PITTSBURGH — What an incredible experience.
A rotating cast of GeekWire reporters and editors spent the month of February 2018 covering the technology community in Pittsburgh, reporting on this city’s characters, companies, triumphs, challenges, innovations and ideas as part of our temporary GeekWire HQ2 project.
We’ve published more than 80 stories from Pittsburgh over the course of the month, and the experience left a big impression on all of us, leaving us with a fresh perspective and renewed energy for covering our original home as we wind down the HQ2 project this week and return to Seattle.
There are still a few Pittsburgh stories in the hopper, so we aren’t quite done yet, but in this post, those of us who spent time in Pittsburgh reflect on the past month — including our biggest surprises and complaints, favorite stories and experiences, the most interesting people and companies we encountered, the best food we ate, the coolest technology we saw, and more. Continue reading for key takeaways from our one-of-a-kind Pittsburgh adventure.
John Cook, GeekWire co-founder
What surprised you most about Pittsburgh? Many things surprised me — the natural beauty; the friendliness of the people and the openness of the culture. I was also struck by the small city feel — at times it seemed like everyone in the community knew one another or were connected somehow. This creates a powerful dynamic of friendliness and strong cultural bonds. There was a unified sense of place and experience in Pittsburgh, which I feel has been lost in Seattle due to the rapid change of the past five to 10 years.
The Pittsburgh tech community is tight knit. And everyday Pittsburghers understood the new narrative of a once-battered city being reborn through technology and innovation — a narrative that government, education, non-profit and business leaders grasped.
Worst thing about Pittsburgh? (What would you change about Pittsburgh if you could? What frustrated you most?) The tap water, and, really, smoking is still permitted in some bars? Alaska Airlines also can’t start their direct flight between Seattle and Pittsburgh soon enough!
Favorite Pittsburgh story (or stories) you wrote (and why): Bones of the past, capacity for the future: Pittsburgh has room to grow, but is it ready? — This column was inspired by a feeling of emptiness I experienced at various times in Pittsburgh — from the airport to the roadways to certain neighborhoods. Plus, I really liked the photo I was able to capture of new and old Pittsburgh colliding as an old brick building was being torn down in the Strip District, with a modern building rising just behind it.
Your favorite Pittsburgh experience or place? Post-game Penguins’ victory celebration at Shale’s Cafe (I feel like I am personally responsible for sparking the latest Pens’ win streak). The awe-inspiring pale ale inside Church Brew Works, perhaps the greatest (or should I say most divine) setting ever for a beer hall. The view from Mount Washington. And, of course, Banjo Night, a true yinzer experience.
Most interesting person you met in Pittsburgh? Tough one. So many interesting folks. But I really enjoyed my conversation with Carnegie Mellon University professor of psychology and philosophy, David Danks, about the ethics of artificial intelligence. As any good philosophy professor would do, he just got me thinking deeply about the impacts of technological change. See story: The ethics of AI; Robots will rise, but will they rule us all? I’ll put Mayor Peduto’s trusted aide, James Hill, as a close second, as we loved the historical tour he provided us of City Hall.
Best Pittsburgh food or restaurant you experienced? So many options, but I will go with the delectable pierogis from S&D Polish Deli in the Strip District, and nearby world-famous Wholey’s for its amazing cole slaw, fried fish and lobster mac and cheese. Yum! This place rivals the fish markets of Pike Place Market in Seattle! Plus, we got to meet Sam Wholey.
Most interesting technology you experienced? It was fun to experience a self-driving Uber, but GeekWire reporter Taylor Soper and I were certainly happy a human still was able to jump behind the wheel when we hit an infamous Pittsburgh pothole.
Most interesting company you encountered in Pittsburgh? Petuum — a big idea with a lot of venture capital in the machine learning arena. Could this be Pittsburgh’s big startup success story?
Given the choice, would you live in Seattle or Pittsburgh? (How did being in Pittsburgh change your view of Seattle?) I would say Seattle, though Pittsburgh really appealed to my inner Midwesterner. I felt at home in Pittsburgh. But I would have a hard time giving up the mountains, the Puget Sound and the Seattle Sounders.
