Bellevue, WA: Just like back home, only not really.

In moving to Seattle Laura and I put a lot of effort into finding a great place to live.   We wanted a place that was suitable for living with a small child and an active dog — I.e. a house with a yard, in an area with good schools, but with a short commute to my office in downtown Seattle.  Luckily, we were spared the choice of buying vs. renting, because sale prices for single family homes in much of the Seattle area are preposterously high, but rents are still (barely) within reach for us.   We also had the advantage of some time to shop around thanks to a month of temporary housing in my Amazon.com relocation package.  We ended up in Bellevue, WA.  More about it below the jump… Read the rest of this entry »

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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.

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.

Helping the Stars Align for Entrepreneurs

In my recent posts about the role of big companies in developing a local start-up economy I said:

People often ask why Pittsburgh, with it’s great universities, isn’t seeding more startups. Maybe it’s because an essential missing component is a large pool of large tech companies to employ university engineers and scientists after graduation, until the stars align properly for them to start their own ventures. [emphasis added]

So what does it mean for the stars to align properly? I would say it means that it requires a confluence of several things, including, but not necessarily limited to:

    1. A good idea. (Though this may not be as important as it’s often made out to be.)
    2. The coming together of set of potential co-founders with complementary skills and highly compatible personalities. (It seems that few tech startups start out as solo operations.)
    3. One or more of the founders having the freedom to work on the project full time.

      I’d like to focus on point 3. The stereotype of a tech startup founder is a 20-something dude who is essentially the equivalent of a graduate student. Either an actual grad-school dropout (see Google) or someone who is in essentially the same position: young, single, no kids, no mortgage. Essentially, someone who is already inured to poverty by virtue of having recently been a student, and who is in a position to work long hours for almost no money in return for the chance at a big payoff sometime in the future that has a low probability of actually occurring. (see? like a grad student!)

      This stereotype exists primarily out of necessity. Start-ups usually run on a shoestring at the beginning, and a certain amount of work has to be done essentially for free. Even when seed money is available, it’s usually not much. InnovationWorks’ AlphaLab provides $25k for six months, plus free office space and support. Y combinator provides $5k per founder + $5k. None of these places provide health insurance, of course. The combination of low initial funding and lack of health insurance makes starting such a company much more difficult anyone with kids, or a mortgage or other debt burden (possibly including heavy student loans?). The economics of start-ups biases the start-up world strongly against people in their 30’s and 40’s.

      Some will say that this is all as it should be. Young people, after all, are in the best position to accept risk. There’s no reason, however, that conditions 1 & 2 above should apply only to young people. People of all ages can have good ideas, and people who’ve been working for a while are maybe more likely to have built a good network in which they can find a good set of co-founders. So if a city or region like Pittsburgh wants to encourage entrepreneurship, a good place to start is point 3 above, i.e. to work on arranging the local economy to give people the opportunity to step into entrepreneurship. Below are some suggested ways to start. Some of these probably require local or state government involvement, others might be addressed by some of the local groups trying to help support local entrepreneurship.

      • Attract and keep large tech companies that can provide high-paying jobs to potential tech entrepreneurs. A strong tech economy will allow smart people to build up the personal capital needed to make the jump to self-employment, and will also provide a soft place for them to land for those whose ventures fail.
      • Pump up the local job market generally, allowing the spouses/partners of potential entrepreneurs to get full-time jobs with health insurance.
      • Work to keep the cost-of-living down. Economic forces put this point somewhat at odds with the previous two points, but Pittsburgh already has a leg up, here.
      • Create and promote an reasonably priced, high quality group health plan for the self-employed. Pennsylvania CHIP covers all kids, and COBRA can cover adults for a few months after they make the leap, but a well advertised comprehensive group plan would be better. If UPMC wanted to contribute to the local economy, this is one place where they could start. Alternatively, the plethora of local tech-help nonprofits could band together to create one.
      • Create a culture that lauds and praises the risk-taking entrepreneur. This one is admittedly harder. It’s easy to lament the difficulty of changing Pittsburgh’s stodgy culture. Still, I think there’s room for innovative approaches here. Some kind of well-publicized prizes, or at least press features on local entrepreneurship figures? Pop City‘s Pop Star series attempts something like this. The Pop Stars are not all tech entrepreneurs, however, and in any case, Pop City’s uncritical coverage of everything borders on obsequiousness, diminishing the strength of their endorsements. Another idea: maybe one of the local philanthropic groups should spend some of their money to hire a top-quality national PR firm, and charge them to make national celebrities out of a few local tech entrepreneurs.

