With A Talent War In The Valley, Perhaps Romania Has The Answers?

Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Maria Constantinescu, founder of Slickflick, the photo story app.

Today, in 2012, there is a talent war like no other. The Valley is abuzz with a hiring frenzy. Startups can’t compete with Yammer, Zynga, Twitter, Facebook and the rest for developers. Perhaps the answer is to look elsewhere? To countries where the old Soviet education system produced maths and science graduates by the truckload? To Kiev, Belgrade, Slovenia and others? And perhaps to Romania.

For Romanians, perhaps for the first time in history, the world is now flat. Forty-five years of Stalin-esque communism meant sports and education were the only acceptable ways to compete in Romania. Soviet-era industrialisation ended up producing a country where almost half of the educated population were trained to become engineers. Today, in 2012, they are more likely to be coders. And now they can take their place with the rest of the world on the level playing field of technology.

The best Romanian coding talent was noticed by Microsoft in its hay day. It’s now gradually becoming democratised, spread out across more platforms, initially through outsourcing and now through the influx of Western start-ups in search of affordable skills. So what exactly should you expect to find in Romania? What are the pros and cons? Here’s the lowdown, with some generalizations.

People are smart, educated, fluent English speakers and resourceful lateral thinkers. On the downside, entrepreneurial culture has not yet developed. This translates into a reluctance to take risks and a lower ability to collaborate across teams. It might sound odd to Valley readers, but Romanian engineers would much rather work for a salary than for a stake in a business.

There are some examples of local entrepreneurial communities, like the one formed around the Timisoara Tech Incubator or Startupper supported by the team of Adulmec in Bucharest. But the most impactful movement is the one involving start ups that left Romania, with the likes of Ubervu, Summify and Brainient.

There is a discrepancy between skills. There is a lot of Java, .NET and PHP skills. More ‘exotic’ coding languages like Ruby, Python are harder to find. On the mobile side, there are considerably more Android coders than iOS developers.

One appeal for many western startups that either set up shop in Romania or develop a team there is the ability to offer student internships straight out of university, pick the best and groom them with the kinds of skills that they need.

Salaries are low in Romania compared with Berlin, London, Silicon Valley. This reflects the reduced access to opportunities and lack of exposure to cutting edge developments. You would expect to pay €2,000 (net) for a great developer in Bucharest. The rest of Romania is even cheaper, by about 30%. But beware of confusing the tax systems and bureaucracy.

You will find the largest tech communities in the historical university centers of Bucharest, Cluj, Timisoara & Iasi. In Bucharest you have the largest and most diverse talent pool, but also a more competitive environment with higher volatility. In smaller communities there’s a stronger sense of reputation. Western cities like Timisoara and Cluj tend to have better work ethic.

Finding really valuable engineers takes time. The general guidelines are to hire a ‘magnet coder’ that can attract other trusted people from the community. When recruiting, look for Polytechinc graduates from one of the above university centers. The most popular job sites are Bestjobs.ro, ejobs.ro and Jobber.ro.

The best screening for engineers is high school. There is a bit of an ‘Ivy League’ of high schools in Romania. These schools are focused on math and computer science. Every large city has one or two. Generally, people coming out of these top schools are no schmucks. Also, pay attention to see if they won any competitions and whether they had jobs or pet projects while still in school. University education in Romania, though thorough, tends not to encourage independent thought.

Good Romanian engineers don’t like to be the 15th person down the chain working on a little piece of code or feel disconnected from the business. They are more likely to defect to another business if they don’t feel inspired by you or your company or the team you assemble. The real geniuses will do their own thing, just as anywhere else.

Finally, the most appealing trait of Romanians is that they live on both sides of the brain. They have ingenuity and skill, a precious combination no matter where you find it. Soon know-how and self-belief will catch up and they will be on a truly level playing field, possibly for the first time ever.