After more than 15 years away — most spent working for Amazon in Seattle — Mark Stabingas returned to Pittsburgh to find a city transformed.
He was born and raised in Pennsylvania and earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh before leaving what was, at that time, a sleepy city. Stabingas made his way to the West Coast and took a job as vice president of finance at Amazon. He worked his way up to general manager of Amazon Payments and then spent a few years at Seattle startups. In 2015, a job opportunity at UPMC, Pittsburgh’s massive hospital, insurer, and healthcare system, brought him back.
“I consider myself a foodie and one of the things I feared when moving from Seattle back to Pittsburgh was missing all the great restaurants,” Stabingas said. “Turns out Pittsburgh has an amazing food scene, much bigger than I had understood and has been one of my biggest, most pleasant surprises.”
Stabingas isn’t the only “Pittsburgh boomeranger” to find a lively food scene, vibrant culture, and growing economy upon his return. The city’s transformation has been well-documented; it’s one of the reasons GeekWire chose it for our own temporary “HQ2”.
GeekWire reporters and editors will be rotating through Pittsburgh for the month of February, covering the innovation economy, community leaders, companies, and technologies that are drawing newcomers and boomerangers, like Stabingas.
As part of the project, we’re publishing a series of “Pittsburgh Profiles” — Q&As with some of the most influential people and interesting characters we meet along the way, starting with folks with roots in both Pittsburgh and Seattle, GeekWire’s hometown.
Continue reading for Stabingas’ answers to our questions, and follow along starting next week as we launch our GeekWire HQ2 adventure in Pittsburgh.
What do you love about Pittsburgh and what would you change?
Stabingas: Pittsburgh has this amazing mix of big city and small town. It has the amenities of a big city with world class universities, great music and theater scene, awesome sports teams and passionate fans, really deep foodie scene, all combined with the strongest sense of community of any city I’ve ever lived in. What would I change? I’m a big believer in and supporter of public education and I want our city to step up and make our schools better for our families. We have a new superintendent and many dedicated educators – we need to back them up. If Amazon comes here, I would suggest they make engaging with our city schools a community priority. On a lighter note, can Amazon bring the Seahawks with them? I was and am a huge Seahawks fan and I can’t get fully behind the Steelers – I’ll probably get crushed for saying this by my friends here.
Favorite Pittsburgh spot?
Stabingas: Mount Washington. It sits on top of an overlook across the river from downtown and has the most beautiful view of the city below. I never get tired of taking visitors there, particularly at night. Check out Altius for a great meal with a view to match.
Favorite Pittsburgh celebrity?
Stabingas: The most popular answers might be any number of sports heroes in town. I’m going with someone who I’ve come to learn more about since moving back here, who is no longer living, but also has Seattle roots. The playwright August Wilson. He wrote several plays about his upbringing in Pittsburgh, one of which was made into the movie Fences starring Denzel Washington. I highly recommend the movie if you’ve not seen it.
Best food in Pittsburgh?
Stabingas: That’s a tough one. I consider myself a foodie and one of the things I feared when moving from Seattle back to Pittsburgh was missing all the great restaurants. Turns out Pittsburgh has an amazing food scene, much bigger than I had understood and has been one of my biggest, most pleasant surprises. I can’t get to all the places on my list, but recent favorites include Superior Motors in an old car dealership next to a US Steel plant in ‘on the rebound’ Braddock. Awesome Italian at Alla Famiglia. Since I’m part Polish, I have to give a shout out to a favorite food, the Pierogi!
Best insider tip for transplants?
Stabingas: Pittsburgh has really focused on making the city bikeable with more dedicated bike lanes and trails. I do a loop that takes me through the Strip District and on the weekends its fun to see all the merchants getting ready — sort of our version of Pike Place Market. There is a bike trail that starts in Pittsburgh and goes all the way to Washington DC.
Favorite Pittsburgh word or phrase.
Stabingas: By far, the answer you will get is the phrase ‘Yinz’ as in You Guys or You All. Vintage Pittsburgh. I’m told there is a T-shirt or two with that phrase on it you can buy.
Pittsburgh’s most important innovation or invention.
Stabingas: I think what’s interesting about the Pittsburgh story is the history of its innovation economy. Pittsburgh was the Silicon Valley of the industrial revolution. At one point, a huge percentage of the assets in the US economy were controlled by individuals who lived in the East End of Pittsburgh: Carnegie, Mellon, Frick. Today, technology, healthcare/life science and education are driving the economy. If you had to pick one thing that had the biggest impact on humankind it might be Jonas Salk and the Polio Vaccine.
How would you describe the tech, innovation and startup activity taking place in Pittsburgh to an outsider who hasn’t experienced it?
Stabingas: My view is that the ecosystem is growing rapidly, but still obviously much smaller than Seattle. Carnegie Mellon is leading the way and I think most people would mark Google’s decision to set up shop here 10 years ago as an inflection point. Now all the big tech companies are here and growing their footprint. Those companies are soaking up a lot of the talent, but as the cycle continues more people will be spinning out of those places, doing their own thing and it will be a further accelerator to the ecosystem.
What do you think are the chances of Amazon HQ2 ending up in Pittsburgh?
Stabingas: We learned recently we’re in the final 20 and I think the fact that Pittsburgh is legitimately in the top tier of cities being considered is a testament to the progress that’s been made in the past decade or two. There are a lot of incredible cities competing, but I think Pittsburgh’s mix of livability, access to talent, one of the leading CS schools in the country, and availability of a large city site for a headquarters makes Pittsburgh a strong contender.
Can you tell us about any memorable experiences you had in Pittsburgh that illustrate the character and nature of the city and its tech/startup/engineering community?
Stabingas: My return to Pittsburgh is relatively recent, but I guess I think about ‘pitch sessions’ we have at the Pittsburgh Health Data Alliance. UPMC is a founding member along with CMU and the University of Pittsburgh and we fund early stage healthcare incubation and research. I’m always in awe of teams that often come in from the School of Medicine at Pitt and the CS Department at CMU who are tackling really interesting problems. It’s a good manifestation of what’s unique about the ecosystem that is growing here.
If you were parachuting into Pittsburgh as a tech/business reporter, what’s the first story you’d want to cover? Who is the first person you’d want to sit down with?
I’d probably go sit down with Andrew Moore, the Dean of the School of Computer Science at CMU. Andrew was hired to establish Google’s office here years ago and since returned to CMU. Arguably CMU has put the local tech economy on its back and been one of the, if not the most important, catalyst to the ecosystem.
Any other advice for us as we prepare for GeekWire HQ2 in Pittsburgh?
I think you’ll enjoy your time here. I expect you will find what I found which is that Pittsburgh is one of the most welcoming places you will visit — a good mix of Northeast ambition and Midwest humility.