From Silicon Val­ley to Oulu

Oulu is the first loca­tion in Euro­pe whe­re Silicon Val­ley star­tup Alif Semicon­duc­tor has establis­hed a pre­sence. Why did the firm deci­de to come to Oulu after set­ting up two offices in Cali­for­nia, one in Sin­ga­po­re and one in Ban­ga­lo­re, India? Neil Jack­son, an engi­neer who launc­hed Alif’s office in Oulu last August, has a simple answer.

“The foun­ders of Alif apprecia­te the level of engi­nee­ring com­pe­tence in Oulu. And it’s not just them: people in the high-tech industry around the world all know Oulu and they have a lot of res­pect for the qua­li­ty and ran­ge of exper­ti­se in the city.”

A ran­dom mee­ting with a high-tech pro­duct at a Euro­pean tra­de show may have also cont­ri­bu­ted to Alif’s deci­sion to set up an office here.

“The execu­ti­ve mana­gers were impres­sed by a very inno­va­ti­ve and well-desig­ned pro­duct and they asked: ‘Whe­re does it come from?’ The answer was Oulu.”

Neil Jack­son is a man with a calm and reas­su­ring pre­sence. An engi­neer with over 30 years’ expe­rience of wor­king with cut­ting-edge tech­no­lo­gies, he oozes charm, qui­et con­fi­dence and pro­fes­sio­na­lism.

How did this soft-spo­ken engi­neer find his way from Sto­ke-on-Trent in England to Oulu, and what’s made him stay and build a career just below the Arc­tic Circle?

“It star­ted a long time ago. I first came in 1985 to work for a year,” he begins tel­ling his sto­ry.

“I was stu­dying elect­ro­nic engi­nee­ring and wan­ted to go away from the UK to see the world. I didn’t know much about Fin­land but accep­ted a work expe­rience place­ment in Oulu,” he recalls.

A few years later, Neil moved to Fin­land to work for Nokia in Hel­sin­ki. Then in the ear­ly nine­ties he moved to Oulu — his new wife’s home city.

After 20 years with Nokia, and a few shor­ter stints with other tech com­pa­nies in Oulu, he joi­ned Silicon Val­ley start-up Alif Semicon­duc­tor in 2022.

Made in Oulu: inno­va­tion that makes the world a bet­ter place

Neil leads a team of engi­neers who deve­lop applica­tions for a mic­ro­proces­sor — a sys­tem-on-a-chip pro­duct — that uses arti­ficial intel­li­gence (AI) and mac­hi­ne lear­ning to inte­gra­te sta­te-of-the art tech­no­lo­gy into eve­ry­day life.

“In my com­pa­ny, and in many others in the tech sec­tor in Oulu, your job will give you world-class oppor­tu­ni­ties. It’s also very rewar­ding: we do a job that helps impro­ve people’s lives around the world,” he explains.

Alif Semicon­duc­tor has crea­ted a new class of embed­ded cont­rol­lers, or fusion proces­sors, that enable seam­less inte­gra­tion of tech­no­lo­gy for eve­ry­day life by unloc­king inno­va­ti­ve low-power tech­niques.

Neil says that being able to work with the most advanced tech­no­lo­gy for AI and mac­hi­ne lear­ning is a big draw for engi­neers from around the world.

“We are a lea­ding-edge tech firm whe­re people have an oppor­tu­ni­ty to do tru­ly mea­ning­ful work and have an impact on a glo­bal sca­le. Knowing that we’re making people’s lives easier in various ways is a big boost when you do your job.”

Fin­nish cor­po­ra­te cul­tu­re

Neil’s plan­ning to build a strong team for Alif Semicon­duc­tor in Oulu. The process is alrea­dy gat­he­ring pace: two engi­neers are sche­du­led to join Alif Semiconductor’s staff befo­re the end of the year.

What can newco­mers expect?

If they haven’t wor­ked in a Nor­dic count­ry befo­re, workplace etiquet­te in Oulu may come as a surpri­se.

