Monday, March 28, 2011

Developing outside the geographical box - Robert Scoble and location

I'll admit my biases up front - I have lived in Southern California for nearly 30 years.

Therefore, it was with interest that I read Robert Scoble's recent post entitled "MySpace’s death spiral: insiders say it’s due to bets on Los Angeles and Microsoft."

Now it should be noted that the Los Angeles-dissing view is not necessarily what Scoble himself is saying, although as a person who grew up in Silicon Valley he might share the sentiment. But here's what others told him:

There just aren’t “web scale” companies down in Los Angeles, and because Los Angeles is such a large place — it can take hours to drive across the city — there isn’t a single neighborhood that has built up a good talent base, the way Palo Alto or South of Market in San Francisco has.

This bet on Los Angeles doomed MySpace when Facebook came along. Facebook has hired tons of talent from Google and other companies. This expertise helped Facebook not only keep up with scale, but add new features.

Scoble offered additional explanation in the comments. For example:

Entertainment systems probably won't get to 100 million or more users. So, the engineering talent in LA will probably be just fine for most companies. But not if they really need to scale up. And, the talent is disperse, not located in one neighborhood. So, tough to hire.

Scoble is right about the dispersal of talent. Not that I'm a hotshot programmer or anything, but I can vouch for what he's saying. Ever since I moved to southern California, I have lived in either Upland or Ontario, two cities that are roughly 40 miles east of downtown Los Angeles. I have worked in the Inland Empire, in a suburb just east of downtown Los Angeles, and in northern and central Orange County. However, if I were to receive a job offer in Santa Monica or Long Beach, it would have to be a really really good job before I would consider taking it.

Presumably the Bay Area has similar types of issues - would a resident of Concord consider a job in Palo Alto? But Scoble's inference is that the talent is somewhat centrally located in Silicon Valley, and I don't have enough knowledge of the Bay Area to dispute this assertion.

And Jessas says that even the El-Lay assumption may be incorrect:

[There] are definitely major pockets of tech companies - Santa Monica and Burbank/Glendale/Pasadena for example. And there thousands if not 10s of thousands of engineers, sysadmins etc who work at great and innovative companies in LA like: Google, Yahoo, Edmunds, Shopzilla, Disney Interactive, Rubicon, Adconian and of course eHarmony where I work.

But the truly interesting part of this discussion is that there are some people who believe that location doesn't matter. Remember that this is the time during which technology should allow us to work anywhere, and that MySpace or Google or anyone else should be able to hire remote workers who live in Sulligent, Alabama or Ontario, California or Bangalore, India or wherever.

And while a telecommuting model doesn't work for all jobs, one would think that it would work for some of the development jobs that companies like MySpace require. Provided that the home office had built the necessary infrastructure and processes (including the human processes), and the remote workers had necessary bandwidth, it is at least theoretically true that MySpace's Los Angeles location should not have hampered it in any way.

Of course, the theory of telecommuting does not always agree with the reality - at least for some people. I recently attended a seminar that discussed telecommuting, and one southern California worker had been telecommuting for some time, and was in fact more productive because he didn't have to drive on the El-Lay freeways every day. In the end, however, he decided to go back to working in the office; the recession was beginning to take effect, and he worried that continuing to telecommute could contribute to an "out of sight, out of mind" mentality that might make his job vulnerable.

And when you have a company like MySpace that is laying people off, that's a problem that you want to avoid.

P.S. It should be noted that Scoble was NOT saying that Silicon Valley was the ONLY tech community. And if you want evidence of other tech communities, just ask Robert's friend Jesse Stay.

(And if you don't recall the link between Scoble and Stay, read this piece regarding their discussion with Twitter back in 2008. As of 2011, Stay is more well-known as a Facebook technical expert than as a Twitter technical expert, so I guess that we can conclude that Twitter hasn't exactly enamored itself to developers.)
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