Polish programmers are joining U.S. startups – but staying in Poland

This is a guest post by Julia Krysztofiak-Szopa, product manager at Inflavo and former community manager at Adtaily. On Twitter she is @julencja

If you happen to be a smart, English-speaking programmer in Poland, there is a good chance you will work in a start-up.

An American one.

Ryan Janssen, CEO of New York based SetJam.com started his company 18 months ago. His first challenge was to build a team of quality developers but, according to how he sees the tech scene in New York, finding the developers who work in lighter, agile frameworks was not so easy. The startup-oriented Django/Python/Scrum skill sets are hard to find in a city where majority of programmers work in more enterprise-friendly methodologies, with .NET, Java and C++ as core languages.

Today SetJam employs six full-time developers and three quality assurance specialists, all of them based in Poland (pictured), while the CEO, business people and project manager are located in the New York office, 6 hours away in terms of time zone difference. Though it might sound odd for a young company to delegate its entire product development to people found somewhere in the Internet who live 4300 miles away, Janssen says he is extremely happy about the way the work gets done in the team.

Finding the first programmers took him about 40 emails sent to various coders of which about 30 replied. After Skype talks and evaluating their online presence (blogs, open source contributions, Github and Djangopeople profiles) he decided to give three of them a shot. Since the very beginning the company maintains high bandwidth internal communication, with daily stand-ups on Campfire, issue tracking on Lighthouse and two Mac Minis with Skype video turned on 24/7 which serve as a window between the two offices, just to feel a little closer.

Asked about the downsides of having a remote team he says they are really losing out the social aspect of working together, with all the normal working communications expressed only via Skype talks. But for the investors at least, as Janssen claims after several serious talks, the Polish team is not an issue at all and the two offices situation has never been seen as a problem.

The obvious advantage of keeping development in Central Europe is a much better access to quality programmers fluent in modern frameworks and their competitive rates, comparable to what is offered by regular outsource companies in India. Also, when you deal with western TV productions, like SetJam does, you really need developers who understand the American culture. With Polish programmers who probably watch more American than Polish TV series there are practically no cultural gaps.

I was curious if the Polish developers who work for American start-ups share the same “perfect match” enthusiasm. Michał Kłujszo and Maciej Cielecki of 10clouds.com, run a development house in Warsaw, Poland. The team has been developing several software projects in agile methodologies based on scrum. One of their biggest current projects is Numote.com, a San Francisco based social TV start-up, where they have been coding an iPhone app and backend for it.

Before Numote’s CEO, Vijay Kailas, hired 10clouds, he had been outsourcing iPhone app development to India. He sums up this experience in one sentence: “when you hire an Indian team, you need to hire two to be sure you’ll get the product shipped.” He switched then to Polish developers and they have been working together with 10clouds for 10 months now.

Although 10clouds can’t complain about a lack of clients in Poland, they clearly prefer to take projects from the US. “It’s just the cultural difference between Polish and American entrepreneurs. The Americans are faster in making decisions, don’t get upset about prices and have more faith in people”, say Michał and Maciej. While it’s usually completely OK for an American entrepreneur to be charged in the cost per hour model, Polish companies would rather pay a fixed rate for entire projects, which clearly makes the development less flexible.

10clouds have more to say about drawbacks of working remotely. The biggest problem is communication, and with Warsaw and San Francisco being 9 hours apart it forces product owners to plan ahead all the specification and implementation. 10clouds’ founders say the biggest difference between working via Skype and physically sharing an office is that you can’t compensate for any mess made just talking over Skype. Outsourcing development requires big discipline while expressing and planning the software specification. And you can’t just call a developer at 2 AM to tell him to make an ad hoc quick fix just right now.

For its own part, the Polish start-up scene superficially looks pretty healthy for a country that only 20 years ago was behind the Iron Curtain. Each year there are a number of start-up expos, start-up competitions, start-up schools, and whatever else start-upish comes to mind. Practically every bigger city in Poland has its own tech event held on a regular basis. These barcamps and meetups create vibrant local communities of bloggers, nerds, tech people, and all kinds of consultants.

The problem is, however, that all these events seldom give birth to many real start-up companies. The number of VCs and angels in Poland is minimal and the standards of investor/start-up relations haven’t been formed yet, to put it diplomatically. Hence the result: each year a handful of quality programmers graduate from several good universities in Warsaw, Kraków, or Wrocław, but the under-developed community of investors makes them think twice before they set up their own start-ups. When you look at the country rankings of TopCoder, the world’s largest competitive software development community, Poland, the only country in top five that uses the Latin alphabet, is just behind Russia and China.

Without an easy access to American visas Polish programmers do stay in Poland.

And perhaps it’s only a matter of time until, as the SetJam’s dev team half-jokingly calls it, “outsourcing CEOs to the US” hits the Polish mainstream.