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The 'burbs strike back: Videogame exec Peter Blacklow argues that surburban workers won't be wooed by Kendall or the Innovation District

Posted by Scott Kirsner  August 22, 2012 07:45 AM

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Much has been written here and elsewhere chronicling the surge of interest in the urban core, as venture capital firms, biotech companies, and big software-as-a-service businesses have abandoned the suburbs, mainly heading for Boston's Innovation District and Cambridge's Kendall Square.

So it was nice to hear an argument on behalf of the 'burbs from Peter Blacklow, who runs one of the biggest game-development studios in Massachusetts: the Waltham office of GSN Digital, which produces web and mobile games like Plants vs. Zombies, Wheel of Fortune Slots, Hangmania, and Deal or No Deal. Blacklow is also a partner at Boston Seed Capital, an early-stage investment firm in Westwood.

He makes a point that often gets overlooked in writing about all the companies chasing recent college grads by relocating to Cambridge and Boston: that there's still a pretty deep talent pool in the suburbs, and many of the people in it would prefer not to commute into the city.

Blacklow writes:

I keep reading articles about the wave of technology companies abandoning the suburbs and heading to Boston...all of them headed to the lure of either the Innovation District of Boston or Kendall Square. All searching for young twenty-something engineers who wouldn’t be caught dead in a leafy suburb, slogging away in some anachronistic office park.

At first glance, the recruitment argument for relocating into the city seems compelling. I found some recent stories from The Boston Globe and here are some excerpts:

• “...the 27-year-old had one more condition that was not negotiable: The job had to be in the city; none of those long commutes to an isolated office park in the suburbs. ‘If I had to go out to Waltham or somewhere else like that, it would have been a deal-breaker for me.’”

• “There are a lot of cool young companies in the area that have great backers and are enjoying great success,’’ said Chris Menard, Brightcove’s chief financial officer. “We’re excited to be part of that.’’

• "[Gemvara CEO Matt] Lauzon says...'Most of our last five hires probably wouldn't have considered working for us in Lexington.'"

I don’t get it. Why are companies fighting with each other over 24 – 28 year-old engineers when there are amazingly talented 30+ engineers who want to work in the suburbs? You don’t believe it? Who would want to work in Waltham (I guess we forgot that 128 was America’s Technology Highway once upon a time, before Kendall Square and the Seaport got trendy)?

I walked around the hallways of GSN Digital [on Monday] and asked a few of our engineers about working in Waltham. Here’s what I heard:

• From Scott (web and platform developer – age 34 – lives in Bolton): “I have four kids. I would never want to drive into Boston. I hate driving to Boston.”

• From Ken (iOS developer — age 35 – lives in Framingham): “Would I work in Boston? Probably never. That would take at least two hours out of my day that I could spend with my kids or work on my house.”

• From Lisa (web developer — age 28 — lives in Wayland): “I like living where I live. I don’t mind public transportation, but I don’t want to have to take two trains and fight everyone else headed to the same place.”

I can’t wait to watch the brewing recruitment battle in Boston/Cambridge over hot positions like HTML5 developers. Does he or she accept an offer from a hot startup like Gemvara, PeerTransfer, or RunKeeper? Or, perhaps a proven company like LogMeIn, Communispace, or BzzAgent? What about national brands like Google, Microsoft, eBay, or Facebook (?!)? I think those companies know something about recruiting. That’s a lot of businesses competing for the same young talent in the city.

In the war for talent, companies should not forget that a talented 30+ year-old engineer (or even a *gasp* 40+ year-old) is an amazing resource. Yes, they know how to code Ruby and iOS and even HTML5. They are hungry and want to build great products as much as twenty-somethings do. But many of them have families and don’t want to fight the throngs of cars getting into town on the Pike (or however you drive to Kendall Square). I’m glad we’re in Waltham. And so are our employees.

Blacklow has a vested interest in standing up for the 'burbs: he's continuing to hire for GSN Digital. He tells me that the Waltham outpost of the Game Show Network has 102 employees; only about 10 live in Boston or Cambridge and either drive to work, take a shuttle bus from Alewife, or bike. "I absolutely believe there are two talent bases – one that wants to work in the 'burbs, and one that wants to work in the city," Blacklow says.

What do you think?

(In the photo above is the Adobe building on Route 128 in Waltham, where GSN Digital is also located. I last wrote about GSN Digital in March, when they were dialing up their focus on Facebook games.)

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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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