There’s rarely been a better time to be a software developer – at least if you’re Polish.

Companies like Google, IBM and Motorola continue to grow their operations in the city of Krakow, while Polish universities are launching new computer science courses to capitalise on a groundswell of interest from prospective software engineers.

Poland is the second most popular offshoring destination for IT buyers from Western Europe and most popular offshoring location in Europe, the Middle East and Africa – according to a recent survey by analyst house Gartner.

One firm with a longstanding presence in Krakow is the travel technology firm Sabre Holdings, which acquired a 20-man office in the city in 2000.

Today that office is Sabre’s fastest growing site, hiring 1,000 people – mostly software developers and engineers – over the past six years and growing so rapidly that last year the firm expanded into a neighbouring five floor office block.

Contrary to the common UK and US perceptions of low-skilled offshore delivery centres the Krakow office is a software R&D hub. Developers at the office frequently take the lead on everything from Sabre’s core shopping engines for travel agents and its online sites like to its TripCase mobile app for travellers .

Mike Dietz, site manager at the Krakow office, said that since 2000 the site had “evolved into an office taking the lead in a lot of areas. You do not see this work just being done just in Poland or the US, it’s carried out in co-operation”.

The working hours at the Krakow site allows it to act as a bridge, picking up work from Sabre’s 800 person product development and customer support centre in Bangalore and passing it off to its main office in Dallas.

Cultural differences

Despite the pace of the growth of the Krakow office the Texan company still has the bulk of its 10,500 staff in the US, with just under half sited outside the states.

Shared technical interests override many of the cultural differences between Sabre’s Polish developers and their foreign counterparts, according to Jola Momot, a software development manager at Sabre, but the contribution of each office is distinct.

“Our office here is a little bit younger than the office in Dallas. People there have a huge amount of business domain knowledge, so when we are coming to solve a problem they might tell us ‘Five years ago we had this same problem with the airlines’,” she said.

In contrast many developers at the Krakow site are not long out of university, and so bring technical expertise tinged with a dose of eastern European realism.

“It’s pretty common to hear that Polish people love to complain. It’s like a national feature, and to some extent it’s true,” said Grzegorz Krumpholz, VP of software development with Sabre.

“We try to find the potential problem and see how things can go wrong, some of this is coming from the culture. Sometimes it’s important to look for what can go wrong and how to address it.”

This sceptical approach didn’t always chime with the can-do attitude of Sabre’s US workforce said Dietz.

“Our office in Dallas initially was ‘Urgh, look at all these problems they’re bringing up’. What I would call it is they’re not bringing up problems, they’re problem solving.

“Over the years the offices have realised that’s what we’re doing and we’ve adjusted to each other.”

The expanse of land and sea that separates the Polish workforce from their global colleagues also isn’t a barrier to close professional relationships.

“You work with people from the Philippines, who you might see maybe once a year if you’re lucky, but you still know a lot of things about their personal life because we make an effort to make sure we do feel like a team,” said Momot.

What’s the norm for offshore work in Poland?

But is the freedom and responsibility that Sabre affords to developers at its Krakow office the norm for an offshore IT development shop in Poland? Not necessarily said Tomek Szymanski, software development manager at site.

“Definitely it’s different in Sabre, because I’m getting complaints from my friends that their job is just to code something or do small pieces,” he said – referring to the centres churning out low-cost code to order, which are commonly associated with offshore development.

But Dietz said that if companies want to attract offshore staff who will ever be capable of leading product design they need to treat their offshore developers as more than just order takers.

“If you look at the number of leaders that we have here – whether it’s senior architects, managers or directors – it’s very different today to what it was six years ago,” he said.

“It has been an evolution to get to that point but we knew we had to get there because you can’t take good people and give them crappy work to do.”

Salaries for Sabre’s Polish developers are closer to their counterparts in Bangalore than in Dallas, Dietz said, but the office does enjoy many of the perks of a Silicon Valley start-up: chill-out areas, a games room and flexible working. The perks of the office drives plenty of fresh talent to Sabre. One third of new hires are referrals from existing staff recommending Sabre as a place to work and the company had 500 applications for 50 intern positions this summer.

However with the likes of Sabre and IBM growing their Polish operations, competition is hotting up for the 10,000 IT graduates produced by the two main universities in Krakow each year, and the presence of top tier tech firms is in turn attracting new companies to the city.

As young people in Poland see this demand for software developers and the above average salary the career commands, the profession is becoming something of an aspirational career.

“It used to be managerial and lawyers jobs in demand, but there were so many managers and directors they couldn’t find jobs,” Krumpholz said.

“Now IT and engineering is becoming more and more popular.”