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For tech job seekers, it’s all about the city

Startups say being in Cambridge or Boston is a must for recruiting the top talent

Maurice Vellekoop for the Globe

When it comes to tech jobs, the suburbs are so last decade.

Once the center of gravity for the state’s technology community, the suburbs are now more on the outer rings. In 2013, for example, Burlington, Lexington, and Waltham collectively accounted for just 13 percent of open positions for software engineers, while Cambridge and Boston jobs combined for a whopping 63 percent, according to an analysis by the recruitment giant WinterWyman.

For companies hoping to hire top talent, the simple fact is that most tech workers want to live and work in the city.

“We wouldn’t even remotely consider moving to the suburbs, even if we could get rent that is a fraction of the price of Kendall Square,” said Jim Dougherty, a longtime Boston entrepreneur who recently cofounded a health care startup, Madaket Inc., in Cambridge.


“I lower my rent costs but I don’t get top people,” Dougherty said. “And if you can’t get top people, you might as well not start a company.”

These days, tech startups and software companies have shed big-box office parks for high-rises and downtown lofts. They are locating in Cambridge or Boston neighborhoods that are close to the MBTA’s Red Line and within an easy stroll of coffee shops and cafes. And they attract engineers and marketing talent who do not want to make a long commute to the burbs.

“It’s pretty common that I meet someone under 30 who lives in the city who doesn’t have a car,” said Ben Hicks, an assistant general manager for the software search team at WinterWyman. So if a company is looking to hire lots of young people fresh out of Northeastern University or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Hicks said, setting up in Billerica would be a mistake.

The trend is especially pronounced in Boston, where one-third of all software job openings are located; a decade ago, the city captured just 5 percent of that job market.


“Everyone seems to be gravitating there,” said David Freier, a recruiter with ICI Software Recruitment in Brookline. “There’s a perception in the tech community that if you are a hip young company, you need to be in the city.”

With the exception of one business, every early-stage company that Freier is hiring for is in Cambridge or Boston.

The same urban tech migration is playing out in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, and New York City as some of the hottest tech companies in those areas establish themselves in downtown offices. For example, Twitter Inc. is headquartered in the gritty Mid-Market neighborhood in San Francisco, and the crowdfunding site Kickstarter Inc. opened its headquarters in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn, N.Y.

“It didn’t surprise me that young people wanted to move back to the city, because cities are fun,” said Richard Florida, director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto. “What really surprised me was this move among tech firms back to the cities.”

Florida has been chronicling the revitalization of cities for years. He recently began following the moves in the tech sector. He has a cheeky name for the suburban tech ghettos where the industry first alighted: “nerdistans.”

Now, he said, innovation is returning to cities, where it began in the first place.

“Cities were always the cradles of innovation,” Florida said. “Suburbanization was a deviation on the course of history.”

But technology has not turned out the lights in the suburbs. The Route 128 belt remains home to some of the state’s largest and most important technology businesses, including EMC Corp., Nuance Inc., and iRobot Corp. And those companies provide well-paying jobs to thousands of engineers and other tech workers, many of whom are happy to leave city life to others.


Suburban tech companies are hiring, too. The e-mail marketing company Constant Contact Inc. has hired 128 people at its headquarters in Waltham this year and has openings for 70 more.

Still, some smaller companies find it tough to get attention when their city cousins get so much of the limelight.

“It’s definitely challenging,” said Duncan Lennox, chief executive at Qstream Inc., a Burlington mobile software company that is hiring.

To get noticed, Qstream is posting flyers in Cambridge coffee shops in hopes of luring urban tech workers.

“There are cool technology startups in a place where parking is plentiful,” the flyers read. “This place that promises unexpected opportunities lies just beyond the city gates and is called, ‘The Suburbs.’ ”

The strategy worked and gained Qstream some attention and a few applications. But Lennox said the company’s Burlington location has its advantages when it comes to hiring more experienced executives who live in the suburbs.

“They are all folks like me who have kids and already want to be out in the suburbs,” Lennox said.

And if the company did move into the city, he said, “we would have risked losing our very good senior people.”


But the broader urban migration has, ironically, been made easier by technology itself. Software companies no longer need sprawling spaces for stacks of servers and other equipment. With a few laptops and a good Internet connection, startups can work out of small offices or share work space with other companies.

There is also a gravitational pull at work: As more tech companies fill up Kendall Square or the Leather District, even more want to join the crowd, said Dave Barrett, managing partner with the Boston venture capital firm Polaris Partners.

“You start your day in the coffee shop with other computer and life science entrepreneurs,” Barrett said. “This is where all the heat is, and it’s the center of gravity for innovation.”

The venture capital industry itself has also decamped from the suburbs. Once located near each other in Waltham, one by one the leading venture businesses in Massachusetts have moved to Cambridge and Boston’s Innovation District. One of them is Polaris, which moved from an office park on Route 128 to a tower on the Boston waterfront this year.

Polaris and other firms are also spending more of their money in Boston and Cambridge. In 2013, venture capital businesses invested $1.4 billion in companies in Cambridge and Boston, while companies in Waltham, Lexington, and Burlington received $559 million, according to the National Venture Capital Association.

“For companies that really have ambitions to become significant companies, it’s a pretty clear choice that they have to be located in one of these two areas,” Barrett said.


Meanwhile, some of the suburban tech companies are striking back by citifying their leafy locales. Constant Contact, for example, brings food trucks to its Waltham offices. Nearby, Autodesk has recently carved out space for tech startups.

Others, such as Nuance, are opening satellite offices in Boston and Cambridge to hire talent that will not commute to its headquarters in Burlington.

“There’s a lot of competition for smart graduates,” said Matt Revis, vice president of mobile devices at Nuance, which recently opened an Innovation Center in Central Square. “We wanted to make sure that we had one of the coolest offices for people coming into tech.”

So far, Revis said, Nuance has hired dozens for the Cambridge office who otherwise would not have joined the company to work in Burlington.

“Being in Central Square is just palpable,” Revis said. “You walk outside and there is so much going on, and that just permeates the office.”


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Michael B. Farrell
can be reached at michael.farrell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeMBFarrell.