Speak Freely returns as a monthly series of frank interviews with notable leaders in the tech community sharing their stories about building successful companies.
On June 17, Raffi Krikorian will be featured at the series which is presented by Fygment and hosted at AlphaLab Gear. Krikorian was the VP of Engineering at Twitter where he was in charge of the Platform, the core infrastructure of Twitter. Before Twitter, Raffi used to create technologies to help people frame their personal energy consumption against global energy production which he won Business Week’s “Best Idea” in 2008. He also wrote about “getting the most out of your TiVo personal video recorder” in his book, TiVo Hacks. Raffi taught at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program where he created the class titled “Every Bit You Make” and built “off-the-wall projects” while running a consulting company. He earned his undergrad and masters at MIT.
Raffi now leads a significant portion of the software work happening at Uber’s Advanced Technologies Center while living and working in Pittsburgh with his family. When he’s not working or enjoying local cuisine, he’s taking flying lessons at the Allegheny County Airport and getting back into Pittsburgh’s bike scene.
Though he can’t go into detail about his work with Uber at the moment, Raffi is also acting as a mentor and investor with a few local startups.
When did you make the move to Pittsburgh?
That’s complicated. I moved here, full-time, in September of last year. However, my wife and son have been here for four years now. I used to literally commute to San Francisco every week from Pittsburgh. I would catch a flight on Sunday night (sadly, there isn’t a direct flight that time of week!), get to SF, live in our house out there until Thursday night and then red-eye back to spend the weekend with my family. Thankfully, I don’t do that anymore.
What was it like working at Twitter from the start and how does that compare with what you’re doing now?
At Twitter, I had 450 people working for me globally. We built all the large machinery that powered Twitter and its ecosystem. I used to say that working at Twitter was incredibly unique because it meant that you get to work on some of the hardest computer science problems in the world, while also changing the world. You got to work on a platform where people celebrated, grieved, spoke to each other, conducted business, etc. I didn’t think I would find something like that again. I was wrong. I’ve found it again.
Why do you think Pittsburgh has become a destination for a lot of innovation and tech startups and what makes it unique from other cities?
Honestly, I think the biggest thing is the world-class university system. That coupled with the livability aspects of Pittsburgh. I think that Google being in town has made this both a place to be and a place to stay.
I think the biggest problem that we have here is that not enough people know about us. And, I would say, that even those who are here don’t know that this is a great place to be. And then they leave. We have to fight that tide, and bring more hope here and more success. That comes in the form of money, but it also comes in the form of PR of not just what a team is up to, but of the Pittsburgh region as a whole, in the form of access to facilities, in the form of talent. I find a lot of people who are looking to help out aren’t necessarily trying to help in those few ways. And those need amplification.
How does it compare to other places you’ve lived and worked?
Well I was born in New York, spent 10 years in Boston and six total in the Bay Area. And Pittsburgh is nothing like those. However, what Pittsburgh is is a small town that has a community that knows each other and helps each other out.
When I first thought about moving here full-time, my friends in the Bay Area all looked at me like I was crazy. I can now officially say, however, that Pittsburgh is great. It has everything I wanted from the Bay Area, just in limited quantities. It’s a smaller Bay Area.
Other than your work with Uber, what else are you up to here?
Trying to make this place a more interesting place for my son to grow up in technologically. I spent some time trying to figure out if there was a way for me to help out CMU in its entrepreneurship efforts around CS. I’m a mentor and investor in a few startups. But, I do think what we’re up to at the Uber ATC is one of the best things I can do—as that brings a center of attention to Pittsburgh.
Hear more from Raffi and ask him questions of your own at the return of “Speak Freely” on June 17.