Beyond Silicon Valley: Tech Talent Hot Spots

At one time, if you wanted a job in tech you headed to Silicon Valley. But that’s no longer the case. Pittsburgh, for example, has emerged as a new hub of AI, robotics, and machine learning. Other cities—such as Charlotte and Portland—are now growing faster than Silicon Valley and becoming important tech hubs. In fields ranging from clean energy to robotics to bioengineering, recent tech grads have their pick of tech hubs across the nation—including some places you might not expect.
In 2018, perhaps no event better symbolized the spread of tech hubs around the nation than Amazon’s much-hyped search for HQ2. As part of a detailed request for proposals, Amazon asked cities around the nation to put in a bid to become the host of the company’s second headquarters. At stake: nearly 50,000 new jobs and up to $5 billion in economic development incentives. All told, 20 cities made the shortlist, with some of them going to elaborate lengths to show just how well suited they were as a tech hub. While cities like Austin were early favorites, the final winner ended up being Arlington, Virginia (located just minutes away from Washington, DC).
To understand just how attractive these new tech hubs are to tech industry leaders, consider the release of Forrester’s report “2018 US Tech Talent Hotspots.” It analyzed all major metropolitan tech hubs around the nation and graded them according to a number of criteria, including size of the existing talent pool and number of tech job opportunities available. Based on those criteria, it was possible to put together a list of 15 cities that are at the forefront of technological innovation in the United States.
According to this report, the list of “elite talent markets” included all the usual suspects (the Bay Area, New York City, Washington, D.C., Seattle, and Atlanta), but where things get interesting is when you start to look through the list of “value talent markets,” which is the list of cities that combine quality talent with affordable costs. Chicago, Minneapolis, Phoenix, Miami, and Pittsburgh all made the cut. And five more cities—Charlotte, Portland, Indianapolis, Oklahoma City, and Jacksonville—made the cut as “high-growth talent markets.”
Pittsburgh, tabbed by Forrester’s researchers as a top “value talent market,” is one of those cities that has been drawing rave reviews for the past few years for its transformation into an innovation powerhouse.
In 2015, Uber opened up a second office in Pittsburgh and made national headlines for scooping up local AI talent in order to research, design, and test the self-driving cars. Now, the city is one of the world’s foremost hubs for AI, robotics, and self-driving cars. Some even refer to Pittsburgh as “Roboburgh.”
As a result, new engineering startups are calling Pittsburgh home—including Argo AI, which is pioneering the use of AI in self-driving vehicles. Bryan Salesky, the company’s CEO, has been an enthusiastic supporter of Pittsburgh as a tech hub.
“I came to Pittsburgh 20 years ago to attend the University of Pittsburgh and fell in love with this place,” Salesky said. “So when we founded Argo AI, we knew our headquarters would be based here, and we’re embracing this new generation of engineers and scientists who are both discovering the city’s energy and fueling it. Retaining this pool of top-notch talent is vitally important as we collaborate with world-class universities to ensure our great ideas and innovations will support our mission to provide affordable mobility for all.”
Not surprisingly, Pittsburgh is steadily attracting millennial workers. The city’s millennial population increased 7 percent from 2011 to 2016, which coincides with the arrival of top tech companies such as Facebook, Amazon, and Yelp. And, yes, Pittsburgh made Amazon’s shortlist of 20 possible HQ2 cities.
In the report, Forrester’s researchers noted that, “Pittsburgh is one of the smallest cities on our list, but it has a habit of punching above its weight.” What they had in mind was the city’s impressive production of computer science graduates (2,100 per year), a growing base of young millennial workers, and a fast-growing app developer community (8,000 and counting).
The city’s strong talent base led to the decision by CleanRobotics, the creator of the first-ever smart trashcan that uses AI and advanced robotics to sort recyclables from landfill waste, to base its operations in Pittsburgh.
According to Tanner Cook, the VP of Engineering and co-founder of the company (and ASME member), one major attraction was the “super encouraging and closely knit entrepreneurial community.” Another, he said, was “lots of opportunity to hire high quality talent from schools like Carnegie Mellon and Pitt.” He also cited the opportunities provided by AlphaLab Gear, a nationally-ranked Pittsburgh-based hardware accelerator, as a key factor that led to the development of his company’s innovative TrashBot.
In addition to startups, organizations hosting national tech events have taken notice of Pittsburgh’s new energy. ASME, for example, recently held its 2018 International Mechanical Engineering Congress and Expo (IMECE) in the city.
So the lesson is clear: While Silicon Valley remains top-of-mind in the popular mainstream (and the only tech hub with its own HBO show), the reality is that the center of gravity for technology and mechanical engineering is shifting to other cities.
The new tech hubs beyond Silicon Valley now include cities like Phoenix, Miami, Pittsburgh, Charlotte, and Portland. And these cities are catching up very quickly to traditional tech hubs, especially in niche areas where a single world-class research institution can help to anchor a thriving tech ecosystem of startups, top companies, and R&D researchers.

Dominic Basulto is a business and technology writer and ASME member development content contributor based in New York, N.Y.
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