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Austin vs. Pittsburgh: The Steel City climbing tech ladder right behind Live Music Capital

Pittsburgh is looking to take over as a competitive tech hub, earning accolades for startup culture and fostering big tech. (Laura Figi/Austonia)

As hundreds of tech companies relocate to Austin, an unlikely competitor is shifting from steel town to tech capital.


Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania is on its way to building out its tech scene to competitive heights, seemingly like Austin a few decades prior when startups began to heat up with Dell. And with the era of remote work, Business Insider notes that Pittsburgh has emerged as a surprising tech leader.

Audrey Russo, CEO of the Pittsburgh Technology Council, told Austonia Pittsburgh has the potential to catch up with Austin. “Austin is definitely a few years ahead of us and they’ve been able to attract companies that have gone public,” Russo said.

Ahead of Pittsburgh's expected continued growth, here's where the two cities stand in comparison.

Top Players

Major inflection points for Pittsburgh came with the arrival of Google about 15 years ago; it now employs 760 people and more to come as part of its $7 billion expansion in 19 states. Similarly, Austin's first Google office opened in 2007; it now employs over 1,500 people and will occupy the entire new second street tower when it is completed.

While Google and Uber and the notable big tech companies in Pittsburgh, Russo mentioned a smattering of other tech companies, particularly life sciences, biotech, robotics and manufacturing. Roland Peña, senior vice president of global tech and innovation at the Austin Chamber of Commerce, pointed to major players in Austin: Dell, Apple, Tesla.

And Austin isn't the only one with a booming startup culture. While Austin ranked 20 on the 2021 Global Startup Ecosystem Report, Pittsburgh came close behind at No. 23.

"I think finally, we have a nice variety in non-research real commercialized products," Russo said.

Pittsburgh also had four big IPOs this year, including Duolingo and Aurora. Austin saw traction this year with Bumble's $2.15 billion IPO—the largest in the city's history—followed by legal tech company DISCO.

Tech culture

As Pittsburgh seeks to make gains in its tech scene, Austin is serving as an example of how the advent of tech impacts not just the local economy, but the city’s culture.

A big pull for companies gravitating to these two similar but vastly different locations is young talent. In Austin's almost 1 million population, the average age is 33. In Pittsburgh's 300,000 population, the average age is also 33.

Tech giant Google told a local Pittsburgh paper it was attracted to go to that city because Carnegie Melon University was fostering "some of the most brilliant computer scientists and software engineers in the world." Meanwhile, the University of Texas at Austin has long served as an incubator for tech talent; Michael Dell of Dell Technologies is a UT alumnus.

And to keep the young talent there, both have similar offerings when it comes to recreation. While Austin has its trails and lakes, Pittsburgh has its own number of parks and rivers. In WalletHub's active lifestyle ranking, Austin ranked No. 7 and Pittsburgh No. 25.

Fintech

PNC's HQ in Pittsburgh. (Wikimedia Commons)

When it comes to financial technology, Russo says Pittsburgh has a diverse portfolio that includes some multinationals, with PNC Bank being a major player. She said they were at the helm of trying to solve issues of banking.

“But now that everyone’s sort of caught up, what’s the next iteration of financial technology?” Russo said. People in Pittsburgh are looking ahead at that, with a fintech meetup group and an increasing number of startups.

Austin has deep fintech roots, too, and Peña says it's only becoming more prominent. "In the short term, I think we've got an opportunity to see more of these," he said. Instead, Austin is at the forefront of the cryptocurrency boom with groups such as the ATX DAO and leads in Texas’ crypto job market.

Crypto is where Pittsburgh falls short, seeing little traction on cloud-based currency.

Growing Pains

Carnegie Mellon University, which Russo describes as a factor in growing local tech talent. (Carnegie Mellon University/Twitter)

Austin has long been known as a place for tech entrepreneurs on a budget—housing prices were cheap compared to Silicon Valley. But as tech moves in, longtime residents are being priced out.

Newcomers to the city are intrigued with Austin's culture and for those migrating from California, it's a paradise where homes with backyards in a bustling city are on the affordable side. Affordability is center stage in Austin, where month after month, the city saw record median home prices and sales during the pandemic.

The median home price is up by 21.1% year-over-year from $441,250 to a whopping $536,000, according to the latest Austin Board of Realtors report; housing costs near Tesla's Gigafactory are up 45% from last year. Plus, Austin is projected to be the most expensive city outside of California by next year.

Pittsburgh, which has one of the most affordable real estate markets in the Northeast, is starting to see the same disruption from becoming a tech city. The median home price in Allegheny County in November was $215,000 versus $179,000 in November 2020, according to BrokerMetrics data.

There is some agitation with some local leaders describing an affordable housing crisis, but Russo thinks it’s possible to grow at a pace that’s comfortable and less like Austin’s rapid growth.

“When I’ve gone to Austin, you can see this transformation that happens every few months,” Russo said. “I’ve talked to friends who are down there and I know that there’s a great deal of tension around that: housing, displacing people, Californians coming in making different rules.”

On the flip side, Peña looks on the bright side.

“I look at it from a different viewpoint. I look at it from ‘hey, we’ve got initiatives that are creating highly skilled talent so they can improve their quality of life,’” Peña said. “That is a positive impact because those are opportunities are hard to come by when you don’t have the robust type of economic activity. We have almost every industry sector that is hot right now.”

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