Google's growth in city puts Pittsburgh in top tier of regional sites - CTTEC - Carnegie Mellon University

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Google's growth in city puts Pittsburgh in top tier of regional sites

Google's influence can affect everything from a congressional bill to a restaurant decision. So imagine working across the street from a Google office.

"They're all over the place," said Howard Anderson, a business professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass.

He sees representatives of the company, which has a major operation in Cambridge, out there recruiting students and professors, inspiring competitors to compete for real estate and energizing a city ecosystem with talk of spinoffs and acquisitions.

It's a scene that could play out in Pittsburgh as the Mountain View, Calif.-based search company prepares for a summer expansion into a 40,000-square-foot office in Larimer's Bakery Square development.

The expansion elevates the Pittsburgh region to a top tier of satellites that includes Boston, New York City and Waterloo, Ontario, in Canada. Google has said the Pittsburgh site will be comparable in size to its Boston counterpart, but the offices mirror each other in more ways than just a tendency to label themselves the City of Champions.

As in Pittsburgh, the Cambridge site began as a small operation near a major university that soon outgrew its space, turning into a name-brand presence designed to retain bright graduates who might have set their sights on Silicon Valley.

The Google Boston site -- sometimes referred to as Google Cambridge, with its address in Boston's brainy neighbor -- relies on a proximity to MIT. The school is a powerhouse supplier of Google candidates and plays the role that many experts say Carnegie Mellon will take here as graduates jockey to get an interview with one of the country's most distinctive employers.

The Google aesthetic knows no borders: Regional offices are colored in the vibrant hues that mark its signature website and the perks combine fraternity (foosball! free food!) with functional (401(k)s, stock options).

Months after Google announced plans to expand its Boston presence to a 60,000-square-foot space along the Charles River, competitor Microsoft said it would lease 136,000 square feet in a building that shares a subway stop with the Google office.

"One comes and then the other comes," said Mr. Anderson, who as a venture capitalist backed Pittsburgh-based ForeSystems, a tech business later acquired by Marconi.

But Google welcomed the new neighbor, said Steve Vinter, engineering director at Google Boston.

"I'm not worried about losing a candidate to Microsoft," he said. "I'm worried about the three candidates who leave for Silicon Valley."

It's a similar quandary in Pittsburgh -- a 2009 survey of electrical and computer engineering graduates of CMU found that while 49 percent of graduates found work in the Mid-Atlantic region, 24 percent moved to California, Hawaii or Nevada.

As a burgeoning tech presence, Pittsburgh still allows affordable real estate and traffic accessibility, said Mark Muro, a fellow at the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C.

Mr. Muro said the city has reason to be optimistic about the stepped-up Google presence.

"For quite a long time, Pittsburgh will be overwhelmed by the positive benefit of being in this milieu of talent," he said.

About half of the current Google employees in Pittsburgh are graduates of local schools. The company plans to maintain a similar ratio as it expands. Job openings in software engineering and engineering operations are posted at www.google.com/jobs/.

But Google's applicant pool has widened to include students who specialize in subjects such as biology, artificial intelligence and business.

"Students might have looked at Goldman Sachs in the past years, but they now see Google as being first tier," Mr. Muro said.

The search engine operator's name recognition has forced lesser-known firms to revamp their recruiting pitch, said Laura Wilkinson, assistant director of employer relations at MIT's Career Office.

"You've got Google and Microsoft coming in and recruiting," she said. "It made it very difficult for the smaller boutique firms. They started concentrating on how you could climb the ranks more quickly at their firm than at a place like Google."

Google Boston started as a small sales office in 2003, had a stint at the Cambridge Innovation Center in 2007 and expanded to more than 200 employees at its current location. It's a trajectory shared by the Pittsburgh office.

Kamul Nigam was working at a Pittsburgh company called Intelliseek Inc. in 2006 when he got "The Call": Google wanted him to help lead a Pittsburgh office. He would compose 50 percent of the staff. His partner-in-crime, former CMU professor Andrew Moore, is now set to head the Bakery Square office.

The duo moved into CMU's Collaborative Innovation Center in 2006, expanding as Google grew to control 65 percent of the search market. The Boston and Pittsburgh sites currently have about 100 engineers, and though the local office will double in size, Google has not set a quota on the number of employees expected to join the site.

The Pittsburgh site has focused on three areas of work: the Google Product Search, which presents items available for online purchase; work that determines which ads to display based on a search query; and search infrastructure, which handles the computer systems fueling every result page.

The regional hubs have a level of autonomy that displays a "very healthy balance of bottom-up innovation and top-down strategy," said Dr. Nigam.

At the CMU location, Google is a roommate with the Apple Pittsburgh office and the local Intel Research Lab, among others. The space left vacant when Google moves on will be filled by a tech company expected to move in September, said Donald Smith Jr., president of real estate operator RIDC.

The Boston move was treated with the same fanfare seen in Pittsburgh and the ripple effect of Google's move -- things such as new restaurants around the new office -- were immediately seen, said Erin Murphy, a vice president at the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce.

Surrounding businesses are breathless in their enthusiasm for Google, she said, calling the company "wildly successful, wildly innovative" and a "great corporate citizen" who, they hope, could be a "potential co-collaborator."

The Google Boston office hosts events for special interest groups, serves as a tour stop on conference itineraries and dedicates a work week to volunteerism in the community. Google also is getting them young: The Boston office is now running a computer science program for high school freshmen.

Today's tech companies treat brain power as the commodity and internal projects follow a Socratic-circle, coffeehouse model: "Team development that can easily lead to the spin out of new products or new ideas," said Mr. Muro.

When, instead of developing an idea internally, Google buys a company based elsewhere, the search company has been known to let the acquired business stay where it is.

Google bought the CMU startup Recaptcha last year and maintained the smaller company's city office, an anomaly in a year that has seen Pittsburgh companies that have received funding move closer to West Coast investors.

When Google chief executive Eric Schmidt announced in Pittsburgh last November that his company had begun acquiring companies again, many saw the shift as a signal the overall economy was recovering.

But the search engine operator's actions serve as more than an arbiter -- they're an accelerator, said Mr. Anderson.

"When Google makes acquisitions, there is a leverage effect," he said. "Other people say, 'I'm just as bright as that guy. Why don't I start a company?'"

An expanded Google presence here could help prevent the "intellectual erosion" of students leaving after graduation for positions on the West Coast, said Mr. Anderson.

He has words for students who find the postcard-pretty weather of California a better alternative to Boston winters.

"Are you a professional volleyball player?" he asked. If not, then: "Who cares? Go invent something."

Article Courtesy of Pittsburgh Post-Gazette