Channels ▼

The Top Ten Cities for Programmers

Oct00: The Top Ten Cities for Programmers

Shannon is a DDJ associate news editor. She can be reached at [email protected]

In May, the U.S. Conference of Mayors distributed a survey to 177 cities across the country, asking representatives to rank the industries driving their local economies. Most often, the high-tech industry -- telecommunications, Internet service, and e-commerce -- was ranked number one.

But though the digital revolution may be transforming American cities equally, in the high-tech arena some places remain more equal than others. In fact, the "top 10" American cities for software-related employment, according to the Software & Information Industry Association's (http:// analysis of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, are spread all over the map and include some surprises -- San Jose, California yields its silicon crown to Boulder, Colorado; Huntsville, Alabama struts in at number five; and Seattle only ranks 23rd, barely edging out Wichita, Kansas and Lowell, Massachusetts.

These figures reflect the number of software-industry employees relative to the area's overall population. The SIIA included software-related positions such as electronic data processing, computer programmer aides, computer support specialists, and systems analysts in its totals. However, if the cities are ranked instead by the raw number of programmers alone -- not considered relative to population -- then Boulder doesn't even make the top 40. In this scenario, Washington D.C. moves to the front of the class with 34,700 programmers; Chicago, Illinois, is second with 34,000; New York (26,510), and Seattle, Washington (21,890) follow; and San Jose is eighth with 14,420.

And when the scope of the examination is broadened to include jobs other than programming, the numbers swell. The Washington D.C. area has 118,960 high-tech employees, San Jose 53,820, and Austin, Texas 20,000. Seattle then drops behind because it only has a few thousand more jobs for aides and analysts than it does for programmers. And it's when these figures are considered in terms of population density that Boulder leaps forward. The city's total population is only 267,274, compared to, say, 3,289,096 for the greater Boston area. In that small a pond, a mere 9200 high-tech fish can make quite a stir. Table 1 shows the numbers determining the rankings of the 10 cities.

So what makes a city attractive to high-tech companies? A pool of capital and an attractive tax situation is important, of course; the presence of one or more universities, providing a skilled labor pool and resources for research, seems to be another requirement.

So what makes a city attractive to high-tech workers? The availability of high-bandwidth Internet access is a good litmus test. Decent Thai food is probably another. And, when it comes down to it, money -- reflected in a high salary and low cost-of-living -- wins nearly every time. For instance, Table 2 compares the average programmer's salary in each of the cities with the average cost of a 2000-square foot home. Finally, the nebulous sense of "quality of life" to a city -- character, culture, activity, pulse -- seems to become more important the longer a resident remains.

Boulder, Colorado

Surrounded by wildlife reserves and hiking trails, located where the prairie meets the mountains, Boulder is "a metaphysical kind of place. People come here seeking Nirvana," says city councilmember Spense Havlick.

Havlick thinks the software industry's presence in Boulder began with a policy at the University of Colorado, which allows any graduate to use its libraries and laboratories for free. This naturally encourages newly graduated researchers to stay in the Boulder area while hammering out the technology of their dreams. And when those dreams become successful, more jobs are generated for Boulder. Among the largest employers in the city are Ball Aerospace & Technologies, IBM, and Exabyte Corporation.

The approximately 1850 computer programmers in the Boulder area can expect to do well, commanding on average about $25.75 per hour. Reflecting the demand for computer hardware manufacturers in the area, however, the 3000-plus computer engineers average more than $35.00 per hour in salary.

But Boulder doesn't seem too happy about being number one. "Don't come to Boulder," Havlick says flatly. "We don't want more people." The city is limited by law to a 1 percent growth rate, and "there is essentially no affordable housing." There are already 50,000 daily commuters, and pollution and congestion threaten to stain Boulder's renowned quality of life. Newcomers seeking an idyllic oasis will "spoil it for themselves," says the councilmember.

"We are about to hang a No Vacancy sign at the city limits," Havlick says. His recommendation to the new hires of Boulder companies: "Telecommute."

