California software firm expands Portland office, mopping up laid off workers and rejoicing the low-stress, low-expense lifestyle.

PHOTOS: DOLAN HOLBROOK  - Mayor Ted Wheeler and Lithium Technologies CEO Pete Hess (right) celebrate the opening of the San Francisco-based software firms office on Pioneer Courthouse Square. Before the ceremony, Wheeler and Hess bonded over jock leisure and their Oregon roots. Wheeler is a sixth generation Portlander, Hess is a descendent of Captain Couch. Wheeler wants more six figure jobs like Lithium's to come to Portland, while Hess wants talent in a town where everything is half price compared to San Francisco. Lithium is a platform for users to answer each other questions on sites such as Sephora, Sony Europe and Constant Contact.

Lithium Technologies makes a social media platform that crowdsources help.

For example, a customer might be on the Sephora makeup site and ask, "How can I transform my daytime look for evening?" Users chime in with suggestions in a stream of comments. This is cheaper than paying customer service staff to answer every question and the customers probably have specialized knowledge. Furthermore, it builds community around the brand.

On Monday, Lithium inaugurated its Portland office with a visit from the San Francisco-based CEO Pete Hess and Portland mayor Ted Wheeler. After bonding in a conference room (the new CEO Hess said he was very impressed with Iron Man Wheeler's three climbs on Mt. Everest, and his substantial election win) they cut a ribbon with big scissors and everyone went back to their desks.

Lithium is here because it bought Jive-x from Portland software stalwart Jive Technologies in August 2017. Jive-x is the external communications software part of Jive's product, which lets customers talk back to corporations. Jive the company was bought by Aurea of Texas and most of the remaining staff were soon shucked off. Many went freelance.

Now they are coming back because Lithium is hiring. It has offices in San Francisco and Austin, but Portland is the new growth area.

Bay Area-based Scott Finegold of Finegold Commercial Real Estate found Lithium their Portland office at 811 S.W. Sixth Avenue. It's on the sixth floor looking north across Pioneer Courthouse Square. It's relatively plain for a tech firm: standing desks, a couch, conference rooms named after Portland keywords.

"Portland real estate is 50 cents on the dollar," he said, comparing it to San Francisco. He is convinced downtown is a bargain — more so than Austin.

Hiring and rejoicing

Lithium has 140 plus people in San Francisco and 25 to 30 in Portland. That number should rise to 60 later this year, according to director of global facilities Gilly Malmquist.

The office has sales, engineering, product and I.T. "It's not just one group. We think there's a great talent pool here and we're hiring," she said.

The CFO, head of HR and CEO were all in town from San Francisco to launch the office and get the word out to the media that they are hiring.

Human resources senior VP J.C. Herrera said the acquisition of Jive-x was unique because it didn't come with any staff.

"I feel like the folks we've had the chance to hire here have been wonderful. Initially folks that had that domain expertise, and that view towards community in our space, certainly helps.

Early on, we didn't know if we'd do a center of excellence here, but there's such rich talent. I used to work for McAfee and I always knew there was talent here. There's a premium paid for software engineers everywhere. The competition for talent continues to get a little crazy."

He added that they now compete in hiring against startups as small as five-person organizations.

Lithium works on its brand in places where people are looking for jobs: LinkedIn, GlassDoor and other social channels. "We try to increase our presence there and find people who are interested in us." They also go to universities and count on employer referrals, which has gotten the office ramped up since it began seating people in January.

One executive, Kelly Snyder, works remotely from Florida. How does she stay in touch?

"She uses travel a lot," he said with a laugh. "Internally we also use Slack, and I'm sure of the Jive guys would like to use some Jive end product but we're not quite there yet."

