ThoughtWorks Brazil: Going to Porto Alegre

In the next few weeks, I’ll be putting together a few posts that tell a little bit about the stories behind the scenes of opening the ThoughtWorks Brazil office. They’re entirely from my point of view, might contain an embarrassing moment or two and are absolutely not to be taken as the official voice of ThoughtWorks on any of these matters. I’m not a PR person ;)

Since the 2nd Brazilian joined the company there has been a discussion going on at a ThoughtWorks office, somewhere in the world: should we build an office in Brazil? When, where?

Choosing Porto Alegre as the town to build our first office was something unexpected to me. Until the beginning of September last year, I had heard lots of good things about the city, but had never visited it. It came up every now and again as a good IT spot in Brazil and as a generally nice place to live.

Sid, Roy (Singham, founder of ThoughtWorks) and a few others scheduled a visit to Brazil, in October last year, for a quick tour and meetings with a few more potential clients and friends.

I was living in Santo André, my hometown, about 25km away from the client, where I was doing some coaching and whipping a few legacy systems into shape. I took a little break from the client work and joined them in the tour where we were supposed to decide on a few things like incorporation, payment and benefits packages and most importantly, location.

Being from São Paulo (well, Santo André… but if you’ve been there, you know it’s all the same urban sprawl), I’ve backed it quite strongly. For me, it’d be extremely convenient — friends, family, etc. For ThoughtWorks, it wouldn’t be so bad either: it’s not hard to find excellent talent in a city with over 25 million people, especially one where the majority of the IT market is.

Paulo wasn’t so sure. (Paulo Caroli, the second Brazilian to join… or maybe third, I can’t remember). Being from Rio de Janeiro and having a bit of a thing against São Paulo, as all Cariocas jokingly do, he argued the picture wasn’t that clear: alternatives to the high taxes, heavy competition and the cost of living in São Paulo were worth thinking about.

At this point, choosing the place to open the office was becoming more and more of a big deal. The more we did the maths, the less São Paulo looked like a good place to start, even if it seemed like the obvious choice at first. High taxes and cost of living would drive our cost base up quite significantly, nearly killing our chances of competitively offering near-shore projects to our existing clients in North America and Europe. If we wanted to start from São Paulo, we’d have to find enough local work to keep us going (and growing), but the highly competitive market would drive our prices down enough to kill any margins and we would sink. D’oh!

The crew had visited a few cities around Brazil at this point: São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Campinas, Salvador, but there was maybe another dozen cities in Brazil where a TW office could thrive. After a lot of digging around and looking up statistics from all sorts of sources, we narrowed down the list of potential cities to two or three, and Porto Alegre was the next one to try out.

We got there and had a couple of meetings with the directors of PUCRS, the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul… and wow. They have a technology park, TECNOPUC, taking up a good quarter of the (rather large) campus. Companies like HP, Dell, Microsoft and Accenture have a big presence. It looked nothing like I imagined, though: instead of a soul-crushing sea of cubicles in high-rises full of tired people in suits crammed in a corner of the University, I found a really vibrant, open area with a few short buildings scattered between huge leafy trees. It’s the sort of place I’d like to work at; others promptly agreed.

Talks with the directors went really well, and we partnered. ThoughtWorks joined the TECNOPUC community and we started talking about how much office space we’d need, and how much they had available at the time. Meanwhile, Francisco Trindade (developer and lean dude, born in Porto Alegre, based in London at the time) showed us around town. Again, I was impressed with the quiet, nicely kept streets, parks and facilities. There are trees everywhere, a decent public transport system, a good number of restaurants and things to do.

That evening, we flew to Florianópolis to attend Ágiles 2009, where Roy had the closing keynote. We spent most of the time at the conference still trying to figure out tax codes and benefits while Roy worked on the slides.

At the end of the usual politically charged and motivating keynote, Roy announced: ThoughtWorks Brazil is ready to roll, and we’re hiring!

Picture: Roy announcing the opening of ThoughtWorks Brazil at Ágiles 2009