The Next Step For Silicon Docks

Samuel Beckett Bridge and Convention Centre Dublin

Via The Sunday Business Post: If the name is a touch tacky, it’s Silicon Valley’s fault, as multiple tech hubs across the world have adopted similar monikers over the years.

Silicon Glen in Scotland was particularly cheesy, but the one thing the Silicon Docks’ name gives is an identity to a region in Dublin that has exploded in recent years. It was a far more mundane business – at least in terms of rock-star status – that made the first move. Much as it had been among the first companies to enter the IFSC, Accenture made the earliest stride across the river.

“When we moved in, we were attracted by the location. We had done 16 or 17 years in the IFSC and we had built a broad base so we felt it was a logical move. The location was attractive, we could see where the extension was going. It was completely undeveloped all along the docklands,” says Alistair Blair, Country Managing Director at Accenture. While part of the initial surge with Accenture across the river, Blair spent several years with the company’s London office before coming back just over a year ago.

“This location is unrecognisable compared to three years ago – never mind four years ago. The theatre had been completed and then you have all the co-location aspects where there are tech firms, financial services businesses, and an intersection between those and all the other professional services. You’ve got more of an epicentre than a hub, it’s a unique environment,” said Blair.

“User experience is no longer about asking what the process is, it’s about delighting the customer.”

He added that the inclusion of the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre in the development was critical to the growth of the region. “If we’re going to have tech, and we’re going to have industries, you have to have the artistic dimension. That’s the counterbalance. As we move towards a world more about what the consumer feels, there has to be an artistic flavour to it. User experience is no longer about asking what the process is, it’s about delighting the customer,” said Blair.

FinTech has been a passion for Blair since he came back to Ireland, with Accenture running a FinTech accelerator for start-ups that saw major financial and technology firms involved in running the programme. “The power of having those people in the room to talk about the application of technology was huge. We’ve now reached a point where technology is no respecter of boundaries and no greater place than the FinTech area,” he said. “We’re close to a point where it’s not about the product that you sell anymore, it’s what problem the product is solving. A payment is an interesting thing, most people see it as a routine or ritual now.”.

The physical proximity of these businesses to one another around Silicon Docks is a key driver for the continued growth of the region, according to Blair. “Collaboration allows you to come up with an idea, proximity delivers a solution. When you want to grind it out and bring it to market, you can not put a value on proximity. That’s what can really help us differentiate ourselves to scale quickly,” he said. “Competition is great, it drives to a better answer. We are in a position where we need much more access to people coming out of school with skills, as well as all the emigrants who have left the country who can bring back skills. In addition, we need space to enable the start-up community and allow this proximity to continue.”

Google’s big push
While Accenture made the first strides, the big push in the region came with Google’s development along Barrow Street. It’s a project that is still expanding. Fionnuala Meehan, Director of SMB sales for EMEA at Google, said the growth wasn’t entirely expected.

“It’s not that we expected to see the scale. At every stage it was scrappy enough. We started with 70 people, by the time I got here it was up to 250. We started taking new floors and it just got bigger and bigger. I remember standing in my office in Gordon House and seeing John Herlihy announce that we were buying the building opposite by going over there and unveiling something. It was his quirky way of telling us,” said Meehan.

Google now has around 5,000 staff in its Dublin operation. The decision to go for the city centre, where space is at a premium, as opposed to a suburban area with more land to work with was easy. “We knew that being close to the city centre would give us access to the talent pool and it would help staff looking for apartments. We then noticed all the other multinationals moving in and as soon as we started to see the first few coming in after that we saw the momentum building,” said Meehan.

“It was intentionally central for the profile of person that we wanted. When I talk to people about Dublin, they like the nightlife and being able to go to the theatre. We hire the type of person that has a wide range of interests outside work, it was intentional to be in the thick of it. When you are pitching to Russians from Vladivostock, it’s fantastic to be able to say, ‘We are right in the centre, you can live five minutes from the office, and you can go right into the city’.”

We hire the type of person that has a wide range of interests outside work, it was intentional to be in the thick of it.

The firm continues to grow with investments made to enable more functions to be run out of the Dublin operation. Meehan said the business is also getting creative with how it uses its existing office space. “We’ve a campus here where we have invested heavily – we spent €300 million on the three main buildings in 2011. Last year we bought Grand Mill Quay and this year we have a lease out on Grand Canal Plaza. We’re constantly looking at how we can optimise space,” said Meehan.

The environment, with many new firms still popping up, is appealing to Meehan. She said Google benefits because people who come to Dublin to work for Google know there are alternative options to grow their careers. “We hire a lot of graduates and we want them to come and learn formative skills to grow them into leaders, but it’s fantastic that if and when they want to move on they have a transferable set of skills. There are so many senior leaders here who have cut their teeth in two or three multinationals. Every company is able to draw from a strong talent pool both at that level and graduates,” she said.

For Meehan, the challenge keeps evolving and that makes working in the region with Google personally appealing. “I’m just in a new role, I’ve just taken on the EMEA sales team here. It’s a huge remit, with 450 people – it’s going to take me a while to figure out what we do there. One of the biggest opportunities working with small businesses across the region is that they are trying to build micro-multinationals. It’s a way to go global, we’ve seen a few examples of that in Ireland.”

New kid on the block
While Accenture and Google have been established for years in the area, there are still new firms popping up. One of the newest arrivals is Zalando, a fashion technology giant from Germany. One look at the company’s Dublin office, however, and you would think it was still in start-up mode. With just eight staff on site, the decor needs a lot of work and there’s still a feel of getting to know the new surroundings.

This is what the raw side of a new multinational in the region looks like. It’s about getting set up and keeping everything together early. The business has big aims for the Dublin offices, with plans to grow to 200 staff. “We have big aspirations as a tech company and we need to hire amazing engineers. We look everywhere for the best places to get people. We looked at a lot of different places, but Dublin stood out because of the tech culture that has been built up over the last ten or 15 years, with the US companies and the start-up scene here,” said Eric Bowman, vice-president of engineering at Zalando.

“We weren’t focused so much around building a tech brand, but realising how important tech is to the growth of the business has made us conscious about being a leading tech company,” said Bowman. The current makeshift set-up doesn’t bother Bowman: for him it’s about growing with the right staff on board. “It’s not just about hiring people, it about hiring great people,” he said. “Our goal is to have about 50 people by the end of the year. We are taking on some of the most fundamental work to Zalando here. One thing that we have found is that with satellite offices and hubs, it’s easier to focus on the big problems without distractions. It’s much easier to give a team like this clear focus and let them execute.”

“We looked at a lot of different places, but Dublin stood out because of the tech culture that has been built up over the last ten or 15 years.”

The current offices won’t be able to contain the business when it hits the 200 target – the facility on Barrow Street would do well to host half that number and even then it would involve an epic game of desk Tetris. Bowman said he knows the business will have to move and that space is an issue, but he doesn’t think it will be an issue for Zalando. “It’s never easy. Being in a great location is always a priority for us, but I’m quite confident the market will sort this out. There’s a demand, the demand will be met,” he said.

“We want to be surrounded by other tech companies. Being an active part of the tech company is really important to us. Being part of the overall buzz of Silicon Docks is in line for our aspirations – it wasn’t a difficult discussion,” he said. “We are comfortable competing in that labour market, we have a great culture and a great set of challenges. We see competition as a good thing as it’s attracting more people.”

Originally published in The Sunday Business Post.

MORE: Quay To Success: Silicon Docks Uncovered


Picture: ‘Samuel Beckett Bridge and Convention Centre Dublin’ by Jmckinley, via Wikipedia, shared using a Creative Commons license.

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