Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Tech V!BE and Google Diaspora

On Tuesday of last week, techV!BE radio (Pittsburgh Renaissance Radio on 1360 AM) interviewed me about my blog:

It's "TECHVIBE" on Pittsburgh Renaissance Radio, as Jonathan Kersting and Audrey Russo from the Pittsburgh Technology Council serve as hosts. Here, they interview Jim Russell about some innovative ideas designed to bring tech companies to Pittsburgh.

We didn't get around to discussing how to attract tech companies to the Burgh because of my tendency to fall back on my experience of giving a college lecture. What few questions I did manage to answer got me to thinking how ambitious my blog has become. Jonathan and Audrey gave me a number of opportunities to deliver an effective elevator pitch, but I kept dancing around the primary mission.

This month's techV!BE newsletter kindly plugs my blog, using my riddle as the bait to get the browser to click the link:

If a regional initiative is your answer, Jim Russell has a riddle: Since education makes a person more likely to leave your region, how do you justify your investment in human capital?

I started this blog to address the concern with Pittsburgh brain drain. The first year was a journey of discovery, figuring out that the lamented exodus wasn't quite the problem that it used to be. I still view the Burgh Diaspora as a regional economic asset, but I've come to a more radical conclusion concerning talent management and economic growth.

Pittsburgh should help its people relocate, leave the region. Too many people are staying and not enough newcomers are arriving. But the region cannot purposefully facilitate out-migration without a well developed diaspora network. That network is what I would use to sell people (and tech companies) on moving to Pittsburgh. That network is Pittsburgh's unique value proposition.

A metaphor and model for this approach is the aptly named "Google Diaspora" (hat tip to Donald Bonk):

Merus Capital, as it happens, is itself a new Google product. Or, to be more specific, Merus Capital is the product of a new Google phenomenon. Call it the Google exodus, the Google diaspora, whatever--in almost any given week, blogs and business sections perk up with news that key figures at Google are leaving. It happened last October, the day word leaked about Salman Ullah: ANOTHER DAY, ANOTHER KEY GOOGLER DEPARTS, read the headline on VentureBeat. Ullah and Dempsey, who resigned at the same time, ran Google's corporate-development group. This meant they were in charge of buying and assimilating new companies, spending billions on YouTube and DoubleClick, among others. They also witnessed some of the initial stirrings of restlessness, the trickle of defections and departures that seemed to them a harbinger of the future. Since the late nineties, when they worked together at the top of Microsoft's corporate-development office, they'd considered becoming venture capitalists. But the timing had never seemed right. By the middle of 2007, about three years after having joined Google, the timing seemed urgent. They became convinced that their departing Google colleagues were going to dream up some truly special projects, and they wanted in. So, along with Peter Hsing, who had previously worked with them at Microsoft and was currently that company's managing director of corporate strategy, they abandoned some of the best corporate jobs in the world in order to go into business for themselves.

Merus Capital, both a product of the Google diaspora and an exploiter of it, has become an important node in the increasingly complex web ex-Googlers are weaving around Silicon Valley. The firm's first entrepreneur in residence, and the first beneficiary of Merus funds, was Gokul Rajaram, perhaps the highest profile recent Google departure, a man whom Fortune magazine identified as "one of the godfathers of AdSense" for his role in creating the targeted advertising service that is one of Google's prime revenue sources. Rajaram's start-up, Chai Labs, which is still in stealth mode, was incubated at Merus. In just the past couple years, ex-Googlers like Rajaram and Ullah and Dempsey have started about two dozen new companies and invested tens of millions of dollars in other start-ups. As you would expect, this new breed of Google graduates has already come up with a cute and clever name to describe themselves. They, the ex-Googlers, are Xooglers.

What might nEXtBurghers look like? The gaming industry is a good place to start:

"Just like everything else, universities are about following the money," said Jessie Schell, who teaches game design at Carnegie Mellon University's Entertainment Technology Center in Pittsburgh.

Colleges really began to take notice about six years ago, when the game industry's sales started to rival movie box-office receipts, Schell said. Since then, he said, there's been a "great boom" in the number of programs cropping up to train future developers. ...

... "It's mind-bending technology, combined with clever game design, combined with glorious artwork, combined with beautiful audio," Schell said. "There's no one person on the team who can do it all. We think of it like team inventing."

Hot academic area

The surge in interest has led schools to add games to their menu — but not always to the benefit of their students. Recruiters say they often see "mills" that run around-the-clock sessions to churn out as many students as possible. Other programs teach specific skills but not how games are pulled together.

"It's a very hot academic growth area," said Colleen McCreary, who runs Electronic Arts' university relations program. "I'm very worried about the number of community colleges and for-profit institutions, as well as four-year programs, that are using game design as a lure for students who are not going to be prepared for the real, entry-level positions that the game industry wants."

About one-third of Carnegie Mellon's graduates go directly to work at EA, said Cindy Nicola, the company's vice president of talent acquisition. The Redwood City, Calif., company soaks up close to 300 graduates each year from various universities.

The traditional (industrial era) model of talent management would view the leakage of CMU graduates to a California company as a problem to be solved. However, EA employees are gaining valuable experience and represent the next generation of entrepreneurs. After a few years in Redwood City, the talent would be much more valuable to Pittsburgh. Graduates would be much more likely to return to the region if Pittsburgh would be willing to help them go wherever they need to go to succeed and follow up by staying in touch, making them part of the diaspora network.

This network can also help existing Pittsburgh-based company find the talent they need in order to grow. The economic niche of virtual technologies could benefit from the skills game programmers posses. Populating the industry with Pittsburgh-connected people is akin to the Google Diaspora phenomenon, turning brain drain into a driver of economic growth.


audrey said...

Jim --

While the interview on TechV!be was brief, we are counting on you to be a regular contributor and voice of expertise as we continuously debunk the myths which drive economic development policies and practices.

Jim Russell said...


I'm looking forward to another interview opportunity with TechV!BE.