Thursday 20 September 2018

Smells like team spirit: how techies may yet thaw their frosty neighbours

Letter from Seattle

Seattle has a fraught relationship with tech giants like Amazon based there
Seattle has a fraught relationship with tech giants like Amazon based there

Tommy Collison

In Seattle, the locals don't like newcomers very much. It was ever thus, from the Yukon gold rushes to its 20th century development as the financial centre of the Pacific Northwest.

But as I sit here, a transplant from Ireland, via New York, I can definitely feel it. Outsiders don't always feel especially welcome.

I've sometimes wondered whether it's related to the influx of young tech workers who are moving here in droves.

When I arrived here [about a year ago] and the movers were dropping off boxes, they had the measure of me fairly quickly.

"Amazon, Microsoft, or Facebook?"

If you're someone who looks like they might spend too much time on a computer, it's not a question of whether you work for a tech company, but which one.

It's not a bad guess. Seattle's population has grown 20pc since 2010, and a lot of that is down to the three companies mentioned above.

But that hostility...

The city is historically so hostile to outsiders, there's even a term for it.

The 'Seattle Freeze' is a phenomenon given to native Washingtonians being polite, but not overly friendly or warm.

This is so ingrained in the culture here that the 'Seattle Times' (the local paper of record) once called it "fundamental to our collective civic character".

But it's not quite so straightforward.

Seattle's dislike of outsiders - and, ironically, tech companies - clashes with Seattle's love of talking about work.

"So what do you do?" is a go-to question from bartenders, taxi drivers, and first dates. To a large extent, your employer defines you. (I'm saved from some of the ire because, despite working in tech, I work for a non-profit organisation. The altruism of the company means I avoid snarky or scathing remarks.)

Friends of mine who work for one of the big tech companies recount a similar sermon they hear from local Seattleites when it becomes clear who they work for.

"Newcomers are ruining Seattle's famously weird vibe."

"You're driving up housing prices."

"You're changing the character of the city."

There's a neighbourhood-based social network here called Nextdoor - open it anywhere in Seattle (it works based on the area you're using it in) and you can read people bellyaching about 'techies' ruining the city.

Sometimes, sentiments reach a more active level. Earlier this year, protesters physically blocked a bus bringing workers to Microsoft, as well as a streetcar full of Amazon employees.

None of this is helped by the fact that tech companies don't all feel warmly toward the city, either.

In May, Seattle passed a tax on large businesses to combat the growing homelessness problem here.

The tax targeted businesses making over $20m in gross revenue. The city authorities clearly had the big tech firms in mind.

But they figured without the massive power that the big tech firms have these days in Seattle.

The 'head tax' caused an absolute uproar. In less than a month, the city council reversed their decision.

Amazon had led the charge against the tax, going as far as to halt construction on a major new project in protest. It was a lesson; mess with Jeff Bezos and other big tech firms at your peril.

Were they right to oppose the tax? Were legislators right in backing down?

Here on the ground, it does look as if some of local citizens' fears are justified. Homelessness and a lack of adequate mental health services are huge problems in the city.

Unquestionably, the tech boom is contributing to this rather than helping it. A glance at the annual rise in rental prices here in recent years would make your hair turn white.

Looked at this way, there is a feeling that Amazon and other tech companies shouldn't be allowed to grow unconstrained.

But how much of this is down to us, the immigrant tech workers? Ask any Amazon or Microsoft employee and they'll tell you that they often feel demonised by those who have lived in the city for decades. They're now regularly blamed for every problem facing the city.

Seattle's distrust of strangers and émigrés is also the ultimate chop of the nose to spite their face.

I work in the general tech ecosystem, so I may be a little partisan. But when it comes to it, local Seattle folks are looking a gift horse in the mouth.

These companies bring jobs and innovations to the cities where they're based. They bring measurable economic growth.

Tech workers tend to be educated, ambitious, and relatively affluent - exactly the sort of people who can boost the local economy. Tech jobs are also multipliers: a recent study found that every one high-tech job creates four others.

(Obviously, this isn't my opening conversation line with cab drivers.)

I'll even go as far as to say that the techies are helping with the dreaded Seattle freeze.

As I mentioned, my non-profit job protects me from the wrath of the locals, and I've spent a lot of time talking to them about how the city has changed in the last few years.

One of the most common things I hear is that the city feels friendlier.

People smile on the street, and actually know their co-workers. If you start up a conversation with a stranger in a café, you're more likely to get a response than a cold look.

What's going on? My hypothesis is that Seattle's local-born population is increasingly becoming a minority. Today, more than half of the city's software developers were born outside the US, let alone outside of Seattle. These newcomers have missed the memo that Seattleites are supposed to be parochial.

Young techies might be changing the character of the city, but I suspect we're making it friendlier.

Indo Business

Business Newsletter

Read the leading stories from the world of Business.

Also in Business