Com­mu­nica­tion in a Fin­nish office is direct and straight­forward. People call eve­ry­bo­dy by their first names: cor­po­ra­te posi­tions doesn’t make any dif­fe­rence.

“People are encou­ra­ged to express their opi­nions and be them­sel­ves. You’re allowed to influence things. That atti­tu­de fos­ters inno­va­tion.”

Neil Jack­son

And if you’re hired as a junior mana­ger, you may find that you’re a deci­sion-maker.

Neil belie­ves this cul­tu­re has big advan­ta­ges.

“I’ve always liked how you’re trea­ted in a Fin­nish com­pa­ny, and how orga­ni­sa­tions work. There’s not so much hie­rarc­hy: you can give feed­back direct­ly to the big­gest boss. People are encou­ra­ged to express their opi­nions and be them­sel­ves. You’re allowed to influence things. That atti­tu­de fos­ters inno­va­tion.”

How about cor­po­ra­te bene­fits?

There’s no hard and fat rules: the ran­ge of bene­fits varies from one busi­ness to the next. Some com­pa­nies in Oulu offer bene­fits such as com­pa­ny bikes, lunch vouc­hers, enter­tain­ment vouc­hers or having a sau­na on the top floor of the office over­loo­king the sea.

“The lifes­ty­le in Oulu is very relaxed. It’s not as busy as it is in big­ger cities like the capi­tal, Hel­sin­ki, and emplo­yers very much sup­port this lifes­ty­le,” says Neil.

Moving to Oulu with children

Is it a good idea to move to Oulu with children? Neil defi­ni­te­ly thinks so.

“If you have a young fami­ly, you’ll find that the qua­li­ty of dayca­re and educa­tion is excel­lent here.

“We have three children. My wife has never been a stay-at-home mot­her. In Oulu you can easi­ly com­bi­ne fami­ly life and work life because children’s ser­vices are so good.”

Emplo­yers also pro­vi­de a lot of sup­port fami­lies.

“Flexible wor­king hours were very com­mon here even befo­re the pan­de­mic: emplo­yers try to accom­mo­da­te the needs of people in dif­fe­rent pha­ses in their lives. For example they allow them to work a four-day week to help look after children and have a career at the same time. That flexi­bi­li­ty has inc­rea­sed even furt­her because of the pan­de­mic,” Neil explains.

Inte­gra­ting into Fin­nish life

But how easy is it for people coming to Oulu from other parts of the world to fit in?

“It’s no problem at all,” says Neil. “People from all backgrounds are welco­me and trea­ted equal­ly here. I haven’t come across any racial or reli­gious disc­ri­mi­na­tion. Finns are poli­te and they make a genui­ne effort to res­pect the cul­tu­re of foreig­ners.”

Accor­ding to Neil it helps if you try to learn Fin­nish. He says even a litt­le know­led­ge of the lan­gua­ge goes a long way to help inte­gra­te in the com­mu­ni­ty.

But lear­ning Fin­nish is by no means man­da­to­ry as Finns are among the world’s best spea­kers of English as a foreign lan­gua­ge. So it’s no surpri­se that most foreig­ners in Oulu find that they can get by very easi­ly in English.

For most inter­na­tio­nal rec­ruits, English will be their work lan­gua­ge anyway. Neil knows many foreig­ners who’ve been living in Oulu for a very long time wit­hout lear­ning any Fin­nish — and they have no problems com­mu­nica­ting in English in eve­ry­day situa­tions.

“I per­so­nal­ly wan­ted to learn Fin­nish. When I moved from Hel­sin­ki to Oulu I made a deci­sion that I wan­ted to speak Fin­nish at my workplace. My col­lea­gues were all very patient with me,” recalls Neil.

“After a year I was able to have short con­ver­sa­tions and my know­led­ge of the lan­gua­ge gra­dual­ly inc­rea­sed from the­re.”

Work-life balance with an Arc­tic twist

But what do you do in Oulu after work? Fin­land is a count­ry of forests, lakes and sea.

