Freelancer CEO Matt Barrie on the “absolute crisis” facing the Australia tech industry: “Nobody wants to come here anymore”


Australia is missing out on the global tech boom and lagging behind the rest of the world because of an inability to retain and attract talent, Freelancer founder and CEO Matt Barrie says.

Speaking at the Knowledge Nation conference on Thursday, Barrie outlined the difficulties he has faced in trying to hire for tech positions and the impact this is having on the wider startup and tech communities.

“There is an absolutely incredible opportunity before us right now,” Barrie says.

“We’re in the grips of a technology gold rush. I think by this stage quite a number of you are well aware of this gold rush. And you’re also well aware that Australia is completely missing out.”

Barrie points to Australia’s decreasing number of STEM and tech graduates, especially women.

“All this is in the middle of a historic boom in technology,” he says.

“This situation is an absolute crisis. If there is one thing and one thing only that you do to fix this industry it’s get more people into it.”

Barrie says there is a lack of talented software developers and engineers in Australia.

He says Freelancer is looking to hire as many software developers as they can, but are “lucky to get one good application per day”. In contrast, he says a job ad for an office manager received 350 applications in just two days.

And he says it is becoming increasingly difficult to attract overseas workers to Australia.

When trying to recruit a Silicon Valley tech talent for a “very highly paid top role”, he says a recruiter told him that Australia is now a “backwater” for tech jobs and nobody wants to move here anymore.

“Nobody from Silicon Valley wants to come to Australia for any role,” the recruiter told Barrie.

“We used to think maybe someone would move for a lifestyle thing but they don’t want to do that anymore.”

And he says this is symptomatic of the wider problem facing the Australian tech sector.

“This is what it is like trying to attract, incentivise and retain talent in a technology company in Australia,” Barrie says.

Along with a lack of STEM and engineering graduates, Barrie says culture also plays an important part in this problem, pointing to the recent controversies surrounding Sydney’s lock out laws.

“If you’re trying to attract young smart people to come back to Australia it’s a bit hard when the hashtag ‘nanny state’ is trending on Twitter,” he says.

“It’s a bit hard to build a technology industry when every second 20-year-old wants to leave because you’ve turned the place into a bumpkin country town.

“Sydney will never be a technology hub if all the young people want to flee overseas.”

A common argument from the government is that these talented individuals that relocate overseas to follow their tech dreams will eventually return to Australia with experience and knowledge to share with the community, but Barrie says this is incorrect.

“You’re kidding yourself if you think they are going to come back one day,” he says.

“In the last 15 years that I have been running technology companies in Australia, out of the scores that have left I’d estimate that less than 10% come back.”

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Denham Sadler is the editor of StartupSmart. He was previously a journalist at the publication and has worked as a freelancer for the Guardian, the Saturday Paper and the ABC. In his spare time he likes puns and jaffles.
  • John

    It’s a bit rich for Barrie to be blaming culture and government for the problems facing the Australian tech industry when his company, Freelancer, has harmed the development of the local industry by off-shoring development work to the cheap foreign suppliers.

    Regardless of the right or wrongs about globalisation or outsourcing, how can he expect a healthy robust tech industry to develop if developers in Australia can’t earn a living wage because it’s cheaper to get an application developed for $10 per hour?

    You’ll never build the ecosystem of developers that the tech industry needs if they can’t make a living.

    • Senrab Nala

      Its all gone to the loo. Get paid minimum wage for technical job in Australia.. More money working at McDonald’s

    • Anthony Manning-Franklin

      Except I’ve seen many startups offshore simply because they couldn’t find any talent. Especially, talented talent. There are plenty of very old developers who want to take you back to the good old days of COBOL (slight exaggeration), because they really haven’t learnt anything new in the last 20 years.

  • Matt

    I can’t help but feel this story is a little sensationalised with a bit of a side agenda. I’ve worked in the ‘digital’/advertising industry for 17 years now and I cannot think of one developer I have worked with over this time that has fled overseas. Far from it actually as I have found them to be very introverted – preferring routine and stability. In the past few years along though I have worked with developers from China, France, USA and UK. I think the issue here is that there is a skills shortage full stop, not the fact that devs are fleeing overseas or deciding not to come to Australia for work. Prove me otherwise by showing a drop in working Visa’s for IT related jobs in general. The fact that we turn to Ukraine, Poland, Croatia etc for cheap dev work is the fact that they may be lacking bigger IT firms as full time employment options.

  • Jordan Green

    A little hard to believe that Freelancer is “looking to hire as many software developers as they can” and isn’t getting them. How good is the employment offer??

    Still, there is undeniably an issue with attracting good talent. At a recent consultation with government about the Entrepreneur Visa the room was overwhelmingly in favour of replacing the Entrepreneur Visa with a Skilled Migrant Visa. We don’t really have a shortage of founders but, we do lack an adequate pool of experienced technical, sales and management staff. The guys from the Immigration Department actually thought our argument was very compelling but, they said the Entrepreneur Visa will happen simply because Malcolm Turnbull has said that’s what we need. Pretty much sums up the consultation experience in Australia. For example, another factor keeping good people away is our completely screwed up regulation around Employee Share Schemes and that was very clearly articulated to government in many consultation sessions on the ESS over a period of 5 years. Actually, pretty easy to fix but, is Malcolm fixing that core issue?

    Nope, he wants to waste more taxpayer money on the Entrepreneur Visa. I’m not sure I’m as negative as Matt Barrie about Australia but, I do agree that our leadership is failing us very badly simply because they won’t listen to those of us who are actually experienced and engaged in the start-up ecosystem. We need to lose the Sydney-centric mantra, dump the ESS, avoid the Entrepreneur Visa, fix the flawed ESVCLP and all of these are pretty easy to do without any great cost or sacrifice. How you ask?

    Well, I’ve told the government how many times but, then they go pay some management consultant who has no intimate experience to write a policy that will never work. Like the Innovation Policy launched by Minister Ian Macfarlane that was written by a consultant at McKinsey & Co. The Minister and the consultant were eager to declare that is hat happened but, neither has any direct experience of the early-stage innovation ecosystem.

    I wrote on some of this here but, honestly, I’m not expecting any change because our political leaders just don’t seem to care.

  • Kobada

    I find this discussion interesting, as on one hand good AU based tech people are impossible to find, and insanely expensive. Outsourcing a tech build overseas is a logistics nightmare and frankly one step away from a crap shoot. Conversely start up’s are racing around getting totally screwed by incubators, accelerators or whatever you want to call them. They all promise and never deliver. And to add insult to injury many start up’s fail to hire some grey hair experience, and the wonder why they crash and burn so quickly. And lastly our government makes all these grand statements about Innovation. I challenge you to get one cent from the government, as they make sure all monies allocated go to some fancy setup that makes them look good and all the money goes to appearance and never in the hands of the people who really need it. So yes AU Tech is heading the way of resources, south ! Best is not to vote for either Liberal or Labour in our forthcoming election, try the independents at least they try.