September 18th, 2013
Does Mozilla’s Portland office point the way for a new kind of tech migration?
The conference rooms at Mozilla’s new Portland office are named after local breweries. As I walk through the space, shortly after its opening in late July, I walk past rooms called Deschutes, Blitz-Weinhard and Captured by Porches, before reaching Hair of the Dog.
My guide is Dietrich Ayala, a Firefox OS project manager, who reaches up to tap an iPad mounted next to the door, reserving the room for the next half hour. He smiles when I ask about the names.
“Yeah, we had a lot of different ideas for what to call them,” he says. “We talked about doing Portland neighborhoods for a while, but…breweries just seemed to make sense to more people.” It’s a nice touch for the space, three floors up in the Pearl District’s Brewery Blocks, which is already buzzing with quiet activity despite its newness. It’s also a good indicator of the overall office vibe: a little irreverent, thoughtfully organized, and obviously fond of the city where it’s located.
This fondness comes, in part, from a special compatibility between company and city: Mozilla’s non-profit, open source culture is practically made for Portland, and Ayala mentions that it already boasts a large community of Mozilla volunteers. It goes further though. Unlike most of the regional offices that big tech names have opened in the city lately, this one wasn’t the result of an acquisition or a strategic relocation, but a way of accommodating the 26 Mozilla employees who already live here. It’s a different approach to tech expansion in the city, and if it works, it could prove out an entirely new model for building Portland’s tech scene.
Starting with IBM’s purchase of Sequent in 1999, the city has seen a pattern of outside companies coming to town to buy much needed expertise. Google’s acquisition of Instantiations in 2010 is one well-known example; Walmart Labs’ purchase of mobile app gurus Small Society is a more recent one.
In Mozilla’s case, though, the expertise was already in house. The company has always supported a scattered workforce, a fact emphasized by the two multi-city Skype conversations Ayala and I pass while strolling to the conference room. That workforce could theoretically live anywhere there’s good WiFi, but a lot of them end up clustering together, some in cities—like Toronto, Taipei and San Francisco—where the company maintains offices, and others in cities—like Brooklyn, Chicago and Seattle—where it doesn’t. Mozilla accommodates that second category by shelling out for shared workspace, which is just what it did in Portland until recently. “Over the past six years I’ve worked in just about every tech-focused co-working space in the city,” Ayala explains, rattling off a list that includes NedSpace, Collective Agency and several others.
The decision to go from temporary to permanent office space has as much to do with Portland’s future prospects as with its current popularity among Mozillans. Caitlin Galimidi, a senior program manager who relocated from San Francisco just as the new office was opening, confirms that Mozilla’s Portland population has nearly doubled since the idea of a permanent office was first floated, less than three years ago.
“To me, it’s a natural fit,” she explains, “and then it kind of spoke for itself that people started to trickle up here on their own.”
That trickle is often the result of a sort of tech-specific chain migration, in which workers are enticed by what they hear from team members already living here, or perhaps by impressions they get when coming to town for meetings.
“We’re already getting requests from people all over the place,” says Ayala, “asking ‘When can we come visit the Portland office?’”
When I ask if it’s company policy to open an office anywhere there’s a critical mass of employees—what if 30 Mozillans suddenly moved to Des Moines? Ayala and Galimidi both shake their heads, and refer to Portland’s other, less tangible advantages.
For Galimidi, the reasons for moving are largely personal, including friends and family in the area, but the Bay Area’s high cost of living comes up several times in our discussion—not just as a quality-of-life issue, but a cultural and creative one as well.
“Culturally, San Francisco and the Bay Area are changing really dramatically,” she says, “The environment is dominated by money, without variance.” More than just making it possible to buy a home, she argues that Portland’s relative affordability provides a culture of openness and experimentation that has mostly disappeared from the city she’s called home for the past decade.
Jennifer Fong, a Firefox web app developer from Toronto, also picked Portland as her new home recently, over several other cities where Mozilla already maintains offices, including Vancouver, BC. And more moves like Fong’s are in the works—the office has plans to grow from a current population of 26 employees to 40 or more in the next year, with a combination of new hires and migration from other cities.
Galimidi and Fong may not represent the tech community as a whole, but their reasons, and the obvious pull of the new office, expose a crack in the prevailing wisdom about what draws talent. For years we’ve heard that young, smart, hungry developers and designers will always follow the money and the interesting projects, and that Seattle and the Bay Area have high concentrations of both. The money, of course, is still there—Oregon tech firms still draw just one-thirtieth the VC investment that California’s do, and one third of Washington’s.
But increasingly, even Bay Area companies are using non-monetary benefits to entice workers, placing more emphasis on work-life balance, and doing their best to counteract the downsides of living in one of North America’s most expensive regions. Many Silicon Valley companies now offer free shuttles to defuse the frustrations of commuting, housecleaning service to protect precious free time, and group hikes to build camaraderie. For many younger workers, the combination of perks, intensity and opportunity is still too good to pass up. For others, especially more experienced professionals like Galimidi, who’s been managing web and technology implementation for over 15 years, the math has shifted.
“A good developer can get hired anywhere they want right now,” she says, echoing a common refrain among recruiters. For those with the right skills, going where the jobs are isn’t the imperative it once was. And as more tech workers start valuing culture and quality of life over paychecks and proximity to the Googleplex, Portland faces a unique opportunity: to be a refuge from the money maelstrom, while still supporting a robust culture of innovation. “People work just as hard here, and they deliver just as well, but there’s a different pace of work and play,” observes Galimidi.
“I’ve always thought of Portland as the DIY place,” she adds, “the place where, either for necessity or for creativity or for both, you get shit done.”
That may be what ultimately clinched the deal for Mozilla—a sense that Portland is a city where people do interesting things for the right reasons, in the tech community and beyond. It’s a quality that’s mentioned frequently in blog posts, at meetups and hackathons, in local conferences, and within the walls of startups. What the office on NW Couch shows, though, is that this perception is attracting people and organizations in a substantial way. Mozilla may be an early indicator because of its unique culture, but it’s certainly not the only Bay Area tech company with workers who are looking north.
As the conversation winds down, Galimidi lists off some of the things she’s looking forward to, now that the move has finally happened. She’s eager to dive into the local DIY community, and possibly start a project or two where she gets to work with her hands. Her husband has moved his digital agency to Portland too, so there’s a shared thrill of new opportunity. They’re both avid hikers, faced with a wealth of new trails and the free time to explore them.
“I’m having my first real summer in 16 years!” she exclaims, smiling broadly and pushing a few neat dreadlocks back off her shoulder.
The only real regrets she voices are personal, not professional: she still has plenty of close friends in the Bay Area, and the move forced her to leave a band that she’d been playing with for years. Given time, though, even those could be solved. The local music scene is plenty active, and there’s always the chance that she could start a chain migration of her own. She’s already been peppered with questions about the city, and if the weather is really all that bad. Then, laughing, she adds, “talking with my friends who are house-hunting certainly doesn’t hurt.”
Carl Alviani is a writer, editor and researcher at a design consultancy in Portland, Oregon called Ziba. He has a background in industrial design, education and engineering. Carl has lived and worked in Portland since 2006, and developed an interest in bicycles, beer, urban planning and seasonal produce, as Portlanders tend to.