I’m writing this article thinking a lot about the IT community in my hometown Cluj, but I’m pretty sure this applies to a lot of cities or countries around the world, many of which are highly specialized in IT development and many of which recently entered in this so-called “the silicon valley of …” game. In case you haven’t heard this before, there’s a new silicon valley in India, there’s one in Africa and of course, we have our own silicon valley in Romania. I don’t want to start talking about the difference between Silicon Valley and these places because it was covered before by many others and I encourage you to read this article focused on Cluj, which sums it up pretty well. But I emphasize the fact that positioning yourself as the copy of something successful was always a bad move on the long run. If the ultimate praise that a city can get today is to be called the silicon valley of the country/continent it resides in, then we are doomed to be limited by the existing context and we will never be able to innovate and go beyond what the previous generations have built.
From my point of view, Cluj is far from any kind of comparison with Silicon Valley and is far from any kind of comparison with other cities in Western and Central Europe when it comes to the tech mindset. The closest ecosystem you can compare it with is actually the closest geographical ecosystems: Bulgaria, Ukraine and other countries from Eastern Europe that are driven by outsourcing. So the point of this article would be to examine what is the key ingredient that is missing in Cluj, which is also the reason we are closer to the countries enumerated above than to Western Europe and US.
How did we get here?
But first let’s see how we ended up having such a good opinion about ourselves. Being one of the greatest student cities in Romania, Cluj always had a substantial work force in IT and starting 10–15 years ago, as the economy began to stabilize and foreign companies started shifting their attention towards Eastern Europe, it was a natural thing for the community to grow and attract more and more companies. Meanwhile, Romanian companies created in that period evolved and understood fast that the future is bright for them, hence outsourcing became the main activity for most of the it professionals. In order to be fair, I must say that in the past 5 years or so, companies from other countries opened offices in Cluj and they are actively developing products together with their branches from our city. This is a step forward, some may say, but if the company is large enough, the tendency is to not have a radically different environment when compared to a pure outsourcing company. Currently, according to various market researches, there are about 15,000 IT professionals in Cluj. So far so good, but now comes the interesting part.
All the buzz about this doesn’t necessarily come from inside the community, but more often it comes from outside. First of all, media presents IT as one of the most profitable businesses in Romania, which is true. But they also tend to popularize Cluj or Bucharest as being the “silicon valley of Romania/Europe”. And this is not something new, media usually tends to be shallow when it comes to understanding some fundamentals of a certain domain, so we’ve always had examples like Maradona of the Carpathians. After the media, the average Romanian citizen might say the same thing. Having heard of Silicon Valley as this sacred temple of IT, the place from which Google, Facebook and Apple rule the world and after seeing that an average IT professional earns about 4–5 times the average salary in Romania, people tend to easily get caught up in this game and spread the idea that media first planted. I’ve seen people from both inside and outside the industry praising the quality of Romanian software and bragging left and right about these Romanian IT hubs as the current or next “silicon valley”. The bottom line is that the vast majority of the people comparing Cluj and Silicon Valley have a very shallow understanding of what the IT industry really is.
Smart people understand the difference between Silicon Valley and Cluj and they also see it. They see it in the huge number of outsourcing companies that are do not have any kind of product development activities as part of their business model. However, I see a lot of people that start from the following assumption: “Our ecosystem has great engineering skills but lacks the business skills”. In other words, if we had enough entrepreneurs, business people, investors, marketers, sales people, we’d be right there tailing silicon valley or at least Berlin, London and other European cities that started developing really good products in the past years. Well … not really.
The product mindset
I think there’s a huge difference between the current mindset of the average IT professional in Cluj and the product mindset that is required at an engineering level. And yes, marketers and business people are scattered among the huge number of engineers, but providing them simply doesn’t solve the main problem.
Believing that you can take any 2–3 senior engineers that know how to build a complex system and place them in a team together with a good marketer and a top sales agent and then that things work out is as wrong as believing that you can take a taxi driver (no offence) put him in a F1 car which has the best engineers and designers available and expect him to win races or at least to perform at the same level as the seasoned F1 driver. Because as a F1 driver, which is in full control of the car throughout the race, the software engineers must be in full control of the product as they build it. Even if you are the entrepreneur that drives the product and you are non-technical, you’ll want your engineering team to be fully aware of the business you are doing and to share your vision, otherwise there’s no difference between what you’re doing and what companies that end up outsourcing their work do.
At the end of the day, the engineers are the ones that have the power to create the product, and yes, the outsourcing mindset teaches you to execute to perfection, to deliver solid architectures and top-quality code, but those engineers need to have the product mindset in order to understand who they are building the product for, how will the customers use what they are building and ultimately which is the long term vision that they need to adhere to in order to make sure that what they are building now can be in time a successful product.
Call to arms
The missing link for Cluj is not the lack of business people, not the lack of investors, not even the lack of marketers and sales people, but the lack of engineers with a product mindset. And hopefully, sooner or later, more people will realize this.
The good news, for any software engineer reading this, is that there is a lot of room available for people like you and me, people that want to do more than outsourcing your services for the benefit of others. I think that as a software engineer, your passion for creating stuff should come first. And that passion can only be satisfied by teaching yourself to think as a product developer, not just as a software developer. I’m writing this, hoping that more and more IT professionals from Cluj will understand that they can fill this gap that exists today and that together, we can complete the chain and become the link that is very much needed in order for our city to evolve into more than a cheap outsourcing destination.
I’m very curious to hear other people’s opinion on this so please comment below and let’s start a conversation.