Google unveiled its new sign last week. The tasteful, illuminated logo on the Church Street side of 200 W. Franklin St. perhaps quelled fears that the town’s new sign ordinance would result in a wave of garishness overpowering our downtown’s charm.
Chapel Hill has been Google’s home for the past decade, but few people knew that, because the Chapel Hill office, and another in Durham, are part of the Google data center in Lenoir, N.C., a site Google likely chose because the land and talent are less expensive than in Silicon Valley. When Google needed tech-savvy people to implement graphics for Chrome, the global corporation understood it might be difficult and time-consuming to recruit top talent to a bucolic yet sleepy town in the North Carolina mountains. A better strategy would be to look for a Software-as-a-Service start-up and buy it outright.
In 2005, Google found and acquired Skia in Chapel Hill’s Southern Village, started by UNC alum Mike Reed a year early. In 2014, the Google Skia division left Southern Village and took over a floor in the 200 W. Franklin St. building.
Reed could be the poster boy for why we need to make room for start-ups in Chapel Hill. Skia is the fourth tech company he has started and sold to global corporations. His Google office on West Franklin employs about 20 people, all of whom would rather work in Chapel Hill than Silicon Valley. (Though apparently not live in town. My micro-survey of people I spoke with at the sign-unveiling reception revealed that only Reed lived in Chapel Hill. The other employees I queried live in Durham and commute in.)
The as-a-service industry is in the midst of explosive growth, especially the Infrastructure-as-a-Service line, which basically enables businesses to rent an IT department, complete with software, hosting platform and help desk. For a business just starting out, hiring an IaaS provider can be a cost-effective way to figure out what IT services the company needs before making a sizeable investment.
When any industry grows so quickly, consolidation follows. The Googles of the world shop for the Skias.
Chapel Hill has a better chance of keeping Google if the town becomes a tech hub. Our cost of living compares favorably to Silicon Valley, and our winters beat those of Kansas City, another tech hub. But the tech engineers need people to talk to. We can help by letting tech companies know we are open to their business. We might partner with UNC’s computer science department to host summits. We need open office space downtown, and we need an identifiable place to park.
We appreciate Google’s name glowing in our skyline. Next step is to recruit some high-tech peers so Chapel Hill will become a recognizable name in the tech world.
— Nancy Oates