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WORKING IN GERMANY

‘Lack of diversity is a problem’: What it’s like to work at a Berlin tech startup

Many foreigners dream of finding a job in Germany's growing startup scene. But aside from promises of free pizza, what's the culture like, is the pay good - and do you need to speak German? We spoke to two foreigners working at tech startups in Berlin to find out.

The Berlin skyline.
The Berlin skyline. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/PwC Deutschland | RICOWde

With over €5.1 billion in venture capital fund investments raised last year, the startup industry in Germany’s capital is booming. Startups are the fastest-growing job sector in Berlin, and more than 78,000 people are now employed in the sector.

The sector attracts highly qualified, ambitious people from all over the globe. But what is it really like to work for a Berlin startup?

We spoke to two insiders to find out. Gabriela, 36, is originally from Poland and has been a Business-to-Business Manager in a tech startup in Berlin since October last year. Giuseppe, also 36, is originally from Italy and has been working as a Human Resources Manager in various tech startups for the last seven years. 

Most important question first – do you actually get free pizza and office table tennis?

Giuseppe: These kinds of benefits have become a bit of a cliche that doesn’t really reflect the reality anymore. Yoga, soft drinks, and fruit baskets are nothing special. The real benefits are now to do with remote working and flexible working schedules. 

Gabriela: We haven’t really had many of these kinds of ‘incentives’ because we’ve been mainly working from home since I started. Only in the last month or so we’ve been going to the office at least once a week, and we do get free pizza and drinks once a month when the CEO’s give us their monthly update on how the business is going.

READ ALSO: The German regions attracting startups

Would you say that your work environment is diverse?

Gabriela: My team is a complete mix of people from different European countries. But the number of BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) people on board is not very high and there is definitely a problem with the lack of female leadership, which the company is trying to address. The CEOs are all white Germans.

Giuseppe: (Lack of) diversity is still a big problem. Most of the CEOs and the highest earners are white – usually German – guys. Women and BAME people tend to occupy lower-paid jobs. It’s a systemic issue – and there is competition among a lot of startups that are trying to show who is more diverse. 

How much German is spoken in your company?

Gabriela: Hardly any. We speak all the time in English with each other and all of our meetings are in English.

Giuseppe: It’s the same with us. I’m hearing German less and less. 

READ ALSO: How easy is it to get an English-speaking job in Germany?

Is there anything then that indicates that the company you’re working for is German?

Gabriela: I think the presence of a strong labour law reminds you that you’re in Germany. In our company, there’s an employees representation group and certain clear rules. You know that you won’t be suddenly dismissed once you’ve passed your probation time.

Giuseppe: Yes, the labour law is what I would point to. It’s not easy to get rid of employees in Germany – there is a more robust framework that affects the environment and culture. 

What is the salary like?

Gabriela: I think it’s competitive. My company does salary benchmarking every summer to see what the standard is across the industry and adjusts its pay accordingly.

Giuseppe: Salaries have gone up a lot in the last few years and you could even say they are booming now. A ‘normal’ engineer can expect to earn at least €85,000 per year, and if you are in a serious leadership position, you can expect to earn up to €180,000.

READ ALSO: Do internationals face discrimination in the workplace

A woman working from home throws money in the air. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Christin Klose

Would you say that it’s a high-pressure environment to work in?

Gabriela: For me, there isn’t the kind of pressure that if you don’t perform you won’t get the money you should be getting. Instead, my company is trying to get you to think that your own success is intertwined with the success of the company. There are good incentives to work hard and we have also a certain amount of shares in the company, so if it does well we benefit too.

Giuseppe: I personally feel pressure, but I love what I do, so for me it’s fine. But I have seen a lot of cases of people burning out – especially young people. I think because there are a lot of young managers, who get into leadership roles without having the tools or strength to resist the pressure.

How do you find the work-life balance? 

Giuseppe: I feel like I’m working all the time, but again, that’s because I love my job and I want to, it’s not necessarily the expectation, it’s not like in the US. In Berlin tech startups, there is a tendency to slow down around 6pm.

Gabriela: For me, the work-life balance compared to previous jobs is very good. Telecommuting is great, there are flexible starting times and last-minute holiday requests are usually approved. I think it’s very good for people with children and more complex schedules. 

How many days holiday do you get?

Gabriela: We get 28 days holiday per year.

Giuseppe: We get between 23 and 30 days holiday per year, depending on how long you’ve been working in the company.

What are the career progression opportunities like?

Gabriela: Very dynamic. For myself, I don’t see a clear career path at the moment, but I see a lot of movement happening and people moving to different roles. There is a feeling of being in a constant state of change. 

Giuseppe: If you join a startup at the right time, you can very easily become a manager very quickly.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How to boost your career chances in Germany

What was different about working for a Berlin start-up than you expected?

Gabriela: I thought that working from home would be easier, because I hadn’t done that much before, but I find it much harder to be engaged than I expected. I think a lot of startups (in Berlin) are struggling now to find the right balance between the competing interests of their employees – some of whom want to be fully remote and others who want to come more regularly to the office.

Giuseppe: Before I started working for tech startups I had this romantic image that they were all led by geniuses with big ideas who started in their garages. But in reality, I’ve found this emotional, big-dreaming side to be lacking. There are a lot of people who work for startups who just see it like any other job.