Oulu has plen­ty of each, pro­vi­ding amazing oppor­tu­ni­ties to live an acti­ve lifes­ty­le throug­hout the year.

“What makes Oulu a special place is the easy access to out­door acti­vi­ties,” says Neil.

Unli­ke most of the rest of Euro­pe, Oulu still have four dis­tinct sea­sons. Sum­mers are full of light: at mid­sum­mer the sun sets after mid­night and rises less than two hours later, which means it doesn’t get dark at all. Sum­mers are also qui­te warm: the ave­ra­ge high tem­pe­ra­tu­re is 19C which may come as a surpri­se: after all the city is just over 200 km (125 miles) south of the Arc­tic Circle.

By cont­rast, there’s a lot less day­light in the win­ter. But snow on the ground, usual­ly from Novem­ber to April, helps light up the dark­ness.

Boa­ting and skiing

Neil loves being acti­ve in the great out­doors.

“I live in a small fis­hing vil­la­ge on the coast, 20 km north of Oulu. I have a boat in the har­bour and I enjoy going out to sea in the sum­mer­ti­me. Sum­mers are beau­ti­ful and the great thing is you can go out any time of the day: there’s always light. After work I just jump on the boat and go.”

If he wants a chan­ge from the sea, Neil heads to his local golf cour­se or plays fris­bee golf.

In the win­ter he does cross-count­ry skiing. The­re are almost 300 km of main­tai­ned skiing tracks in Oulu so you’re never far away from one of them. Just a few minu­tes’ skiing dis­tance away from the hust­le of bust­le of the city cent­re you’ll find your­self sur­roun­ded by the frozen silence of Fin­nish natu­re.

“I don’t have to go far to go skiing, I just walk down the road from my house and jump on the ski tracks,” says Neil.

Cross-count­ry skiing is now one of Neil’s favou­ri­te pas­ti­mes but he admits that it wasn’t straight­forward to start with.

“I bought an expen­si­ve new pair of skis and went out. Wit­hin a few minu­tes I fell over so bad­ly that I bro­ke the shoes.

“I took them back to the shop and the sales­man gave me a new pair. I went back skiing and I fell over again and I bro­ke the shoe again. Amazingly the shop gave me a third set of brand new boots. I was so impres­sed by the level of cus­to­mer ser­vice that I deci­ded not to give up and learn frees­ty­le skiing. Now I am a good skier.”

Having mas­te­red the tech­nique, Neil often goes skiing in the eve­ning. The ski tracks are lit and he always meets someo­ne he knows.

“A neigh­bour will go past me and say hel­lo. People stop and have a chat. It’s like a social event. Everybody’s in a good mood: they’re out in the clean air, doing their favou­ri­te sport. It’s very plea­sant.”

In the spring when days get lon­ger Neil goes wal­king on the sea ice that’s cove­red by a thick layer of snow.

It’s a popu­lar acti­vi­ty. On a sun­ny wee­kend in March many Fin­nish fami­lies ski around islands in the sea, stop­ping at lunch­ti­me to cook sausa­ges on a camp­fi­re.

Are the­re any down­si­des to moving to Oulu at all?

Neil belie­ves the only pos­sible shock to a foreig­ner would be the high level of taxa­tion in Fin­land com­pa­red to many other count­ries. But he belie­ves it’s a price worth paying.

“In exc­han­ge for paying high taxes, you get a safe envi­ron­ment. Here seven-year-olds go to school on their own: they don’t need their parents to dri­ve them to and from school. It’s a very good social envi­ron­ment.

“The only other thing is the cold and dark win­ters. But win­ters are also pret­ty unique this far north. It’s very dark in Novem­ber and Decem­ber but only for a short time. After Christ­mas light comes back very quickly. And in the dar­kest times you often have a chance to catch nort­hern lights dancing in the sky in Oulu. Most people never cea­se to be amazed by them.”

Eri­ka Ben­ke

Read more about wor­king in Oulu