Recently, a New York Times article highlighted working conditions at Seattle-based Amazon, with many current and former employees describing a cutthroat atmosphere, employees crying at their desks, and work overreaching into employees’ personal lives. Another article by CNET reported the growing number of tech startups in the city—several of which were started by former Amazon employees. To add to the mix, Microsoft, Expedia, Boeing, and telecom provider T-Mobile are headquartered in the city, which could mean a race for tech talent in the Seattle area as startups start to pop up.
Why would tech companies trade Silicon Valley for Seattle? While the most obvious reason is the skyrocketing cost of living in Silicon Valley, Seattle is not far behind—ranking second for software engineers, in fact—and the presence of Microsoft since 1980 prompted many tech professionals to move into the area. Another reason tech startups are choosing Seattle? They have a chance to learn from the successes (and mistakes) of their Bay Area and Silicon Valley counterparts. “San Francisco is both a role model and a cautionary tale,” said Rebecca Lovell, an advocate for startups in Seattle.
Not everyone is jumping ship yet, but the intent is there. Avi Cavale founded Shippable after working 11 years at Microsoft. Shippable sells software that streamlines the process of producing software. He used his contacts at Microsoft to get funding, and people are interested in going out on their own. “I get invited to quite a few events about transitioning from large corporations to startups, and I feel like most of these events end up with 80 to 100 people,” Cavale said.
Education is also trying to get a stake in the inevitable talent war that could come across as companies race to acquire the best tech talent. The University of Washington is renting space to entrepreneurs and hosts TechStars, a yearly program that helps startups get going. Program startup manager Nathan Daum envisions a different tech scene than the Bay Area—literally and figuratively. Daum also has a degree in urban planning, and wants to make sure the whole neighborhood can reap the benefits of the rising tech scene, mainly by addressing zoning issues. “That would help in retaining that character and diversity of businesses,” Daum said.
One of the beneficiaries of the Seattle tech boom is current US Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), who worked at RealNetworks, a music download company, and won election in 2000 with some technocratic policies, including advocating for increased Internet access throughout the state. She also reached out to eastern Washington residents, who, compared to their western counterparts, were living in a more rural atmosphere.
Several people have warned that the success of Seattle’s tech scene could also hurt the city. “The biggest problem here is that neither construction companies nor the corporations driving them are being asked to invest in public transit or significantly fund programs that support lower income folks struggling against rising costs. Nor is there any realistic vision or framework for implementing rent control or requiring effective development of affordable housing,” said Jeff Reifman, a tech consultant who worked for eight years at Microsoft, leading the launch of MSNBC.com.
Reifman has also warned that Seattle tech companies could also perpetuate mistakes being made in the tech scene today, which has been criticized as lacking diversity and being outright hostile towards women. “Growth in a city leads to diversity in culture and the arts, but Seattle is becoming more homogeneous, filling with white male technologists as artists, minorities and those with lower incomes are pushed out,” he also wrote.
Seattle’s missing link is the lack of venture capital investors compared to their Silicon Valley counterparts. However, former Amazon employee and Skilljar co-founder Sandi Lin sees that as more of an advantage. Washington’s lower cost of hiring, lack of income tax, higher company loyalty, and more realistic company valuations are among some of the incentives to bring talent to the area. “Trying to win over a prospective engineer can be like a knife fight with other companies,” Lin said about the Silicon Valley hiring scene.
Could Seattle be ground zero for a tech talent war? While many of these startups look to hire the best and stay profitable alongside favorable state laws to attract and retain tech talent, it could be something far different than what Silicon Valley is right now.