RELATED: The future of Pittsburgh and the world: CMU’s Andrew Moore brings GeekWire’s HQ2 project home
How would you compare the Pittsburgh and Seattle tech communities? They are vastly different. Seattle is anchored by very large tech giants — Microsoft, Amazon, Expedia, T-Mobile — and a nice stable of mid-tier public tech companies — F5 Networks, Zillow, Redfin, Seattle Genetics, Impinj, etc. Seattle’s startup ecosystem also is more robust, with about $1.5 billion in investments last year, compared to about $300 million for Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh’s tech economy is emerging, and it reminded me a bit more of Portland than it did Seattle. Pittsburgh and Seattle do share a lot in common with world-class universities, and CMU really is the big anchor in Pittsburgh’s tech scene. The two cities also have strong research capacities, with innovators who think about big problems and challenges.
Do you think Pittsburgh has a shot at Amazon HQ2? Yes, Pittsburgh absolutely has a shot, but landing GeekWire HQ2 was certainly much cooler! Seriously, the Steel City is a bit of a dark horse, but I don’t place Pittsburgh in the bottom tier of possible HQ2 cities as other rankings do. In fact, I am sticking by my original pick of Pittsburgh in the top six cities. And it wouldn’t surprise me if Pittsburgh actually was chosen by Amazon, especially since it checks a lot of the boxes in the company’s original RFP. As I mentioned in a previous column: “Though rickety in places, the bones of Pittsburgh are still intact. It could absorb 50,000 employees, in part because it has done it before.” Plus, who doesn’t just love a Rust Belt comeback story like Pittsburgh?
Monica Nickelsburg, civic innovation editor
What surprised you most about Pittsburgh? The disparity between Pittsburgh’s built environment and population size struck me. The city was built for a population of about 700,000, roughly the population of Seattle proper today. Looking at the city from Pittsburgh’s Mount Washington viewpoint, it looked similar in size to Seattle. But spending time in the city, it quickly became apparent that the shell is less than half full. Pittsburgh’s population is a little over 300,000 which creates an atmosphere of intimacy in the city. I constantly ran into people I had already met during the week I was staying in Pittsburgh. Vacant homes and buildings are a frequent sight in some neighborhoods, like Hazelwood.
In my conversations with entrepreneurs and city leaders, several stressed the need to build up the population and tax base to fund improvements in the city’s infrastructure and services. I think that is a driving factor in Pittsburgh’s hunger for Amazon HQ2. Unlike some cities that would be burdened by 50,000 newcomers, Pittsburgh has plenty of room for them and needs their tax dollars.
Worst thing about Pittsburgh? (What would you change about Pittsburgh if you could? What frustrated you most?) Pittsburgh doesn’t seem to have a very robust public transportation system. It still very much feels like a driving city.
Favorite Pittsburgh story (or stories) you wrote (and why). Interviewing chef and City Council candidate Sonja Finn over dinner at her restaurant, Dinette, was a highlight of my time in Pittsburgh. The conversation and food were great, plus it was a chance to see Pittsburgh’s booming foodie scene through the eyes of one of its pioneers.
Your favorite Pittsburgh experience or place? I toured Hazelwood Green — a 178-acre former steel mill poised for a massive redevelopment project — on a snowy February day. The riverfront site is considered a favorite if Amazon chooses Pittsburgh for its second headquarters but whether or not that happens, the project will transform the Hazelwood neighborhood. Seeing the steely bones of a collapsed industry and envisioning what it will look like when urban planners and commercial tenants are finished with it was a fun experience. I’d like to return next time I’m in Pittsburgh to see what has become of it.
Most interesting person you met in Pittsburgh? It has to be Mark Power, marketing and communications director for CMU’s School of Computer Science and our Pittsburgh spirit guide. Mark played a critical role getting us to Pittsburgh and opened so many doors for us when we arrived. In addition to being helpful, Mark is a great guy to chat with over dinner and drinks.
Best Pittsburgh food or restaurant you experienced? Umami in Lawrenceville and Superior Motors in Braddock are tied.
Most interesting technology you experienced? Although it may seem unglamorous, CleanRobotics’ Trashbot is using machine learning technology to solve a difficult real-world problem and that is interesting to me. Trashbot uses cameras and sensors to detect whether garbage can be recycled or not, preventing contaminated garbage from rendering a whole bin unrecyclable.
