The news that Boston could become home to Amazon’s second headquarters calls to mind Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s comment about our region six years ago. Asked to name his biggest regret as CEO, Zuckerberg replied: leaving Boston.
Like Facebook, the company I cofounded was hatched on humble beginnings. We began as a research project at MIT in 1995, when Tim Berners Lee posed the problem of handling flash crowds on the Internet. He recognized that millions of people would converge on a website at the same time and bring it (and large portions of the surrounding Internet) to a grinding halt. This is exactly the kind of technically-challenging, world-impacting problem that researchers at leading universities in our region excel at solving.
By the fall of 1997, we had developed what we believed was a compelling solution to the “World Wide Wait.” Shortly thereafter, we created Akamai to commercialize the technology and moved out of my office at MIT into incubator space in Cambridge’s Kendall Square. Back then, Kendall Square was far from the vibrant, dynamic location it has become. Our small team of mostly young whiz kids didn’t have much experience in business. But we certainly had big dreams. And after two decades of hard work, our business has grown into the world’s largest and most trusted cloud delivery platform, upon which many of the world’s best known brands and enterprises build their digital experiences.
What has enabled our growth here, and that of countless other innovative firms in information technology and life sciences, is the ability to draw upon many of the smartest and most creative minds in the world. We’re within a few blocks of the world’s leading universities. Some of the largest tech companies have offices nearby, including Microsoft and Google. Facebook recently announced plans to bring another 600 workers here.
As Amazon considers the best location to grow its business, it’s fair to say that Kendall Square has become the epicenter of the IT industry in the Northeast. A generation ago, it was out on Route 128 and then I-495. Today, our workers prefer our walkable, bike-friendly, transit-oriented environment, with its array of amenities and places to meet, kick back, and share ideas.
Like GE’s new headquarters across the river in Boston, these new urban headquarters are intentionally different from the suburban-style corporate campuses that once were the norm in our industry. Amazon thrives with a 21st century urban headquarters in downtown Seattle and may ultimately do so here.
As policy makers and civic leaders contemplate how to lure the next GE to the hub of New England, they should pursue a coordinated agenda to encourage other companies to start up here organically, grow, and stay, as we have done.
Boston will never compete with other regions based on low costs, so we must play to our region’s strengths. That means fueling the pipeline of talented workers attracted here from around the world and making the most of our region’s high quality of life.
It also means tackling tougher challenges: creating more housing units within short commutes — and not just for the wealthy but for workers needed at all levels. And it requires a sustained public financial commitment to bring our transit infrastructure into the 21st century.
If our region has the brainpower to make the Internet a fast, reliable, and secure platform for future economic growth, we should summon the will to provide what’s needed to do the same for the new employers who see this as the ideal place to be.Tom Leighton is CEO and cofounder of Akamai.