The hidden link between Seattle and Spokane: Tech companies find success on both sides of the state

microsoft, the hidden link between seattle and spokane: tech companies find success on both sides of the state

One of F5’s two locations in Liberty Lake, Wash., in Spokane County. (F5 Photo)

Back in 1999, when F5 recruited Jeff Stockdale to build its hardware business, expanding beyond its core expertise in software, the engineering leader had one condition for the Seattle-based technology company.

“I told them I could do it, but I would have to do it in Spokane,” he recalled recently.

Yes, the Spokane area was where Stockdale was living at the time. However, there was also a strong pool of hardware design talent in the area, including hardware engineers with expertise in networking technology, thanks to companies including Packet Engines, HP-Agilent, and others in the region at the time.

By the time he left, seven years later, the team had grown to 75 people.

F5 didn’t stop there. Discovering that it was economical to grow in the Spokane area, the company expanded beyond hardware to include customer support, manufacturing, and digital sales teams, as well as employees working in development, legal, IT, and HR, all based in Liberty Lake, Wash., in Spokane County.

Twenty-five years after Stockdale got things started, F5 now has about 250 employees in the Spokane area — more than 7% of its U.S. workforce, and about the same size as its offices in the tech mecca of San Jose.

microsoft, the hidden link between seattle and spokane: tech companies find success on both sides of the state

Lyra Schramm, F5’s executive vice president and chief people officer. (LinkedIn Photo)

“Spokane is a great place to live with access to the outdoors, a thriving community, and a growing economy,” explained Lyra Schramm, F5’s executive vice president and chief people officer, via email. “Our employees have a unique quality of life and it’s a lower cost of living compared to other cities.”

As for the biggest challenges? “Finding the right people that want to live here,” Schramm said. “It’s a smaller city and we have had people coming from bigger cities that think it’s too small for them.”

F5 may have been among the first Seattle tech companies to make this cross-state connection, but it’s not alone. GeekWire has come across several examples of companies with significant operations in Seattle and Spokane in our reporting for this special series on Spokane and the Inland Northwest.

The trend illustrates the growth of Spokane’s tech ecosystem — fueled by its universities, community organizations, and angel investors — and the potential for deeper ties between the two regions to strengthen Washington state’s innovation economy as a whole.

Rover finds a home in Spokane

One well-known Seattle company, Rover, owes its existence to Spokane.

That might overstate things just a bit. But the idea for the pet-sitting marketplace originally came to Greg Gottesman, now co-founder and managing director of Pioneer Square Labs, based on a negative experience with a dog-boarding facility in Seattle, on a trip to Spokane for the Hoopfest tournament.

microsoft, the hidden link between seattle and spokane: tech companies find success on both sides of the state

Greg Gottesman, left, and team behind Rover at a 2011 Startup Weekend in Seattle.

So it’s only fitting that Rover later established an office in the Spokane area.

The company, founded in 2011 in Seattle, opened its first Spokane office in 2017 in the Bennett Block before shifting to Spokane’s Wonder Building in 2019, on the top floor of the refurbished bread factory on Broadway Avenue.

“With headquarters in Seattle, it was a priority to tap into the emerging talent pool that Spokane had to offer,” explained Steve Lloyd, the company’s director of operations, trust and safety, who is based in Spokane.

As a region, Spokane fit Rover’s key criteria for expansion: workforce quality; lower labor and real estate costs; and proximity to Seattle. Also a factor was a reliable flow of talent thanks to the presence of top universities and colleges, including Gonzaga University, Whitworth University, and Eastern Washington University.

Rover, which was acquired by Blackstone for $2.3 billion earlier this year, now has about 70 employees in the Spokane area, in functional areas including legal, IT, product, customers service, and trust and safety operations.

After shifting to remote work during the pandemic, Rover decided to keep its workforce remote in Spokane, and no longer has a physical office there. However, Rover still considers the region a “valuable hub,” Lloyd said via email.

