Global tech talent keen on New Zealand's LookSee drive

Downtown Auckland as seen from the Wynyard Quarter. New Zealand's isolation and way of life is increasingly drawing more foreigners.
Downtown Auckland as seen from the Wynyard Quarter. New Zealand's isolation and way of life is increasingly drawing more foreigners.PHOTO: NYTIMES

WELLINGTON • In the South Pacific, software no longer needs a hard sell.

New Zealand has long wanted to be a tech hub, but distance was an issue. Now, at a moment of political upheaval around the globe, that isolation has become a selling point.

A municipal programme to fly in 100 developers next month - wine them, dine them and offer them jobs - was expected to draw 2,500 applications.

But the recruitment effort, called LookSee Wellington, was besieged with more than 48,000 entries, including workers at Google, Amazon, Facebook, MIT and Nasa.

At one point, so many people checked out the programme that the website failed.

For all sorts of reasons, New Zealand suddenly makes sense. The cost of living is less than in San Francisco. Commuting is less wearying. And American politics, Brexit and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria are on the other side of the world.

"It's just one of those things where the stars are aligned," said Mr David Jones, general manager at the Wellington Regional Economic Development Agency.

New arrivals describe New Zealand as more idealistic and less frustrating than other places.

"In the US, I feel extremely disconnected," said Ms Alanna Irving, 33, who came here from San Francisco to start two companies. "Things happen all the time that I don't agree with, or understand, or think are really good for most people, and I just don't see any way that I can change that."

Many have applied for citizenship. New Zealand, with a population below five million, gets around 30,000 applications for citizenship annually. Fearful of the potential for corruption and exploitation, it expedites only a handful.

Mr Peter Thiel, the investor who made his fortune with PayPal and Facebook, was one of them. Even before applying for citizenship, he set up Valar Ventures, an investment fund that put about US$3 million (S$4.1 million) into Xero, an online accounting software firm.

"We were so blown away that Peter Thiel was interested," said Mr Rod Drury, Xero's chief executive.

Mr Drury is the biggest name in New Zealand's tech scene, a local version of Bill Gates. He recommended Mr Thiel for citizenship, and Xero was held up as a model of what, with the investor's help, all the new start-ups could become.

The LookSee Wellington initiative to bring in 100 software engineers was initially focused on Americans. Then word began to spread. By the time the contest was finally cut off on March 30, India had overtaken the US in applications.

"We're in a global talent war," said Mr Chris Whelan, chief executive of the Economic Development Agency in Wellington.

Mr Drury is already looking to make LookSee an annual affair, as it takes the expensive problem of recruitment off Xero's hands and lets the government do it.

"It's boom time for the next 10 years," Mr Drury said. The more immigrants, the better. "We'll take a lot. We'll take hundreds."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 16, 2017, with the headline 'Global tech talent keen on New Zealand's LookSee drive'. Print Edition | Subscribe