Given the choice, would you live in Seattle or Pittsburgh? (How did being in Pittsburgh change your view of Seattle?) Seattle will always have my heart and I can’t imagine leaving. That being said, if I had to move away I would definitely consider Pittsburgh. I’m a Seattle transplant (I didn’t experience the city before the tech boom transformed it) but Pittsburgh reminds me of the Seattle of the past that I hear so much about. It’s affordable, diverse, and moving from an industrial to innovation economy. Both cities boast beautiful natural water features and collections of distinct neighborhoods. Pittsburgh has a longer history than Seattle and its repurposed industrial infrastructure makes it unique. Still, there is an intangible similarity between the two cities.
How would you compare the Pittsburgh and Seattle tech communities? Pittsburgh’s tech community is fueled by CMU, University of Pittsburgh, and UPMC. Seattle’s is fueled by Amazon and Microsoft, as well as mid-tier companies like Expedia, T-Mobile, Zillow, Redfin, and others. Pittsburgh has a strong startup ecosystem but lacks those big companies, which boost funding opportunities and spin out entrepreneurs. It’s hard to see how Pittsburgh will rise to the level of other tech hubs without a bigger anchor company.
Do you think Pittsburgh has a shot at Amazon HQ2? I definitely think Pittsburgh has a shot but it is a dark horse in this race. Pittsburgh is on the cutting edge of several technologies of the future, like robotics, machine learning, and autonomous vehicles. CMU and University of Pittsburgh also boost its chances. But many of the other cities on Amazon’s top 20 list also have top universities and thriving tech ecosystems — plus modern public transportation and top-tier airports.
Kurt Schlosser, geek life reporter
What surprised you most about Pittsburgh? The last time I was in Pittsburgh was around 1994. For as much as I expected the basic historic look and feel of it to remain, I was surprised by how much of it was new. And not just a couple sports stadiums. But the slow creep of gentrification that brings with it a cookie-cutter feel that I’ve grown really bored of in Seattle. Is tech to blame for this? I don’t think so. I think it’s just growth in general and efficiency in architecture. But what’s encouraging, for now, is that in a place like Pittsburgh, the brick is winning. If the city can hold onto that well-built history, the people and the jobs might look different in years to come, but the fabric will mostly stay the same.
Worst thing about Pittsburgh? (What would you change about Pittsburgh if you could? What frustrated you most?) Cigarettes. I guess I didn’t realize so many people would smoke in Pittsburgh, especially if they were Uber or Lyft drivers. They didn’t smoke during rides, but the smell was unmistakable. And the bars that still allowed smoking brought back bad memories. Dump the cigarettes in the potholes, Pittsburgh.
Favorite Pittsburgh story (or stories) you wrote (and why): Profiles of artists Vanessa German and Chancelor Humphrey (Keep Pittsburgh Dope) because they’ve built inspiring brands right in Pittsburgh, without fleeing for New York or L.A. If Pittsburgh truly becomes a big tech town, it will need artists, lots of artists, to help maintain some of the soul and character of the place.
Your favorite Pittsburgh experience or place? Banjo Night at the Elks Lodge on the North Side. All kinds of people, just enjoying music and beer. Totally welcoming and lacking pretension.
Most interesting person you met in Pittsburgh? Alex Jozsa. Hungarian restaurant owner and chef in the the Hazlewood neighborhood. He fought in and fled a revolution in his homeland before coming to Pittsburgh as a teenager in 1957. He was a graphic artists for years, and in our visit he was a storyteller, a singer and a great cook.
Best Pittsburgh food or restaurant you experienced? Breakfast at DeLuca’s in the Strip. A burger at Tessaro’s in Bloomfield. … Chicken wings. Pizza. Sausages. Craft beer. Man, I’m hungry again.
Most interesting technology you experienced? I didn’t ride in one, but every time I stepped off a curb and saw a self-driving Uber coming down the street, I couldn’t help but watch it go by, rooftop camera spinning all the way.
Most interesting company you encountered in Pittsburgh? The Andy Warhol Museum. Not really a company, but the institution is doing innovative things with technology to help people better interact with the popular artist’s work.
Given the choice, would you live in Seattle or Pittsburgh? (How did being in Pittsburgh change your view of Seattle?) I would live in Pittsburgh for the chance to get back some of the experience I had when I moved to Seattle more than 20 years ago — that of a smaller place relying on all kinds of people to dictate its direction, not just rich tech guys. Being in Pittsburgh made me long for that greater sense of community, before the homogenization sets in.
