More thoughts on leaving Pittsburgh

Mike Madison at Pittsblog picked up on on some of my parting negativity about PIttsburgh, adding:

Just when Pittsburgh is getting ready to blow out the candles on its (cup)cake, something like this happens — the sort of thing that Lenore Blum and Project Olympus are trying to avoid by building stronger connections between local academic labs and local business.

I thought it would be worthwhile to repost part of my reply here:

[T]he root cause is the same as it has been for all the economic questions in Pittsburgh: Jobs. If you have a good job (and live in the right neighborhood, and you don’t have to ride public transportation or go through too many tunnels) Pittsburgh can be a nice place to live. But if you can’t find a job, why stick around?

I don’t think I really knew how I felt until the moment when I knew for sure I’d be leaving. That moment came during the week in March when I scheduled on-site interviews with three major west coast tech companies and I still did not have anything in-process with any Pittsburgh company. Once I knew for sure that I was leaving, I started to feel that my only regrets would be leaving my friends and family here, not leaving the city itself. Then late May rolled around and the flowers started blooming, and I thought that maybe there were some things I’d miss. Then my wife reminded me that I found a great job in Seattle and I was S.O.L. in Pittsburgh, and I realized that there are flowers everywhere.

Incidentally, the one Burgh tech company that did contact me got back to me more than two months after I first inquired with them. Most of the Pittsburgh companies I applied to didn’t even bother to acknowledge that they had received my resumé. With Amazon.com, the total elapsed time between my first contact and an offer on paper was 29 days. Are there any good engineers left by the time the Pittsburgh companies get around to talking to them?

On top of this, I admit that there were things about living in Pittsburgh that bothered me, but the details of those annoyances are irrelevant. The point is that from my subjective perspective there’s good reason to be sour on the Burgh — it didn’t work for me.

Viewed objectively, however, my move is a perfectly normal, natural event. I looked for a job — focusing my search on cities that seemed like places where I would enjoy living — I found a job in one of those cities, and I moved with few regrets. This is how we do things in America, right? We move. My dad was born in Louisiana, my mom in Italy. Now they’re Pittsburghers and they like it there. My brother lives in New York, my sister in Dallas. My wife grew up in Ohio. My daughter was born in Austin. That people leave Pittsburgh is not strange. What’s strange is that we’re expected to retain a strong identity as Pittsburghers, instead of adopting full identities as New Yorkers, Texans, Seattleites, or whatever. It’s a weird, unrealistic expectation. The Pittsburgh emigrants I’ve met identify as belonging with their new homes, just like anyone else would. It’s a mistake to read Steeler fandom as a longing for home.

When thinking about economic development, I think that Pittsburgh itself could benefit from forgetting its identity for a while. Instead of treating everything as a unique Pittsburgh problem requiring a unique Pittsburgh solution, maybe it’s time to recognize that the small cities struggling to compete for jobs and capital largely face similar problems that admit similar solutions. It seems like a distraction to constantly focus on the “Pittsburghness” of the problems. The answer to emigration is immigration, whether in Pittsburgh or anywhere else. The way to spur immigration is through job creation. The way to create jobs is by creating an attractive climate for business. The policy instruments available for doing that are mostly the same everywhere (e.g. tax policy).

Despite my personal issues with it, there’s no denying that Pittsburgh has a great deal of innate charm. A big influx of capital and people with high expectations could transform it into the city that it likes to see itself as becoming. But I’m not getting any younger, and I can’t wait around for that to happen.

My favorite Obama quote

The thing I think people should feel confident in is that I’m going to make these judgments not based on some fierce ideological pre-disposition but based on what makes sense. I’m a big believer in evidence. I’m a big believer in fact. You know, if somebody shows me we can do something better through a market mechanism, I’m happy to do it.

–Barack Obama in a Wall St. Journal Interview [Seen in The Stump]

It’s been a long time since I heard any politician talking about making decisions based on data and evidence.  Amazon.com’s reputation for data-driven decision making is one of the things that attracted me to them.

Seeking good Seattle blogs

After four days at the new job I’m starting to almost have the time and energy to read a few blogs at home after dinner. I’ve been reading some Seattle blogs since I accepted the offer with Amazon back in the beginning of May, including Citizen Rain, Seattlest, Seattle Metblogs, and Seattle Transit Blog. These have done a decent job of introducing me to some of the blogging world of Seattle, but they all seem to emphasize breadth over depth. So far I haven’t found anything with the thoughtfulness or good writing of Pittsblog. I prefer a small number of posts that provoke me to think rather than 10 posts a day about severed feet washing up on BC shores.

I’d love to hear some ideas.

Random things to love about Seattle

We’ve only been in Seattle for a few days, but so far my impressions have been almost entirely positive. Here are a bunch of random things I love so far:

  • Mt. Rainier in the evening sunlight.
  • I’ve seen more Priuses and Smart Cars here in five days than I’ve seen in Pittsburgh in the last two years (anywhere, ever, really).
  • HOV lanes on every freeway.
  • Marymoor Park.
  • Average people who use the internet, and assume that you do to.
  • The mountains and the sea, together
  • Chowder at Ivar’s. (had it today… confirming that I am in fact in Seattle. Keep Clam!)
  • The Space Needle at night.
  • Great coffee everywhere.
  • The nation’s strictest smoking ban passed statewide here in a voter referendum, winning a majority of voters in every county
  • Express buses with WiFi.
  • The transit tunnel.  A subway for busses.
  • Uwajimaya grocery.  Across the street from my office.

Awesome.

Yinz take care

I haven’t been blogging lately, because all my spare energy has been devoted first to job hunting, then getting ready to move, and now moving. I’ve accepted a position the transaction risk management group at Amazon.com, working on automated fraud detection systems. So Laura, Maggie, and I are re-diasporizing to Seattle.

I’m not going to go into a lot of detail of my job search, except to say that from the beginning we were willing to relocate to find the right job. When I was in Austin looking for a job, we had already decided that we’d go wherever the work was. That hasn’t changed. That said, I did apply for several positions in Pittsburgh. The median response was radio silence. Fairly late in the process I did get a response from one well-known tech company. At that point I already had the Amazon offer and the position they were trying to fill was not quite the right fit for me.

Although we’re sad about leaving family and friends here (again) we’re super excited about both Seattle and Amazon. Laura has already had one job interview there, too.

The move is really two big changes for me: leaving academia, which would require a whole blog post on its own, and leaving Pittsburgh, about which my feelings are actually not all that mixed. As the kids used to say when I was in high school: it’s been real; it’s been fun; but it hasn’t been real fun. In the two years since moving back here from Austin, I’ve had a strong feeling of “how you gonna keep ’em down on the farm after they’ve seen paree?” Leaving for the second time, I definitely don’t fit the stereotype of the Pittsburgh diasporan who would move back if only I could find a job. But frankly, I think that stereotype is mostly a local myth. I have met many diasporans who are happy where they are, and none who long to be back.

As for me, Seattle is the city I’ve spent the most time in, after Pittsburgh and Austin, and I’m excited to be going there. I know it’s no utiopia: it has a high cost of living, and there’s the Seattle Freeze to worry about. On the other hand, it’s a beautiful wired city full of geeks and book lovers. What’s not to love?

Update: This post has gotten a tiny bit of traction in the blogosphere.  I’ve posted some more thoughts here.