Maintaining culture and collaboration has been one of the biggest challenges of going fully remote, but it has also made the company more intentional about addressing these issues, he said. Employees in Spokane meet regularly for work meetings and social events, including a recent sushi-making class. Rover’s community engagement includes a partnership with the Spokane Humane Society and connections with universities and non-profits.

microsoft, the hidden link between seattle and spokane: tech companies find success on both sides of the state

Pioneer Square Labs co-founder Greg Gottesman.

Gottesman, the Rover co-founder and Pioneer Square Labs managing director, cites the concentration of universities as one of Spokane’s strengths, and says the region also has an opportunity to capitalize on the intersection of tech and agriculture amid the rise of AI.

The region’s history of innovation goes beyond technology, Gottesman notes, citing Spokane’s claim as the birthplace of the Crab Louis Salad (aka the Crab Louie) at the Davenport Hotel.

Spokane is “a gem of Washington state,” Gottesman said. “I’m extremely bullish long-term on Spokane.”

A Seattle startup CEO in Spokane

One of the companies to emerge from Pioneer Square Labs, fintech startup SecureSave, also exemplifies the Seattle-Spokane connection, thanks to its co-founder and CEO Devin Miller, the former Guidant Financial president and chief operating officer.

Miller grew up in Redmond, Wash., starting in the late 1970s, when the future home of Microsoft was still “cow country,” as he put it. After living for 15 years in North Bend, Wash., Miller, his wife, and their kids moved to Spokane in 2022 due to factors including the quality of life, affordability, sense of community, and proximity to schools.

“We were able to get our kids centralized,” he explained. “So now, based on where we bought our new house, we’ve got tons of school options, public school, private school, lots of opportunity.”

microsoft, the hidden link between seattle and spokane: tech companies find success on both sides of the state

Devin Miller, SecureSave co-founder and CEO.

SecureSave is fully remote, with a workforce of about 35 full-time employees and contractors. Its CTO and co-founder, Bassam Saliba, is based in the Seattle region, along with a core group of engineers.

It’s easy to fly or drive to Seattle when needed for an in-person meeting, Miller said.

Over time, as the company grows in areas like compliance and customer support, SecureSave is likely to hire more people in the Spokane area. But for now, Miller is the only member of the team in Spokane.

As a tech community in its own right, he said, Spokane will benefit as more entrepreneurs build successful companies, with the support of the region’s strong angel investor community, and funnel the proceeds back into the startup ecosystem to create the type of virtuous cycle that has fueled Seattle and other hubs such as Salt Lake City.

“Spokane just needs to have enough time and enough companies build and scale in the area, to be able to train and fund the next generation of entrepreneurs, to get that flywheel going,” Miller said.

Case study: One employee’s experience

Hunter Smit is another transplant from the other side of the state. He grew up in Lynden, Wash., near the U.S.-Canada border, and attended Whitworth University in Spokane starting in 2015, receiving a bachelor’s degree in business administration and an MBA from the private university.

microsoft, the hidden link between seattle and spokane: tech companies find success on both sides of the state

Hunter Smit, a strategist on F5’s North America Field Marketing team.

Smit knew he wanted to go into the tech industry after graduation. He searched nationally for a job, focusing on Seattle, the Bay Area, and some of the tech hubs in Texas. He started interviewing with F5, which appealed to him in part due to the potential to remain in the Spokane area while working for a major technology company.

He joined F5 in 2020. He works as a strategist on F5’s North America Field Marketing team. Although he’s based out of F5’s Spokane-area office in Liberty Lake, his job is classified as hybrid. This means he works in the office at least 30 days per quarter, with the flexibility to work from home or go into the office when it makes sense for his schedule.

A few colleagues on his team are based in Liberty Lake, many work out of the company’s Seattle headquarters, and others are spread across the F5 offices in the United States and internationally.

