cluj
Infrastructure Management

The evolution of tech in Cluj, Romania

Before the millennium, many tech professionals may have struggled to find Cluj-Napoca – commonly known as Cluj - on a map. Now, a little over a decade and a half later, the city has comprehensively established itself as a European technology powerhouse and hotbed for tech talent. Andrei Pantelimon, General Manager at Thomsons Online Benefits in Cluj, discusses the city’s evolution and how it has cemented its reputation.

romania-map

In 2000, Romania was swept up in the dot com boom. While this could be said for the majority of European countries, Romania was already in a period of positive flux, with discussions about the country’s entry into the EU creating a sense of prosperity and business opportunity. Recognising the potential of the IT sector, Romanian authorities placed the requirements of tech organisations at the heart of their plans for the city of Cluj, and made a strategic investment in an internet infrastructure able to successfully support high-growth tech firms.

With a solid infrastructure in place, and the city’s 11 universities quickly developing the technical and computing skills to take advantage of it, it was only a matter of time before Cluj caught the attention of the global tech community. At this early stage, many of the major tech companies were based in the US but still had a global reach. Wanting to provide a consistent experience to clients, they began to look to Cluj as a potential outpost. This was attractive from a practical, time zone perspective, but also financially, as competition for talent in the young market was relatively low.

These factors, combined with the high quality of tech personnel, meant that Cluj quickly gained a reputation for IT outsourcing excellence. Lucrative operations and a significant local client base meant that many companies, such as Thomsons Online Benefits, the firm I work for now, began to house other functions in the city, including software design and development roles. This in turn gave Romanians working in tech new project management experience and in many ways heralded the next phase of market development.

Local success created a sense of confidence and entrepreneurialism, so that Cluj began to spawn its own IT businesses. Founded in 2001, Bitdefender was perhaps one of Romania’s first success stories, now recognised as the best antivirus software globally.

While Cluj’s tech community was proactive in driving the city’s transition from outsourcing outpost to independent market, this was also a necessary evolution. The market’s rapid maturity meant that by the beginning of this decade it was already losing its competitive edge on labour costs to countries such as Russia and Ukraine. It was therefore imperative that Cluj-based companies brought value to their clients through its home-grown talent and the expertise they could offer.

Throughout the sector’s evolution, the government has continued to support IT growth through policy. Those working in IT for example, don’t pay any tax on their salaries, and neither do their employers. Meanwhile, government led initiatives have continued to multiply the opportunities for those in the IT industry.

Cluj Innovation City is perhaps the most notable example. Set to be a highly modern complex, the City is being built to encourage science and technology companies from Romania and abroad to establish research and operations facilities in Cluj. So far the strategy looks to be working, with recent additions, including Bosch, SAP, and Siemens, joining long-term residents Accenture and Intel, both of which acquired local companies to enter the market. Similar to Silicon Valley in LA or Silicon Roundabout in London, city authorities hope that the high concentration of forward thinking companies will drive innovation in the sector.

Besides direct government support, the tech sector in Cluj thrives on a rich supply of talent. The abundance of universities in the city draws students from across Romania and internationally, so that out of a city population of a little under 400,000, more than 100,000 are students. 10% of these students qualify in IT related subjects, but even before they transition to full-time employment, the wealth of opportunities in the sector means that many are already working, gaining industry experience and a head-start on their international peers. I myself started freelancing during my studies, subsidising my curriculum with additional systems administration work and website development.

Although I entered into the Cluj tech scene when it was still in its infancy, I think many of the points of attraction for me still stand for those joining the IT sector in Cluj today. Generation Y is growing up seeing their parents benefit from careers in tech. They’ve seen them be paid well for doing interesting work, travelling internationally and working for global brands.

There’s a strong culture of working hard but also having fun at work. It is standard in IT to puzzle for a long period of time over a complex task, but taking a break and being distracted is important for productivity and innovation. While tech companies around the world boast office pool tables, hammocks and creativity walls – there’s something about the enthusiasm and courage of tech organisations in Cluj that sets them apart. It’s an attitude Thomsons Online Benefits has huge belief in, and why the company set up its training academy in Cluj - so that all employees can be on-boarded within this atmosphere.

Now that Cluj is reputedly ‘Europe’s Silicon Valley’, you could assume that the city has achieved all its ambitions. However, to relax now would be counterintuitive – and deny a work ethic that’s taken us this far. Continued growth will depend on innovation, and with the number and calibre of tech professionals working in Cluj, it’s surely only a matter of time before we see the next Google or Apple emerge from Cluj Innovation City.

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