Fiona Smith Columnist

Fiona writes on workplace issues, including management, psychology, workplace design, human resources and recruitment. She is a former Work Space editor at The Australian Financial Review and has also covered property, technology, architecture and general news.

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Is Atlassian the coolest company in Australia?

Published 08 November 2012 04:42, Updated 21 November 2012 07:33

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Is Atlassian the coolest company in Australia?

Nerf gun battles across the desktops, boutique beer on tap, pool table meetings, free lunch and new, funky offices at Martin Place in the heart of Sydney. Is Atlassian – the software developer whose founders took out the top spot on the 2012 BRW Young Rich list with a combined wealth of $480 million – the coolest workplace in Australia?

Observers certainly think so. Recruiters such as IT recruiter Network 20 director, Graeme Smith, says Atlassian is at the top alongside Google when it comes to being a “cool” place to work for software developers.

“It is actually quite refreshing to have an Australian company being able to challenge Google for the top 2 per cent of the development market,” he says. “I would say Atlassian is a cool company and Google is a geeky company. It is almost cool tech versus geeky tech.”

Atlassian also been in the top ten of BRW’s Best Places to Work annual issue for the past couple of years - testament to how it has an enviable work culture.

Of course, the founders and joint chief executives Scott Farquhar and Mike Cannon-Brookes deny that they have set out to be cool: after all there’s nothing more naff than being seen to be trying.

But image is important when you want to attract and retain software engineers – the best of whom can charge eye-watering salary packages and choose to work anywhere in the world for a host of “cool” companies, such as Google and Apple.

Minutes after hamming up a “blue steel” glare at BRW’s photographer (drawing inspiration from Zoolander, the movie farce on the male modelling industry), Farquhar protests he doesn’t set out to be cool: “I do what makes sense.”

Co-founder Cannon-Brookes backs him up: “I don’t think being a ‘cool’ company is important. I think it’s important to be attractive and fight for talent – especially in our field. We need the best minds to work for us to make amazing products that compete on the world market. We do what it takes to attract, nurture and retain those incredibly talented people.”

Australian organisations lag world leaders in looking after employees. The standard of most workplace is still fairly pedestrian compared with some innovative workplace designs and practices in the United States and Europe.

But when a company’s success hinges on attracting and retaining the best and brightest – and there’s a worldwide shortage of these people – employers have to offer more.

This is where Atlassian stands out. Despite competing for engineers in Sydney and the US with the heavyweight Google (world famous for its staff perks), Atlassian has made a name for itself by mixing a culture of fun with interesting work and innovative human resources practices that organisations around the world imitate.

Farquhar puts it bluntly: “I want to ruin employees so they never want to work anywhere else. I want them to rue the day they left Atlassian.”.

Software engineers are notoriously fleet of foot and Atlassian has to elbow out poachers from much wealthier rivals in the cities where it has offices: Sydney, San Francisco and Amsterdam.

IT recruiter Smith says he has noticed over the past three years that job seekers from overseas will ask him to approach both companies but that Google’s exhaustive recruitment process of six or seven interviews means people who have tried and failed in the past will often bypass them and go straight to Atlassian.

“Atlassian has refined its recruitment process over the years,” he says. “They are more realistic and don’t ask people to jump through as many hoops. Google is not for everyone.”

Farquhar says that even when Atlassian loses people, the technology sector benefits: “I think we are letting 1000 flowers bloom from people who started at Atlassian. There are a lot of ex Atlassians ... who were inspired to do their own thing or join smaller companies”.

The company’s former vice-president of engineering, Soren Harner, left three years ago to start his own software company, Permaling, and recently joined Bigcommerce (which sells an e-commerce marketing platform), where there are up to 15 ex-Atlassians.

Still, the shortage of software engineers in the developed world is limiting the company’s plans for expansion and so it is turning its attention to south-east Asia, where it is planning to set up an engineering office.

“There are not enough good graduates coming out of university [in Australia],” says Farquhar.

Atlassian hired 100 people last quarter and expects to need to recruit at least 200 a year in two years’ time.

