Dublin is changing…start up comments

Eoghan McCabe and a bunch of his colleagues came to UCD Computer Science the other day to have a chat with some of the 4th years and postgrads about how opportunities were changing in Dublin compared, in particular, to how things were when he graduated.

I’m older than Eoghan, and I’m a bit unorthodox in that my background is not really computer science but I did take an unusual journey through life and spent more than a quarter of my life (but not quite a third) working on IBM big iron. But he had a message which resonated quite a bit in that the opportunities available to graduates today have broadened quite a bit compared to what was available less than 10 years ago, and even more say, compared to what was available 20 years ago. 

This is true in a monumental way; but the way it gets discussed rarely focuses on those changes. The concept of starting your own business, and the question of innovations is pushed a lot more than it ever has been before – it seems like every third level college has some sort of incubator program in place now. The whole market of available jobs has changed – there are a lot more interesting small software firms springing up of which Intercom is obviously one, and there are a few more getting ready to push from America to Ireland like New Relic. The big institutional employers are basically not the only show in town and this is fundamentally important because people are not uniform and they tend to thrive in different environments. We have this tendency in humanity to go with the one size fits all approach in the face of overwhelming evidence that in fact, one size has never fitted all.

I’m not a fourth year – I have 20 years work experience under my belt and not all of it has been in the technology arena. But I do believe that when you have a widening of employment and employer culture, it fundamentally benefits society and supports general growth.

One thing which we did discuss however is the tendency of people to think that Silicon Valley can be recreated here, and the tendency of politicians in particular to think about recreating Silicon Valley in Ireland. I think this is unrealistic because mostly it rests on an incomplete understanding of what drives the Valley at the moment – and also, the fact that what drives the Valley has evolved over time. Possibly the weather helps a lot but a key feature which supports the structure in California is probably the finance.

So I do wish, sometimes, we could recognise that this, along with a friendlier approach to failure, are key components of how you drive a start up culture. The last time I heard a politician in Ireland discuss this, he just wanted to import more people to work here.

More than anything, however, I wish that we got shot of this idea of wanting to Be Like Something Else. I’m pretty sure the valley infrastructure won’t last forever; it’s not even that unique as there are similar things happening in the northeast United States, in Berlin, and to a lesser extent in London, in terms of funding interesting ideas. Something or someone will come along and seriously disrupt it; that’s what happens. Or, more possibly, a tech bubble will blow up.

In the meantime, the funding available to start ups in Ireland is on a small scale. When you consider the amount of investment money that went into property in 2006 – some 40% of lending for new developments were for buy to let investments – you have to wonder whether the issue isn’t so much that we don’t have the money to generate a start up scene of some description here, probably with a more limited utility focus, or idea factories but that we misapply it.

So companies like Intercom wind up going to San Francisco to get funding. I do honestly believe that understanding this is important for generating a local start up culture,

On a related note, Eoghan made two remarks which I thought were worth remembering.

  • the vast majority of successful start ups are not run by drop outs but by people who completed their studies (and then some in a few cases)
  • the average age of a start up founder is 40.

This, I think is good to know, even if you’re 25 years old.

On a completely unrelated note, there was something I really liked about Intercom before Eoghan and his colleagues came in to talk and that is that Code Kata ran there on a Wednesday morning. I made it in there one morning but I liked the idea of doing something like that not just from a networking point of view but from a diversity point of view – yes, there were mainly men there (I think I was the only woman the day I did go) – but because people from different companies tend to have different cultures. In many ways, it was illuminating.



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