The Exodus

Ten people I know or worked with directly in the technology industry left Portugal for greener pastures over the past year.

(Actually, twofour others are preparing to do so in the next month or so, but I’ve had this draft hanging around forever, so I’m not going to split hairs here.)

Update: Here’s the Hacker News thread, feel free to comment there as this seems to have hit a nerve in the community. Also, a few more folk I’m directly acquainted with pinged me to say they were doing the same.

This would be otherwise unremarkable if it weren’t for the fact that this is over three times the average of what I can remember over the past five years or so. And it’s not just a matter of being more exposed to this kind of thing - I worked in a multinational company for over ten years, and quite a few of my colleagues took advantage of the global footprint we enjoyed. Heck, people encouraged us to go off into the wild blue yonder.

The honest to goodness truth is that, whatever politicians, economists and gushing entrepreneurs may blurb on about, Portugal is not a very attractive country for technology workers right now.

Which is kind of a shame, because it’s pretty damn good for technology companies - you can set up a local presence without too much hassle, office space is not that expensive (okay, most realtors are charging an arm and a leg, but that’s mostly because some have been sitting on prime real estate for years without being able to find patsies that can afford it), and salaries are low compared to the European average - which is part of the problem, really.

So we’re being fundamentally asinine in letting these people go when we could be building a working, competitive industry locally. I won’t go into the politics of it (I loathe and avoid politics at all costs), but as a country we are clearly going about the technology business ass-backwards, to put it mildly.

Oh, there are plenty of entrepreneurs, mind you. But many of them are “serial” entrepreneurs, whereby “serial” I actually mean lazy, ineffectual bums living off subsidies for years on end while they latch on to one incubator after another and leech them for all their worth.

We don’t talk about them. We prefer to dream somewhat fruitless dreams about more multinationals establishing a toehold and improving things. Which, oddly, they don’t1, even considering that there’s this “Internet” thing that has made remote working possible - and, in fact, preferable in many instances. Oddly enough, technology companies don’t get it. Or, when they do, they don’t seem to encourage it across borders.

(Anecdotally, a married couple I know work in the consultancy and banking businesses and work remotely from here to the UK constantly, whereas very few techies telecommute, even within national borders.)

As to actual incomes (which is all that really matters), the net values including taxes and relocation costs are becoming attractive enough that quite a few people have simply upped and left over the past year. I’m not going to quote utterly unscientific ratios like “one in ten” because, as always, accurate statistics depends on establishing proper samples, but the figure ten is hard, objective fact taken from my phonebook: five new UK numbers, two Spanish, one Australian, one German, and one Turkish (and, soon, two four more in other places).

So any notion that people are staying in Portugal due to the excellent weather, awesome working environments or some kind of mystical bullshit involving a burgeoning startup scene (as I saw depicted in a promotional movie a few months back) is, in short, a load of bollocks.

People I’ve been discussing this with are staying because they have family (extended or otherwise) they cannot part from or uproot, and mostly stable (if not particularly inspiring) employment that they don’t want to put at risk. They have mortgages and tuitions to pay, etc.

But if you’re in your late 20s or early 30s and are fed up with the lack of decent career prospects - as are a fair amount of tech professionals, either graduate or post-grad, things are very different. If you’ve no children (or a manageable set) and no family worries, leaving is a no-brainer - in some parts of the industry, net earnings in England or Germany can be somewhere between one third to one-half over what they’ll be able to earn here, even accounting for health and housing.

And companies hiring them are making pretty good deals - most Portuguese tech folk I know are fluent in English, adaptable, highly self-motivated, pretty damn good professionals and (most important of all) fundamentally fed up with the way Portuguese companies are managed and run (or, like a British colleague of mine once quipped, walked).

To make things worse, local tech companies aren’t hiring directly (or have cut down on hiring over the past year), so there are a lot of people working for tech contractors. But even if you’re working for a good, honest contractor, outsourcing isn’t a bed of roses - I don’t even consider it as a good accounting trick, since it invariably leads to high rotation and makes it hard to retain critical know-how, murdering your bottom line.

So yeah, we’ve seen better times, and what annoys me the most is that all of this happened before (back when I was in school), and had no real reason to happen again.

  1. Microsoft and Cisco are two notable exceptions that have sizable staff here. ↩︎

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