How would you compare the Pittsburgh and Seattle tech communities? I’d say the Pittsburgh community seems hungrier, more eager to tell a good story and prove themselves. Kind of the way Seattle felt for so long in the shadow of Silicon Valley. The growth of Seattle’s scene in just the last five years has erased some of that humble eagerness.
Do you think Pittsburgh has a shot at Amazon HQ2? I think Amazon would be making a mistake if they chose any place other than Pittsburgh. The city is clearly ripe to become the next Seattle in many ways. Which is why I hope Amazon doesn’t choose them.
Taylor Soper, startups and sports tech reporter
What surprised you most about Pittsburgh? Unprompted kindness from people who expect nothing in return. The warmth came in many different forms from various Pittsburghers — the bartenders; the politicians; the pastors; the CEOs; the Strip District street musicians; the Friday Fish Fry cooks; the Hungarian restaurant owner. People are genuine here, more often than not. They don’t judge and they want to help. There’s also a unique collaborative nature here that’s hard to find in other big cities. It makes it easy to network and meet people, whether for work or socially.
Worst thing about Pittsburgh? (What would you change about Pittsburgh if you could? What frustrated you most?) This was a hard question to answer, which speaks to the livability of Pittsburgh. But the tap water doesn’t taste good. I don’t like bars filled with smoke. I wish there were more mobility options — car2go or ReachNow like we have in Seattle, for example. And the potholes are pretty bad.
Favorite Pittsburgh story (or stories) you wrote (and why): I really enjoyed interviewing Duolingo CEO Luis von Ahn, not only because of his accomplishments and the fact that he’s a certified genius, but his passion for Duolingo and its mission is admirable. He’s committed to keeping Duolingo’s language learning platform free because of its original goal: that someone without a bank account should be able to use Duolingo. Luis also isn’t afraid to speak his mind and balances his intensity with humor. I learned a lot from our chat, which you can read here.
Your favorite Pittsburgh experience or place? Many of my memories in Pittsburgh are centered around food. Our Hungarian dinner at Jozsa Corner was so unique. Alex Jozsa, who fled from Hungary in 1957, cooked and served us a multi-course authentic dinner in a small living room adjacent to his kitchen. I shared the experience with a few colleagues and local Pittsburgh friends we had just met that evening. The food was flavorful and fresh, but I’ll remember the family atmosphere and Alex’s hospitality the most. It felt very Pittsburgh.
Most interesting person you met in Pittsburgh? Duane Reader. He’s a brilliant photographer by trade, but even more impressive is the museum he helped build just down the street from our HQ2 in Lawrenceville in a restored firehouse. The amazing space honors the life of Pittsburgh Pirates baseball legend Roberto Clemente, filled with rare artifacts that tell the story of a hero. Reader first met Clemente’s widow, Vera, when he traveled to Puerto Rico to shoot photos for a Pirates calendar. He felt an instant connection to the family and has since dedicated a big part of his life to preserving the Clemente legacy. Reader has a wine cellar in the basement of the museum, which also houses his photography studio. It’s inspiring to see someone combine three passions under one roof.
Best Pittsburgh food or restaurant you experienced? I haven’t had a bad meal. Umami was my go-to spot in Lawrenceville. The skinny, steep flights of stairs; the dim lighting; the sumo artwork; and the comfort food appetizers reminded me of an izakaya in Japan. The DJ bumping hip hop beats added a nice touch.
Superior Motors was incredible. Every bite, from the juicy pork to the tuna tartare, was insane. But there’s a lot more beyond the food. Chef and owner Kevin Sousa opened the restaurant, previously home to a car dealership, as a way to help spur economic development in Braddock, a Pittsburgh borough hit hard when the steel industry crumbled. Superior Motors sits right across from the region’s last remaining steel mill. The bartender, Nick Andes, who used to work at the mill, gave us a brief history lesson of the area and brought out a thick U.S. Steel book titled “The Making, Shaping, and Treating of Steel.”
I could go on and on about the food and restaurants here. Even the frozen pierogies we burned at home were good. Pittsburgh’s food scene rivals Seattle, no doubt.
