In my walking around the neighbourhood keynote for DevOps World in 2021 I said this:
The last 20-25 years has really been about the rise of distributed systems. The next 20-25 years is going to be the rise of distributed work.
Nothing has happened since then to change my mind, and evidence is growing that the last couple of years were indeed a watershed in the build out of the global, tech-driven economy.
This week I have seen some interesting commentary in that regard. Let’s start with San Francisco, a bellwether for my thesis. There is a deep irony at the heart of the idea that software is eating the world, first floated by Mark Andreesen in his 2011 essay. It has often seemed like software is eating the world, but it all must be conceived of and written in San Francisco.
More and more major businesses and industries are being run on software and delivered as online services — from movies to agriculture to national defense. Many of the winners are Silicon Valley-style entrepreneurial technology companies that are invading and overturning established industry structures. Over the next 10 years, I expect many more industries to be disrupted by software, with new world-beating Silicon Valley companies doing the disruption in more cases than not.
“In more cases than not”… is doing a fair bit of work there.
While companies in SF and Silicon Valley built tools that allowed global access to information and services, which should indeed allow you to work anywhere, they generally really didn’t want their engineers and employees to do so – other than maybe sales and marketing people, who should of course be “close to the customer”. Everything is about “on campus” or in the office. That’s where the snacks, free meals and table tennis tables are at.
Apple built a vast donut cathedral to the idea of serendipitous meetings between employees.
You’d think that Slack, that ubiquitous tool for distributed work, would be all about working from anywhere. Not so much. Though the company bragged about its remote work bona fides as the pandemic hit, in truth it was a classic team in an office operation.
There are some exceptions to the rule – GitHub was famously a distributed organization and pretty good at this stuff. GitLab is properly a distributed organization. It’s perhaps no coincidence that both of these companies are building infrastructure that truly does allow the business of coding to finally be a distributed, asynchronous, process.
So what caught my eye this week? Some interesting chatter, some signal with some data.
Patrick Collison, Stripe’s CEO said:
In Q1 2019, 39% of Stripe’s hiring was outside Bay Area and Seattle. Last quarter, it was 74%. I think the rate at which tech industry is going global is still under-appreciated, and that this will be a big tailwind for the world over the next decade.
Matthew Prince, Cloudflare’s CEO chimed in:
Same thing: In 2019, 48% of Cloudflare’s hiring was outside the Bay Area. Today it’s 90%. Our San Francisco office is our only office globally that shrank in 2021.
Another related conversation. Jaana Dogan, Principal Engineer at Amazon Web Services, had this to say] recently:
The number of senior people who can negotiate for Bay Area base salary levels while working from Europe is increasing. Maybe this will change the startup scene in Europe and US startup scene’s relationship with Europe dramatically.
For talented people like Dogan, optionality is increasing. She can live where she wants.
In truth the relationship between the US and Europe in terms of opportunity has changed markedly in the last 15 years or so. The VC scene in Europe is far more advanced. It’s a thing now. There are growing ranks of unicorn companies, being minted on a seemingly weekly basis. Startup culture is a given in many European cities now. And the quality of life is of course European, which is to say, really pretty good.
We’re seeing significant wage inflation in Europe, but also Asia, Australia and Latin America. The Pragmatic Engineer blog has some good data there.
US-based companies are investing in Europe very differently in 2022 than they were in 2011. Europe used to be business development, sales and marketing, with very little local engineering. Now engineering is happening here. Apple, Google and Amazon for example all have significant engineering presences in the UK, notably in AI and machine learning.
The joke about every hiring conversation ending in: “must relocate to San Francisco” just isn’t true any more. These changes were set in place before the pandemic. Now they’re in stone. We’re not going back to the world’s elite software engineers all living in one city.
A couple of things to add. This post has really talked about the increasing globalisation of tech, rather than looking at vertical industries, but the truth is, that Andreesen was right, all business sectors are now tech, software and service-driven. That’s a global phenomenon. As tech work becomes increasingly distributed, businesses globally also become increasingly digital.
It’s also worth arguing that how software people work and the tools they use increasingly become the norm for how people in other sectors work. The developer aesthetic is transferable. Slack is a good example, which started as a tool for software engineers, but is now used by everyone from digital agencies to law firms to automotive companies.
New companies are emerging to tap into new distributed working patterns. Take for example Remote, co-founded by Job van der Voort, ex-GitLab, which is literally all about remote work, global HR and payroll services. This week it hired one of the industry’s most talented (and funny) tech evangelists Cassidy Williams to run developer experience and education. New tools and platforms enable new ways of working.
So work is becoming more distributed, but so is opportunity.
I wrote recently about grassroots developments in Africa.
From my perspective the most interesting phenomenon here will not be what US companies bring to the table (and of course, take liberally from it), but what local businesses and developers do.
How about, say, Zambia?
Flutterwave and Chipper Cash, two of Africa’s most valuable tech companies, are part of a new group leading efforts to turn Zambia into a business haven for the continent’s startups, according to startup founders involved in the plans.
The Zambia Technology Sector Working Group is already in early talks with the country’s Ministry of Technology & Science to develop business-friendly legislation to support African tech companies looking to incorporate or operate from the country.
The world of work is changing, dramatically, and rapidly. My friend Eddie Jaoude recently upped sticks and apparently moved to Bali, taking his open source evangelism with him. YouTube works wherever you are.
RedMonk has always been a remote-first, micronational company. But Covid changed things significantly. I haven’t been on a plane in more than two years, and frankly. It’s been pretty great, apart from the Covid part obviously.. Never missing dinner with the family, always being there to read bedtime stories, and yet continuing to do great work for my clients, and work effectively with my colleagues. I want to fly less, to do great work from where I am, working from home.
A great deal has been made in the media about The Great Resignation, where people are reconsidering where and what they work for. I don’t think this phenomenon is just about employers, it’s about quality of life, and often about place. We want to choose where we live. And today increasingly we can. It’s exciting times.
Plenty of companies want everything to snap back to “normal”. Get back to the office! We need you on campus. You’ll be at a disadvantage if you work remotely! But because of global competition, and the war for talent, these negative noises are likely to fall on deaf ears. If you can make an excellent salary at a startup, with share options, and live in Porto…. that’s going to be preferable than Seattle for a lot of people.
So let’s close with Brian Chesky, founder of AirBnB, who, it, must be said, has a vested interest in remote work being a thing, but has certainly helped facilitate it. He says
Yup, the place to be was Silicon Valley. It feels like now the place to be is the internet (which is everywhere). I expect this trend to only accelerate.
So do I.