Move over, Silicon Valley. Washington state is a fusion reactor of information and communications technology, job creation and innovation with global clout.
The state's vibrant technology economy is broad, as well as deep. Big name pioneers such as Microsoft, Amazon.com and RealNetworks laid a foundation for technology sector diversity that now encompasses cloud computing, e-commerce, software publishing, social media, telecommunications, mobile services and applications, network systems and health care IT.
Game development alone is an estimated $10 billion annual industry. Washington also is a recognized leader in Radio Frequency Identification, or RFID. Big players, including Intel, Oracle, Adobe and Google, have established engineering centers in the state, with Twitter, Facebook and Zynga more recent additions.
"Our biggest asset is our talent pool, and Washington has a wonderful base of very talented technical people," says Susannah Malarkey, executive director of Technology Alliance, an umbrella and advocacy group. "There is a reason why many companies from Silicon Valley are setting up engineering centers here."
Washington ranked second on the Kaufmann New Economy Index in 2010, which evaluated states on such factors as knowledge jobs and transformation to a digital economy. The 2011 Milken Institute state index raked Washington fourth on the tech and science workforce indicator and third on the technology concentration and dynamism index. In May 2012, Forbes magazine listed Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue as tops in the country for tech job growth, ahead of Silicon Valley. The number of high-tech jobs mushroomed 43 percent since 2000 and grew 12 percent since 2010, according to a ranking system Forbes developed with the Praxis Strategy Group.
Numbers only help tell the story. Tech-based industries employ more than 434,000 people in Washington, according to a May 2012 report prepared for the Technology Alliance by the University of Washington. Excluding aerospace, the state's concentration of technology-based industry is 31 percent above the national average, up from 20 percent in 2009, the study found. Tech jobs also have significant ripple effects "“ each direct job supports another 3.32 jobs in Washington, significantly higher than jobs in other sectors.
Marquee names such as Amazon get lots of ink, but niche companies are making their mark "“ and transforming other industries with technology they develop.
Impinj Inc., is just one example. The company designs and manufactures radio frequency identifiers that have broad applications in retail, product manufacturing, consumer electronics, race timing and soon, livestock tracking. Impinj and its founders, out of CalTech and the University of Washington, helped develop the open global standard for RFID technology and the company now holds more than 100 patents.
With about 130 employees, the company typically makes entry-level hires from local academic centers.
"Washington state is highly educated, and the University of Washington, as well as other educational institutions, graduate very highly qualified candidates in engineering and RFID," says Karina Miller, senior director of human resources at Impinj. "The quality of life here is so amazing that we also are able to recruit candidates from all over the world."
Glympse, a mobile app developer, started with three people and now has 14. The Glympse app allows users to send a link to friends and family members who can track real-time movement. The user specifies the length of the "glympse," and no network membership like Facebook or FourSquare is involved.
CEO Bryan Trussel says spouses send "glympses" when they leave the office for home, parents use them to pick up their children and business people use them to locate each other before meetings. Plane support is expected by the end of 2012.
"People will use this for a very specific scenario, but when they start using it deeper and deeper, it becomes part of their lifestyle," Trussel says.
A former Microsoft team leader, Trussel launched Glympse in 2008 in Seattle. "I liked the dynamic better for hiring and technology. It is mostly affordable and has a critical mass of smart people," he says. "I think we got the best place in the country for what we are doing."
Russell Williams also came out of Microsoft, where he was program manager for Microsoft Exchange and the Microsoft Golf series. He started Flying Lab Software, the Seattle-based developer of Rails Across America, in 1997; the company's newest massive multiplayer online role-playing game is Pirates of the Burning Sea.
He, too, does a lot of local hiring, including from the Art Institute of Seattle. "The talent pool is so good. We want you to love it," Williams says. "We invest in people, work with mentoring and build in cross-pollination so people work on different aspects, such as textures and 3D modeling. Yes, there is some inefficiency but we get a big bonus in being able to move people around."
That flexibility is deeply rooted in Washington's technology economy and is helping other sectors adapt and stay competitive.
"Technology is the fastest-growing sector in our state by far," Malarkey says. "People in information technology jobs are transforming other industries as well "“ in aerospace, computers are flying planes. With life sciences, the human genome project is technology-driven. Our farmers use more technology than any other state.
"You cannot overemphasize the importance of technology as a transformation aspect of the economy," she says.