      That final bullet doesn’t materially do anything to help potential start-up founders find the freedom to make the leap, but it may give them the moral support and encouragement they need to find their own solutions, or to lower their own internal requirements for how much support they believe is necessary. I’d love to hear other suggestions.

      Somethin’ Happenin: AlphaLab!

      If you were looking for something to get excited about in the Pittsburgh start-up economy, here’s someting for you. InnovationWorks has just launched their new software/internet/games start-up incubator, AlphaLab.

      Have an idea for a software or internet product that you think you could launch in six months with a little investment and hard work? Submit an application. According to their FAQ, the six funded projects will get:

      • $25,000 investment to develop initial versions of your product.
      • On-site staff resources guiding you on product strategy and development including market definition, market analysis, and user experience testing.
      • Access to advisors, mentors, and industry experts.
      • Free office space to develop your product in a collaborative environment with fellow entrepreneurs and technologists.
      • Access to the AlphaLab user community to provide valuable feedback regarding your product designs and usability.
      • Access to AlphaLab educational programs for practical advice on building your team, securing investment, market entry strategies, and other critcal topics.
      • Participation in AlphaLab networking events to introduce you to other technology entrepreneurs in Southwestern Pennsylvania.
      • A vibrant environment to launch your company and entrepreneurial career.

      AlphaLab seems to be modeled on Paul Graham’s Y-Combinator, though AlphaLab seems to give slightly more start-up money, and provides office space (on the South Side) for the companies to work in. And unlike some other tech startup investors, AlphaLab won’t take control of your intellectual property.

      It’s a super idea, and I can’t wait to see the companies that come out of it.

      Pittsburgh’s R&D Future, and Present

      Over at Pittsburgh’s Future, Harold Miller has picked up the theme of large companies and spinoffs, with his post, One of the Hidden Strengths of the Pittsburgh Region, on the large number of corporate R&D jobs in Pittsburgh. 7000 R&D jobs in Pittsburgh? Who knew?

      Harold also points out that many/most of these jobs are in materials sciences, and yet most talk about a building a Pittsburgh start-up economy focuses on bio, health care, computer science, and robotics. It seems like there should be at least some possible synergy or crossover between these areas, especially CS/robotics and materials sciences. Maybe their communities are just so disjoint that neither knows how the other can contribute.

      Somethin’ Happenin’ Here…

      Between my last few posts here and recent comments elsewhere, I’ve probably given the impression that I’m bearish on Pittsburgh, at least as far as the tech/start-up economy goes. Not so. While it’s sometimes hard for me to keep my mood up in the winter, this has actually been a bullish week for me, Burgh-wise.

      Among the things that lifted my mood this week was lunch today with Matt Harbaugh from InnovationWorks. Before today I had lumped IW in with the slew of public/non-profit/consortium/partnership groups around here that purport to help the tech economy. And frankly, it was never very clear to me what any of them did, or whether anyone in the local tech industry would care if they just disappeared.

      After talking with Matt, however, a couple of things became much more clear: (1) there is a burgeoning start-up scene here, and (2) a lot of it is in the IW portfolio. (Though by no means all of it!) I don’t think the scene reached the perpetual-motion-machine stage yet, but that just means you gotta keep pedaling. Just knowing that there are people out there taking real, concrete action to move things the right way is a great thing. Talk is cheap, especially in the blogosphere. Action, baby. That’s where it’s at. I expect exciting things from IW.