Sunday, February 08, 2009

Blaine Cook, Northern Ireland, and London Tech Scene

(Context: Blaine Cook talks to some Times hack about the Northern Irish tech scene).

The Delaware Thing

First of all, allow me to correct the conception that people incorporate in Delaware because it has no corporation tax. This is fallacious, though it has a basis in history. It used to be the case that a corporation's state of incorporation did affect its taxes in a meaningful way. At that time, Delaware attracted a lot of incorporations due to tax arbitrage.

More importantly today, there is a lot of law that depends on your state of incorporation, because of the Federal system in the USA. Therefore, since there used to be so many firms that incorporated in Delaware for tax reasons, there are a lot of judges and precedents and case law in Delaware, so lawyers in other states all know Delaware law on those matters more than their local law. Therefore they recommend their companies to incorporate there, because it makes the playing ground far more level and understood.

Nothing to do with taxes these days, which are based on your legal nexus and primary business sites.

Sorry, every time I read something like that it makes me want to smack the urban myth out of people.

"Does Nothing Work In This Country?"

I feel like I perpetually channel the spirit of Darcy's fiance in the original Bridget Jones Diary film by saying to myself "Does nothing work in this country?" The UK is the country in which nothing works.

Case in point:
That was the view from my back window on Monday. That's a good 4 inches of snow. That effectively shut down the entire London transport system for over 24 hours, and led to at least 2 days of severe system-wide delays.

4 inches of snow. That were fully expected (BBC was reporting it was going to happen at least 12 hours in advance, yet no road gritting/salting was done in advance). That shut down everything.

I showed this photo to my sister living in Chicago. Quoth the sibling: "NOT IMPRESSED!!!!!"

Another case in point: Broadband/cable. There's now one cable operator in this country. Who refuses to lay any new cables anywhere (you don't have cable in your neighborhood? Too bad).

Yet another one: Every Monday the whole public transport system is delayed. Every single Monday, because the weekend engineering works always overruns.

The Bureaucracy Thing

The UK's bureaucratic culture doesn't appeal to Blaine. And it shouldn't. It's retarded in so many ways. Let me give you a few examples:
  • For me to start my most recent job contract, I had to provide to 3 different parties the exact same documents, that they all had to individually verify and copy: my passport, my visa, a recent bank statement, and a recent utility bill. I had to run to 3 offices to do this, and it took more than a full day of my time.
  • If you ever move to the UK, do not ever forget when you moved in to or out of a particular location. You'll be asked more times than you can imagine for 6 years of addresses, with month accuracy on moves.
  • Like many USAmerican men, I use my middle name, exclusively. Don't even write out the first initial anymore. This is fine in the states; here, my first name must show up on everything: utility statements, bank accounts, credit cards, the lot (remember, they all have to match up perfectly, or you'll end up in a situation like I have now, where ING Direct refuses to link up with my HSBC account because the first initial isn't on my ING Direct account, and refuses to accept anything other than a Certified Copy of my passport as evidence, even though they already have a certified copy of my passport on file).
  • To be able to drive here, I could have paid my money and exchanged my US driver's license for a UK one. Except that I would have been able to get an automatic only one, and nobody has automatic transmission cars here, which makes the license useless. So now I have to actually go through the whole process starting from provisional license from scratch.
  • To get that provisional license, I had to mail my passport to the DVLA in Swansea. The original. There is no alternative to this if you're an American. I couldn't even get on a train there and show it to them in person. They refused to send it back any type of recorded delivery.
  • When I moved here, I could put lots of money into my UK bank account, but not get a cheque book or debit card or anything else. All I could do was get small amounts of money out of my account at a Citibank ATM (no others). That's it. But I had to sign up for that so that I could sign up for anything else, because otherwise I wouldn't have a bank account statement going to my home to show everybody else to prove that I'm a Real Person. Finally getting a job allowed me to have a cheque book for the first time. For a year I mostly used my US credit cards (like Blaine).
  • Grocery shopping after 4pm on a Sunday? It is to laugh.
  • Evening/weekend opening hours for any type of call centre? Nope (and since they're in India, there's no reason for this other than spite).
  • You want to do anything at all to your home's exterior? Be prepared to run the planning gauntlet, a system that appears to be explicitly designed to stop anybody from doing anything at all until the end of time.
  • When moving into one borough, and attempting to get a parking permit just to be able to move in, we had to go to 3 different local government offices on the day we were moving. The best part? At the parking office, we were told we had to go to the local taxation office because we didn't have a piece of paper they wouldn't post until that day (because we hadn't moved in yet, and thus hadn't triggered the taxation), even though he could see the relevant information on his computer. Best part? He didn't do anything with the paper, he just had to check a box that he had seen it. The local taxation office has a special window just for this.
Unlike Blaine, I've been here 5 years, and this stuff still makes me mad enough to scream at people.

None Of This Matters

Yes, as a USAmerican, it makes us want to rant and rant and rant. And that's a great topic whenever we expats get together and celebrate that most English of traditions: drinking yourself into oblivion on an empty stomach on a week-night.

And yes, every time I go back to visit San Francisco, I sit there and say to myself, "Self, what the fark are you doing living in London, where nothing works, where there's bureaucracy stifling you at every step, where due to the exchange rate you now earn less and where the weather is atrocious?" And then I realize that even if I didn't have family (like Blaine) keeping me here, I'd probably stay.

None of the bad things matter. London is still, no matter what:
  • An insanely vibrant, multicultural, safe city (Daily Mail and Evening Standard: shut up; until you've been to a properly dangerous city, shut your pie holes);
  • A city that draws talent from three of the best universities in the world (I mean, they're no Berkeley, but I guess Cambridge, Oxford and Imperial are okay for what they are);
  • A city that draws talent from across the entire EU (Blaine: most of the best Polish engineers I've seen are in London at this point; the Polish-in-Poland firms are competing against India, not London), none of whom can move to the states anymore;
  • A city with the best flight connections of anywhere in the world (there's virtually nowhere that's close enough that doesn't have at least one nonstop flight running from London to it);
  • A city that, no matter how hard the Luftwaffe and 60s Architects and Maggie and Red Ken and everybody else has tried to kill it, just won't die.
After everything politicians have done to either actively destroy London, or to neglect it into oblivion, if this were America you'd have Europe's Detroit. You don't. You have London.

And that's why I think that if you can change the perceptions of the people who are already here, you can get a real tech industry going.

My advice to Blaine is:
  • Keep ranting. Only way to stay sane.
  • Do it down t' pub with other USAmericans when you come into London.
  • Don't do it to the press. :-)
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