Most interesting technology you experienced? Riding in Uber’s self-driving car over a pothole was certainly interesting. It was fascinating being inside an autonomous vehicle, watching it turn corners and maneuver up hills while the driver let go of the steering wheel. But the experience, which you can read about here, left me more wary of self-driving cars. The potential of this technology is super exciting, but there’s so much work to be done before we can rely on these robots to move us around.
Most interesting company you encountered in Pittsburgh? While touring the AlphaLab accelerator I met Flexable. It’s not robotics, it’s not drones, and it’s not AI. But I liked how Jessica Strong and Priya Amin were inspired to create the pop-up tech-powered childcare service after struggling to balance busy working lives while raising their own families — something many parents with young children can relate to.
It was also fun learning how paint giant PPG is developing special coatings for autonomous vehicles. I had a Stranger Things-like experience traveling to the company’s R&D lab just outside of Pittsburgh.
Given the choice, would you live in Seattle or Pittsburgh? (How did being in Pittsburgh change your view of Seattle?) I would live in Pittsburgh. The big city, small town vibe is so cool. You have access to food, arts, tech, culture, sports, and other amenities, but it feels like a small community, too. The combination is dope.
But I love Seattle. I’m excited to come home equipped with many lessons from Pittsburgh. Being in a new city for a month, meeting longtime residents, learning about the history here, and understanding all the changes — it has inspired me to do better reporting in our hometown.
Last week the temperature somehow reached 78 degrees. Much like Seattle, this city came alive as the sun shone. I’ll be back here to experience Pittsburgh in the summer, for sure.
How would you compare the Pittsburgh and Seattle tech communities? Both places have crazy smart people working on innovative technologies who are open to collaboration. There is awesome positive energy in both cities.
Seattle’s tech ecosystem is just more robust. There are anchor tenants in Microsoft and Amazon, along with huge second tier companies like Tableau, Zillow, Redfin, zulily, Expedia, T-Mobile, and others. Pittsburgh needs more like these. That will help attract more investors and tech talent, ultimately growing the ecosystem.
There’s also just more tech in Seattle in general. For example, Pittsburgh still has a ton of cash-only restaurants, whereas in Seattle it seems every local shop now has Square. It feels like Seattle is just a few steps ahead into the future. But the countless self-driving cars whizzing around Pittsburgh are a sign that things may be changing in the Steel City.
Do you think Pittsburgh has a shot at Amazon HQ2? If Amazon wants to help be apart of reshaping a city, they’ll pick Pittsburgh. This place was built for 700,000 in the steel industry heyday; only 300,000 live here now. There are so many empty buildings and land. Amazon could come here and really set the groundwork for Pittsburgh’s future. With CMU and Pitt pumping out tech talent; low housing costs; and other companies like Uber and Google already here, Pittsburgh is an attractive candidate for HQ2. But the city’s transportation infrastructure, aging population, and smaller talent pool aren’t attractive qualities for a company like Amazon.
Regardless, Pittsburgh is poised for growth. There are signs of more young workers moving to the city, and people who grew up here are coming back to raise their families. If that pattern continues and Pittsburgh can learn to manage the detrimental impact of tech growth that places like San Francisco and Seattle have suffered, it could become a worldwide tech hub.
With the HQ2 race, Pittsburgh may better off finishing second, or even in the top 5. It will send a message to other executives and entrepreneurs that Pittsburgh is for real, at least according to Amazon’s rubric, without dealing with unforeseen headaches from the addition of 50,000 Amazon jobs. Landing a diverse set of companies that add hundreds or even thousands of jobs, versus one giant Amazon HQ2, may be the best case scenario.
[Editor’s Note: Taylor Soper holds the distinction of being stationed in Pittsburgh for the entire HQ2 project — 34 days in all — anchoring our coverage as other members of the team rotated through the office to report from the city for extended stints.]
Nat Levy, general assignment reporter
What surprised you most about Pittsburgh? Everyone is going to say the people here, and I’ll go with a variation of it. It surprised me how much civic pride everyone had — from the Lyft drivers to the tech CEOs. It felt like they all had a stake in Pittsburgh’s resurgence in one way or another and it was cool to see that.
