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Inside Silicon Valley's war for talent, and how Kiwi companies can stand out

There's a war for tech talent in Silicon Valley, and companies there are rolling out all sorts of lucrative offers to attract top talent. No.8 Re-wired and No.8 Recharged author David Downs breaks down what he's experienced in his time there, and the steps New Zealand companies can take to stand out in such a competitive market. 

America (well, in particular, Silicon Valley) is fighting another war. A war for tech talent.

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been spending some time recruitment people from the Bay area, getting more insight into one of the most challenging parts of breaking into the North American market – sourcing local talent.

The scarcity of good technical talent has been talked about for a long while, and in the Valley, the market for developers and engineers is off the charts. Large tech companies are hoovering up all the talent they can find in the market and the competition is fierce, with corporates offering all manner of incentives and benefits to attract talented people.

The standard offerings of free food, foosball tables and massages are now expected – but on top of that, companies are resorting to even more elaborate ways to secure people to generate their products. One company in the Valley area is offering returning-to-work mothers a service where they will pick up expressed breast milk from the office and courier it back to the baby at home, allowing the new mum to work more flexibly. As a proponent of working mothers, I’m not sure whether to celebrate the ingenuity of this idea or cringe at it.

One offer I do cringe at, though, is the benefit offered to some technical women of harvesting and freezing their eggs, to allow them to work later in their career and put off fertility-related concerns until once the product is shipped. Of course, it’s each individual woman’s choice to take part in such a scheme, and for some it may well be a great option to allow both a work life and a family. However, it does feel like the talent wars have crossed some sort of line here.

The proliferation of benefits and the rapid rise in base salaries makes it extremely difficult for a new entrant to the market to hire people. It’s not just technical roles either: senior roles in marketing are now commanding salaries of – no joke – US$250,000 to $300,000 per annum.  Heads of sales can go up to US$400,000. Even worse – the average tenure of these roles in silicon valley firms is 19 to 24 months.

That’s right – you can hire someone, pay them up to $400k, and they only stay with you for less than two years. And then guess what – you then take, on average, six to nine months to recruit a replacement.

Senior talent coming into an organisation also expects to take a chunk of equity in the company as they come in, and to vest stock over a two-to-three year period. It’s not common in New Zealand, but hiring senior talent into a tech firm in the US comes with the expectation that stock will be on offer. If you’re taking your firm state-side and hiring people in-market, be prepared to pay – and to give up – some of the company.

So what should Kiwi companies be thinking about as they enter into this talent warzone? Well, one legitimate question is ‘should I even be here?’ San Francisco and Silicon Valley have become so red-hot that it’s a pretty serious question as to whether a firm should come here, or another tech hub in the USA. Having said that, even the other hubs like Austin, Denver, Houston, Seattle are now facing similar talent shortages and competition.

This isn’t meant to put you off, but to open your eyes to the challenges of growing – and perhaps the opportunity it might represent.

According to the people sourcing talent and recruitment advisers I’ve talked to, Kiwi companies can and should use the ‘unfair advantage’ of our country image in their storytelling and recruiting. It’s not enough to simply say ‘come work for us, we’re good people’ – we have to tell a rich and compelling story about who we are as people, what we stand for. Companies should talk about their aspirations and dreams, and engage people’s hearts, as well as their wallets, when recruiting.

As a country, we have a great story to tell of our lifestyle, our landscape, our people and our impact on the world. The NZ Tech and Innovation story launched during the recent Tech Week talks about NZ as a nation of ‘Upstarters’. The upstarter idea captures the idea that Kiwis challenge the status quo, and how we can be good for the world. The idea of ‘Upstarters’ captures our unfair advantages, and if done well, should create a point of difference in those difficult recruitment conversations.

Certainly, going to the USA is a serious consideration for any tech company, and with the war on talent going on in multiple fronts, any advantage we have over the competition should be deployed.

And like in any war, planning is key.

Idealog has been covering the most interesting people, businesses and issues from the fields of innovation, design, technology and urban development for over 12 years. And we're asking for your support so we can keep telling those stories, inspire more entrepreneurs to start their own businesses and keep pushing New Zealand forward. Give over $5 a month and you will not only be supporting New Zealand innovation, but you’ll also receive a print subscription and a copy of the new book by David Downs and Dr. Michelle Dickinson, No. 8 Recharged (while stocks last).