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Competition or opportunity: Here’s how Virginia tech execs feel about Amazon HQ2 coming to NoVa

A year after the tech giant announced that its second HQ would be coming to Northern Virginia, this reporter spoke to a handful of tech leaders from different Commonwealth regions. In sum: They're ready.

A view of Charlottesville, Virginia, from WillowTree's office. (Photo by Michelai Graham)
Full disclosure: The Virginia Economic Development Partnership coordinated and paid for the travel and accommodations of the author of this post during a media tour. However, this article was reported independently and was not reviewed by VEDP.
It’s been almost exactly a year since Amazon announced that its second headquarters would be coming to Northern Virginia.

With this expansion, the tech giant promised to bring 25,000 full-time jobs over a 12-year period, $2.5 billion in Amazon investment and four million square feet of energy-efficient office space.

We’ve already discussed how surrounding universities are preparing for Amazon’s arrival, and how this could potentially affect the DMV tech workforce as a whole. We’ve heard from educators, investors and executives on how Amazon’s expansion could affect the D.C. area.

But what about farther out in Virginia?

As part of the Virginia Rural and Small Metro Technology Tour organized by the Virginia Economic Development Partnership last month, this reporter got to speak with executives from tech companies a few hours down the road headquartered in different parts of Virginia. I asked them two questions:

  1. How do you feel about Amazon HQ2 coming to NoVa?
  2. With this expansion, do you anticipate competition in retaining tech talent for your company?

Tobias Dengel, CEO of Charlottesville, Virginia-based software development company WillowTree, expressed that he was excited about Amazon bringing some tech attention to Northern Virginia and the D.C. area because it will help his company gain more clients, too.

With a high quality of life, proximity to universities and short commutes to work, Dengel thinks the younger tech workforce will be more attracted to Charlottesville as NoVa gets more crowded.

“We have to hire and retain great talent, and keep that talent happy,” Dengel said about his company attracting software engineers. “We have to offer them a great place to live and to work.”

WillowTree develops apps and software for brands such as Fox Sports, PepsiCo, Time Warner, Wyndam Hotels and more. With another office in Durham, North Carolina, the company started out in 2009 building apps with a three-person team. WillowTree has grown to a team of 405 employees, 268 of which work in the Virginia region. The company is working on opening a larger office in April 2020 that will accommodate up to 500 employees at a time.

“In theory, we compete with the D.C. market for talent,” Dengel said after he shared he gets asked a lot about his sentiments toward Amazon moving in. He said the company’s hope is that tech workers will get tired of the long commutes throughout the NoVa and D.C. area and decide to move to Charlottesville.

It's not like you can go to a large metropolitan area and buy your workforce. We've been here for 13 years and we have a pretty solid workforce and we can expand on that.

Executives at CGI, a high-end business and consulting firm with an office in Lebanon, Virginia, are confident the company’s ties with local educational institutions and ability to outsource its IT talent will be appealing to Amazon.

CGI works on fostering relationships with middle schools and high schools to raise awareness about tech careers at a young age. Kirk Lortz, director of consulting at CGI, said the company is trying to push on high schools to include some more tech programming in the curriculum or after school. Since CGI also has running partnerships with local Virginia universities and colleges, this reporter specifically asked Lortz if the company was worried about any recruitment competition there.

Lortz mentioned that since Amazon pays most of its attention to “high-end schools” like Virginia Tech, it’s not keen on the tech talent pool coming out of institutions like The University of Virginia’s College at Wise, East Tennessee State University and Radford University. These are the universities CGI works with.

“They’re obviously looking for very smart people and it’s not that they’re not here, but they’re very selective about where they go,” he said.

Nonetheless, Amazon’s expansion to NoVa could mean good things for CGI. Locally, the company still has an office in Fairfax, Virginia, for employees to support its federal clients closely. CGI has 365 employees between its Lebanon and Fairfax offices.

“I’m very excited that Amazon is coming to Northern Virginia. I think that there are possibilities for partnerships with CGI and Amazon,” Lortz said. “They’ve committed 25,000 jobs, that’s a lot of jobs that are going to put a lot of stress on the very tax infrastructure of Northern Virginia.”

Lortz said he see’s this opportunity as a win-win for CGI in hopes that the company can help relieve some of that stress by providing some of those IT resources remotely in Lebanon.

“It’s not like you can go to a large metropolitan area, and go out and buy your workforce. You just cannot do that,” Lortz said. “We’ve been here for 13 years and we have a pretty solid workforce and we can expand on that.”

We've made a commitment internally to align ourselves with AWS.

Brian Lubin, SVP at the 1901 Group in Blacksburg, Virginia, has been with the 10-year-old company for eight years. 1901 Group is an enterprise IT management service provider with all federal government agency customers. The company’s enterprise IT operations center is in Blacksburg and houses a team of about 250 people, but 1901 Group’s headquarters is actually in Reston, Virginia, where it has nearly 100 more employees. The company also has a data center in Ashburn, Virginia, in an area coined Data Center Alley.

As for Amazon, Lubin feels like the tech giant’s move could help it gain local clients who are focused on migrating their legacy data center and applications to the cloud.

“We have about 100 people who are [Amazon Web Services] certified,” Lubin said. “We’ve made a commitment internally to align ourselves with AWS.”

As far as recruitment efforts, 1901 Group brings in “a lot of Virginia Tech grads” and hosts internship programs, Lubin shared, and the company specifically partners with the Commonwealth to receive a grant to cover half of its Virginia Tech intern wages. 1901 Group also works with Radford University and New River Community College, plus smaller liberal arts schools to attract tech talent.

Last November, the IT services provider also made a commitment to invest $4 million into expanding its Blacksburg and Reston offices, and in turn will receive funding for the project from the Virginia Jobs Investment Program to expand on its hiring plans. Indeed, Lubin said the company isn’t worried about the tech workforce competition with Amazon.

Overall, these companies seem prepared for Amazon’s move into NoVa, but is Amazon ready for them?

Companies: Amazon
Series: Economic Development in Virginia / Amazon HQ2

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