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Poland: Offshore in Warsaw

Ben Austin Friday, 27 September 2013.

The morning was bitterly cold and utterly soul-less as I waited for the taxi to whisk me off to Luton airport. No-one else around, night-time still very much alive in the cloudless sky, and the temperature on the ground in London was as close to Baltic as the capital would ever see.

131106warsawpolandsmallUncannily, there would be only one way to find out whether the easily flogged colloquial Yorkshire expression of “By ‘eck, it’s Baltic” holds any element of truth on this occasion. In three hours, I’d be in the Baltic region myself. To a nation that lies in the most Southern point of the Baltic Sea. A country that has only governed itself for two hundred years in total throughout its entire history. And a race of people who make up over 2 million of our own population in the United Kingdom. This morning it is a first for me. I would be heading to Poland.

I had birds to kill, and stones to throw. I had a mission to achieve, and people I needed to tick off my list. I appreciate this sounds like something out of James Bond, and really, I’d thoroughly enjoy the devilishly charming charade if only for a moment, but the reality is more like something out of Challenge Anneka in all honesty. I had a charity-minded web venture to develop and explore, time was ticking, and we needed a seriously capable and affordable team to make the prototype. Offshoring certain development aspects of this was a serious consideration. Poland was on my hit-list, and we had meetings lined up with potential technical partners. It was a kind of ‘get in, and come out with what you can’ kind of raid.

I travelled out there with Neil Tombs and Stephen Foster, a couple of comrades of mine. They were working on their own web app, and were along for the ride to scout and uncover what technical, unearthed talent could be found on Polish soil.

We travelled to Warsaw, Katowice, and Krakow. Each city a direct contradiction to the other. Each shining with its own light resembling very little of its Polish counterparts.

We touched down first in Warsaw. The capital of Poland acts as the economic hub with a population that would dwarf its city neighbours in the country. Lined with a past rich in history and honour, and in today’s world, boasts support for entrepreneurs and small business like few other places in Europe. In fact, it was voted the third Best City for Business according to ECER-Banque Populaire (behind Germany’s Frankfurt and Sweden’s Malmoe) after it polled opinions from several hundred entrepreneurs. I also learned that the Warsaw City Council initiated its own promotional programme entitled ‘Warsaw, the Capital City of Ambitious Business’ to drive entrepreneurship within its own people with grants and training for startups, and to also attract other European business owners to set-up in Poland’s capital. It was a delight to see such commercialism and savvy in the heart of a city that once upon a time had been encircled with years of bloody warfare and a distinct lack of hope.

From there, we visited associates in Katowice and spent a little time there mixing with local culture. It was charming and charismatic, and unlike the country’s capital, it left any idea of being a super metropolis well alone. We met a number of young developers here, and all of them cutting their teeth on some exciting projects, from world sport to developing various apps and web portals intended to take advantage of the ever-growing boom of “social content”. They put a mockery to anyone who claimed the city was “sleepy”, like many of Poland’s bigger city inhabitants like to believe. Interestingly enough, Aleksander, a young designer whom we met, told us about the European Economic Congress that arrived in Katowice in May last year. Here they brought together the richest single Hungarian, Czech and Pole, and together with the rest of the event panellists, they collectively bashed heads on Europe’s fortunes and passed advice on where growth could occur from strengths, and where dips could spread from where weaknesses lied. Now, I don’t want to bust anyone’s melons, but we’re now one year on from that congress and knowing what we know about the European Union’s recent financial fall of late, you have to question the actions taken from that summit onwards. Perhaps there were weaknesses and realities that even the most successful, bounty-rich men couldn’t see. A subject for another day, I think.

So, onto Krakow we then moved and it was here where we spent our final days of the trip. We engaged with new people and had our eyes opened to a whole host of things we found reflective of the rise of Poland on European soil. Gosia and Monika were two young post-graduates that we met, and they proudly boasted the strength women carried in business in Poland. Gosia often endearingly jeered at me “Dupa, us women know what we want you know!” The term ‘dupa’ being a colloquial name for an ‘ass’, you can imagine how touched I was at such a pet name so soon on in our friendship. And the funny thing was, their claims were not just hearsay swagger. They were an authentic indication of reality too. Twenty percent of SME’s in Poland are owned by women. From what I gathered, there was no real hard and fast indication why this was the case but many cynics believe that women got their foot in the market economy before Western-style discrimination had a chance to set in and hold them back. Another viewpoint is that state socialism was good training for the flexible skills demanded by the new democratic market economy. Unlike men, women not only held down fulltime jobs but also handled virtually all the domestic duties in the era of shortages and few labour-saving devices. Interesting to know that since 1989 when their independence was gained from the Soviet Union, we have such a free-thinking, liberal and achieving European ally in Poland. I can see why the people there are very, very proud.

Krakow, as a city, was a personal favourite of mine. Bustling with dynamism and life. The younger generation appeared more aligned to British/mainland European fashionable culture, and the restaurant, bar, club, and entertainment vibe was definitely something to enjoy. Whereas the rest of Poland, albeit an enjoyable experience, felt separated from what I know, this place, however, felt like a home for me. When we weren’t frolicking in social entertainment or being culture vultures on every piece of history we could find, we got down to ‘mission purpose’ and we pleasingly met a whole bunch of web developers, designers, programmers and creatives during our stay. The kind of contractors we were happy to have met and perhaps will fit into our plans along the road somewhere.

All in all, it was good to see how talent could prove useful to us in Poland. They were mostly of a well-equipped standard to what I would expect from any team I would want to form, and with the right guidance, standards and creative direction set, I am sure they could prove useful on a live project or two. The concept of utilising offshore talent has always been a practise that is comfortable to me, and not that I do it all that often anymore (as my bank of UK talent gets more and more impressive every year), it’s still something that for the right project, can make perfect sense to do so. And even though I have won and lost with this offshore scenario many a time over the years, my belief is if you pick right, manage the process well, and prevent yourself from being isolated and vulnerable (escrow money, milestones, cloud file sharing, back-ups, etc.), then offshoring can prove immensely valuable to a startup. There’s always been the likes of India, China, and Argentina but now and for the last few years, capability lies on our own continent at prices that still make it worthwhile. Ukraine, Romania, Croatia, Latvia, and now Poland, to name but a few. Where there’s an offshoring project to consider, then it may prove logical to go where our land neighbours lie first.

Lastly, one final experience we had, which was certainly off-mission, but one we will never forget, was the day a group of us took a step into one of Poland’s most tender memories. This day we embarked on Auschwitz. Without digressing, know that I don’t think I have ever been in the company of twelve other gentlemen where there were less words spoken. A day of reflection, perspective and humility. Something we will never forget.

Oh, and before you ask. Never again will I utter the words “By ‘eck, it’s Baltic!” when experiencing a mild chill on English soil. Even when it’s not all that cold in Winter months in Poland, there is what I can only describe as a perpetual chill in the air that chaps lips for fun and tightens the face like an ice-bathed face mask. The kind of weather that locals lap up for fun, which in turn makes you feel foolish that you ever thought Britain was cold in the first place.

So, Poland. Work, in fact, sets us all free. The breakfast for pursuit chasers on every border. Thank you for your welcome.

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Ben Austin

Ben Austin

Ben Austin is a no-nonsense start-up catalyst. Passionate mentor. Creator of brand strategies. But that’s when he’s in the office. When he’s got his shorts on, he’s a travel junkie. He’s a world pen pal. He’s excited about life. You can reach out to him at The Ben Channel or follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/thebenchannel

 

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