Detroit shifts into high gear to lure high-tech talent
General Motors is on a hiring binge, quadrupling its information-technology staff and recruiting software developers to create a spate of apps for its 2014 model-year vehicles
The New York Times
After graduating from the University of Michigan in 1998, Brian Mulloy followed the path of many of his classmates, fleeing his home state for a job in a bustling city. But after 10 years of working in technology startups in San Francisco, he has returned as founder of a company in Detroit’s budding technology sector.
Mulloy is part of a group of workers that Detroit is suddenly hungry for — software developers and information-technology specialists who can create applications for the next generation of connected vehicles.
“You’re going to see developers set up shop in Detroit because they’re going to follow the money,” Mulloy said, “and there will be lots of money.”
Already, the money is flowing.
General Motors, newly flush with cash after emerging from bankruptcy, is on a hiring binge, quadrupling its information-technology staff and recruiting software developers to create a spate of apps for its 2014 model-year vehicles.
While the hiring is taking place across the country, many of the new recruits will be working out of the Detroit area.
Ford plans to fill 300 positions in information technology this year, said Laura Kurtz, Ford’s manager of U.S. recruiting.
Chrysler, which declined to specify its plans, said it would hire more entry-level workers and was focused on attracting a highly skilled workforce.
For Detroit, the hiring is a rare bright spot in a city teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.
The demand for in-vehicle applications is a “substantial job generator with high-end pay,” said Donald R. Grimes, an economic researcher at the University of Michigan.
Beyond the three Detroit automakers, the push for the connected car is helping support homegrown businesses like Mulloy’s as well.
Detroit Labs, founded two years ago to create smartphone apps, is shifting to work with automakers to build in-vehicle apps. The company has grown tenfold since 2011, to 40 people, and aims for 60 workers by the end of the year.
“If you go to the coasts, you are one of thousands,” Paul Glomski, one of its founders, said. “In Detroit, you have the opportunity to make an impact. It’s for real.”
Mulloy’s company, Apigee Labs, provides systems that help companies build applications for media ranging from phones and vehicles to fitness equipment and power grids. He chose to put Apigee in Detroit’s fledgling downtown technology hub, where he shares space with Detroit Labs, which uses Apigee’s products to build apps.
So far, the jobs are attracting people who live in the area and people like Mulloy, natives of Michigan who are drawn back to the area not only for the work but also for the lower cost of living. The next challenge will be to recruit developers without ties to Detroit, and that could be a tall order.
“In general,” Grimes said, “Michigan is not perceived as the hippest place for young technology geeks.”
Automakers are stressing the career opportunity: Even though cars have had computer-controlled systems for years, software innovation is in its early stages and there will be a chance for a worker to stand out. GM’s 2014 models, for example, will be the first to include in-car apps.
“They view it as a new space to be creative,” said Nick Pudar, director of GM’s new developer ecosystems program, which was created to connect the automaker with developers in other cities. “The vehicles are becoming this new channel of innovation.”
Pudar travels to software hubs around the country — San Francisco, New York, Boston, Denver, Chicago and Austin, Texas, among them — to persuade developers to turn from developing phone apps to working on automotive apps.
The new technology coming to cars promises to radically change the driver’s experience. For example, new apps will allow drivers to interact with their vehicles both from inside and remotely. Drivers can also use apps to monitor fuel efficiency or track mileage for business expenses.
Younger drivers can benefit from driving-instructor apps that allow them to log their hours for daytime and nighttime driving.
Beyond apps, cars are increasingly relying on computers and sensors, from the moment a key fob sends signals to the ignition. Multiple computers support each of a vehicle’s systems, including adaptive cruise control, which adjusts the speed of a car to the pace of traffic, and crash-avoidance systems, which detect trouble and slow the car down. Although computerized systems have been in cars for years, many of these newer technologies are just being introduced.
“This whole West Coast thing and how great they are — we’re doing some pretty cool stuff here,” said Rob Meyers, a Michigan native who came to GM from the West Coast, where he built apps for Amazon. “You’re in the last frontier when it comes to the vehicle.”
Over the next three to five years, GM plans to hire 4,400 workers for its information-technology centers. It will be the fastest-growing employee group within the nation’s largest automaker, and about 1,200 of those employees will be recent college graduates, said spokeswoman, Juli Huston-Rough.
The hiring is part of CEO Daniel F. Akerson ’s strategy to sharply reduce GM’s reliance on outside technology.
Steve Schwinke, GM’s director of applications and application ecosystem development, says he plans on doubling his team of in-house app developers to 100 by the end of the year and that he counts the hiring of Meyers from Amazon and another developer from gotomeeting.com in Los Angeles as major coups.
He is making space for the increase this summer by knocking down cubicle walls to create an open space for Nerf ball fights and Red Bull shots on the 22nd floor of GM’s Renaissance Center headquarters.
To find those workers, automakers will be competing for talent against industries like defense and health care and against technology firms themselves. That means appealing to young workers’ preferences for work-life integration, Kurtz of Ford said, including options for telecommuting and flexible work hours. “We recognize the generation of people we’re hiring may not have the traditional 9-to-5 mindset that baby boomers have.”
In downtown Detroit, the action has pulled several developers from both coasts, including Bill Camp, who worked in San Francisco for six years in Web development but returned home to Michigan in January to join Detroit Labs, where he is vice president of business development. Like Google, Detroit Labs allows employees to spend 20 percent of their time on their own projects, and many innovations, he said, have stemmed from that.
“I wouldn’t have gone back if I didn’t sense a change in what’s happening in Detroit,” Camp said.