Victoria aims at field of dreams for local tech talent

Victoria's Minister for Small Business, Innovation and Trade Philip Dalidakis believes bringing international organisations and talent to Australia will spark interest in pursuing a career in tech.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor on

In little over a year, international businesses such as software firm Zendesk, e-marketplace Etsy, payments player Square, and team communication platform Slack have set up their respective regional headquarters in Melbourne, a trend Victoria's Minister for Small Business, Innovation and Trade Philip Dalidakis said is vital for the success of local talent.

Quoting the 1989 movie starring Kevin Costner, Dalidakis told ZDNet that Victoria is building its own Field of Dreams with the theory that "if you build it, they will come".

"I don't think it's too dissimilar [to Field of Dreams] and what we're trying to do is create opportunities where people want to be here and it's never about stopping Victorian companies from going global -- if that's what they need to do then we want to be here to help them do that. We want to be part of their success story, not the blockers or inhibitors to them reaching their potential or their dreams," he explained.

Dalidakis said the local presence of international companies has resulted in a great deal of startup and entrepreneurial momentum in Victoria.

"Getting those companies to locate here and supporting our local companies here is all about creating opportunities where people want to come and work here. If you've got wonderful companies that can attract top talent, then more companies are going to want to be here because they're going to want to try and leverage off that talent, try and recruit it, and take it for themselves," Dalidakis said.

"When you add those companies to your ecosystem, along with wonderful local startups that have gone global like Seek, carsales.com, Kogan, and Nitro PDF, there's something really exciting happening."

Since Danish customer service software company Zendesk setup its local headquarters last year, the minister said the company has recruited 100 local software engineers.

"Victoria has close to 36 percent of all IT grads across the country, New South Wales is about 28 percent, and Queensland 18 percent," he said. "So what we need to do is continue to provide a pipeline for those people that are graduating as we want to make sure that they've got the workforce out there that they want to work in."

Despite being impressed with the statistics, Dalidakis said that Victoria and the rest of Australia also need to recognise that over the last 10 years nationally, there has been a decline in graduates within the IT sector.

"We need to try and reverse that and ... having [international companies] here, hopefully gives people reason to want to undertake an IT degree," he said. "For us it's not a one size fits all strategy but one that we're trying to ensure that the best and brightest, both in Victoria but also from overseas, that want to come to Victoria get that opportunity and see real value in doing so."

According to Dalidakis, there are still a number of issues preventing the country from truly grasping how to grow a thriving IT ecosystem, one of which is access to talent.

"We can't expect to be able to compete with size and scale like San Francisco and the US in particular, because when you're talking about a country of some 24 million people, well California has over 40 million people just there alone," he said.

"I've heard numerous stories from local companies here that need very specific software engineering-type roles or web roles filled and they've struggled to fill them locally. We need to make sure the issue of attracting overseas talent in specific industries like the tech sector can be met with low barriers and little resistance."

Earlier this year, the government begun the consultation process for the Entrepreneur Visa, releasing a discussion paper to tackle concerns including: Individual nomination procedure, third-party backing, length of stay, visa extension length, and whether the individual should be given permanent residency if their innovations prove to be a success.

"What should be of interest to public policy makers with this should be the potential knowledge gain and the knowledge transfer by having those people working here in our ecosystem," Dalidakis said.

Last week, the Victorian government announced the recipients of the first round of LaunchVic funding, handing out AU$6.5 million to universities, startups, incubators, and projects to "drive new ideas" and create jobs in the state.

"I would always like more money and I always speak nicely and softly to the treasurer in hope I can get more out of him," Dalidakis joked.

"We've got a AU$60 million fund; the first round was only AU$6.5 million of that, so there are a lot more rounds, a lot more applications that we will look at, and I look forward to the best and brightest ideas coming through that process."

It was announced in December that Melbourne would be receiving the first international office of Oxford University's Global Cyber Security Capacity Centre (GCSCC), which will carry out audits of national cybersecurity risks and capabilities to help countries to plan investments and strategies to improve their digital security.

The GCSCC office will be co-located with a new Oceania Cyber Security Centre (OCSC) that is being set up with support from the state government and will bring together eight Victorian universities, the Melbourne-based Defence Science Institute, and various private sector partners.

At the time, Dalidakis said establishing an office in Victoria cemented the state's reputation as a hub for cybersecurity, with the National Broadband Network's (NBN) announcing it too was bringing its National Operations Centre to Melbourne.

"Data61 is locating its whole cyber team division in Melbourne and also we have three of the four major banks with their centres here in Melbourne -- we have a very natural, very organic skill set in Victoria so what we're trying to do is build upon that," Dalidakis said.

"I'm about to embark on a trip to the United States to make some big announcements: I've got some more companies that have chosen Melbourne as their Asia Pacific headquarters and then some big cyber announcements while I'm in the US as well."

Dalidakis said government has a responsibility to the tax payer to try and get public policy right, but noted that it also has a responsibility to the broader business community and the community at large to get policy decisions right as well.

"We have to get that balance right," he said. "But whatever we've done until now will be meaningless if we don't continue to seek that change going forward."

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