Wake Up, David Cameron

Kudos to the Twitter client, TweetDeck, who were acquired by Twitter itself last week.  The tiny British startup will get the support it needs to create an even better product. Of nearly equal interest was The Guardian article announcing its acquisition, Twitter buys UK’s TweetDeck for £25m. The headline is just the appetizer for the article’s subject matter, which is not actually about TweetDeck, but east London’s vibrant community of technology startups, often referred to as “Silicon Roundabout”.

There’s much to be said about the rise of TweetDeck. As The Guardian contends, it has something of an American feel to it. Having spent the last three years working in both the United Kingdom and Europe, I’m still surprised by how different the business culture on this side of the Atlantic can be from the US. Even in design and technology circles, which are already highly globalized disciplines. Each country has its own understanding of what this work is. Some of these differences are in contrast to the open, experimental approaches to technology labor which successful US startups often rely on.

In the US, the concept of ‘The American Dream’ has been so integral to the way American business persons think about the world that, until the current economic crisis, social mobility was always taken for granted. If you want to succeed, the only person holding you back is yourself. Hard work, focus and ambition overcomes all. In contrast, British and European business are often seen as being limited by a lack of a similar sense of possibility. Whereas Americans focus on the horizon, Europeans emphasize the importance of getting better office chairs, etc. Independent business breakthroughs, like Tweetdeck are not unheard of. However, they are always an exception to the rule.

The European approach isn’t necessarily wrong. The longstanding influence of the welfare state and hard-won labor rights have often meant that Europeans have a better work-life balance than Americans do. The twenty-four hour a day work culture of the US, especially of the San Francisco Bay Area, has not been overwhelmingly influential here, thankfully. Employers tend to respect the difference between on and off the clock. It’s rare that a firm expects its staff to check email at home, in the evenings, or on the weekends. Eight hour days are largely adhered to, with the exception of deadlines. Lunch is expected to be taken and eaten outside of the office, often with teammates.

For example, one of the things I love about working in Italy is that the government subsidizes employee lunches with tax-funded food tickets.  Ticket packets are handed out every month by one’s employer. Each ticket equates to approximately €6-7, which are used as vouchers for lunch at local cafes.  Tickets can also be used at stores for groceries. I’ve always found them invaluable, as food in Italy, like the rest of the European Union, can be quite expensive. Restaurants which accept them often have a Ticket sticker on their door, or nearby entrance window.

While all this is great and improves the quality of life, it can also lead to mismatched expectations. With the onset of globalization and the ever-increasing need to ‘innovate or die,’ government assistance like this can, as has often been said of European workers, dampen aspirations. Many Europeans are raised to collect a paycheck and go home at night. That’s it. In such cases, there is no comparable ambition or cultural expectation to create something great and unique, be it at their own firm or for their clients. It’s just not part of the DNA, as it is in Americans. Rightwing critics of ‘welfare state’ economics love to emphasize how uncompetitive this makes Europeans.

The worldview of London businesses tends to be the most ‘American’ in Europe. Chalk it up to the close proximity of the United States, or a fundamental conservatism in economic matters, US-style labor practices tend to predominate more than not, particularly in the corporate sector. Though not as dynamic as its American counterpart, the spirit of British entrepreneurialism has always been strong, making the country frequently indistinguishable from the US. At least for Americans who work there.

Of course, that’s not what David Cameron mentioned when he boldly announced  ‘East London ‘tech city’ to rival Silcon Valley’ in November 2010.  I’m not one to commend the Prime Minister for anything, as I am not a fan of his government. However, Cameron’s plan for using the area around Olympic Park as a hotbed for tech investment could be valuable to London’s technology community, if done properly.  Unfortunately, instead of opening up the area to locally-based startups by providing incentives and subsidies, global firms have signed on for office space instead. Google, Facebook. Predictable.

Mr. Cameron is not rivaling anything here. He’s merely replicating the same elitist VC frenzy that has ruled Silicon Valley for decades. His proposal is anything but conducive to economic growth. In the words of the PM, “Our ambition is to bring together the creativity and energy of Shoreditch and the incredible possibilities of the Olympic Park to help make East London one of the worlds’ great technology centres.” A memorable statement, for sure. It’s a shame that David Cameron’s own immigration policies make it impossible to import the kind of quality foreign labor required to make this happen.