Community products

Jon Boush (he spells it out "Bravo October Uniform Sierra Hotel") is a Lithium salesman who has been in the office since January. He's a Portlander and his territory is in the West. He can work from home or the office. "If it's a really good prospect, I'd like to get down there as often as I can," he told the Business Tribune. "The best prospects for Lithium as enterprise clients," he says, referring to Fortune 500 companies.Current customers include Lenovo, Constant Contract, Stubhub and Sony, Europe

Bousch calls what they make a "community product" which helps brands engage with the brand, have the customers advocate for the brand and drive down support costs. The platform can be wrapped around the brand an image of the customers. "We don't force customers to shoehorn into our product."

He uses Slack, email and Skype to keep in touch. Bousch likes the office. "We don't chain the engineers to the desks. It's mostly an eight to five job. If they get their work done, they can come and go."

Nice Oregon

The CEO Hess's extended family is from Portland. His great-great grandfather was Captain Couch of Couch Street fame, and he has around 100 relatives here. He grew up in the Bay Area but vacationed in Gearhart, Black Butte and Portland, and moved to Bend after college.

He said that after acquiring Jive-x the it made sense to go after people who knew Jive's system.

"Engineers are the hardest thing to hire in San Francisco, there are plenty of them but you're competing with Google and Apple. But when you're a small company you're paying a lot for those people." They also have an office in Bangalore, India, but the core engineering is focused in Portland.

"For top talent in Portland we have a very compelling story to tell, that's probably the biggest reason." He cites the local universities as a pipeline to talent. "We can hire in young and train them up and they can build their careers." He says started in Advent Software as a salesperson and 23 years later he was CEO. "That type of a career has been great for me, and if we can do that for people who join us young in Portland, that's great too. Not that we'll only hire young people."

He says Austin is getting crowded, it's a little more competitive. 'We're probably going to scale up to 75 in Portland by the end of the year.

An entry level engineer here can expect $100,000, and a top level one, upwards of $200,000."

They've found their friends

Mayor Wheeler talked about the "fabulous recruiting plan" he had just heard about, and told the workers who had assembled for the ribbon cutting, "I want you to know you have a friend in City Hall."

Wheeler told the Business Tribune what it means for City Hall to be that friend.

"The main thing is making sure there continues to be a deep pool of talent in Portland, that has the education and job training required to be able to qualify for the kind of jobs that Lithium and other companies need to be successful."

He touted the 25-25 Plan which provides pathways to training and education, and added that they need to recruit from outside the region too. He said they have partnerships with PSU and OHSU around training programs that can tee people up to pursue.

The name refers to the supposed imminent 25,000 new jobs in healthcare and construction that will pay $25 an hour.

"We as a state were really hard hit by the Great Recession, and we were slow to come out of it. So, the universities and public and private sector got together and said 'We see the trend and need to be proactive in providing workforce development.'"

What the workers do

Matt Spera, a senior software engineer, was at Jive for five years. He heard through the Jive network that a buddy had landed at Lithium.

"I reached out to him. We met for coffee and kept the channels open. Next thing I knew I was flying out to San Francisco for an interview."

Spera writes in the Java language and is working on a way to migrate data from Jive-x customers who might want to switch to Lithium.

When Jive lost customers to Lithium

in the past, "The customers would try to forklift their data over, because Jive would be contractually obligated to hand over a copy. They would migrate everything so you could still get answers to questions that had been asked in the old community."

As an ex-Jive programmer, he sees echoes of the past and parallels.

"It's funny to go into Lithium's code base and see so many decisions that Jive made in their own code base. Its oddly reassuring and somewhat disconcerting to see they had all these equivalents. But it's nice to see how they worked around the same problems."

Spera said the problem is software often builtpiece meal. Short term fixes become entrenched and are never replaced. "Dealing with legacy code is a huge challenge. Code gets stale. There's all the feeling that we have to build this thing and get it out the door, and we'll revisit it and improve it later, but of course that doesn't ever happen."

Lithium aims to recruit here but not just Bay Area engineers who will take less pay in return for a low stress lifestyle. It is looking for people in many roles. As they say in sales, it's a community product.

Joseph Gallivan
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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