Blog Article 23 Jan 2018
Meeting the culture challenge for scaling software companies

Engineering leaders shared their advice for CTOs, leaders of engineering teams and international operation decision makers at recent IDA Ireland meetup

Founders agree: creating a positive culture is critical for high-growth companies. It helps to attract and retain engineering talent. Sustaining a culture becomes challenging when teams work across global offices as a business scales.
At IDA Ireland’s recent Go Global meetup in San Francisco, senior engineering leaders at Zendesk, Altocloud and Workday shared their experiences in getting the culture right, hiring for talent, and choosing a location for international expansion. 

Team time

 Having members of the senior team spend time in a new office can be a boost to fostering company culture outside headquarters, said Catherine Renwick, VP of platform engineering at Workday. When Workday acquired Cape Clear of Dublin, it sent some of its core talent to spend time with the new team.
“Lots of face time is important, as well as frequent travel between different offices. There’s nothing like meeting someone face-to-face, shaking their hand, and having a conversation with them,” she said.
Even now, it’s not uncommon for senior staffers at Workday to switch geographies between Ireland and the U.S. Zendesk took a similar approach by ensuring there was a visitor from its corporate HQ in San Francisco to remote offices almost weekly. “For a while, the joke was that Zendesk is a travel company for engineers that also make software,” said Adrian McDermott, the company’s president of products.

Collaborative culture

 On a more serious note, Zendesk operates a kind of ‘cultural transfer’ policy whereby staffers can apply for any job in any country within the company. “When one group becomes too independent, or too inward-facing, or country-specific, it becomes a problem for engineering as a whole. So, to counteract that, make sure there’s enough collaboration going,” Adrian advised.
As a smaller company, Altocloud hasn’t encountered this cross-cultural problem directly, but it promotes travel with another goal in mind. Co-founder Dan Arra said the company encourages engineers to meet customers directly, to conduct product demos and to hear their feedback directly. This ensures customer satisfaction, develops skills within the team, and ultimately results in a better product

Ethnic Diversity

 Culture also extends to nationalities. All three speakers noted how, in Ireland, free movement of labour between EU states in particular has given their companies access to a wide range of skills. Catherine estimated that Workday has around 30 European nationalities represented in its Dublin office.
Interestingly, extra nationalities are often found within Ireland’s educational system even before they join the workforce. Dan Arra pointed out: “Our chief data scientist is from Poland. Our lead engineer is from Spain. Our head mobile engineer is from China. And these are guys that were at National University of Ireland working on their graduate degree or Ph.D.”

Ireland’s got talent

 In addition to cultural diversity, Ireland has a wide pool of talent for scaling software companies. Language skills come with the nationalities and technical talent in the form of DevOps, user experience (UX) and mobile.
Altocloud’s Dan Arra points out that the company’s Irish operation in Galway happens to be a European centre of expertise for contact centre and communications software. That’s thanks to the presence of Avaya, Nortel, Cisco and others.

Dublin for DevOps

 Adds Catherine Renwick of Workday: “To my mind, there’s a big DevOps wave that’s happening across Dublin. There’s a really vibrant community in that area, lots of meetups and no shortage of competition for talent. When I think about growing a team, I think about it like: where can I hire the best candidates, and where does that expertise currently exist?”
Adrian at Zendesk agreed, and underlined the point about skills mobility within Europe: “There’s a higher percentage of DevOps per capita, but otherwise a ton of engineering schools, a ton of engineers that have moved there. There’s a lot of companies with offices around Ireland, in Ireland, and Europe in general. Engineering talent moves around and you can build whatever you want to build.” In fact, Zendesk decided to build its contact centre software initially in Ireland because of the DevOps community – “probably the biggest in Europe” – and specialisation such as mobile development.

Alternative locations

 Many of the top technology arrivals to Ireland have tended to cluster around Silicon Docks in Dublin, and with good reason. But it’s far from the only show in town. Zendesk’s largest international office is on the edge of a leafy suburb in Dublin, easily accessible from the centre. In 2015, Workday moved into a new office on the north-west side of the city. It’s not normally where technology companies are found, but it gave the company the space it needed to grow. Workday has put down roots in the surrounding community through volunteering with local schools, sponsoring libraries, and supporting projects like CoderDojo, an initiative that teaches young children the basics of software development.
Altocloud’s willingness to look beyond the Irish capital extends to its work with research centres. Four years ago, it engaged with engineers at Waterford Institute of Technology, in the south-east of Ireland, to supplement teams at its head office in Galway, and in Armenia.
When the time came to expand that product’s features, Altocloud returned to academia and worked with the Insight Centre based at the university campus of NUI Galway. The facility is considered as a centre of excellence for semantic search, machine learning and data analytics. “We hired a couple of Ph.D.s out of that programme. Our chief data scientist came out of the Insight team,” said Dan Arra.
Arra drew a parallel between Ireland’s technology industry and how companies in the U.S. are looking further afield than Silicon Valley, to places like Austin, Texas or Portland, Oregon. “I’d say Dublin is kind of like Silicon Valley and I’d say Galway is a little bit like Austin. And importantly, there’s great music and great food in Austin, and also some great talent, just like there is in Galway,” he said.
One way or the other, it comes back to culture. And the message from the three software companies is that it’s an area where Ireland excels.

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