Detroit, embracing new auto technologies, seeks app builders

New York TimesJuly 7, 2013 

— After graduating from the University of Michigan in 1998, Brian Mulloy followed the path of many of his classmates, fleeing his home state for a job in a bustling city. But after 10 years of working in technology startups in San Francisco, he has returned as founder of a company in Detroit’s budding technology sector.

Mulloy is part of a group of workers that Detroit is suddenly hungry for – software developers and information technology specialists who can create applications for the next generation of connected vehicles.

“You’re going to see developers set up shop in Detroit because they’re going to follow the money,” Mulloy said, “and there will be lots of money.”

Already, the money is flowing.

General Motors, newly flush with cash after emerging from bankruptcy, is on a hiring binge, quadrupling its information technology staff and recruiting software developers to create a spate of apps for its 2014 model-year vehicles. While the hiring is taking place across the country, many of the new recruits will be working out of the Detroit area.

Ford Motor Co. plans to fill 300 positions in information technology this year, said Laura Kurtz, Ford’s manager of U.S. recruiting. Chrysler Group, which declined to specify its plans, said it would hire more entry-level workers and was focused on attracting a highly skilled workforce.

Beyond the three Detroit automakers, the push for the connected car is helping support homegrown technology businesses like Mulloy’s as well.

Detroit Labs, founded two years ago to create smartphone apps, is shifting to work with automakers to build in-vehicle apps. The company has grown tenfold since 2011, to 40 people, and aims for 60 workers by the end of the year.

“If you go to the coasts, you are one of thousands,” Paul Glomski, one of its founders, said. “In Detroit, you have the opportunity to make an impact. It’s for real.”

Mulloy’s company, Apigee Labs, provides systems that help companies build applications for media ranging from phones and vehicles to fitness equipment and power grids. He chose to put Apigee in Detroit’s fledgling downtown technology hub, where he shares space with Detroit Labs, which uses Apigee’s products to build apps.

‘The last frontier’

Automakers are stressing the career opportunity: Even though cars have had computer-controlled systems for years, software innovation is in its early stages and there will be a chance for a worker to stand out. GM’s 2014 models, for example, will be the first to include in-car apps.

“They view it as a new space to be creative,” said Nick Pudar, director of GM’s new developer ecosystems program, which was created to connect the automaker with developers in other cities. “The vehicles are becoming this new channel of innovation.”

Pudar travels to software developer hubs around the country – San Francisco, New York, Boston, Denver, Chicago and Austin, Texas, among them – to persuade developers to turn from developing phone apps to working on automotive apps. “This whole West Coast thing and how great they are – we’re doing some pretty cool stuff here,” said Rob Meyers, a Michigan native who came to GM from the West Coast, where he built apps for Amazon. “You’re in the last frontier when it comes to the vehicle.”

Competing for talent

No automaker is being more aggressive than GM, whose chairman and chief executive, Daniel F. Akerson, has made information technology a centerpiece of the company’s turnaround from bankruptcy.

Over the next three to five years, GM plans to hire 4,400 workers for its information technology centers in the Detroit suburb of Warren as well as in Austin; Roswell, Ga.; and Chandler, Ariz. It will be the fastest-growing employee group within the nation’s largest automaker, and about 1,200 of those employees will be recent college graduates, said a spokeswoman, Juli Huston-Rough. To find those workers, GM and other automakers will be competing for talent against industries like defense and health care and against technology firms themselves. That means appealing to young workers’ preferences for work-life integration, Kurtz, of Ford said, including options for telecommuting and flexible work hours. “We recognize the generation of people we’re hiring may not have the traditional 9-to-5 mindset that baby boomers have,” she said.

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