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Photo Illustration by Monica Nickelsburg, GeekWire, original photo by Dan Hershman, via Flickr.
Photo Illustration by Monica Nickelsburg, GeekWire; original photo by Dan Hershman, via Flickr.

This probably shouldn’t come as a surprise, but Apple is being extremely secretive about its new Seattle engineering center. The company has confirmed the existence of the office, first reported by GeekWire yesterday morning, but it’s declining to give any details such as the exact location or the type of engineering that will take place there.

PREVIOUSLY ON GEEKWIRE: Apple hiring for mysterious engineering office in Seattle

That’s OK, because there are clues all over the place. And it’s clear that the cloud is playing a big part.

“We are looking for talented multidisciplinary engineers to design and develop the core infrastructure services and environments driving every online customer experience at Apple ranging from iCloud to iTunes,” says Apple in a job description for the new Seattle office. “Successful candidates will solve distributed systems and performance challenges with hands-on competency in a variety of tools, languages, and algorithms.”

Cloud expertise in demand

Adding to the evidence, the open positions aren’t for engineers experienced in Objective-C or Swift, Apple’s application programming languages. Instead, Apple is seeking engineers who know C/C++, Java, or Python, and are familiar with key cloud computing and network technologies such as Kubernetes and Paxos.

In addition, several of the new employees in the Apple office are from Union Bay Networks, a cloud networking startup that was headquartered in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood. The company, founded by veterans of F5 Networks, was focused on “delivering solutions that will enable the next generation of networking for cloud computing and software defined datacenters.”

Apple CEO Tim Cook. (Photo: Apple)
Apple CEO Tim Cook. (Photo: Apple)

It appears as if Apple purchased Union Bay, but Apple is staying pretty mum on those details, saying only that it “buys smaller technology companies from time to time, and we generally do not discuss our purpose or plans.” Tom Hull of Union Bay declined to comment when we stopped by the Union Bay office yesterday to ask about whether the company was acquired.

In contrast with Apple’s runaway hits with the iPhone and iPad, cloud services have been a struggle for the company at times, and the Seattle office signals a new push by the company to step up its game under CEO Tim Cook.

The Seattle region has emerged as a major cloud computing hub thanks to Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure and a wide range of startups focused on cloud infrastructure and services. Much of Google’s cloud infrastructure work happens out of its Seattle-area offices.

In the short run, the new Apple office could intensify the competition for top engineers, but long-term it promises to add to the region’s status as a cloud center.

Influx of tech giants

Apple is the latest in a long list of tech giants from Silicon Valley and elsewhere who have established engineering outposts in the Seattle region. That list includes Google, Facebook, Oracle, HP, and many others, most recently Alibaba.

WTIA President Michael Schutzler
WTIA CEO Michael Schutzler

Why Seattle? Michael Schutzler, CEO of the Washington Technology Industry Association, said via email this morning that motivations are consistent, based on his conversations with many of the companies. He listed these four common motivations.

1) The employee base in Seattle is more loyal than in the Valley.

2) Our societal norms are more collaborative than competitive — making workgroups based here more productive.

3) Our labor pool is unique in the high density of seasoned expertise in hard to find talent: online gaming, mobile systems and apps dev, cloud infrastructure and apps dev, biotech, media streaming, predictive analytics, RFID, etc.

4) The cost of doing business is competitive with other tech centric regions when you look at labor, taxes, real estate, benefits, etc.

Ultimately, there can be a positive effect on the startup scene with this influx of outside companies, said Greg Gottesman of Madrona Venture Group, in a recent GeekWire story.

“During this time period, the Pacific Northwest has had an incredible influx of engineers, some to startups and many to bolster the engineering offices of companies that aren’t headquartered here like Google and Facebook,” said Gottesman. “If you believe as I do that top technical talent is the lifeblood of successful startups, I think the trends are very favorable for our region over the next decade.”

(Madrona was an investor in Union Bay Networks but declined to comment when asked if Apple acquired the startup.)

Ed Lazowska
Ed Lazowska

University of Washington computer science professor Ed Lazowska said Apple’s move makes sense given the large number of software developers in the Seattle region, and the region’s status as the “cloud capital of the world.”

Apart from Amazon, Microsoft and Google, the region boasts cloud-related companies including F5, EMC/Isilon, and big data analytics companies such as Tableau, INRIX and GraphLab. Other cloud-related companies have also set up shop here to mine the region’s talent, most recently Nutanix but also Salesforce and the Climate Corp.

He noted that Google’s office in the Seattle region also started relatively small, with a handful of engineers in 2004. Fast-forward a decade, and Google reported 1,400 employees in the region as of last September, and it’s set to grow significantly by doubling the size of its engineering center in Kirkland.

“Let’s hope Apple follows Google’s trajectory in Seattle!” Lazowska said.

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