How this Amazon engineering outpost is translating its unique geographic position into growth

Laura Dickey, site leader for Amazon’s Pittsburgh engineering office, and a general manager in the company’s machine translation group. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

PITTSBURGH — When we last visited Amazon’s engineering center in this city, back in 2018, the company had just announced plans to expand its footprint and add about 125 jobs to what was then a workforce of 60 people here.

Four years later, those plans have become reality. Amazon now employs about 200 people in its offices in Pittsburgh’s SouthSide Works complex.

It’s part of a larger effort by Amazon to expand its engineering operations in different parts of the country, beyond Silicon Valley, Seattle, New York and other major tech hubs. One benefit for the company is the ability to draw on different pools of technical talent in its recruiting.

That’s evident in Pittsburgh, where one focus of the Amazon tech hub is machine translation technology. Amazon’s presence in the city has its roots in the company’s 2015 acquisition of Safaba Translation Systems, a startup spun out of Carnegie Mellon University’s Language Technologies Institute.

An emblem in the lobby pays tribute to Pittsburgh’s area code and some of Amazon’s leadership principles. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

Amazon’s Alexa group is the largest occupant of the site, with teams working on Alexa language technologies for international markets, and adapting the voice assistant for use in a wider variety of devices and scenarios.

Other Amazon teams with a presence in the Pittsburgh office include Amazon Web Services and the Ring camera and home security business.

The company is also starting to expand its Amazon Care tech team here, tapping into the region’s deep roots in healthcare, thanks to the presence of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and other prominent institutions.

Amazon is bringing some new recruits to Pittsburgh from outside the region, said Laura Dickey, site leader for the engineering office in the city, and a general manager in the company’s machine translation group.

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“More and more, people are reluctant to go to the really high-cost cities,” she said. “So if they’re going to relocate, we definitely see that people are attracted to the quality of life and the cost of living here. It doesn’t hurt.”

Amazon Web Services is one of the teams represented in the Pittsburgh office. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

Remote work is also changing the dynamic. Some new employees are joining teams based in the Pittsburgh office but living elsewhere in the country, traveling to Pittsburgh periodically to meet with their co-workers, in much the same way as other remote employees would travel to the company’s Seattle headquarters.

“It does open up the possibilities, and the labor pool, so you can hire from anywhere,” said Dickey, who joined Amazon in 2018.

Dickey has deep roots in Pittsburgh. Her dad, Bob Walsh, was a longtime director and producer of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the iconic public TV show that originated in Pittsburgh. Dickey appeared on some episodes as a kid. 

A University of Massachusetts, Amherst, graduate with a doctorate in linguistics, she worked previously at Google’s engineering office in Pittsburgh. Google established that office in 2006, starting a trend that in which many other companies have followed suit.

A tribute to Pittsburgh’s bridges is part of the Amazon decor. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

One function of the machine translation group is to translate content and text on Amazon’s retail websites for international markets, using artificial intelligence to make the translations at a large scale. It also works on translation for search queries, making it so that text submitted in one language can also be used to check for content in databases stored in other languages.

Notably, however, Amazon’s Pittsburgh office doesn’t yet have a team working on robotics, the field of technology for which Pittsburgh is perhaps best known. Given the proximity of CMU’s Robotics Institute and a growing number of robotics startups in the region, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Amazon eventually add robotics to its Pittsburgh presence.

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In the meantime, Dickey is working to resolve another issue. Amazon’s Pittsburgh office is practically incognito. Its name is on the building directory, but otherwise there’s no exterior indication of its presence. Some people we spoke with in Pittsburgh were surprised when we mentioned that Amazon had an engineering office in the city.

Dickey has been working with the landlord and expects two big Amazon signs to go up on the building this year. “I want our presence to be known,” she said, “because we’re doing some really interesting work.”

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