Una Mullally

Society, life and culture on the edge

Dublin’s tiger techland

I wrote this article in the weekend newspaper about the lives of young Europeans who are emigrating to Dublin to work in the city’s thriving tech sector, and also about those who recruit them. Facebook employees Ziad Traboulsi, from Lebanon, …

Mon, Feb 11, 2013, 12:53

   

I wrote this article in the weekend newspaper about the lives of young Europeans who are emigrating to Dublin to work in the city’s thriving tech sector, and also about those who recruit them.

Facebook employees Ziad Traboulsi, from Lebanon, and Mats Lyngstad, from Norway, at the Dublin office. Photograph: Alan Betson

Economic crisis? What’s that? Young Europeans are flocking to Dublin to work in the mini boom town created by Facebook, Google, PayPal and others.

Dublin 2013: a booming industry. Hundreds of young people signing contracts for new jobs with decent salaries. They have perks, bonuses and brilliant social lives. They recommend their friends for jobs, and they get hired too. Friday-night beers top off another great week. Here’s to the weekend, when they take off down the country to go surfing or pub-crawling in Cork and Galway.

Apparently some kind of economic crisis is going on, but in Dublin’s tech sector, where Facebook, Google, Twitter, LinkedIn, eBay, PayPal and Microsoft reign, the only way is up.

Emigration is inevitable for many Irish graduates, but multibillion-dollar tech companies taking advantage of Ireland’s low corporate-tax rate are about immigration. Young Europeans are moving to Dublin to bask in a mini boom town, encouraged by a determined recruitment drive.

Grand Canal Dock, Dublin’s most prosperous district, wears this success well. Daniel Libeskind’s theatre sits in the same neighbourhood as a bring-your-own-beer warehouse that hosts parties; rollerbladers grind on benches next to restaurants serving perfect brunches. Positivity seeps from Facebook and Google’s office blocks.

Skating in the corridor

At Facebook’s European headquarters, on Hanover Quay, 25 languages are spoken. Employees get 25 days’ holiday a year, not including public holidays. New parents are offered not only 26 weeks paid maternity but also two weeks’ paid paternity leave. The company pays for monthly gym membership and health insurance, with reductions for dependents. As at Google, meals and snacks are free.

It’s a good deal, and the people working there know it. Young Europeans stroll around in casual clothes, cracking jokes, walking past an office wall graffitied by visitors.

And people skate down the corridor. Ziad Traboulsi, a 24-year-old from Beirut, grabs a weird-looking skateboard by the lift. “Have you tried this one yet?” he asks Mats Lyngstad, also 24, from Trondheim, in Norway. “No, I haven’t tried that one.” That particular skateboard is “a Facebook thing”, Tradoulsi says. He moved here in September 2010. Four people he recommended for jobs have been hired.

Traboulsi works in user operations, “making sure they have a cool experience on the site”. Lyngstad moved here last April. It’s his first job, and it involves talking to advertising clients and agencies in Norway and helping them use Facebook as an advertising platform.

There’s something familiar about their confidence and contentment. They sound awfully like Irish 24-year-olds from seven years ago.

Lyngstad and Traboulsi are here because of their language skills, which tech companies need so much they import young workers from Europe. Irish people work here, too, obviously, but the boom in recruitment looks offshore.

John Dennehy recently started a project called Make IT In Ireland, working with tech employers to fill jobs. “There’s a skills gap . . . Ireland has become the HQ for the biggest tech companies serving customers in Europe, and that creates a huge demand for language skills in things like tech support and customer service. So you need German speakers, Norwegian speakers, Dutch.”

Dennehy works a charm offensive in Europe to counteract the bad-news story of Ireland. The tech companies based here need people with languages, and they need them now.

“Ultimately, if you can’t get the people, you can’t grow. If we can get someone to move to Dublin, that means one extra hire for a tech company. On average, their salaries will be €47,000.”

In the tech-sector, the line between work and play is blurred. “Most of my friends are in Facebook, Google, and my flatmate works at LinkedIn,” Lyngstad says. Traboulsi nods. “Same. These companies are really very linked; we’re always living together, hanging out together. My girlfriend is from the office [Facebook]. Your social life is very linked to your work.

“We typically go out several days a week, and on Friday after work everyone stays out until 1am, 2am. Because everyone’s coming from abroad, it’s sort of a university or college experience. Most people don’t know a lot of other people when they come here, so it ends up being a very close circle.”

Of course, ultimately it’s all about the work. You’re less likely to leave your desk and go home when the office is a cross between the future and Tom Hanks’s apartment in Big.

‘Even the lunch breaks are smart’

Katrin Nagel, a 32-year-old German, is a senior account manager in “large customer sales”, managing businesses partnerships for Google. She moved to Dublin in April 2010 and says Google is the smartest company you could work for.

“Even the lunch or coffee breaks are just the smartest way for easy information- and knowledge-management, and team-building throughout and between all departments, as you meet your friends, enjoy amazing food and discuss [the] latest projects, new innovative ideas.”

Nagel worked in France for three years before moving to Dublin, and like many foreign tech workers she lists the ability to live close to her workplace as a big perk.

Nagel’s Dutch colleague Thijs van der Haak, who is 35, moved to Dublin in April 2005. He manages a team of online marketing consultants tasked with acquiring high-value advertisers for the Benelux market.

“I think Dublin is a great place to start your career and get some international experience, so I would definitely recommend it. I already got my best friend from the Netherlands to marry an Irish girl.”

He initially intended to stay for one or two years. Seven and a half years later, he’s still in Dublin, describing his long-term plans as “open”.

