Amazon wants to give more University of Washington students a chance to study computer science — and hopes some of them ultimately decide to work at its company, too.
The Seattle-based tech giant on Thursday announced a $10 million donation toward a second building for the UW’s Computer Science & Engineering program, providing a substantial boost to the $110 million fundraising campaign for the building.
Amazon’s donation follows Microsoft’s own $10 million contribution last year. Including those donations and funding from the state, about $86 million has now been committed.
The proposed 130,000-square-foot building on the main University of Washington campus will double the capacity of the program, allowing it to award more than 600 degrees annually, university officials say.
GeekWire stopped by campus on Thursday in Seattle and met with Ed Lazowska, the Bill & Melinda Gates chair in the UW department of Computer Science & Engineering, and David Zapolsky, senior vice president and general counsel at Amazon.
They shed light on what the donation means, and why Amazon decided to invest in the university’s top-ranked computer science program.
Zapolsky noted that Amazon has a long history of supporting the program, which is housed just three miles away from the company’s South Lake Union headquarters. The e-commerce giant previously funded two $1 million endowed professorships in machine learning for star computer scientists Carlos Guestrin and Emily Fox. (Guestrin sold his machine learning startup, Turi, to Apple this summer.) Amazon also launched its Amazon Catalyst program at the UW last fall — working with selected universities to identify and support “bold, risky, globally impactful projects.”
Zapolsky sees the $10 million donation as an extension of that support. He called it a “no-brainer” decision.
“The shame is that they have to turn away so many students who want to get into this profession right now,” he said. “Our hope is that by allowing them to increase capacity, it will be great for the region and allow more access to this great STEM education for inventors of the future.”
Zapolsky, an Amazon employee since 1999, said the investment is not “directly” related to recruiting talent at Amazon, which currently employs more than 1,000 UW graduates. But it’s clearly part of it.
“The more we can hire from UW … if there is twice as much supply, then that’s going to be good for us,” he said. “It’s going to be good for every company that is trying to hire from the UW, and every single one of them is. The UW is one of the top [computer science] programs in the country. The quality of graduates coming out is so high that it’s almost a guaranteed job for anybody who can get into the program. That’s why we have to make the program bigger.”
This is the latest example of Amazon increasing its corporate giving in its hometown, where it is growing rapidly in the South Lake Union neighborhood and the northern edge of downtown Seattle. In years past, the company was criticized for its lack of involvement in philanthropic and charitable activities and organizations in the Seattle region.
Zapolsky said that Amazon has “always had some measure of external engagement,” but as the company has grown to astronomical levels — Amazon employs more than 20,000 in Seattle — its “external engagement we have is much more visible than it used to be.”
“I think it’s less of a philosophical change, and more just people noticing,” he said, pointing out the company’s donation to a homeless shelter this past April and involvement with education-related programs like Girls Who Code and Rainier Scholars.
Lazowska called Amazon’s contribution to the new building a “game-changer in every way for us.” He noted that smaller contributions are extremely important, but said the major commitments from Microsoft and Amazon are “absolutely essential.”
“I’m really hopeful that this is the momentum that will carry us through to the end,” he said of Amazon’s $10 million contribution.
Lazowska also said that support from local tech giants like Amazon and Microsoft to help create more capacity for computer science education at the UW benefits the entire regional tech ecosystem — particularly smaller companies that may not have the ability to recruit around the globe. The funding ultimately helps increase the pipeline of local technology talent the Seattle area, he said.
“I think of this really as an investment in the future of this region that will help the entire tech ecosystem grow,” Lazowska said. “It’s really important for that reason.”
In making the case for the new building, UW officials cite a Washington Student Achievement Council study showing demand for computer science graduates outstripping program capacity more than in any other area — part of a broader talent gap across the tech industry.
This year, Computer Science & Engineering became the leading “first-choice” major among confirmed incoming UW freshmen, surpassing the longtime leading preferred major, Business Administration. The UW says it can currently accommodate just one in three qualified student applicants in the Computer Science & Engineering department.
In the decade since the current UW CSE building opened, the demand for computer science graduates has skyrocketed in the Seattle region, thanks to a strong startup ecosystem, Amazon’s rapid growth, and the opening of Seattle-area engineering offices by Google, Facebook, and many other tech companies based outside the region.
Both Lazowska and Zapolsky lauded the importance of computer science education. Lazowska said computer science is “central to anything students want to do,” and noted how not all students that take computer science classes will work at companies like Amazon or Microsoft. Many will become doctors, lawyers, business leaders, etc., — having a computer science background will be important regardless of what industry someone enters, he said.
“It’s like a 21st century capability that everybody has to have,” Lazowska added.
The new building will be located just across the street from the existing Paul G. Allen Center for Computer Science & Engineering, which opened a decade ago but is currently operating at full capacity.
Given Amazon’s contribution, a 250-seat auditorium will be named the “Amazon Auditorium and Gallery.” The new building is scheduled to break ground in January 2017 and open in 2019.
“Our state’s economy — and the world’s economy — depends on innovation and on innovators. UW graduates with skills in computer science are highly sought after, yet we are turning away excellent students who want to pursue studies in the field because we simply don’t have enough room,” said UW President Ana Mari Cauce, in a news release. “This generous gift from Amazon brings us closer to doubling our capacity and allows us to better meet both student and workplace needs, which will benefit our state and nation.”