A work team exchanging ideas with notes on a whiteboard.

A work team exchanging ideas with notes on a whiteboard. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Christin Klose

What are the best things about working for a Berlin tech start-up?

Giuseppe: You can make an impact with what you do, to build a product and say it’s mine. There is also creativity and freshness in the team dynamics. I was deeply unhappy in the years I spent working for big corporations because I didn’t know what the goal was. In startups, the objectives are clear.

Gabriela: You can grow with the company, and there are a lot of positions opening all the time, and it’s very common for startups to promote internal talent.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: The German regions attracting startups

What are the worst things about working for a Berlin tech start-up?

Gabriela: Sometimes it can be hard to keep up with the pace of change. It sometimes feels like we are constantly onboarding new people or people are changing roles and there is a slightly chaotic feel to things. The buzzword “agility” is used and abused, and sometimes means staff is expected to go along with anything and everything.

Giuseppe: In the tech start-up world here there seem to be a lot of people who get into the top jobs because they speak a lot, not necessarily because they are the most competent. There is a lot of networking and self-promotion required to push yourself forward. It’s also not a good environment for people who don’t like change, because things change a lot. 

Do you think Berlin is a good place for foreigners to work?

Gabriela: Yes, definitely. You have a lot of choice when it comes to places to work – so it’s unlikely you’ll have to stick at a job which
you don’t like. It’s also a big help for foreigners that most startups in Berlin don’t require German language skills.

Giuseppe: Definitely. For me, the mix of cultures and ideas in the workplace is really inspiring and motivating. And, of course, the city of Berlin itself is full of cultural events and has a great night life – so it’s a great place to live for when you want to detach from work too.

Do you have any advice for anyone thinking about joining a tech start-up in Berlin?

Giuseppe: Try to develop an entrepreneurial mindset instead of an employee mindset as soon as possible. Always look for opportunities, don’t take things personally, don’t think about what happened yesterday, and focus on the now. 

Gabriela: Be open-minded and be prepared for change. 

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WORKING IN GERMANY

How Germany wants to prevent a wage-price spiral

German workers want wages to rise in line with inflation - but there are fears that this could create a cycle of ever-higher prices and ever-higher wages. Here's what the government wants to do about it.

How Germany wants to prevent a wage-price spiral

What’s going on? 

Next Monday, Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) wants to meet with employers and trade unions to discuss the state budget and rising cost of living.

With inflation currently hitting 7.9 percent in Germany, the government is concerned that the trade unions could try to negotiate significant wage increases over the coming months. In some cases, this can fuel a process known as a wage-price spiral – because companies then put up their prices yet again to deal with the rising cost of labour. 

In an effort to stop this happening, Scholz is set to pitch the idea of a one-off pay-rise instead of numerous pay increases over time. The state could make these even more lucrative by keeping the one-off payments tax-free for employees. Scholz’s party, the governing Social Democrats (SPD), believe that this would not only cushion the impact of inflation on workers but also help to prevent endless price hikes in the future.  

READ ALSO: How Germany’s soaring inflation is hitting household budgets

What are the unions and employers saying? 

So far, both unionists and business owners have been cautious about the idea in the run-up to the Monday meeting. Both sides have pointed out that collective bargaining (negotiations between unions and businesses) should be autonomous: wage agreements are not agreed politically, they say, but are a matter for employers and trade unions.

In an interview with the Bayerischer Rundfunk, Frank Werneke, head of Verdi, poured cold water on the idea of one-off payments. “We have to make sure that these permanently rising prices are also converted and transformed into permanently effective wage increases,” he said.

One-off payments are simply one-off measures that do not lead to a permanent increase in wages, according to the IG Metall trade union, which recently negotiated a 6.5 percent pay increase for its workers. The police union has also expressed a similar view. 

Do economists think this is a good idea? 

Not really. The President of the German Institute for Economic Research, Marcel Fratzscher, has already spoken out against the move. He argues that a restricted one-off payment would mean workers would bear the brunt of the current crisis. 

Clemens Fuest, President of the Munich-based Ifo Institute, voiced concerns that even a one-off wage increase could lead to prices shooting up regardless. “There is a danger that this will lead to strong windfall effects and that wage increases will not be much lower (than they otherwise would),” he said. 

Fuest believes that the government should play a role in combatting inflation, but says this could partly be done via the European Central Bank. If the ECB raises interest rates decisively, this will automatically make energy imports cheaper by driving up the value of the euro. 

It’s also worth mentioning that there is some dispute about whether wages are really driving the current cost-of-living crisis. Some economists have argued that prices are going up because companies want to profit from higher margins while certain products are scarce on the global market. This would explain why profits are also high – which would debunk the argument that companies are raising their prices primarily to cover their costs. 

READ ALSO: Is Germany planning more energy relief measures?

What other proposals are on the table? 

Though Scholz appears to have support from the Green Party for his proposal, the SPD’s third coalition partner – the pro-business FDP – has put forward an alternative idea.

Christian Dürr, the FDP’s parliamentary faction leader, thinks adjusting tax rates in line with inflation would be a more sensible option for relieving workers. In any case, there are bound to be intensive negotiations taking place even before the government meets with the unions and employers on Monday. 

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