Many of his meetings are hybrid, including people who may be in a conference room together, and others dialing in from other locations. To ensure everyone is on an equal footing, regardless of location, employees dial into meetings individually from their own computers, even if they’re in a conference room together, so everyone’s face is visible.

F5 has expanded from networking software and hardware into cloud application security and management, with 6,524 employees as of September 2023, led by CEO François Locoh-Donou.

When he first started attending Whitworth, he hadn’t envisioned himself staying in Spokane after graduation. However, he said the region grew on him, due to factors including its affordability, four distinct seasons, and recreational activities. He likes to kayak in the summer and ski in the winter.

In the past year or so, Smit said, he has noticed that some of his friends and former classmates who moved away after college have started to come back to the Spokane area, especially as they start families, drawn by many of the same qualities that prompted him to stay in the region.

Since starting college in 2015, he said, he has seen an “almost night and day” difference in the tech community, through the work of groups like Ignite Northwest and the Spokane Angel Alliance. The region’s strong cluster of universities has also helped.

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While the greater acceptance of remote work nationally has helped make it more feasible for many people to move back, the options for in-person tech jobs are still more limited in Spokane than in places like Seattle.

He said Spokane’s tech community would benefit not just from more homegrown startups emerging from the area but also from more established companies setting up operations in the city and broader region.

“Spokane does have more room for growth in attracting more companies like F5 to Spokane,” he said. “We’ve seen it with several companies, but it’s not to the level of other developing technology hubs.”

Smit’s wife is working on her doctorate in physical therapy, and plans to practice in Spokane after she graduates. They own a home in the area, and plan to remain in Spokane for five more years, at least.

“I love F5 a lot. But I love Spokane a lot, too,” Smit said. “And it’s really nice that I don’t have to pick and choose between the two.”

Connecting the two geographies

Due to the lower cost of living, F5 employees in Spokane are paid less than those in the same positions in Seattle and Silicon Valley, acknowledged Schramm, the chief people officer, responding to GeekWire’s question about compensation. However, the salaries are very competitive for the Spokane area, she added.

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“It’s a second family for us,” Schramm said. “Everyone respects each other and works well as a team. We work in a highly technical and challenging tech space, and that’s why people stay here. It’s one of the best tech companies to work for in Spokane, and we have low attrition and a great reputation in the community.”

F5 Spokane is involved in a variety of community initiatives in Spokane, including recruiting and mentoring students from local universities, attending various technical meetings including IEEE, and sponsoring events.

Looking back at the start of F5’s hardware group, Stockdale, the former F5 executive, cited a key decision, early on, to bridge the geographical gap as part of the structure of the organization. Most of the firmware engineering team was based in Seattle, with some firmware engineers and the bulk of hardware engineering based in Spokane.

microsoft, the hidden link between seattle and spokane: tech companies find success on both sides of the state

An article in the Spokane Spokesman-Review in July 1999 breaks the news of the new F5 site, run by Jeff Stockdale at the time. (Click to Enlarge)

That created a natural interface between the teams and the two locations.

“It was about as seamless as you can get,” he said. “I am a firm believer that that was the reason that we were successful.”

He added, “I just look back on my F5 days, and it’s really one of the most rewarding experiences that I’ve ever had, growing a team from zero to a very successful operation, and doing it from scratch.”

What they did at F5 could still be a model for other companies, Stockdale said.

“Seattle is not known as a hardware development town so much,” he said. “And Spokane still has a significant talent pool for hardware development, especially networking. So I think it’s extremely interesting to do it that way.”

In terms of challenges, he said, the pool of talent in the Spokane area can feel a bit “niche-y,” without a broad representation across the spectrum of hardware development expertise.

But the benefits are significant, including shorter commutes, easy access to outdoor recreation, less rain than in Seattle, and a loyal workforce.

“In my experience, the employee retention rates were exceptional,” Stockdale said. “As an organization, you’re looking for qualified people that are going to stick around, and that are going to be happy.”

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