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Tech Talent Migrates to Collaboration Startups as Hybrid Work Comes Into Its Own – The Wall Street Journal

Executives at some of the world’s largest technology firms are leaving prime jobs to join startups that build communications and collaboration tools, a market expected to skyrocket as more businesses settle into hybrid work arrangements.

Raymond Endres, Facebook Inc.’s former top engineer for its Messenger app, left the company last month to oversee technology at Airtable, which makes cloud-based spreadsheet collaboration software.

His initial focus will be on prepping the San Francisco-based startup to meet an expected surge in enterprise demand. That means ramping up investing in new product features and infrastructure in the year ahead, while tripling the size of his engineering team to roughly 300 workers, he said.

“Both of these are things that I’ve done in the past at Messenger,” Mr. Endres said. At Facebook, Mr. Endres grew Messenger’s engineering team to more than 1,000 workers, from roughly 30 when he joined in 2011.

Raymond Endres, chief technology officer at Airtable.

Photo: Airtable

Before Facebook, he was a software developer and architect at Microsoft Corp. since the late 1990s.

The need to improve the way workers collaborate—whether in the same office or around the world—predates the Covid-19 pandemic, Mr. Endres said.

“Covid and working from home accelerated that,” he said. “Collectively we’re all figuring out how remote works.” Over the past year, Airtable has added some 13,000 new paid customers to its platform, the company says.

Sarah Cannon, a partner at Index Ventures, said she knows of at least a dozen recent communication and collaboration startups founded or led by former top people at big tech firms.

Many high-level developers and engineers have been building these kinds of apps inside large companies for years, she said, and Covid-19’s impact on conventional workplaces is now prompting them to strike out on their own.

On the funding side, she said, investors have grown less skeptical of productivity, communications and collaboration tools, which many companies in the past were reluctant to adopt at scale.

Spending in the global collaboration and enterprise social software market is forecast to reach $4.5 billion this year, a 17.1% increase from 2020, according to the latest forecast by information-technology research and consulting firm Gartner Inc. It expects to see double-digit gains into 2022.

As the pandemic wanes, an estimated 60% of global companies are developing a permanent hybrid workplace model, Gartner has said, where most employees come into the office no more than three days a week. Gartner estimates that more than 1.1 billion workers around the world worked remotely last year, up from 350 million in 2019.

“In some ways I get a bigger seat at the table working for the challenger,” Tony O’Donnell, a former vice president of engineering at Shutterstock Inc., said of his move this month to virtual-presentation software startup Prezi Inc. as its chief technology officer. He has also worked in business intelligence and analytics at SAP SE.

Tony O’Donnell, chief technology officer at Prezi.

Photo: Prezi

Mr. O’Donnell said that in the wake of the pandemic there has never been a greater need for good videoconferencing tools. Before Covid-19, he said, executive leadership at most companies was centered at a corporate headquarters, even if they operated globally.

“People thought that the ability to execute and to inspire confidence both required being physically present with colleagues. We’ve proven physical presence isn’t essential to achieving either of them,” Mr. O’Donnell said.

Ashish Aggarwal, a former director of software development at Amazon. com Inc., co-founded software startup Productiv Inc. in 2018.

“The decision to leave when I did felt like a natural evolution for me,” Mr. Aggarwal said of leaving Amazon to start Productiv, which makes a tool that has helped enterprise IT chiefs track the use of business apps by remote workers.

Besides, the shift offered a chance to channel his skills and experience into building a product that aims to solve a real-world problem, said Mr. Aggarwal, who is CTO at Productiv.

“As a technologist, I am driven by tough problems that can be improved by technology,” he said.

Write to Angus Loten at [email protected]

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