Palantir Technologies made its official entrance into the Seattle technology community last night with an upscale event in the Pioneer Square neighborhood —courting engineers with a full buffet and open bar, and providing insights into its culture and mission as a big data analytics company.
The company, backed by PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel and funded in part by the CIA’s In-Q-Tel venture capital arm, has a reputation for secrecy. After signing up for the Seattle event through the public registration page, a GeekWire editor was told by a Palantir representative that media wouldn’t be allowed inside. However, several attendees shared photos and details from the event on social media, and we connected afterward with multiple people who were inside to learn the details.
According to information shared at the event, Palantir has hired four employees so far in Seattle, and doesn’t have a specific target for hiring in the new office. In some other cities, Palantir offices have grown quickly to 300 people, but Palantir representatives told attendees that the pace of growth in Seattle will depend on available talent.
The company, based in Palo Alto, Calif., opens some offices based on proximity to customers, such as a New York outpost that’s close to financial companies, and a Washington, D.C., office to serve government clients. But in the case of Seattle, it was the proximity to a deep talent pool.
“We are coming out here because we want to attract you guys,” said John Grant, a Palantir civil liberties engineer, in his opening remarks to the audience at the AXIS event space. “There’s so much talent in the area, and people are really attached to Seattle and want to stick around here.”
The company’s quirky culture and Tolkien-fandom were on full display at the event. Palantir’s name comes from the mystical seeing stones in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and its Palo Alto HQ is affectionately referred to as “the Shire.” Classic Palantir corporate swag like t-shirts, party invites and employee handbooks were on display in glass cases, and they brought in a wide variety of framed press articles written about the company to adorn the walls.
Other employees on stage talked about the excitement of working for the company. “People who are using our products are driving change in the world and that’s super exciting to me,” said Shilpa Balaji, a forward deployed engineer for Palantir, speaking from stage.
The company didn’t give many specifics about the focus of the new Seattle office. The first employee in the office, Mahmoud Abdelsalam, a recruit from Microsoft, is working with a large television network. But they said the office could do work across any vertical — finance, government, healthcare, media, insurance, or others.
In his opening remarks, civil liberties engineer Grant talked about the company’s early days developing technology for the intelligence community, and addressed the funding from In-Q-Tel, assuring the crowd that it’s “all above board.”
Palantir, led by CEO Alex Karp, has reportedly raised about $1 billion in total funding, with additional investors including Founders Fund and Tiger Global Management. Palantir’s latest funding round valued the company at $15 billion, according to a Wall Street Journal report.
GeekWire first reported Palantir’s plans to open a Seattle office in January. The company joins a wave of Silicon Valley tech companies to open Seattle engineering offices, including big names such as Google, Facebook, Dropbox, Twitter, and many others. The trend has intensified the competition for software engineers in the region, and in some cases made it tougher for homegrown startups to recruit and retain talent.
During the Seattle event, Grant told the story of the company’s roots in PayPal, when banks were looking for a “magic algorithm” to detect fraud. PayPal discovered that people are the best tool to glean insights from data, he explained, and Palantir was founded based on that insight.
“Palantir at its core is that basic philosophy,” he said. “You’re empowering a human analyst to find whatever it is you’re looking for.”