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Silicon Highway: Detroit Auto Industry Wants Stanford Computer Geniuses

Every since the Detroit bailouts and bankruptcies of General Motors (GM) and Chrysler, not to mention the struggles of relatively better-off Ford (F), there's been chatter that Detroit need to cozy up to Silicon Valley and its high-tech ways. Typically, this has taken the form of Valley entrepreneurs insisting that they can fix Motown. But now Motown is starting to raid the Valley for talent.

This report from Bloomberg assesses the trend. You'll find the expected acknowledgment of culture clashes -- people who work at car companies used to wear ties a lot, but now the times are a changin' -- but what's really important here is understanding what Detroit has to offer that Silicon Valley, or any other citadel of tech, doesn't.

The U.S. manufacturing comeback has a tech flavor
The Big Three domestic car companies are poised to recover much of the mojo they lost during the financial crisis, when the North American market was hammered down from a height of 17 million vehicles sold in 2005 to a low of less than 10 million in 2009. Even Chrysler's prospects are starting to look good, and it was a basket case prior to its bailout by the government and subsequent alliance with Italy's Fiat.
However, all carmakers -- not just the Big Three -- are aggressively looking to bring more technology into their vehicles. Communications and entertainment systems are just the beginning. The car of the future will have more computing power than the Space Shuttle (Not kidding!) and will require a steady stream of software and hardware specialists to manage the automobiles transition from mechanical contraption to fully integrated technological experience.

Want to work for a startup -- or an established brand?
It's not hard to imagine why Detroit would be a tough sell. It's freezing cold for a good chunk of the year. Whole parts of town are reverting to pastureland. But, hey, you can buy an abandoned house for less than a used iPhone. And the Big Three will post strong profits in the coming years, which is more than you can say for most West Coast startups.

The problems that newly minted technology graduates will be solving for the carmakers are also far more interesting than what they'd be dealing with if they're writing code for the next FourSquare wannabe. Making cars smart is work that involves everything from artificial intelligence to robotics. Working on a consumer website involves...building an advertising platform. On top of that, while some startups may make millionaires of early arrivals, many will founder. And the first task of most is to generate enough revenue to set an IPO-driven exit for the venture capital firms that have generated the funding.

We don't have a space program, but we do have an auto industry
Fifty years ago, tech grads might have looked to the space and defense industries to test their talents. Unfortunately, we don't have much of a space program right now, and after the Cold War, defense isn't as politically appealing a career route. Cleantech is an option, but the fiances are shaky. Cars, meanwhile, are poised for a radical transformation, from gas-burning contraptions based on 100-year-old innovation to electric-powered rolling wifi hotspots that are nearly capable of driving themselves.

And let's not forget the hidden virtues of the Motor City. The automakers still pay high salaries, and recent computer science grads ought to able to command a premium in a tightening job market. Positions in the high five- and even low six figures will barely get you a condo near Cupertino. In Detroit, by contrast, you can live like an English country squire. So sure, you can make the "cool" choice. Or be foresighted and cast your lot with an industry that isn't depending on the attention spans of teenagers.


Photo: Wikimedia Commons
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