It should be noted that the US H1B visa program enabled thousands of highly skilled migrants to enter the country during the 1990s. This helped fuel the most successful tech innovation Silicon Valley had ever seen. Without the H-1B visa, which has enabled US firms to temporarily hire foreign workers in specialty occupations, the ‘90s dot com boom would have been much less noisy. Thousands of developers, system administrators and IT workers came in through this program, and were the backbone of the gold rush.  The H-1B could be called the US version of the UK’s previously termed Highly Skilled Migrant Programme (Tier1) visa, but far more more open.

I, along with thousands of others, wish the United Kingdom were as forward-thinking in its approach to welcoming skilled migrant labor as the Americans. On the contrary, the immigration policies of the current British government are exceedingly tough, and are opposed, in effect, to fostering the same kind of economic productivity and innovation, using skilled foreign labor, as that which continues to take place in the United States.

I can speak from experience. Having moved to London in the fall of 2008, just as the global financial crisis was getting underway (my husband and I moved from San Francisco a week after Lehman Brothers collapsed,) rumors were already flying that the American firm I was working for was considering shuttering their newly established London office.  Preemptively, I sought other work, though London was still reeling heavily from the crash. Jobs, let alone sponsored ones, were few and far between.

I discussed applying for the much sought after Tier 1 visa (renamed, in typically resentful-of-foreigners fashion, the ‘Exceptional Talent’ visa) which would allow me to work independently, as a User Experience Design consultant. However the program was just transitioning to include requirements which would render my application futile. Most notably, it was the beginning of the points system, where applicants are scored based on predefined set of metrics for entry.

As usual, I don’t test well. I have a BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, not a Ph.D in Computer Science from Cal Tech. My experience doesn’t fit into any checkboxes or multiple choice questions. Nor does that of most of the first generation of internet workers.  After scoring myself online, I failed to meet the criteria to apply. I can chock it up to a lack of graduate degree. If I had obtained an MA or higher, my score would have been sufficient to apply. I say this as someone with nearly twenty years of interaction design experience in the SF Bay Area, including Silicon Valley.

While I could have gone to graduate school at any time, I always found it much more instructive, useful and exciting to continue my education by designing cutting edge, technology-driven experiences for consumers. Sadly, the United Kingdom prefers that I had put myself in loads of financial debt, and missed out on some of the best years of my career, simply so I can score higher on it’s awkwardly-titled Exceptional Talent immigration application. Like most skilled technology workers and designers, my immense work experience doesn’t count.

If that’s not counter to developing an innovative labor community, please tell me what is. This sort of close-minded bureaucracy is just what you might expect of draconian immigration policies, not enlightened ones. The kind that inhibit economic growth, not enable it. It makes me wonder if and when this will change in the United Kingdom, in support of building ‘Tech City’ – the kind idealized in The Guardian’s coverage of the Shoreditch startup community. Based on the direction the current government is headed, I’m not optimistic. TweetDeck may have been sold for big money, but there are just as many great local firms going in the exact opposite direction.

David Cameron’s excitement about east London is decidedly transparent. It’s certainly  not a gesture of support for a British version of Silicon Valley. Like much of Tory economic policy, it’s a bullshit sellout to global technology firms and venture capitalists.  Without necessarily opening up the doors to highly skilled foreign workers like myself and my colleagues, either. At a time where digital media resources are increasingly hard to find, if not outright absent, it’s a crime to turn a blind eye to this section of the industry.

As the UK and Europe tighten the reins on immigration, countries with creative, untapped industries, with enormous potential, like the United Kingdom still choose to limit their economic growth. Whether due to protectionist policies or anti-immigration sentiment, it is clear that such restraint prevents European countries from fostering individual initiative and economic competitiveness. Not their so-called welfare states, or government-sponsored discount lunch programs.

For the sake of building a sustainable and successful entrepreneurial technology community in the United Kingdom, the British government should take a closer look at not only the venture capital aspects of Silicon Valley, but what it takes to design and implement innovative products and services: Immigrants. US VCs won’t be working late hours on solving complex interaction design problems or sitting through code reviews in Tech City, with policies like this. They know better. Wake up, David Cameron.

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