With their reputations for disrupting industries and getting things done quickly, Silicon Valley companies have developed their own distinct work culture. Hi-tech start-ups from around the world have flocked to the region to gain access to talent, and learn the workplace ethos that makes these high-growth companies tick.
But do firms really need to be lo-cated in upstate California to be the next Apple or Airbnb? And can companies in the UK have the same appeal, as fears loom that Brexit turmoil will cause Britain to become a less attractive place to work?
British companies have already been struggling to fill positions. With UK job vacancies at near-record highs, the UK tech sector has been suffering from a skills shortage, and positions that once attracted a large number of foreign workers now draw in few.
The latest UK Labour Market Out-look by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) and The Adecco Group found a significant drop in the number of both EU and non-EU migrants employed in the UK. So what does the future hold for attracting talent in the country?
Rob Mee, CEO and co-founder of Silicon Valley headquartered software firm Pivotal, sees huge challenges ahead. “Certainly Brexit is going to have an impact,” he says. “People can already see that companies want to potentially diversify their concentration of people across Europe.
“That is something that concerns me. We have had access to a really diverse talent pool here. It is one of the great things about operating in Europe. For example, we do a lot of product development in Dublin and people apply from all over Europe. That is fantastic.
“I would hate to see us to lose that here. I don’t know what exactly will eventually happen [but I] think it would be a big disadvantage to British industry to lose access to all of the talent.”
Not all doom and gloom
Mee thinks Brexit will lead to companies diversifying their executive functions to other cities in Europe to a certain degree. But he does not believe they will pack up and leave the UK outright, but rather spread the risk around so everything is not concentrated in Britain.
Speaking from his firm’s London office, Mee says the UK still has a lot to offer despite the uncertainty sur-rounding Brexit. “London has been for hundreds of years an industrial and banking centre,” he says. “It is a place where people want to live and do business. This is where technologists and creative people are working together to build next-generation software.”
And Pivotal, he assures Business Reporter, is not leaving any time soon. “We will have a lot of customers concentrated in London for a very long time, so we are here and we will keep growing here,” he says.
“We also do have a presence in Paris and Berlin and other cities that we will likely expand to in Europe over the future. We will stay close to our customers where ever they are.”
Although mainland Europe is central to Pivotal’s plans, Mee believes London will continue to have enough gravity and activity to retain companies for the foreseeable future – but he can’t say Brexit will not have an impact.
The Silicon Valley way
A potential solution to the increasing talent gap in the UK, thinks Mee, could be found in creating the right workplace culture. He believes a Silicon Valley mindset can be transplanted anywhere. “The notion of a Silicon Valley culture is actually not restricted to a particular geography,” he says. “It can be anywhere. Silicon Valley is just a matter of state of mind. You can have that state of mind no matter where you are. It is really a way of doing things, and that can be done almost anywhere.
“The rest of the world can learn these methods. There is nothing magical or unique about Silicon Valley. It is a collaborative and creative and innovative culture and it can be established pretty much anywhere.”
Indeed, having its own roots in Silicon Valley gives Pivotal something of a headstart when it comes to embed-ding this mindset in its other workplaces around the world, by seeding each new location with existing staff.
Mee explains that new offices are seeded with a team of four to six, who then begin to hire from the local talent pool. Eventually the founding employees return to where they were originally based, leaving the new office composed of people who have been hired locally.
“Recently I visited Sydney, where we have an office,” Mee explains. “They told me when I was there that they had just celebrated losing their first original Pivot from a different office. They were all hired in Australia. That typically happens in most of the offices where we go.”
Pivotal’s culture, says Mee, is one of collaboration, agile working and continual learning. The company has a pairing programme where two employees from a team work together on a project. Developers, designers and product managers sit together throughout the day to learn from each other. The idea is to facilitate a faster transfer of knowledge between teams. It also enables employees to respond to changes in the marketplace quicker, and be more innovative and agile in their general approach. “That is a very appealing workplace no matter where you are,” reckons Mee.
Learning from the past
Pivotal’s open-plan London office in Shoreditch certainly gives off the impression of a place where staff members can work together side by side. There are community breakout areas, a kitchen stocked full of free food and drink and a relaxation room for staff to chill out in if they need to take a break.
When people think of Silicon Valley, Mee agrees, they tend to think of fast-moving software firms such as Google, Facebook and Twitter – companies that were built on the same agile working culture Pivotal uses. “These are methods that are optimised for a continuously changing world and continuously changing requirements,” he says.
But working in Silicon Valley wasn’t always about agility and collaboration. Originally, Mee says, software com-panies built everything up front. They would see if a project worked for cus-tomers after 18 months of development, to often find out it was not quite right. As a result of these rigid systems, there was a high failure rate of projects.
From the early 2000s, companies in Silicon Valley started adopting a more agile way of working and a more experimental model of software development: the fail-fast, learn-fast mentality. “We have a hypothesis,” says Mee. “We are going to validate it to see if it true or is it false. If it’s false can we do something else? If it is true, let’s invest more. That approach has enabled software developers in Silicon Valley to start disrupting industries all around the world.
Mee points to this as the point of divergence, and that the reason the big Silicon Valley companies that emerged from it have been so successful. “They have adopted a much more scientific, a much more evolutionary model of software development,” he explains. “It is very disruptive, and allows them to move much more quickly and challenge established industries.”
And the rest of the business world has finally started to catch onto this way of working, says Mee – not just start-ups or the technology companies. Pivotal is seeing its larger customers also adopt these modern software development techniques.
“The fact that the world is recognising that this is actually the way that software development needs to be done is fantastic,” says Mee. “There is definitely a movement that is ticking over to the mainstream.”