Duolingo CTO Severin Hacker (left) and CEO Luis von Ahn (right). Image courtesy of Duolingo.

In an article titled Pittsburgh gets a tech makeover, The New York Times‘ Steven Kurutz highlights the influence of Carnegie Mellon’s School of Computer Science in attracting talent, giving Pittsburgh its cool factor and creating and influencing technology impacting the city:

“In 2015, Monocle magazine, a favorite read of the global hipsterati, published an enthusiastic report on Lawrenceville, the former blue-collar neighborhood here filled with cafes, hyped restaurants and brick rowhouses being renovated by flippers.

Last year, in a much-publicized development, Uber began testing self-driving cars on the streets, putting this city at the forefront of the autonomous-vehicle revolution.

Also last year, in a less publicized development, Jean Yang, 30, returned to this city after more than a decade of living in Boston, finding a Pittsburgh she hardly recognized from her 1990s childhood.

And four months ago, Caesar Wirth, a 28-year-old software engineer, moved from Tokyo to work for a local tech start-up, Duolingo.

These seemingly unrelated events have one thing in common: Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Computer Science.”

While much has been made of Pittsburgh’s food scene and thriving arts scene, perhaps the secret underlying driver for both the economy and the cool factor—”the reason Pittsburgh now gets mentioned alongside Brooklyn and Portland as an urban hot spot for millennials”—is geeks, not chefs and artists, suggests the Times.

Kurutz refers to a statement that Mayor Bill Peduto made in a 2014 article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, comparing Carnegie Mellon, along with Pitt, to the iron ore factories that made Pittsburgh an industrial power. The schools are the local resource “churning out that talent” from which the city is fueled, Peduto said.

(Note, schools plural. It’s good that Pitt got a mention.)

Carnegie Mellon has been a magnet attracting companies such as Facebook, Apple, Google and Uber with its top students and research professors, says the Times. These big tech firms have made Pittsburgh “younger and more international and helped to transform once-derelict neighborhoods like Lawrenceville and East Liberty.”

“Indeed, East Liberty has become something of a tech hub, said Luis von Ahn, the co-founder and chief executive of Duolingo, a language-learning platform company with its headquarters in that neighborhood. Google Pittsburgh, with its more than 500 employees, also has part of its offices in East Liberty, as does AlphaLab, a startup accelerator.

Within easy walking distance from them is the Ace, a branch of the hip hotel chain that opened in 2015 in a former Y.M.C.A. building. The hotel’s in-house Whitfield restaurant and lobby bar have become hangouts for local techies and out-of-towners alike.

With so many of his 90 employees residing in Walnut on Highland, one of the newer housing and retail complexes in East Liberty, Mr. von Ahn joked, “We call them the Duolingo dorms.”

Calling von Ahn a superstar in the tech world, the Times notes that he has sold two companies to Google and helped develop reCAPTCHA, the squiggly word thing to prove users online aren’t robots. He could have gone anywhere but stayed in Pittsburgh.

“I loved C.M.U., and that’s the main reason why I stayed,” said Mr. von Ahn, who, in addition to his role at Duolingo, is a consulting professor in the School of Computer Science. In the article, von Ahn credits CMU with pumping out some of the best talent, “at a rate of 500 a year,” another reason to stay in Pittsburgh. Yet another? Pittsburgh’s quality of life is looking better these days compared to the very costly and crowded New York and San Francisco.

The head of Google Pittsburgh, Kamal Nigam, echoes that. A Carnegie Mellon grad, he says that a decade ago, workers they hired had family or personal connections to the city. No more. “We’re getting people who are moving to Pittsburgh for the very first time, from all over the country and the world,” Mr. Nigam said in the article.

Even more important, since this didn’t use to be the case, he added, “With the growing number of start-ups and the big companies in the area, people realize they can have not just one job at a good tech company, but a tech career here.”

The article goes on to say that for many years, Pittsburgh was a place 20-somethings fled or avoided. Allegheny County, which includes the city, was the second-oldest large county in the U.S. and it was tough to be young and single here.

“This is the sleepy city Jean Yang knew while growing up near the campus, where her father was a research scientist in the School of Computer Science, reports the Times. “I didn’t realize no one wanted to stay in Pittsburgh,” Ms. Yang said. “I was just leaving because I thought everyone wants to leave where they grew up. I really didn’t think I’d come back as an adult.

But Ms. Yang’s field of research is in computer programming languages, and, as she put it, “C.M.U. is the best place for the kind of work I want to do.” When she was offered an assistant professor position in the School of Computer Science and discovered a changed Pittsburgh on her visits back, Ms. Yang accepted the job and returned last August.” Happily. “There’s definitely an excitement about being here,” she said. “I go out to eat and drink in East Liberty. Lawrenceville I go to a lot. Everywhere I go didn’t exist when I was growing up.”

“While young, cool Pittsburgh may be a recent development, the research at Carnegie Mellon in the field of artificial intelligence has a long history. The university was the first in the world to establish a machine-learning department, and its Robotics Institute, a division of the School of Computer Science, tested an autonomous vehicle, the Terregator, back in 1984.

It’s no surprise that Uber came to Pittsburgh to research self-driving cars (and poached 40 Robotics Institute employees). Or that Amazon recently joined them here, opening an office whose engineer-heavy work force will focus on perfecting Alexa, the company’s intelligent personal assistant that aims to turn us all into the Joaquin Phoenix character from Her.

Put simply, where the tech world is going—self-driving cars; personal A.I. concierges; robot workers—is where Carnegie Mellon’s faculty and students have been for decades.

“It’s like being in Hogwarts,” said Andrew W. Moore, the dean of the School of Computer Science. “It’s really cool and exciting to have these glimpses of the future, and to see all these people running around and having these crazy ideas.”

The article highlights campus research projects that “spill into the larger city, like when a professor develops a start-up company (the school encourages entrepreneurship), or the local government allows Pittsburgh to be used as a lab (a number of traffic lights in East Liberty are controlled by a Carnegie Mellon professor and his colleagues, who have developed smart signal technology).”

The author also spotlights Lee Gutkind, author of a book about robotics and Red Whittaker, the professor who led Carnegie Mellon in winning the $2 million DARPA Urban Challenge self-driving car competition.

“Mr. Gutkind said, “Red was into self-driving vehicles before anyone,” using Carnegie Mellon’s resources and reaching out to local investors for money and technical support.”

Whittaker, said the Times, was also “a gentrification pioneer: He was instrumental in locating the school’s National Robotics Engineering Center in an abandoned foundry in Lawrenceville, in 1996.”

“Lawrenceville was in the lost and found, it was really rough,” he said, adding that the introduction of a state-of-the-art research facility and its educated workforce was, among other developments in the area, a “catalyst and galvanizing influence” for the neighborhood.

“The real estate and the culture of the neighborhood was a very big thing for robotics,” he said. “And robotics was a very big thing for the neighborhood.”

The article ends with this: “Which means even a Monocle reporter being dispatched to check out the Espresso a Mano cafe with its rotating exhibitions by local artists can be traced back to the geeks, in a six-degrees-of-Carnegie-Mellon sort of way.”

Read the full article here.

NEXT staff

The staff at NEXTpittsburgh writes about the people driving change in the region and the innovative and cool things happening here.