Berlin Veteran Ivo Betke on the Future of Tech, Employment
In a city where start ups and new apps pop up faster than a retweet, eight years is an eternity to belong to a tech community that achieved international preeminence only in the last four years.
But Ivo Betke has a David Bowie kind of staying power. In the time he’s worked in Berlin, Betke has used his technology and legal experience to start webcrowd.net, a job and service recruitment agency he founded for Internet professionals. Employers whose businesses are in ‘stealth mode’ use webcrowd anonymously to find top talent.
Located in Kreuzberg, the company has placed about a hundred candidates in the three years since it was founded. As Betke describes it: “We grow our business from cash flow only.”
In this interview with berlinSCI, Betke discusses his role as a middleman in Berlin’s international tech employment market. He also talks of the role German universities could play in fostering such a workforce and what the future of work may look like in this city, including the illusive Internet of Things.
Why and how is your company a unique employment agency in Berlin?
It’s partly because of the combination of skills we have at webcrowd. For example, I studied business law in graduate school here in Berlin, which on the surface seems like a totally different topic than technology. But I kind of merged it with the IT field at webcrowd. At the company, we’re able to meet our clients’ needs from all these different perspectives, from government and legal, to business, to technology. Our solutions cross a range of recruitment needs. For example, I just had a client who wasn’t part of a tech company, but they wanted an app along with their Web site. We were able to translate their needs into technical requests and then we set up a team of freelancers for them. Maybe at a later stage the client might hire someone permanently from the team of freelancers.
In the end, it’s all about recruiting. We don’t care if someone wants to be a permanent employee or a freelancer, because there’s huge flexibility in the market, especially with developers.
Is it the case that local recruitment agencies, at least in the recent past, weren’t in the business of finding tech candidates who lived in Berlin, that they preferred pooling from an international workforce?
A lot of recruitment companies from outside the city didn’t realize Berlin would be an interesting market for them. Further, only a few have a local footprint with the development scene in Berlin.
The workforce is changing a lot here. So how does a recruitment agency describe a potential employee when there’s so much fluidity?
In terms of freelancers, we grow our network organically from recommendations. It’s also an advantage that I have a technical background, because I can ask questions, talk on a level that maybe someone in a company’s HR department cannot. So we have good access, basically. We really try to keep a healthy relationship with the developers because that’s our primary market.
Right now we are recruiting for three positions in Silicon Valley. And that’s the thing, developers are really active on a global level, or at least 20 to 30 percent are very active on a global level. For me, it’s totally clear to offer local people the opportunity to go somewhere else like Silicon Valley for two or three years and come back to Berlin.
Isn’t that counter-intuitive to everything the German government wants? They want a more educated, skilled workforce coming to Germany, a country concerned with issues of underpopulation. So now you’re saying go out there, go out to Silicon Valley?
The core goal is to get people to Berlin, not recruiting people away from here, but we do work to get Berlin talent to places like Silicon Valley. My perspective as a recruiter is to have these positions in the Valley as well as here. We are recruiting people from all over the world; the last five positions, we recruited four talents from outside of Berlin.
Do you think German universities are preparing students for the kind of workforce your clients need?
The education system is Germany is excellent, but it’s also really theoretical. So many students come out of school without practical experience needed to work in a company, especially in the fast-paced start up industry.
Our firm needs mid-to-senior level developers. [Start ups] just don’t have the time to train junior developers. From my perspective, that’s a big difference from Silicon Valley, where firms, for example those specialized in military manufacturing and silicon conductors, are able to hire and train dozens of junior developers per year. After two or three years, these employees leave these industries and head to start ups. But here in Berlin, we don’t have these industries, these military or semiconductor industries, where you can start off, gain two or three years of experience, and move onward. In Germany, they begin in the start up industry directly, which is a challenge. I see a lot of start ups that are in demand of a CTO, but then at some point it gets so difficult to find someone that they hire someone less qualified.
We do have connections to universities but on an informal level. In the end, one out of 10 people coming out of school is of interest to us, again, because most lack the practical experience. You can’t ask a client to pay a 20 percent recruitment fee for a potential employee who needs half a year to get up to speed. That’s why we’d rather concentrate on recruits who have been exposed to more.
Do you think German firms are embracing a developer culture in which you have teams of people working remotely?
A lot of German companies are still not used to having people on their team who work remotely. I mean, it’s changing. For instance, I do have clients who have teams in India, but they connect them on Skype, so they can ‘wave to each other’ all the time. Maybe that sounds totally stupid, but for some German firms, they want to have this because it makes them feel more comfortable. In London, Copenhagen, and Barcelona, having a distributed network is common place and there aren’t the insecurities.
How have you seen your company grow in the last three years?
At the start of January we had a super high demand for iOS development, and that kind of came out of nowhere. So I’m trying to predict these kind of technology waves, which is super difficult. For example, if I knew in March that everyone was looking for Java developers, then I could start to recruit and have my candidate pool ready to go.
Do you have a ‘system’ to predict these trends?
It’s more or less a gut feeling. You can obviously look at certain things, budget planning cycles, then hiring cycles, then technology cycles. For example, last summer, HTML 5 was super important, because everyone was going responsive. Then obviously there are certain trend topics, like continuous integration. You also have release cycles for new software and that’s a steady market.
You studied business law, so what was it about this industry that was so appealing?
