Hacking Pittsburgh

Mark Stroup's thoughtful and sympathetic take on the Jim Morris piece on computer science, computer programming is here. Mark adds a metaphysical gloss that I quite like.

Amos, though, is still skeptical. His comment, in part, is "amused irony. A blog optimistic about PIT, quotes a CMU prof who really works mostly in CA. Does Stanford have an "east" campus in PIT? Does MIT have a "mid-west" campus here? No? Why? Because they do not have trouble attracting talent because people want to live in BOS, and SJC."

Again, with all due respect (since Amos knows the territory), I don't quite agree.

We can't treat Pittsburgh as a wanna-be Mountain View or Cambridge. The concentration of higher ed and capital is far greater in those communities than it is here, and that concentration is (to borrow a social science term) persistent. There's been a lot of VC money around MIT and Stanford for a long time. Pittsburgh and CMU have a long way to go in that department, and frankly I doubt that they will ever catch up. Pittsburgh will never be a Silicon Valley or a Route 128.

So, to start with, why would Stanford or MIT ever think of opening a branch campus here? CMU, which has to play catch up, is doing the right thing: going where the money and the talent is, and giving its educational mission a properly international dimension. There's nothing wrong with that. In fact, that's a good thing. What will come of it, CMU hopes (I assume), is an international educational network with a strong CS and engineering dimension, and its hub in Pittsburgh. If that's the goal, then it makes perfect sense for Dean Morris -- located in California though he may be -- to be preaching about CS education to a Pittsburgh audience. Because he's not speaking just to Pittsburghers; he's speaking (explicitly) about CMU's evolving international role and (implicitly) about Pittsburgh's role in that context.

The idea that Boston or San Jose (San Jose!!) is a more desirable place to live than Pittsburgh, and that this is why Pittsburgh has a hard time attracing tech types, is a gross oversimplification. People live where they live for a lot of reasons, only some of which have to do with the inherent attractiveness of a given city or region. I grew up in the Bay Area and spent a lot of time in the Valley (both before and after it became the *Silicon* Valley), and I lived in Boston before I moved to Pittsburgh. The Valley is a great place if (i) you can afford it (many, many people can't) or (ii) if you don't have school-age kids. Don't forget: the ground shakes, violently and unpredictably (been there, done that); the hills occasionally burst into flames (ditto); and you never know when you'll get a notice that your house sits on top of a toxic plume (didn't happen to me, thankfully). I was happy to leave California seven years ago and have no desire to move back -- though professionally, nothing would be easier. Boston is a charming area, a little less expensive than the Valley, and with more towns with good public schools. But aside from the (considerable) appeal of New England, the Boston-area tech economy isn't exactly humming along at the same pace as the Valley economy (even today, when the Valley economy is still sputtering). Route 128 has never been as vibrant as the Valley (read Annalee Saxenian's book Regional Advantage for an explanation).

In other words, the Valley and (maybe) Boston are better places for 20-something geek hotshots and for people who are coders-for-life. They're good places for people who built roots before the real estate tax system got screwed up and for people who caught the Internet bubble in a good way. For the types of people that Pittsburgh needs to attract the most -- mid-level managers who want to grow small companies (that is, people 30 and up, often with kids) -- for cost and quality of life, Pittsburgh has almost any other region in the country beat hands down. If they'd prefer to live in the Valley (not San Jose -- I've spent a lot of time in San Jose -- no one aspires to live in San Jose), or in Boston, it isn't because those are nicer places to live. It's because there are more management level jobs; if you're out the door at one place today, you can find work across the street tomorrow. At least, this is how it used to work; things aren't quite so easy today. But the basic premise -- Pittsburgh can't compete right now in job depth for people who are more than programmers -- is still true.

Jim Morris doesn't come right out and say the same thing, but I think that it's there between the lines of his op-ed: you can't grow a regional (or national) tech economy by treating CS as vocational education. If you want to reach for the next level, you have to pair CS with a liberal education.


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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at]gmail.com. Mike also blogs at Madisonian.net, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

All opinions expressed at Pittsblog 2.0 are those of their respective authors and of no one (and no thing) else, least of all the University of Pittsburgh.

Pittsblog 2.0 has a motto: "It's steel good in Pittsburgh." Say it aloud, with a Pittsburgh accent.

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