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Innovation Economy

Amazon is busy, but secretive, at Kendall Square offices

Most people in Boston know Amazon.com just from a shopper’s perspective. But if you happen to be a skilled programmer or speech recognition expert in town, odds are you’ve received a LinkedIn message from the company over the last year trying to hire you.

“They are ruthlessly good at recruiting,” said Tom Summit, a Rowley-based recruiter for tech companies. “And they have been offering the best compensation packages I’d ever heard of — upwards of $200,000 per year for young kids.”

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The Amazon name has allure; the Seattle e-commerce giant hired at least 80 people for its Cambridge research-and-development office in 2012, according to several employees who have since moved on. (Amazon also owns Kiva Systems Inc. of North Reading, a maker of warehouse robots it bought last year for $775 million.)

But how’s this for secretive? Current and former employees are forbidden from talking about what happens at the Cambridge office, and the company won’t even tell prospective employees what they’d be working on, if hired. In fact, according to my sources, Amazon employees on two teams in Cambridge can’t even tell each other what they’re up to.

Amazon still hasn’t made a public statement about even the existence of the Cambridge office, nor has it returned my phone calls or e-mails since I first broke the news in late 2011 that it was coming to Massachusetts.

So naturally, I’m insanely curious. Among the people I’ve talked to are three former employees. Here’s what I know.

Amazon found temporary office space early last year at the Cambridge Innovation Center in Kendall Square, a high-rise that’s home to hundreds of fledgling start-up companies and several venture capital firms. Most of Amazon’s employees work behind frosted glass walls; the doors open only for employees with an access card. Amazon has its own security guard.

Amazon plans to move to new offices at 101 Main St. this spring that will be large enough for several hundred employees, according to real estate brokers. Recent job postings for the Cambridge office include positions at its Audible audio books division and for Amazon Web Services, the group that sells on-demand storage and data processing services to other companies.

But the Cambridge office today is built around two main teams, both working on software for new consumer electronics products that the company hopes to release this year, according to former employees. Both teams report to Amazon’s Digital and Mobile Products team, which has developed the Kindle Fire tablet, among other things.

One of the teams is run by Michael Touloumtzis, a longtime software developer at Amazon who relocated from Seattle to Cambridge last January, according to his LinkedIn profile. The other team is run by Bill Barton, a speech recognition expert who joined Amazon last February, and had worked for Nokia and Microsoft. Barton’s LinkedIn profile says he is “leading development of speech and language solutions which will enhance user interactions with Amazon products and services.”

“They are building some sort of new device that will have speech as an interface,” said Michael Phillips, a speech recognition entrepreneur who founded Vlingo in Cambridge in 2006. His was among the first companies, even before Apple’s Siri, to devise software for dictating text messages to your mobile phone or initiating Web searches with speech. Phillips said Amazon has hired several Vlingo veterans.

The tech industry rumor mill has settled on a mobile phone as Amazon’s secret project.

“I think most people would be totally un-stunned by a phone,” said Russ Wilcox, a Framingham entrepreneur who, as a founder of E Ink, worked with Amazon on its Kindle e-book products.

And Wilcox notes that it wouldn’t be unusual for Amazon to assign important work to its Cambridge office, such as writing the software necessary for a phone, or perhaps a more futuristic product, like a “wearable” communicator.

Amazon Cambridge has managed to hire programmers and speech recognition experts away from high-profile local companies, including TripAdvisor, Brightcove, Affirmed Networks, and VistaPrint. One person who accepted a job in 2012 told me that he didn’t know what he’d be working on until he’d accepted the job and flew out to Seattle for orientation.

Whatever is cooking in Cambridge, one thing is certain: As the company comes close to tapping out the Seattle labor pool, it needs to set up bases in other parts of the country to bring on more technology talent.

“When they ask, ‘where do we expand?’ Cambridge seems like an easy target. It’s the same thing that Google and Microsoft did here. They’re all desperate for engineers,” said venture capitalist Antonio Rodriguez of Matrix Partners.

And the top-secret vibe may be part of the draw. One former Amazon Cambridge employee said it felt like working for the CIA: Employees don’t socialize much with other denizens of the Cambridge Innovation Center, and even when sharing a lunch table, they don’t talk about what they’re working on with colleagues who don’t have clearance. Even when former employees talked to me anonymously, they didn’t want to get into much detail.

Will Amazon Cambridge get a moment in the spotlight, once the devices it is working on are released? Possibly. But for a company this secretive, I’m not counting on it.

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.
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