If you weren't looking for it, you could easily miss it: Google's Polish R&D facility is a two-storey office located above a gallery that houses some upmarket clothing stores. On the outside, a small sign is the only hint that Google is running any operations here. It's only once inside that visitors can see the typical signs of a Googleplex - table tennis tables and bean bags.
Currently, the centre plays home to around 100 engineers, who work mainly on Google TV, Infrastructure and analysis for Google's sales department. The Krakow centre's focus is mostly on engineering, rather than research – the majority of which is carried out in the US.
As well as Poles, the workforce numbers among it a fair few workers from the former Soviet states, as well as Americans and Germans working here, with English the standard language. According to Wojciech Burkot, who heads up the R&D facility, the medieval, classic atmosphere of the city with its huge student population is a big draw for most of the workers, even when the wages are lower than elsewhere. "Google is pretty open about the fact that you can work wherever you want to, so I'm pleased to see a lot of people actually choose to work here," he says.
Before Google opened the R&D centre, Krakow-born Burkot was asked to choose where in Poland the search giant would set up shop.
"Personal considerations apart, I would opt for Krakow," Burkot, who has run the centre located in Krakow's Rynek Glowny area since it opened its doors in 2006, told Google bosses when asked for his decision. His choice of Poland's second city and his own hometown – which has approximately 750,000 inhabitants – was nevertheless weighted by a number of factors, he tells Central European Processing.
A healthy ecosystem
While Google may have given Burkot carte blanche on where to establish the facility, realistically the location boiled down to a choice between Krakow and the capital, Warsaw.
"Both cities had good universities," Burkot says. "What tipped the scales was the environment. There were more international tech companies in Krakow than in Warsaw: Motorola, Sabre, IBM, you name it. Tech companies tend to cluster because of movement of people and available expertise. If you are the only tech company, you get some kind of inbred culture. You cannot compete against others and there is no healthy cross-pollination."
Krakow's talent pool
Looking at the city's potential talent pool and education environment, the choice of Krakow is not surprising. There are nine universities in the city, of which five either offer technical courses, or are wholly devoted to technical subjects.
Engineers from Poland and further east have a good reputation, which Burkot attributes to the tougher realities of life compared to Western Europe and the US - even now, being a graduate in Poland does not guarantee high wages or even steady work. Nevertheless, pursuing a technical career path can open doors. "For example, I knew I couldn't really compete on the regular job market," Burkot says about choosing a career in Communist Poland. "But I had a talent for math and science, and realised quite early on that this gave me a more level playing field. That's how it went for me, and I think that goes for many others as well."
Not only are technical subjects intellectually demanding, they are based on the same rules regardless of country, Burkot adds. "Science is the same everywhere. You don't need any special real-life experience to grasp it or even excel at it."
Burkot gives an example of how that works in practice: "During job interviews, I kind of have the same questions lined up by now," he says. "The given problems can usually be solved in a theoretical manner, or in a programmatic manner. When someone shows a preference for one over the other, I try to push them in the other direction. When I look at candidates from eastern countries, they ace any question. I had a young Georgian, who was fresh out of university, was better than one of the professors there. He even asked 'where's the difficulty? I heard that Google interviews were hard'."
Hard science, soft West
Such a talent pool is a huge plus for any area, Burkot says, and it offsets the fact that Polish universities do not feature in any list of the world's top educational institutions. "The basic education here is quite good," Burkot says, adding there is a difference between that broader-based education and academic excellence, which can see certain areas prioritised. "If someone [in Poland] has the choice of studying a tough subject or an easier one, he would rather go for the former" - the opposite of what is happening in the West, Burkot says.
And that is also part of where the risk lies for countries like Poland, Burkot believes: the drive to become more like the countries that are thought to be doing better. "There exists a constant need for confirmation here," he notes, pointing to the drive of Poland not only wanting to be 'liked by' the West, but also be like the West. "That mentality is definitely a threat."
Silicon Valley? Not quite yet...
But for now, Poland is proud of the fact it is the only EU country that has managed economic growth even when the economic crisis hit hard in this part of the world. Much of it is thanks to the tech industry: for example, according to a recent study by the Association of Business Service Leaders, the number of people working in outsourcing – typically in technology related fields - exceeded 100,000 in Poland in 2012.
"When I look at candidates from eastern countries, they ace any question" — Wojciech Burkot, Google
Krakow in particular tries to sell its image as a smaller version of Silicon Valley in Europe. For Burkot, however, such comparisons are based on hype. "For that, you would need an interaction of three things: large tech companies, universities in the area and a start-up culture," he says. "There is too little of that interaction here, especially when it comes to the start-up culture." While Krakow does have a burgeoning start-up community, it is still in its infancy, he says.
"Here, an acceptance of calculated risk is missing," Burkot says. "In Silicon Valley, there is easy access to venture capital, there is access to expertise and there is a way back. Many professors in Silicon Valley spun off their own company based on their ideas, and then go back to teach at the university." Ironically, that willingness to take calculated risk exists there because there is some kind of emergency parachute, which is wholly lacking in Poland.
"If you fail there, you are not automatically disqualified. If you fail, you can always go back to college and you know what not to do next time. Here, it would be more difficult to get funding the next time around. That breeds risk aversion."