The Boston area, where I live, has long been a center for technology companies. While some are long gone -- think DEC, Wang, and Prime Computer -- others started here years ago live on. Think Analog Devices, Analogic, and Teradyne. General Radio started here. Oracle has a large campus. There are also lots of defense electronics here.
Many of the companies that started here began in Cambridge, just over the Charles River from Boston and home to two well-known universities. One is known for technology, the other for just about everything else. The technology companies that started in Cambridge later moved to the suburbs. They needed manufacturing space, and land is either unavailable or too expensive in the city.
Downtown Boston, seen from Cambridge.
A recent Boston Globe article noted that Downtown Boston, usually inhabited by law firms, advertising firms, and insurance companies, is now becoming home to new technology startups. That's also happened in rival New York City. Other cities such as San Francisco are seeing similar things happening.
The Boston Globe article notes that there have recently been more technology companies starting in Boston proper than in Cambridge. The author cites public transportation in the city center as a major reason. The people at these startups tend to be young. They want to live in the city, and few own cars.
There's a significant difference between the startups of years ago and those of today: hardware versus software. Today's tech startups are mostly in the business of developing web apps or mobile apps, as opposed to designing hardware. They don't need manufacturing facilities in the suburbs the way previous generations did. The previous generations developed and built the infrastructure that these supposedly cool apps need, not only to run, but also to transfer their data. Boston has become a database hub. Would you call that technology?
While most of the people working at these startups need only a wireless connection and a laptop, there are exceptions. One such exception is Saleae, a company making logic analyzers in San Francisco. I spoke with founders Mark and Joe Garrison the other day about their products. When I learned they were in San Francisco rather than Silicon Valley, I had to ask about that.
San Francisco is also attracting young engineers.
Mark and Joe explained that their company is located in a corner of San Francisco proper, not downtown. Still, they explained their desire to live and work in the city. "Young engineers want to live in the city now," they said. They admitted that 99% of those engineers were writing software. Many work in large Silicon Valley companies such as Google and Facebook. One result of having so many well-paid, educated workers living in the city is that housing costs have been driven up to astronomical levels.
Here in Boston it seems that engineers -- hardware engineers at least -- live in the suburbs where their jobs are. I often attend IEEE-sponsored meetings of both the EMC Society and the Reliability Society. Reliability meetings are typically held in Lexington, which is on the Route 128 belt. That's the inner loop around Boston. The EMC meetings are held around I-495 -- the outer loop, about twice the distance from Boston as Route 128. The engineers at these IEEE meetings tend to be older, design hardware, and live out there in the suburbs so they can raise their children. When I attend these meetings, I need a good hour to get there, because I live close to Boston proper, within walking distance of the city line.
All of this press about technology startups leads me to ask, "Do you consider these app houses to be real technology companies?" After all, the people at them assume the digital infrastructure works perfectly all the time. Somebody has to keep developing the technologies to keep the bits flowing. While it may not be cool to develop the infrastructure, somebody has to do it. In the end, these cool apps could provide lots of jobs for optical, signal integrity, EMC, and other engineers.