For all its goofy good times and imaginative perks, Atlassian is a business – and a successful one – started with the help of a $10,000 credit card debt 10 years ago.

This year, the founders knocked out the miners to reach the top of the BRW Young Rich list on the proceeds of selling tools for software developers that help track bugs, manage projects, and review and test code.

They employ 530 people around the world and (in the last publicly available figures) had revenue of $102 million in 2011 and have more than 20,000 customers, including Microsoft, Facebook, Cisco, BMW and NASA.

The founders are also expected to float the company on the Nasdaq next year but are coy about the details, with Farquhar saying only: “We don’t talk about the time frame.”

The managing director of venture capital firm Southern Cross Venture Partners, William Bartee, recently said he had heard rumours the float would value Atlassian at nearly $1 billion, meaning it is verging on becoming a worldwide success story.

Technology entrepreneurs are awaiting more details with bated breath. Farquhar and Cannon-Brookes are widely expected to put some of their proceeds from selling down their share into angel investment.

“We are already doing that,” Farquhar says, pointing to his involvement in the new venture capital firm Blackbird Ventures with Cannon-Brookes and 12 other technology entrepreneurs.

So, will Atlassian be able to preserve its prized corporate culture once it lists and becomes a public company? Industry gossip suggests it has already become more “serious” since US venture capital firm Accel Partners invested $60 million in 2010.

“It would be naive to think there would be no changes,” Farquhar concedes. Atlassian’s love of transparency would be challenged. Daily sales figures and recruitment numbers are displayed on screens for employees but the Sarbanes-Oxley Act would prevent this in the US.

Bigcommerce co-founder Mitchell Harper - whose start-up is marked by some in the industry as the next Atlassian – says there is a world of difference between working at a start-up with a fast growth trajectory and at a large multinational listed company.

What engineers want, he says, is to work on something they feel will make a difference. Bigcommerce has 30,000 enterprise customers who have channelled $1.2 billion worth of sales through its e-commerce software.

“A bug tracker is their principal product,” Harper says of Atlassian. “Some engineers are attracted by that, but others aren’t.”

Atlassian product manager Sten Pittet is a convert. The Frenchman had heard about Atlassian and its products while working in Paris and researched the company on its website.

When he joined 18 months ago, he was relieved to find that company in real life reflected the way it portrays itself on its website.

“When I was waiting in the interview room, I saw people playing poker at lunchtime and people working in shorts, flip-flops and barefoot,” he says.

Given that he had grown up in Cameroon and then had to adapt to the formal workplaces of France, he immediately felt at home, he says.

“And I love the fact that it is an engineering-driven culture – and that is not a given when you come from France,” he says.

Pittet has already made a significant contribution to the company, creating the mood app (see “They read minds”) on a ShipIt day on his second week, in collaboration with the vice-president of talent, Joris Luijke.

One thing that stands out at Atlassian is a willingness to try new things.

Some of ideas get canned, such as a proposal to publish people’s salaries throughout the organisation, but others have added to the company’s fame.

Its ShipIt days have attracted the attention of management author Dan Pink, Harvard Business Review, Fortune magazine, The Washington Post and technology publications around the world. Formerly known as Fedex days (until a letter arrived from lawyers for the logistics group), these events occur four times a year, allowing employees to work on their own project for 24 hours and then present it to the company. Now nearing its 20th ShipIt day, one of its successes (a testing tool) has collected more than $2 million in sales. About 550 internal projects have been created, 47 of which have been incorporated in its software products.

More than 50 companies have copied the idea, including Yahoo!, Farquhar says.

Much of the flavour of Atlassian’s culture comes down to the characteristics of the founders, both plain speakers and engineers who met at university.

Says Farquhar: “We have different personalities and strengths that complement each other. Mike favours chaos, I favour structure. Most companies need a bit of both.

“We think differently. We didn’t have any strong business mentors. A lot of people told us we were doing things wrong, but we are experimenting. It is my version of an MBA.

“The status quo says to ‘do this’ and we decided to do things differently.”

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