Tech talent looks for things to love in Chicago — besides Lollapalooza

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A new startup was created every 44 hours last year in Chicago, according to Built in Chicago. The city is chock-a-block with tech incubators and foundries, from Catapult and Sandbox Industries to the ubiquitous 1871.

So why, when you navigate to Groupon’s jobs website, are more than three-quarters of the engineering jobs located out of state? At the city’s flagship tech company, there are more openings for software engineers, data scientists, and other back-end development positions in both Seattle and Palo Alto than there are in Chicago. For a city that’s striving to establish itself as a tech hub, that’s not a promising start. The daily deals giant says it goes wherever the best talent is.

Last week, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, faced with a nationwide arms race for engineering know-how, brought out the Howitzer — Lollapalooza tickets. In the latest iteration of ThinkChicago, the city’s program to expose college-aged technologists to the city, Emanuel lured 100 elite students from around the country with the promise of the nation’s biggest music festival. The hope, apparently, was to allow acts like The Cure, The Killers and Vampire Weekend to make Chicago’s case.

According to Russell Walker, a professor at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, highlighting Chicago’s summer music scene is a savvy play, especially when trying to impress a group of college kids. “If we look at the successes of the Bay Area and then we look at cities like Boston and Austin, a few of the common themes suggest that quality of life is really important,” he told me.

Implicit in the name ThinkChicago is the admission that it’s hard to draw engineering talent here. That’s something that Emanuel owned up to last week when he wrote on the Huffington Post that the program’s goal is to “get students to think twice about heading to the coasts after graduation.”

Students who participated in ThinkChicago admitted the city hadn’t been on their radar. “I don’t think most people think of Chicago as a tech hub,” said Joy Ming, a rising junior at Harvard who studies computer science and global health.

Don Yu, a senior computer science and economics major at Columbia University agreed. “If you read TechCrunch, all of it seems to come from California,” he said. “There are definitely more co-working spaces, a bigger meetup scene than I’d thought.”

At ThinkChicago’s pitch contest held Friday at 1871, panelist and GrubHub CEO Matt Maloney tried to cast the city’s nascent tech scene as a positive. “It’s a large city, but a small network,” he said. Maloney went on to tell an anecdote about needing dozens of seats at Wrigley for a staff retreat. Faced with sold-out boxes, he fielded a call from Cubs owner Tom Ricketts, who offered up his family box. “This would never happen in New York,” Maloney said.

In that regard, Maloney has put his headquarters where his mouth is. After GrubHub merged with New York-based Seamless in May, he told Grid that he plans to stick around town. “Tech talent is hard to find anywhere,” he said.

For now, Chicago might have to play to its strengths and bide its time while it shifts its image. “It takes a long time to overcome perceptions,” Walker said. “Perhaps some patience is in order.”

To that end, Emanuel appears to be committed to the program for the long haul. During Friday’s panel, he promised, “We’re going to be doing this every year.” It’s hard to beat the price of free — Lollapalooza donated the tickets, and students were charged with finding a room and getting here on their own dime.

Neil Gupta, a recent graduate from San Jose who’s since settled in Chicago, has seen the view from the coast and the prairie. “When it comes to tech, the Bay Area is like a big corporation,” he said. “Chicago’s still a startup.”

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