Worst thing about Pittsburgh? Definitely the infrastructure. I’m a bus/train guy, so the inability to use those modes and the need to rely on services like Uber and Lyft was a bummer. And the roads! So many potholes. I was astonished at the freeway and tunnel closings due to heavy rains that flooded the rivers. The waters rising up above the riverfront walking paths is an image I still have in my head. And most people I asked about it kinda shrugged it off.
Favorite Pittsburgh story (or stories) you wrote: Going to the Friday fish fries was a great experience. The food was good, the people were better, and our guides gave us another side of the Pittsburgh story, one that was about more than Amazon HQ2 and the tech industry.
Your favorite Pittsburgh experience or place? It’s the Strip District for me. The restaurants, the cool markets, all the knockoff Steelers gear, n’at. It reminded me of Pike Place Market in Seattle because of its status as a tourist destination, with a little bit of Canal Street in New York City thrown in.
Most interesting person you met in Pittsburgh? My fish fry guide Hollen Barmer. She loves fish fries so much she made a Google Map documenting them all and then turned them into a full-fledged database. It’s a good example of tech being applied in a fun way that also has a civic function.
Best Pittsburgh food or restaurant you experienced? I came for the pierogies, I’d stay for the fried chicken tacos at Smoke. Pittsburgh’s restaurant scene was cool and creative. I saw combinations I’ve never seen in Seattle (a buttermilk tortilla, yes please. It’s as if a tortilla and naan had a baby. And then I ate it.) But, points off for cash only in a neighborhood without a lot of ATMs around.
Most interesting technology you experienced? Definitely the poker-playing bots from Carnegie Mellon. Poker is a game with so many variables, so it is super impressive/scary that these folks were able to come up with machines that could beat not only your average human, but the world’s top players.
Most interesting company you encountered in Pittsburgh? RE2 Robotics was one of many cool robotics companies I saw. They make everything from robot arms that pretty much replicate any human movement to an autonomous flight system. Being up close and personal with some of these robots was both unnerving and illuminating.
Given the choice, would you live in Seattle or Pittsburgh? (How did being in Pittsburgh change your view of Seattle?) That’s a tough one, as both have a lot going for them. Both have things that I love and things that infuriate me. It would be easier to own a home there, but the access to the outdoors here in Seattle can’t be beat. I haven’t packed my bags yet, so I guess I’ll stick with Seattle.
That said, there were a lot of appealing things about Pittsburgh. I like the part where people talk to each other. For most of my life I’ve been a pretty direct person, but that has faded as I’ve assimilated into the more passive nature here. Like the other day, someone parked too close to me, and I asked them to move. Not a big deal, and something the old me did all the time, but would I have done it a month ago? Probably not. I would have just complained about how no one can drive.
How would you compare the Pittsburgh and Seattle tech communities? It’s kind of apples to oranges at this point. Pittsburgh’s tech community is still very young, whereas Seattle has been through multiple cycles. Pittsburgh doesn’t have an Amazon or Microsoft — a global tech brand that everyone knows — so I’m curious to see if any of the city’s interesting startups gets to that level.
Do you think Pittsburgh has a shot at Amazon HQ2? Realistically, probably not. I would guess that Amazon has its eye on a larger market (D.C.-Boston-N.Y.). But if it opts for a smaller location, I think Pittsburgh is at the top of the list.
Todd Bishop, editor and co-founder
What surprised you most about Pittsburgh? The sheer complexity of the place. Pittsburgh is new and old, beautiful and potholed, innovative and historic, industrial and modern, struggling and privileged, all rolled into one remarkable city at the intersection of three rivers, with 90 neighborhoods connected by 446 bridges.
There are so many layers to Pittsburgh, so many stories to tell, so many interesting people to meet, and so many different ways to look at the city’s past and future. My favorite primer on Pittsburgh history is the book, Meet You in Hell: Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and the Bitter Partnership That Changed America, which I read on the plane trip here. Pittsburgh has always been a great story, in good times and bad.
In short, it was the perfect location for the type of journalistic project we’ve been running for the past month.
Worst thing about Pittsburgh? Pittsburgh’s most acute challenges aren’t hard to identify. Like many of my colleagues, I struggled with the tap water — the need to rely on bottled water gave me a new appreciation for our clean water supply in Seattle — the transportation infrastructure, and the brutal trek to and from Seattle.