San Jose, California

The capital of Silicon Valley, on the other hand, embraces the high-tech workers it has and holds out its arms for more. The city web site ( has an extensive online guide to "Going Into Business in San Jose," boasting that the city "truly lives up to its name," "is rich with R&D resources and venture capital," and is "the epicenter for information technology." And with high-tech heavyweights such as Sun Microsystems, Apple, Cisco, Adobe, and Hewlett-Packard headquartering in or around San Jose, it's hard to argue with this assessment.

In addition, according to the FBI, San Jose has the lowest crime rate of any U.S. city with a population over 250,000. The climate is Mediterranean, "averaging 300 days of sunshine and an annual average temperature of 60 degrees Fahrenheit," according to the city's web site. And housing, while very expensive and difficult to locate compared to other regions of the country, is not quite so scarce as in San Francisco.

Many say, however, that the traffic in San Jose is as bad as Los Angeles. The nightlife is somewhat sparse, and the city is not known for its cultural or entertainment offerings. San Franciscans tend to be dismissive of San Jose: One newspaper referred derisively to "Houston, Phoenix, San Jose -- not cities really, but developed areas" (Matt Smith, "Aparkalypse Now," SF Weekly, May 24 2000).

Still, programmers in San Jose can expect to do much better than their counterparts in, say, Boulder. On average, the more than 13,000 San Jose programmers average greater than $33.00 per hour. Contrary to what you find in Boulder, at $32.00 per hour, computer engineers in San Jose average less than programmers. In fact, programmers in San Jose are the highest paid computer professionals surveyed, averaging more than hardware engineers and system analysts. This is contrary to many other areas of the country, where programmers end up second or third on the average salary scale.

Washington D.C.

On the heels of the "Capital of Silicon Valley" is the nation's true Capital -- the District of Columbia, home to national science programs such as NASA and NIST, international agencies like the World Bank, a dozen universities, and the majority of backbone Internet providers, including AOL: In total, nearly 3000 technology companies. However, most of the high-tech activity is actually concentrated outside the District, in northern Virginia.

Perhaps reflecting the Beltway's respect for bureaucracy, systems analysts, at $29.40 per hour, are the highest paid segment of IT professionals. At $24.50 per hour, programmers also trail behind computer engineers.

The D.C. area was recently determined to be the most wired area of the United States, with 60 percent of adults maintaining Internet connections, according to The Washington Post. This news sparked a heated discussion on Slashdot (http:// "Washington D.C. may be the most wired, but I wouldn't want to live there," wrote Bojay Iverson. "It was a stagnant cesspool some 200 years ago and very little has changed...Give me good 'ol Minneapolis any day."

Natives of the District immediately rallied in defense: "Wrong wrong wrong," posted Rusty Foster, of "D.C. is: Not one big ghetto. Even if I dropped you down in the 'bad' parts of town these days, you probably wouldn't realize it. Not full of politicians. I've never met a politician. I have a couple of friends who work for Senators, but most people I know either work for hi-tech companies or non-profits. There's an amazing amount of really, really smart people here. Extremely diverse -- I'm pretty sure there isn't a country on earth that doesn't have at least a few representatives living in D.C. And I'm not talking about the embassies. Overall, it's a great place to live."

Others pointed to Washington's breadth of art and history -- the Smithsonian, the three Shakespearean theaters, the National Symphony Orchestra, the cathedrals, the Library of Congress. "I'm thinking of taking a turn out on the West Coast for a couple of years, and that's definitely going to be the thing I miss, the sheer depth of culture," wrote another poster.

Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill, North Carolina

The Triangle, as it's known, began as a research park fed by three local universities -- Duke, North Carolina State, and the University of North Carolina. The sleepy college towns and neighboring rural areas underwent a transformation about 10 years ago, when an influx of both high-tech corporations and wealthy retirees created a development boom.

Raleigh now houses six universities as well as the state capitol. Durham is a center for medical research. And the Triangle Research Park hosts 136 organizations including Cisco, GTE, IBM, and Nortel.

Following the pattern established in locales such as Boulder, computer engineers in the Research Triangle lead the way in terms of salary, averaging more than $30.00 per hour. In comparison, programmers weigh in at $27.75 per hour, while systems analysts trail at $25.90 per hour.

