When customer service software company Zendesk decided to open a U.S. office outside its San Francisco headquarters, VP of public policy Tiffany Apczynski said the company had one major concern: whether other cities in the U.S. would offer Zendesk access to adequate talent.
“We looked around and realized that none of us was [originally] from San Francisco — we were from all over,”Apczynski told the crowd at VentureBeat’s Blueprint event in Reno today, speaking on a panel about workforce development. “So why would we have this narrow-minded idea that that’s the only place we could find talent?”
When Zendesk realized it needed a presence in the Midwest to cover a time zone gap in its customer service team, it opened its Madison, Wisconsin office with just one employee. That employee started hiring friends as the need grew. “Pretty soon, we realized from a photo one of them posted that we had nine employees working in someone’s basement, and we needed an office!” Apczynski said.
That office is on track to have 500 employees in the coming year. And its benefit to the company has gone far beyond addressing logistical needs: “[The Madison office] brings in a different perspective, which, as a customer service company, is really important,” Apczynski said. “By going to where most Americans live, we find out more about how they’re using tech, and that allows us to be innovative for multiple types of users.”
That perspective has also been hugely valuable to Seattle-based Zillow Group, which has not opened up new offices in Middle America, but rather acquired companies in places like Lincoln, Nebraska and Cincinnati. “We’re a real estate company — and that’s an industry that’s representative of all types of people. Every town has a real estate agent, so having these different perspectives has been hugely valuable,” Dan Spaulding, chief people officer at Zillow Group, told the crowd.
Nevada-based Switch has similarly found a local talent pool eager to stay put, as well as potential hires who want to move somewhere without state income tax. The company has worked closely with local universities and community colleges to develop certificates tailored to the skills they need in new hires — in order to get students to stay put in the growing tech community once they graduate.
“It’s a win for the colleges because they can offer this great curriculum. It’s a huge win for Switch because we get a workforce trained exactly how we want. And it’s a win for our community because we can provide good jobs to people who want to stay in the community,” said Terri Cooper, VP of sales for the data center company.
Cooper said one of the biggest challenges they face is the perception outside the tech industry that 12- to 18-month certificates are not as good as a four-year degree. “We have a lot of great jobs that don’t require a four-year degree,” she said. “But a lot of parents think the path to success is you get good grades, you go to college, you get a job. So we do a lot of outreach trying to let both kids and parents know that these certificates exist and there are great jobs available at the end of them, and it doesn’t have to mean that you don’t eventually go on to get a higher degree.”
One thing all three companies agreed on is that hiring tech talent in the Heartland has been less challenging than the Silicon Valley echo chamber makes it out to be. And they think that it’s something tech companies need to get accustomed to in order to attract the next generation of talent.
“The cost of living [in Silicon Valley] is part of it, but really what we’re seeing is that the generation graduating now wants a different path for their lives — they want to be involved in the communities they grew up in, they want to work on the big problems facing society,” Zillow Group’s Spaulding said.