Aussie geeks 'over-qualified' for home market
Some tech expats claim the opportunities back home are few. Photo: Karl Hilzinger
Just as actors dream of making it in Hollywood, working in Silicon Valley has undeniable allure for Australians in the technology world. And it has nothing to do with cheaper living, or big cars.
Australian expats say it is more a case of a lack of opportunities at home for those starting out. Then when they might try and return, they'll find themselves somewhat over-qualified.
The unlucky country ... Nikki Durkin felt she had to leave Australia and go to America to realise her dream. Photo: Hugh Hamilton
For Australians working for the big tech names, all headquartered in the US, balancing ambition, cultural differences and expectations on return takes some getting used to.
“Going back to work for a large Australian company or a multinational is not something I'd do,” said Angus Barnett, an Australian who initially moved to the US for two years in 1998 when IBM offered to triple his salary.
“I don't think the challenges are there in Australia.”
Fourteen years later, Barnett — one of several Australians working in technology in the US interviewed by IT Pro for this story — is still in San Francisco but now a consultant for KPMG, after having worked for Accenture.
On a recent visit home he looked at the Australian IT sector and concluded wide opportunities didn't truly exist.
“Everyone in Australia I spoke to in the tech world wanted to get bought out or move to the US,” he said.
There's plenty of evidence that experience at the coalface of American IT won't mean the local industry will automatically roll out the red carpet.
Andrew Wood worked at Amazon's headquarters in Seattle for five years before recently returning to Australia. The transition home presented its own challenges.
“There aren't a large number of companies working at the scale of internet business that I'd developed skills in, so it did take a while to find my niche,” he said.
But it's the opportunity to play a role in developing Australia's growing IT and tech industry that generates some allure.
“I think there are incredible professional challenges in Australia considering the still nascent state of its software industry,” said Nathan Creswell, a product manager for Salesforce, based in San Francisco.
Creswell summed up many opinions when he said Silicon Valley's status as the centre of the industry made it a career magnet.
“Having been in the enterprise software industry for over a decade, it was a no-brainer to move out to Silicon Valley.”
There are, of course, challenges in relocation. Re-establishing yourself is a hurdle and while Australians can claim some ready-made affinity with US culture, in the workplace it's not always the case. The dreaded conference call, is but one example.
“There doesn't seem to be a place which is inappropriate to take a conference call,” laughed Damien Kelly, a consultant to start-up Veeva Systems, founded by former Salesforce executives.
Kelly, who has worked for IBM and the United Nations, said he'd listened in as people took calls in bathrooms, a car wash, and just before going into hospital for surgery.
Other points of difference, however, illustrate some of the reasons why the US holds great attraction - deep knowledge in specific areas and the opportunity to gamble on an idea.
“In the US, if you want to find a 'SaaS developer with five years' experience in content management for life sciences' you can probably find a hundred people,” said Kelly. “In Australia, you'd probably just ask your best developer to go learn it.”
“The willingness to take risks," said Creswell, "is something I've never seen in any other country. In Australia, it is very difficult for a start-up to get traction because few customers will take a risk on an unproven idea.”
What is your experience? Have you found returning home to work harder than imagined?