City Politics Culture

Atlanta’s Tech Boom

How the city is becoming a hub of growth for the tech industry
CODA Building // Photo courtesy of CODA

When Eric Muntz joined Mailchimp as its third product engineer, the email marketing company’s headquarters was located on Means Street near Georgia Tech’s Campus Recreation Center. Muntz, who later became the company’s chief technology officer, said that at the time “hiring engineers was pretty difficult. We would go meet engineers at Georgia Tech, and they would go west.”

A city founded by the railroad industry and subsequently known as a home of industries like filmmaking and logistics, Atlanta has more recently become known as a growing hub of innovation for the high tech industry. In 2022, Atlanta ranked third on CompTIA’s “Best Tech Cities for IT Jobs” index, up from ninth place in 2018. Home to the headquarters of companies like NCR and Cardlytics, as well as growing presences of leading tech companies like Microsoft, Google, and Cisco, Atlanta is now broadly considered one of the top centers of growth for the tech industry.

According to Larry Williams, president and CEO of the Technology Association of Georgia, Georgia has led in attracting industry growth due to the state’s strong and diverse talent. According to Williams, “talent development is economic development,” and Georgia’s universities are largely responsible.

Atlanta is home to more than 15 colleges and universities, including two public institutions (Georgia Tech and Georgia State University), four historically Black colleges and universities (Clark Atlanta University, Spelman College, Morehouse College, and the Morehouse School of Medicine), and several other private universities, including Emory University and Agnes Scott College. These institutions supply the city with a steady flow of new graduates, including thousands in technology-related fields.

“We got 14,000 students — that’s 14,000 students that graduate with tech-related careers from our four year colleges and universities … we really work hard together with all communities to make sure that people — that everybody has an opportunity to connect to the great prosperity that we’re experiencing here. And with that, it’s not just about job creation. It’s about putting people on a path to careers and careers that they can be proud of,” said Williams.

Greg King, Georgia Tech’s associate vice president for economic development, echoed this sentiment. King specifically touted the institute’s Advanced Technology Development Center, a state-funded technology incubator. King said the ATDC offers programs to “provide education to entrepreneurs,” “specializ[e] around customer discovery,” and “connect startups to investors and connect them with large companies.” The incubator has focuses in financial technology, healthcare, manufacturing, supply and logistics, sustainability, robotics and automatics, and 5G innovation.

Another major draw to Metro Atlanta is the comparably low cost of living, an effect that has been increasingly strong in the last three years as many tech workers have been able to work remotely.

“You’re an engineer who goes west and you share an RV with three other people, and then you come back to Atlanta and you look at real estate and you’re like, ‘wow, I can have, like, a yard and a place to take my dog and like a whole bedroom’ … and then you know, the pandemic hits and immediately — we already had remote employees, remote engineers specifically, before the pandemic, but then immediately people start proving that they can be successful, you know, working from home,” Muntz explained.

According to data provided by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the annual mean wage of a software developer in the Atlanta metropolitan area was about $118,000 in 2021. In the San Francisco metropolitan area, that figure was about $158,000. According to NerdWallet’s cost of living calculator, San Francisco has an 85% higher cost of living than Atlanta, making a $118,000 salary in Atlanta comparable to $218,000 in San Francisco.

Williams also credited initiatives by the state government to make Georgia “the number one place to do business nine years in a row.” The distinction comes from a ranking by a publication called Area Development and has been widely cited by governmental and business leaders throughout the state.

“Government doesn’t create jobs,” said Williams. “It creates, you know — its focus is to create an environment where companies — private sector — can thrive, and therefore the jobs come with it.”

Williams named a low corporate income tax, consistent regulatory environment, and specific tax incentives as primary tools for attracting private sector development in the state.

John Soper is a senior project manager at the Georgia Department of Economic Development, a state agency charged with spurring this development. According to Soper, “the state has made several strategic investments, I think, to develop the technology workforce and to attract technology companies.” Soper specifically praised the Georgia Cyber Center in Augusta, which coordinates education and workforce development for the growing cybersecurity agency.

Soper also cited the state’s jobs tax credit, which provides corporations with tax reductions for the creation of jobs, and the quality jobs tax credit, which provides a higher credit for “high-paying” jobs (defined as 10% above the average wage in the county). He also mentioned Georgia’s high-technology company sales and use tax exemption, which provides exemptions to sales taxes on computer equipment sold to companies that purchase more than $15 million worth of computer equipment in a calendar year.

According to Muntz, all these factors — talent development, cost of living, and governmental incentives — created a positive environment for tech companies in Atlanta, and by around 2015, Atlanta’s tech industry had entered into a positive feedback loop. Around this “inflection point,” he said, enough local startups like Mailchimp had gained name recognition that the trend of “chasing gold” westward had slowed, and both retaining and attracting talent has become easier for his team. As Muntz put it, “that sort of just created this awesome snowball that rolled down the hill and just kept gathering more and more snow.”

Muntz is also confident that this growth will be sustainable. “In Atlanta, the VC money is not just flowing as super prevalent as it is, and has been, out in Silicon Valley, and so you get a different type of startup here. You get a type of startup, I mean, like Mailchimp, that never took any investment ever, and really just focused on building a long-term sustainable business.”

As for the future, King excitedly listed upcoming developments in the area.

“I think I have the best job in the world because one of the things I get to see is, if there’s something that I’ve had a chance to work on, I can actually — I get to see how it impacts people, right? … You can stand at Technology Square and see people going into new jobs at Cisco, or at NCR, or over to Honeywell, or over to Micron, or wherever … That’s only going to be further accelerated with life science, bioscience investment over in Science Square so, you know, I’m excited about it all.”

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