I did have development experience, but I knew I didn’t want to be doing development and IT 100 percent, although I still do some a bit. I wanted to work with people and by working with all these start ups, you have a broad view of this ecosystem. I know about three start ups starting these months in stealth mode, and one or two will have a huge impact on the local ecosystem. We are recruiting for them, because they can’t obviously communicate for themselves because they are still under cover. That’s also a major part of our services; existing companies and sales companies can come to us when they can’t communicate a position officially.
In the U.S. it’s against the law to not publicly advertise certain jobs, although in many circumstances there’s an internal candidate and the interview process is just a formality. I don’t know what the regulations are in Germany in this regard. But if there aren’t these laws in place, I guess you’re everyone’s best friend?
(Laughs) We try to be. The hard part is to find the suitable candidates, even if we’re not able to find someone. For example, we are looking for a person with five-plus years of iOS development, and the local market maybe only has 10 to 15 candidates that fit the profile.
What’s the average age of some of the candidates?
Probably in their mid 30s. I mean, when people get older they have less mobility. You talk to a developer in their mid 40s, they are usually married with kids. They are less likely to move from the other areas of Germany to Berlin.
What about challenges with hiring developers from countries outside the EU and the United States, those with more difficult visa processes?
The Blue Card is helpful, but every consulate has their own process. Once we had an Indian candidate, the wife of a developer who was also from India. We had some trouble getting a visa for her, but we approached a representative of the German parliament to get it settled and that’s the farthest we’ve ever had to go to resolve a visa issue. But as we hire mid-to-senior level employees, getting a Blue Card is usually not a problem.
There are other dynamics, too. Now, if you look at candidates from Spain or Portugal, for example, they come into the country as EU residents. Start ups are trying to save money, so they offer them really low wages, and I often meet candidates from Spain who are earning 26,000 to 30,000 euro but should be earning more based on their developer skills.
For example, a German computer scientist who graduates or drops out of university usually earns 36,000 to 42,000 euro. If you are earning 26,000 euro as a developer, that’s ridiculous, basically.
What about Israel? Its major export is technology.
I’m actually planning a trip in May to go to Beirut, Amman, and Tel Aviv, and maybe Palestine. We’ve had some interesting candidates from Israel and Palestine. They really recruit themselves. I had one guy who was a candidate, recommended by an Israeli who already got a job here a few months ago. That’s how it usually works. If they are satisfied with our services, then they recommend us to a friend who is also looking for a job. The last guy from Israel who moved to Berlin was the final member of their Jazz band. They all happened to be technical people and all were able to come here.
Who was the most unusual candidate you’ve had?
There was a developer from Barbados who wanted to move to Berlin.
And you were like: “Why, why would someone move from Barbados?”
Did he actually come?
He wasn’t qualified enough, unfortunately. But he had heard the start up industry in Berlin was amazing. Maybe he’s worked on his skills.
In the end, everyone decides for themselves what they’re willing to do. We had a developer from the United States who had a super strong profile and had a job offer in New York for $200,000, and he said to me, “Please, just get me a job in Berlin for 50,000 euro.” He just preferred to live in Berlin. People don’t care about the salary if the project is interesting.
For example, we organized a hackathon, hack4good. There are twenty developers sitting there, three days in a row on a sunny weekend, programming for a social cause. The basic idea is to give back to the community, and yes, it’s obviously marketing for us. It’s a really laid-back environment, but we’re not trying to recruit anybody there.
I received an email about Stacktrace from your PR contact, and that’s how I came to meet you for this interview. I couldn’t make it to Stacktrace, so could you tell me about it?
We launched it last month with hub:raum. We realized there was a lack of knowledge exchange between developers about the do’s and don’ts of running a tech company, choosing technologies, building software, and what technical skills are needed from a business perspective. We’re trying to help bridge that gap.
Back to the government, do you find yourself meeting with policy people? What’s a typical interaction?
I do this all the time. That’s also why my NGO background helped, to understand how government runs. We mostly work below the political level, obviously on visa issues but also on economic ones. I’m trying to stay in touch with the Senate for Economics, which is the major policymaker for the digital industry in Berlin. They have also launched initiatives, such as ‘Log.In. Berlin’ or ‘Project Future‘, two projects that address location marketing and the future of digital industries in the city.
What about science start ups in nanotechnology or medicine?
We try to establish connections with engineering recruiters, for example, because I do see an opportunity for the German market.
I was discussing that with a policymaker about ways to combine engineering power with software power. Berlin has a lot of capacity with software creation, but all the engineers are based in Aachen or Stuttgart, places like that. In terms of the Internet of Things… if you look at cars, for example, they are 90 percent software and 10 percent mechanics. Twenty years ago, it was the other way around.
You’re not talking about disrupting these industries? You’re talking about partnerships?
Kind of. It’s how people work and share knowledge networks. If you look at the start up success stories in Berlin, besides Soundcloud, Babbel, Wooga and Research Gate, it’s primarily e-commerce, such as Zalando, and online advertising, like Zanox. The e-commerce story will be done at some point; there won’t be an e-commerce story to write anymore. We have to look into the new, and if you want to help Berlin have a long, creative future, you have to have product development. And that’s not necessarily coming from thee-commerce industry.
Interview conducted by Claudia Adrien
The interview was originally published March 6, 2014 at berlinSCI.com.