Residents of the Triangle area echo some of the familiar boom-town themes: Housing costs have risen, development space is tight, and public transit is a problem. Triangle Park was conceived "as an area in which there would be no housing; it was not intended as a residential area at all," says long-time Chapel Hill resident Jean Black. "And what happened was that it was too successful."

But the cost of living in North Carolina is still attractively low, the cities have preserved their green spaces and pedestrian areas, the basketball teams are top-notch, and many extol the charm of the Southern communities: "The Triangle comprises a patchwork of cities and towns, each with a distinct character and history, each with something different to offer residents and visitors," enthuses Laurie Scott on the Digital City web site (

"There's less of a sense of community in Chapel Hill than there used to be, though there's more here than in other places," says Black. And she hopes that newcomers will respect the region's small-town traditions -- when "they don't remember what it was...they don't feel any obligation to keep it that way."

Huntsville, Alabama

The high-tech industry first came to Huntsville in 1941, when a chemical weapons manufacturing plant was established for the U.S. Army. Then, in 1949, Dr. Wernher Von Braun and a team of German rocket scientists brought America's new aerospace industry to the city. NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center remains one of Huntsville's major tourist attractions. The Huntsville branch of the University of Alabama, located in Cummings Research Park, was also established as a direct result of Von Braun's work.

In the 1980s, the Park began to attract major companies, and some former government contractors also started companies there, leading to a surge in high-tech growth. Today, Cummings Research Park houses approximately 8 million square feet of industrial complexes and more than 26,000 employees. Among the corporate presences are United Technologies, Alabama Supercomputer Network, SCI Systems, ADTRAN, Lockheed Martin, SDI, IBM, and Hughes Aircraft.

As elsewhere, computer engineers can expect to do better salary-wise than their IT counterparts. At about $28.00 per hour, engineers are ahead of both systems analysts ($25.70/hour) and programmers ($22.70/hour).

And city representatives say that, because Huntsville's growth has been a gradual, long-term process, the city has almost entirely avoided the signal problems--congestion, spiraling cost of living, and scarcity of housing--that plague many of the other top 10 high-tech cities. The cost of living in Huntsville, according to the American Chamber of Commerce Researchers Association, is significantly lower than in Raleigh/Durham and is about two-thirds that of Washington D.C. And housing is plentiful and inexpensive. In fact, the slogan of the city's web site (http://ci is "Space Available in Huntsville."

What's more, Huntsville has a good assortment of restaurants and a lively club scene. The city also features several sites of historic interest, including many antebellum mansions -- the story is that their residents flew Union flags during the march of the Northern armies, thus sparing these historic mansions the destruction common to the rest of Alabama.

Colorado Springs, Colorado

High-tech presences in Colorado Springs include MCI Worldcom, Hewlett-Packard, Oracle, Compaq, and Intel. The U.S. Air Force Academy is also a substantial presence in the city, as is the Olympic Training Center, and there are three universities in the area.

In general, comparable salaries in Colorado Springs average somewhat less than in-state rival Boulder. Programmers, for instance, average about $25.50 per hour in Colorado Springs, while engineers average slightly more than $29.00 per hour and systems analysts more than $26.00 per hour.

But Colorado Springs' major selling point has always been the grandeur of its scenery. Nearby Pike's Peak was the inspiration for the famous "O purple mountain's majesty" line in the song "America the Beautiful." The city was laid out in the 1800s to echo European spas and resorts, and Colorado Springs is still a tourist town.

To residents who don't mind a bit of ever-present kitsch, the tourist attractions can be a blast. There are dude ranches and gold mines, cave tours with laser shows, and of course hiking and skiing opportunities abound.

Cost of living in Colorado Springs is only a bit higher than in Raleigh/Durham, and about equal to that of Austin, Texas. A one-bedroom apartment averages $475.00 a month in rent.

