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Growing Pittsburgh tech scene draws West View native home from California, Google

| Monday, Oct. 3, 2016, 8:27 p.m.
Bob Meese left Google for a job as vice president of business with language software startup Duolingo of Pittsburgh.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Bob Meese left Google for a job as vice president of business with language software startup Duolingo of Pittsburgh.

Bob Meese quit a high profile gig at Google and uprooted his family's comfortable life in California to join a startup in Pittsburgh.

He said the opportunity was too good.

"From a career perspective, it was very compelling," Meese, 39, said in late September, a few weeks after he began working as vice president of business for the East Liberty language software startup Duolingo.

Meese spent eight years at Google and played a central role in developing its gaming platform. But he was ready for a new challenge and, rather than jump to another company in California's Bay Area, he decided to head back in his hometown.

Meese grew up in West View and wanted to be closer to family who still lived in Pittsburgh. But it was the growth of Pittsburgh's technology scene that ultimately enabled him to come home. Opportunities like the one he took at Duolingo didn't exist when he left the city in 1995. They didn't even exist 13 years ago when he started considering a move back to Pittsburgh.

Meese talked about his job at Duolingo, changes in Pittsburgh's tech scene and how he would like to see it continue to grow. The conversation was edited for length and clarity:

• Trib: You were in a secure position. Why go back to a startup with a far-from-certain future?

Meese: I had been at Google eight years and had a really great run. I spent the last four years in Google Play and then the first four years in a group called new business development. I had accomplished a lot and the business with Google Play had grown quite a bit. But four years having one role, you start to look at how can you keep learning, what more could you do. And Duolingo was very compelling for several reasons. Duolingo had built up a very strong technical team but was underdeveloped from a business perspective. For me looking at the opportunity to come in and be able to have a large impact on the company very quickly was very compelling.

• Trib: You cited in coming back here having family, and that comes up a lot when it comes to people who are moving back to Pittsburgh. Is that the city's greatest advantage in recruiting here, or are there other reasons that make the city compelling to technology entrepreneurs?

Meese: Certainly in a case like myself, having a family connection was very compelling. But even where that's not the case, a lot people have some connection to Pittsburgh, be it that they had gone to school here or they had some previous experience that was here. There are other advantages as well. One of them is, looking at a company like Duolingo, we have very strong employee retention. You compare that versus the Bay area, and you have so many opportunities there but part of the challenge that creates is that people are coming in but also leaving companies very often as well, too. Part of the opportunity here is to come back to that mission-driven nature of the company, of being about something larger than yourself and having people here who are committed to seeing things through for a longer period of time. That is really attractive.

• Trib: What would you say is the biggest hurdle in further developing Pittsburgh's tech scene?

Meese: One of the things we need to focus on in Pittsburgh is creating enough opportunities overall such that, for somebody to come here from far away, from California or New York or Boston or someplace else, to come here and if the first thing they work on doesn't work out, to be able to present other opportunities to those people. You want to build a critical mass of opportunities in the area. I think that's an area for Pittsburgh to focus on.

• Trib: What's its best asset?

Meese: Just that foundation of a very skilled workforce here. That was a lot of it for me. Having this latent talent. Just very smart people. The university and technical talent overall.

• Trib: You're still relatively new at Duolingo. What are your impressions of the company?

Meese: It's really good energy here. It's a really talented group. We're growing, we're around 75 people right now. It's a fun stage, where when you're growing, that constant process of reinvention. But whenever you have all that growth, being able to manage it in the right way is very important.

• Trib: What are you going to be focused on doing here?

Meese: The company has built a great service. Many many people who are using Duolingo worldwide. For me, creating a revenue engine, or revenue engines for the company. That means just building a sustainable business here.

• Trib: Are you nervous?

Meese: Taking on a challenge is really important. I really feel like I can be successful in this role. My background and the fit between what I've done and what I'm used to doing is just a really good fit for Duolingo. There's always risk in many things that you do. I can't sit here and tell you 100 percent that I'm going to be successful. I think I'm a really good fit for this opportunity.

• Trib: What has struck you since you've been back about how different Pittsburgh is? We have self-driving cars now.

Meese: I definitely sense the energy around the city and that willingness to try new things. That's something, where for Pittsburgh, a lot of it is that university piece. That's where you bring in a lot of new ideas and new people into the city. That's where, for people who have not been here, you have the sense of the steel town and that's not been the case for a long while. But it really is cool. Self-driving cars, it's weird because coming from Mountain View (Calif.), it's not different. I'm actually quite familiar with self-driving cars, as are my children. But it is amazing to move to Pittsburgh, and one of the only other places where that's being tested and tried now. It is really cool.

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