Barely a month goes by without news of yet another Aussie who
has made it big in Silicon Valley: Fintech start-up Credible, Bitcoin wallet
Snapcard, indoor locationing innovator Navisens to name but a few.
The phenomenon of Australia’s best minds leaving these shores
for the US – the so-called ‘brain drain’ – is a cause of serious concern among
the local tech community. It’s “completely and utterly a disaster” according to
fintech chief Jost Stollmann of Tyro Payments. It’s “an absolute crisis” said Freelancer.com CEO Matt Barrie in April.
“There is still… a massive talent drain issue that needs to be addressed,” says LinkedIn Australia’s MD Clifford Rosenberg. “Much of the world-class talent that we do create is migrating to other countries to seek better opportunities.”
At last count, 2,300 ICT
workers left Australia for employment overseas. People with STEM degrees are
also leaving Australia in significant numbers, according to LinkedIn figures.
Demand outweighs supply and the imbalance is growing every day.
The gap is currently being filled by foreign workers, with around 22,000 arriving to work in ICT
occupations in the 2014/15 financial year.
The government has acted to “get the skills that businesses need now” by setting aside $2 million in its Innovation Agenda to ‘refine visa settings’. But with more companies
embarking on major digital transformations both here and overseas this may be a
case of too little too late. And the rising living costs in tech hubs like
Sydney put potential senior candidates off, says Atlassian’s Mike Cannon-Brookes.
“There is a lot of talk about the lack of tech talent in
Australia, and quite rightly so,” says Suzanne
Gerrard, director of IT recruitment agency Greythorn Australia. “As technology continues to infiltrate
every business and sector, the need to have skilled staff to drive
transformation projects as well as business as usual application of tech,
continues to grow.”
But is the problem really as bad as some say? Has the ‘brain
drain’ been overstated? Perhaps Aussies abandoning their homeland for
Silicon Valley is a good thing for the country?
“I don’t see it as a huge issue. If anything, it should be
encouraged,” says Australian Andrew Roberts. “An active expat community helps
Australia and Australian companies.”
Australian Andrew Roberts, CEO of Ephox
Roberts is CEO of Silicon Valley-based Ephox, who provide
WYSIWYG editing and content creation SDKs. He moved from Brisbane to the US to
be closer to the company’s biggest customers. With a competitor gaining market
share he “felt we were missing out” by not being in the US, plus he adds: “like
many young Australians, I wanted to live and work overseas for a while”.
Ephox’s success in Silicon Valley is positive for Australia,
Roberts says: “My company has created dozens of high-paying tech jobs back in
Australia as a result of me moving to Silicon Valley. We wouldn’t be
as successful as we were if we hadn’t invested a lot of time and money into
Roberts is one of around
20,000 Australian expats – collectively known as the ‘Aussie mafia’ – living and working in the southern San Francisco Bay area. Some have been there for years, others come and
“They are some of the smartest people you will meet,”
says Roberts. “And Australians, in general, remain humble and easy to get
along with even if they have had some success.”
The sentiment is echoed by Australian Ernest Semerda, founder of productivity app GSDfaster and cofounder and CTO of Medlert, a logistics and communication platform for hospitals and ambulance providers, based in Silicon Valley.
“Even though today, a product can be engineered and
distributed using online channels from any location in the world, I don’t
believe we should stop people moving overseas,” he says.
Aussie Ernest Semerda, CTO and co-founder of Medlert
The Sydneysider had always dreamed of working in the Valley,
“the mecca of technology” and made the move in 2009. “I believe
that if you want to get serious in your industry you need to be where the
action is: Silicon Valley for technology, LA for the movie industry, New York
for fashion and so on,” he said.
If the hard work of building a business can be “expedited
through an overseas startup community then we should encourage it,” he
says. “When the founders get to the growth phase, then make it fruitful
for them to come back to Oz to grow their business locally.”
Ripe for return?
When launching the Innovation Agenda in December,
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said: “We want to make sure we retain and gain
the best human capital that we can.” There were a raft of measures aimed
at creating an “innovation nation” that was an attractive place to do tech.
In April, Kelly O’Dwyer, then small business minister, was in
New York speaking at a ‘Down Under New York’ event for Australians working in
the city. “I don’t think we should be concerned that people go over to the
United States and New York and get experiences and learn new things,” she said,
“as long as we create the right environment for them to return and they are not
compelled to go as an only option.”
But is Australia the ‘right environment’ for them? If Australians
that head for Silicon Valley end up returning, having grown their skills and
experience, perhaps with capital and drive to set-up or expand businesses
locally, it can only be a good thing for the nation.
With a shortage of capital
investment, sky-high living costs, lack of STEM grads, an increasingly boring main city
and pedestrian internet speeds – it’s a big if.
What do you think? Let us know your view by commenting below, or take part in the conversation on LinkedIn: CIO Australia, Twitter: @CIO_Australia or Facebook: CIO Australia.