Discussions of Australia's value proposition at the AIIA Borderless World Conference inevitably centred on what panellists agreed was the country's greatest advantage: talent.
Ironically, the realization comes at a time when Australian IT talent is in dangerously short supply.
Educational institutes are reporting declining IT enrolment figures. Meanwhile, skilled professionals are emigrating towards bigger and better opportunities in overseas markets.
One of the conference panellists was Graham Edelsten, cofounder of Auran Games, which is a Queensland-based company that develops software targeted at the burgeoning online games market in China and Korea.
"Here we are in Australia, where our labour cost is so much higher," said Edelsten, who currently holds both director and chief financial officer positions at Auran. "But because our technology is still more advanced, and [because of] our creativity due to our political system, we can produce a game that's so successful that it is attractive to those [Chinese and Korean] markets."
"There are very, very creative people in Australia — but we lose a lot of our intellectual property especially to the US," he said.
Technology behemoth Google is one US company that has historically attracted some of the top Australian talent away from the country's sunny shores. And while the company's 2005 launch of its Sydney office has allowed more of its Australian employees to remain in the country, remotely located employees still contend with issues to do with Google's globally distributed workforce.
"We're here [in Australia] because that's where the talent is," said conference panellist Alan Noble, head of engineering at Google's Sydney office. "We recognize that not everybody who is an engineer wants to go and work in Mountain View, California."
"I do think we are used to working remotely as a culture," he said, "[but] there are real factors here that we need to work hard to minimize. Time zones are very annoying."
As a nation that is located on opposite ends of the world to its Western-cultured peers, Australia is subjugated to what panellists called the "tyranny of distance".
While panellist David Merson, the Bali-based founder of Australian software company Mincom, views Australia's geographic and cultural positioning as a trading advantage, the tyranny of distance has also been charged with producing a penchant for travel among Australians.
Noble is one example of an Australian-born engineer who took his entrepreneurial activity to the US for about 14 years, before recently returning to Australia to work at Google. A graduate of the University of Adelaide, Noble recalls how initial feelings of homesickness faded away with time. For Australian businesses, he said this meant that opportunities had to be created to draw expatriate talent back home.
"At some point, you stop thinking about Australia," he said. "By and large, we in the industry have to create opportunities for people to come back."
Merson agreed: "I think it is fantastic that there are expatriates overseas, in terms of the knowledge they gain. I think if we build the jobs and the opportunities then they will come [home], because it's [Australia] a great place to live and bring up kids."
Noble and Merson said that it is predominantly the industry's responsibility to create opportunities for returning expatriates. Auran's Edelson highlighted training initiatives put in place by the Singapore and Chinese governments that involved sending students overseas for fixed-term work placements to ensure their return with the advantages of an expatriate experience.
Edelson described a proposal from the Singapore government, which he said has offered to partly fund Auran's hiring of Singaporean entry-level staff on two-year contracts. The deal is expected to provide Auran with a low-cost staffing option, while assisting the Singapore government with up-skilling its workforce.
"I wish our government would do things like that, because we are desperate for knowledge," Edelson said.
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