San Francisco, California

The City of Mists, Barbary Coast, Baghdad by the Bay -- San Francisco is a city of mythic dimensions, and has always attracted dreamers and prospectors. In the 19th century it was a wild boom-town of sailors and dancehalls; in the 1960s it was the haven of the flower children; in the '70s it was the birthplace of the Beats; and in the '90s it found another siren lure -- this time, the call of the Internet.

When developing software for the Internet, Bay Area employers can expect to pay about $31.00 per hour for programmers and nearly $34.00 per hour for computer engineers. By comparison, systems analysts don't fare as well, at about $29.00 per hour.

But the Bay also imposes limits of a literal and physical nature. Bounded as it is by ocean in three directions, San Francisco is incapable of urban sprawl. This makes for a dense and vibrant city -- a rich patchwork of diverse and striking neighborhoods -- but it has also precipitated a housing crisis of huge dimensions. The vacancy rate is under 2 percent, and the average studio apartment rents for $1000. The city has an endemic homeless population, and there's a simmering resentment against dot-commers among the long-term residents who have watched "affordable housing" vanish entirely.

Still, there's a sense among San Franciscans that they are elite, possessed of a treasure. The "good life," as represented by food and wine and sensual pleasures, still thrives. Artists, poets, and freedom-seekers of all stripes still make their way West. And if the digital revolution has shaken more than a few things up, well, this was never the city for those seeking stable ground.

Middlesex/Somerset/Hunterdon, New Jersey

Once a strictly suburban area, feeding the labor demands of New York, Philadelphia, and Trenton, this three-county area in central New Jersey has recently become a metropolis in its own right. The local economy has been fueled mostly by smaller start-ups, with the addition of R&D resources from larger corporations such as AT&T and Lucent. Rutgers University also helps to foster science and technology research.

Traffic congestion is chronic, but real estate in the area is relatively affordable and the landscape isn't the industrial wasteland that the words "New" and "Jersey" put together might initially suggest. Actually, central New Jersey is filled with parks, golf courses, and forests: Most of the area is semi-rural, and something close to 10 percent of the land has been reserved for green space, according to the Middlesex Regional Planning Partnership.

Still, central New Jersey isn't precisely a dream vacation spot. Perhaps that's why salaries in the region are so high; various studies have ranked the area's per-capita income as eighth or even second in the country. Salaries for computer professionals reflect these studies, with (surprisingly) programmers leading the way at $32.00 per hour. Computer engineers trail at $31.00 per hour, while systems analysts lag even further behind at $30.00/hour.

Boston, Massachusetts

Boston's always had a quirky, geek-friendly atmosphere. California may be software's land of milk and honey, but Massachusetts is the land of venture capital and patent applications. The presence of Harvard and MIT encourages egghead exploits in the city, and the myriad historical and cultural offerings also help the geeks to get out a bit.

Graduates of the many universities in the Boston area can expect to do well, assuming they stick with IT. For instance, programmers in Boston can average nearly $29.00 per hour, while engineers can command $32.00 per hour. Systems analysts again lag behind, at $27.00/hour.

Not all of the history is Founding Father stuff, either: "There's a lot more to Boston than statues of dead white guys on horses and chain stores in old brick buildings," encourages the Bizarro Boston web page ( .com/bizarro.html). "Take, for example, the site of the Great Molasses Flood of 1919...Or the book bound in human skin...Or the site where a local man used his mouth to catch a grape dropped from 60 stories."

The public transportation system is good, and the city rewards perambulation; but the housing market is comparable to New York, and so is traffic. As for the climate, a white Christmas is nearly guaranteed: Of course, the flip side of the winter-wonderland is evidenced by the existence of the "Winter Misery Center" web site for Bostonians (http://www Motto: "People in New England have got to get used to the idea that it is not going to stop snowing right away." -- National Weather Service Meteorologist Paul Head, quoted from the Boston Globe.

Austin/San Marcos, Texas

Again, the combination of a university's resources -- in this case, the University of Texas -- and technology start-ups has fueled a cycle of research and development leading to a boom in growth. Dell Computer is now the area's largest employer. Interestingly, a recent study sponsored by the Austin-based Benchmark Company found that half of the 30,000 workers arriving in Austin each year are relocating from other Texas cities; another 10 percent of the newcomers are from California, and the rest are drawn from across the country and Europe.

