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How Zendesk sidesteps Silicon Valley's tech talent crunch

How hard is it to recruit tech talent in the San Francisco Bay Area? “Ridiculously hard when compared with other parts of the world,” according to Jason Smale, director of product for San Francisco-based Zendesk. While researching the challenges of hiring IT pros for our recent developer shortage survival guide, I talked with Smale, an Australian native, about his experiences with recruiting tech pros in various global markets and Zendesk’s distributed development team approach.

“San Francisco is a very different hiring landscape from Australia, Dublin, Copenhagen, Singapore or anywhere,” Smale said. “It’s always going to be competitive, because you’ve got some of the best minds in the technology space here.” This concentration of talent fosters an abundance of tech start-ups. The 2015 Startup Genome Project surveys put Silicon Valley first in number of startups, and the area has been number one for years.

Competition for software developers and engineers is intense for another reason: the number of product-oriented technology companies in the San Francisco-Silicon Valley area is also greater than in other tech hubs. “It’s a very different mix from different regions around the world,” said Smale.

In Copenhagen, Melbourne and Dublin, for example, Zendesk competes for tech talent against banks and large telecommunication companies. “There technology is a supporting function rather than the core business, which is the opposite from San Francisco,” he said. It’s easier for a technology company to recruit software engineers there, because “technologists want to come to organizations where they’re going to have the best impact.”

The tough competition for talent in Silicon Valley led Zendesk to move to distributed engineering teams. “We committed to having engineering resources outside of San Francisco,” he said. Today, 50% of its developers reside outside of San Francisco.

The benefits of the distributed team model outweigh the negative of not having face-to-face interaction. “Having a global presence has really increased the diversity inside our organization, which is really powerful to the culture,” Smale said. “Also, it removes the groupthink in many ways and has people challenge each other with alternative technical solutions. It has led to our building better product.”

Time zone issues are the biggest barrier to making distributed development work well. Teams at Zendesk had to be organized so that people working on the same piece of a project have a two-to-three hour time zone overlap.

To illustrate the problem, Smale noted that 8 a.m. in San Francisco is 9:30 p.m. in India, but 1 p.m. in San Francisco is 8 a.m. in Australia. Obviously, teaming engineers in the two latter locations makes sense.

Organizing distributed teams so that no developers have to work “crazy hours” is an example of Zendesk’s focus on retaining employees. Another example is the company’s move to offering 16 weeks of paid leave for both mothers and fathers of newborns.  “We think about what policies will help our teams remain sustainable to do long-term,” said Smale.

Zendesk’s approaches to thriving during the tech talent shortage are similar to others our editors and reporters have uncovered while reporting on this topic. For more information, check out articles on worldwide developer pay trends, improving developers’ quality of life as a hiring and retention strategy and how the shortage has forced IT firms to lower new-hire requirements.