recently. Here’s what they had to say about getting their global strategies right. 

Zendesk was founded in Denmark but when looking for a further global base, it chose Dublin which has become the company’s largest overseas office. As Zendesk’s president of products Adrian McDermott explained: “You think about making bets that are going to matter, and are going to pay off in the long term.” 

“What we realized was this is somewhere where we could actually put down roots and grow significantly. Copenhagen is fantastic, and we have a really talented, loyal workforce there, but the catchment area isn’t so big. The companies we met in Dublin were clearly hiring in the United States and Europe – not necessarily just in Dublin – and so from a long-range planning point of view it just made a lot of sense that that would be our European development and back office help,” Adrian said.

The first hire
After deciding on a location, getting the first employee right is a critical step for any scaling company.  “The first hire is obviously going to be the anchor tenant of the office. It’s the person you’re going to indoctrinate with culture. It’s the person who’s going to basically hire everyone else, so they need to be somewhat charismatic, kind of a recruiting leader,” Adrian said. 

He described the process of working with an Irish recruitment agency and vetting potential hires as a tough experience but a positive one. “Every interview is kind of a two-way learning process. You go through people and you find the right person and you’re looking for a certain amount of social acumen, a certain amount of drive and all these other things. And I think it’s the hire that you spend the most time on,” he said. With the right person in place, companies can be sure of having a leader who can embed the culture in an office even as the team grows to hundreds of people. 

Leadership skills
All of the speakers agreed that Ireland’s talent pool makes it attractive as a location for scaling software companies. That’s not just for engineering and development skills but also, crucially, to leadership. That’s the view of Dan Arra, VP of Business Development and co-founder of Altocloud. He’s a highly experienced Silicon Valley entrepreneur, with more than 25 years of experience in the software industry – including at two companies that went public on the Nasdaq.

“When you’re building a company or you’re building an engineering team, obviously having affordable resources and talent is important… But what I found unique about the engineering talent in Ireland is engineering management is a cut above. With large multinational companies in Galway, in Dublin and Cork, you find engineering managers who know how to find, win and keep engineering teams, [who] know how to develop those engineers and find ways to get their careers moving in that direction that is good for them and good for the company,” he said.
Adrian urged companies opening up engineering to other countries not to think of it as outsourcing or using low-cost resources. “You should be thinking about taking a piece of your product and the mission for that piece of product in the design,” he said. 

Bestowing ownership 
If necessary, that should mean relocating a general manager and the “emotional centre” for the product to the other country. Even though communication technology is sufficiently well advanced to allow for daily high-quality videoconferencing, the goal should not be to micro-manage from headquarters. If engineers in another country feel like they have a say in charting the direction for a product, they will be more likely to stay in that company. “That’s what ultimately gets engineers in any country. They’re builders and they will stay in the job if they love what they’re building,” said Adrian. 

Workday came to Ireland through its acquisition of a locally based software company, Cape Clear. Workday is headquartered in Pleasanton, California, with an office in Dublin and other locations globally. Catherine Renwick, the company’s VP of platform engineering, said the decision where to base a particular product team is not a “loss of control.” 

Echoing Adrian’s point about finding and retaining good engineering talent, Catherine said the key point to success in any geographical location is to enable engineers to feel like they are steering the ship. “Ownership is very, very important in a geography because once a team feels ownership or responsibility for an area then you know they’re more invested,” she said. 

In the second part of this blog, we’ll cover some of the other topics the speakers discussed at the event, including getting the culture right, ensuring availability of talent, and considering locations. 

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