Is it all so perfect? Off the record, and in hushed tones, some Googlers talk about how unnerving they find Google’s company enthusiasm can be, about how entire professional and social lives revolve around the Google ecosystem, about the long hours and stress associated with being part of a company that demands a lot from its employees.

‘We are touching the future’

But even the naysayers acknowledge that the company rewards them handsomely for their work, and the dominant sentiment is one of possibility and endless expansion. They’re working in an exciting sector, on the tools of the future. Their chief executives are household names. Their companies are cool.

When Twitter advertised a post for a PR person in Dublin, it was retweeted with enthusiasm and envy, like a spot on the bench of a Premiership team, or a job as a rock star’s roadie.

“Working for the tech sector, we feel – I don’t know how to say it – we feel alive,” says Alessandra Verri, a 36-year-old from Calabria, in southern Italy, who moved to Dublin in 2005 and is a lead team-leader at PayPal. “We feel we are touching progress and the future. We are dealing every single day with something a couple of years ago would have seemed weird.”

Such boundless enthusiasm among employees can become overpowering, as can the companies’ careful message management. At both PayPal and Facebook, an Irish staff member sits in on the Irish Times’s interviews with employees. Google’s employee interviews are conducted by email (not the norm for journalistic research), at the company’s request. Twitter declines to offer employees for interview.

Yet the employees are emphatic about the informality and lack of hierarchy within the companies. Employees at PayPal’s office in Ballycoolin Business Park, near Blanchardstown, in Dublin 15 offer strikingly similar responses to the question, “Do you notice any professional or workplace differences in Ireland?” They speak about managers sitting next to other employees and how employees are involved in making decisions.

Susana Prieto Fermin, from Barcelona, says, “The main [difference] is the focus that PayPal puts on the employees and how every decision that is made, we’re made part of it. The boss is not just someone who is above you in the hierarchy.” Verri says, “The treatment and the respect towards employees is the most important difference.”

Even though these companies are desirable workplaces, the seats aren’t all taken. Facebook’s European headquarters in Dublin has nearly 60 vacancies. That number of jobs being created in Dublin would be headline news any other day, if it wasn’t just rolling recruitment.

In an ideal situation, the young Irish people emigrating right now could be up for the jobs John Dennehy is trying to sell to Europeans. But it’s all about languages, an aspect of Ireland’s education system that can’t compete. “There’s a long-term need to address that skills gap through education,” Dennehy says, “but there’s also a short-term need. The only way to address that short-term need right now is to bring in people outside of Ireland.”

Eimear O’Neill is a recruiter at Facebook and previously had a similar role at Google. She describes Facebook’s “pretty comprehensive relocation package”, explaining how it sets up people in Dublin, sorting out their flights, shipping their belongings, offering them a few weeks of accommodation before they find their own place. “Pretty much all of the people we hire are relocating from somewhere.”

When O’Neill hires someone, they’re added to a Facebook relocating group page, so before they move to Dublin they can chat online with other people who’ve moved from their country or elsewhere. Like the product, Facebook’s office environment is social.

“We had a party when we hit one billion users. They’re great at organising a lot of social events. We have Friday drinks as well, where they open that big fridge down there and fill it with beer. We have our evening meals here on Friday and have a few beers, so it’s a really social place to work. So if you are relocating from other countries you have, I suppose, a ready-made group of friends. A lot of the guys in Facebook will hang around with the Nordic team or Spanish team or German team in Google, Microsoft, Twitter, LinkedIn.”

PayPal couples

Back at PayPal, Verri is talking about how she moved to Dublin in 2005 after completing a PhD in politics. When she interviewed with PayPal, she was seven months pregnant with her second child. She says that back in Italy she probably never would have been called for an interview if a company had known that. She went on to refer her husband for a job at PayPal. He has been working there for two and a half years.“I feel lucky,” she says.

In 2006, Susana Prieto Fermin, a 36-year-old from Barcelona, was living with her Irish husband in Germany. “We put our CVs out there to see what the market was in Ireland and Spain, and in 2006 Ireland was booming, so we were getting loads of calls.”

When she thinks about Ireland now, she thinks long-term. Four years ago, having lived here for just two years and yet to have children, she would have been less certain. “Now that we have a family and the prospects of a career are so bad in Spain and are booming here in PayPal, we are recruiting all the time and there are loads of career opportunities.”

Luca Baldelli, who is 32 and from Perugia, moved to Dublin in January 2008, planning to learn English and then apply for a job. He is now a team leader for risk operation, managing 15 people who review transaction activity on PayPal accounts. “When I came it was just an adventure, so I was waiting to see how it goes. It went well. I developed in my role . . . I consider I have a career.”

Baldelli’s partner also works at PayPal, and they have a young daughter. “We’re more than happy to stay where we are at the moment.”

He has recommended Dublin to friends, some of whom have moved. “I always advise people that it’s difficult in the beginning, but as soon as you get into a company and see the respect where you work, there’s much more regard here than back in Italy.”

And what of that wider economic context? They’re aware, but it’s just not their world. “I think about that very often,” says Ziad Traboulsi. “I saw some statistic that 1,000 Irish people are leaving every week with emigration. But I think the reason why we come in is that it doesn’t take anyone else’s job; it’s because of the language skills. So it might be sort of a bubble, but I was reading another statistic that Irish people are the happiest in the world.”

Traboulsi was offered work with Facebook in other cities but turned it down. After less than a year, Lyngstad also sees himself settling in. “For the foreseeable future . . . I’m going to stay in Ireland.”

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