Favorite Pittsburgh story you wrote? I am an avid user of Amazon’s Alexa, and an occasional user of Apple’s Siri, but I’m frequently frustrated by their inability to answer my questions or do what I need them to do. Project InMind, a Carnegie Mellon University initiative funded with a $10 million gift from Yahoo, aims to give virtual assistants the ability to develop a rapport with users, and learn from them. I talked with the leaders of the project for this update on their progress.
Your favorite Pittsburgh experience or place? Imbibe North Side at the Mattress Factory. Taylor Soper and I spent a Saturday evening exploring this contemporary art museum as part of this annual event, which offers a chance to sample the products of a variety of small Pittsburgh breweries. The beer was great, and art installations were memorable, but what really struck me was the people. In my experience in Seattle, people tend to come to these events with friends and largely stick to their own groups, almost suspicious of anyone who even says hello. At this event in Pittsburgh, we were able to easily strike up conversations and get to know tons of interesting people with fascinating perspectives and experiences to share.
Most interesting person you met in Pittsburgh? William Kaiser, the 81-year-old docent at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral. Born, baptized and raised in Pittsburgh, this retired undertaker was my tour guide at the historic downtown church, sharing his story and telling the tale of Pittsburgh’s rise, fall and resurgence through his own life. Early in my career, as a young newspaper reporter in the Philadelphia suburbs, I learned to go to church to get to know a new community. You end up connecting with people in a way you wouldn’t otherwise. Mr. Kaiser was the quintessential example.
Best Pittsburgh food or restaurant you experienced? I was fortunate to accompany my colleagues to many of the fine establishments they’ve recommended above, but I especially loved the concept behind Federal Galley and Smallman Galley, two related Pittsburgh food halls that follow the model of startup accelerators — providing chefs with kitchens, infrastructure and customers to test their concepts for new restaurants. Galley Group co-founders Tyler Benson and Benjamin Mantica have already begun to expand to the concept to other cities, and Seattle is on their long-term list.
Most interesting company you encountered in Pittsburgh? IAM Robotics. Having followed the evolution of Amazon’s warehouse robotics over the years, I’m fascinated by the challenge of getting robots to autonomously identify and pick up objects of different shapes, and this company’s robotics technology was among the most impressive I’ve seen.
Given the choice, would you live in Seattle or Pittsburgh? Man, it would be tough to leave our longtime home in the Pacific Northwest, but Pittsburgh has a lot of appeal. I will admit to occasionally checking Zillow during my time in the city, and trying (unsuccessfully) to convince my wife and daughter to join me during our GeekWire HQ2 project to check out some of the neighborhoods here. The public schools in the city of Pittsburgh are a stumbling block but the affordability of the city is a selling point.
How would you compare the Pittsburgh and Seattle tech communities? Pittsburgh has some amazing research coming out of the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, but as noted by others here, it’s missing some key elements of its tech ecosystem when compared to Seattle. I would point in particular to the “missing middle” layer of companies — a big hole that Pittsburgh needs to fill.
Do you think Pittsburgh has a shot at Amazon HQ2? Yes. It’s a long shot, but I do believe Pittsburgh has a better chance than many people outside the city believe, thanks to its excess capacity, robotics expertise, connections to high-ranking Amazon executives and other factors outlined in this analysis by GeekWire’s Monica Nickelsburg. In fact, I agree with Kurt Schlosser (above) that Amazon would be dumb not to select Pittsburgh. But unlike Kurt, I hope the company does choose Pittsburgh, because it would be an epic story to cover in a city like no other. As an added bonus, we would look like geniuses for landing here first.
GEEKWIRE HQ2 HIGHLIGHTS
Thanks to everyone who made GeekWire’s HQ2 possible, including: K&L Gates and DQE Communications for sponsoring the project; Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Computer Science (including Mark Power, Byron Spice and Andrew Moore) for submitting the proposal that brought us to Pittsburgh; Butler Street Lofts and Beauty Shoppe coworking for hosting us in Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville neighborhood; and the organizations and people who organized and joined us for events and gatherings throughout the month, including CMU, the Allegheny Conference, the University of Pittsburgh, Duolingo, Birchmere Ventures, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, and many others. Most of all, thanks to the people of Pittsburgh for putting up with a bunch of meddling reporters. Thanks for welcoming us to tahn, yinzers.