Programmers arriving in the area can expect to do well, at an average salary of about $25.00 per hour, on par with what systems analysts can make. Computer engineers can expect to do better, however, at $29.00 per hour.

Perhaps Texas residents are more familiar with the city's reputation as an oasis of greenery, music, and bohemian liberalism. "It's usually not what [outsiders are] expecting from someplace in Texas. We have hills, creeks, trees..." says Jess Karlin, a long-time resident of Austin. "Unfortunately as with most things, it's the people that get in the way of serenity. Austin's population has exploded the last five years -- -we're now a big city and we have a lot of the traffic problems of a big and growing city." Still, he says, Austin retains some of its laid-back characteristics--''it's not nearly so psychotic here as it is in a lot of places with those challenges."

According to The New York Times, the cost of housing in Austin has risen 71 percent in the last 10 years. Urban sprawl is causing environmental problems, and the city's infrastructure is pressured to keep pace with the demands of its booming population. Even some of the high-tech newcomers have become concerned that Austin could be transformed into a clone of Silicon Valley: In fact, some 300 local entrepreneurs have founded a nonprofit series of conferences, the "360.00 Summit," to help prevent such an eventuality.


Certain patterns clearly emerge from these 10 cities. The software boom brings an influx of wealth and population; with those benefits come the challenges of growth, including traffic congestion and housing crunches, which can lead to a spiraling cost of living. On the bright side, these crises are less acute in areas that have sustained longer-term growth, so perhaps these problems will even out naturally.

Another common theme involves the communities' struggle to retain their distinct identities during the onrush of newcomers, many of whom only expect to remain in the area for a few years. Hopefully, this problem will be solved by the globalization of the high-tech industry: Today's hot spots will not necessarily retain tomorrow's focus. Waiting in the wings already are Denver, Colorado; Dallas, Texas; Des Moines, Iowa; Omaha, Nebraska; and Stamford/Norwalk, Connecticut -- another broad cross-section of the country. As more metropolitan areas prove capable of attracting and sustaining software-related jobs, the pressure on individual cities will ease.

Lastly and perhaps most importantly, as the industry and its workers mature, job-seekers will need to begin paying more attention to the communities they settle in; they'll choose places to live as well as places to work. It's just the American Dream, version 2.0.


Related Reading

More Insights

Currently we allow the following HTML tags in comments:

Single tags

These tags can be used alone and don't need an ending tag.

<br> Defines a single line break

<hr> Defines a horizontal line

Matching tags

These require an ending tag - e.g. <i>italic text</i>

<a> Defines an anchor

<b> Defines bold text

<big> Defines big text

<blockquote> Defines a long quotation

<caption> Defines a table caption

<cite> Defines a citation

<code> Defines computer code text

<em> Defines emphasized text

<fieldset> Defines a border around elements in a form

<h1> This is heading 1

<h2> This is heading 2

<h3> This is heading 3

<h4> This is heading 4

<h5> This is heading 5

<h6> This is heading 6

<i> Defines italic text

<p> Defines a paragraph

<pre> Defines preformatted text

<q> Defines a short quotation

<samp> Defines sample computer code text

<small> Defines small text

<span> Defines a section in a document

<s> Defines strikethrough text

<strike> Defines strikethrough text

<strong> Defines strong text

<sub> Defines subscripted text

<sup> Defines superscripted text

<u> Defines underlined text

Dr. Dobb's encourages readers to engage in spirited, healthy debate, including taking us to task. However, Dr. Dobb's moderates all comments posted to our site, and reserves the right to modify or remove any content that it determines to be derogatory, offensive, inflammatory, vulgar, irrelevant/off-topic, racist or obvious marketing or spam. Dr. Dobb's further reserves the right to disable the profile of any commenter participating in said activities.

Disqus Tips To upload an avatar photo, first complete your Disqus profile. | View the list of supported HTML tags you can use to style comments. | Please read our commenting policy.