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Originally published September 15, 2012 at 8:58 PM | Page modified September 17, 2012 at 3:26 PM

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Snagging engineers no problem at Google's Kirkland unit

Seattle Times staff columnist

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Google sucks.....But its still good they keep people employed here I guess. MORE
I was very disappointed with Google after I interviewed there. The experience helped... MORE
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Fishing's still pretty good in Seattle, if you're trying to catch a software engineer.

Every month, it seems, another out-of-state tech company arrives on the shores of Lake Washington or Lake Union and throws out a line.

There's concern about whether there's enough fish in the pond, especially with demand for software engineers outpacing the output of college computer-science programs.

Both candidates for governor are pledging to improve the situation, and there are national efforts to boost science and technology education.

Yet the crisis hasn't slowed Google's double-digit growth in Kirkland, where I spent time last week with the new site director, Chee Chew.

"We've been growing very, very aggressively so there's no question that we are finding talent," he said. "We've had pretty good success hiring here."

Google's presence in Kirkland has tripled since Chew arrived there in 2007, after a 14-year run at Microsoft that began with his work on the Windows 95 taskbar.

In 2009, Google moved into a three-building complex on Kirkland's Sixth Street that's now almost full. Among the site's projects are Google+ Hangouts, Google Talk and elements of the Chrome browser, including the Chrome Web Store.

Combined with a sister office next to Seattle's Fremont Bridge, Google now has about 1,000 employees in the area. It's Google's second-largest engineering center and has a higher percentage of engineers than the headquarters in Mountain View, Calif.

Last year Google hired about 120 people here and so far this year it's hired 70, with more to come.

Chew works in an office space shared -- by choice -- with 14 people. Don't fret about the Googlers' working conditions, though.

They may be getting crowded but they're not giving up Googley touches, like expansive living rooms amid the office clusters, with pool tables and funky chairs hanging from the ceiling.

Last year Google built out the third Kirkland building with a transportation theme. The lobby has an espresso bar designed to look like a cruise ship, and its cafeteria has bench seats like those on a ferryboat and a green and white wall with portholes.

Upstairs are two motorboats, moored at wooden docks built onto the floor. The boats are used as meeting rooms and equipped with power outlets for laptops. They were installed as a memorial to Steve Lacey, a Google engineer killed by a drunken driver last year in Kirkland.

Google now is remodeling the last unused spaces in another building on the campus, which won't be empty for long.

"I don't think we have all that much time left before we're at capacity at our current growth rate. I'd give us a couple of years," Chew said.

The 42-year-old MIT graduate and user-interface expert became site director two months ago. Chew's predecessor, Scott Silver, who came to Google from Amazon.com, transferred to Mountain View, Calif., the company headquarters.

Google already is looking around for the next place to expand in the area. Chew said the general plan is to continue straddling the lake, providing offices close to where engineers live "and have as few people cross the bridge as possible."

"There aren't a whole lot of available spaces for us to grow and so we're looking all over the place," he said. "We don't have a specific plan of where we're going to go at this point, but we're casting our net pretty wide."

Google has lost some engineers to Facebook and other Silicon Valley companies that have set up Seattle engineering offices in recent years. Just as Google did in 2004, when Microsoft was the best fishing hole.

But Chew isn't too concerned about poaching by newcomers. He said the Valley is a good example of how innovation thrives in a place where people move around and have choices of companies with different cultures.

"A little attrition is OK," he said. "Another way I'd look at it is this way: I think it's actually healthy and a great thing for our community."

If you're recruiting someone from another state, "he's not only looking at a company like Google, he's also looking at what's the environment like?" Chew explained.

"The more opportunities that we have here the more enticing it is to draw talent to the region," he said. "That actually helps all of us."

While Washington frets about whether its hatching enough engineers to replenish the pond, word of Chew's success is spreading in areas where the fishing's tougher.

"Engineering recruiting is by far the hardest problem startups (or large companies) face today, and it is easier in Seattle than in the Bay Area, since the number of relevant startups competing for the talent is much smaller," said Hadi Partovi, a former Microsoft manager and startup veteran who helped Facebook establish its Seattle engineering office in 2010.

Yet there are still not enough fish to go around, Partovi said, especially when you look broadly at the projected growth in U.S. software jobs over the next decade. If the education system can't produce enough programmers to fill the jobs, they'll be filled by immigrants or shipped overseas, he said.

That outcome may not be as bad as it sounds. This is a better place with more jobs and opportunity because of the contributions made by people like Chew, who immigrated as a child from Malaysia, and Partovi, who is of Iranian descent.

I'm more concerned about the new immigrants from California.

All the hiring and investment by companies setting up satellite engineering offices in Seattle is fantastic. We're the envy of cities around the world. I just hope we keep spawning locally based tech companies as well.

Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com

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