Voices From Here: Software Engineer Matt Lyles Navigates The Challenges Of Seattle's Tech Boom | KNKX

Voices From Here: Software Engineer Matt Lyles Navigates The Challenges Of Seattle's Tech Boom

Oct 27, 2016

Matt Lyles knows how some people in Seattle feel about tech workers.

"When I came here, I was trying to start a better life for me," he said. "I didn't think I would be harming other people in doing so, but that's kind of what I feel sometimes."

Lyles is a software development engineer at Amazon. He helps Echo, the company's voice-activated speaker, figure out which songs to play when someone says, "Play sad songs from Soundgarden."

As he talks about his work, employees clear out of a cafe after lunch in one of the downtown Seattle Amazon towers. To get there, you have to walk  past a construction zone and cranes can be seen from the window. In fact, Seattle is one of the leading cities in number of cranes for commercial developments.

That image is part of what Lyles is referring to.

Growing Pains

In 2015, the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue area was one of the top ten metro areas with the most tech workers in the country, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  In this region, they also make 78 percent more than the average worker.

And they're only going to keep coming. The Washington State Employment Security Department reports that between May and August this year, there were more openings advertised online for software developers than for any other occupation. 

It's no secret that the influx of people and new buildings has had some unintended consequences for the region such as displacement and congestion. Seeing those consequences partly informs what Lyles says he is thinking about this election cycle.

"You don't want to see people struggling on the streets when so many other people in other parts of the town are being so prosperous," he said.  "It makes me feel kind of bad because it's like we're using the city for our own good, then possibly leaving it, discarding it."

A Transplant's Struggle

Like many in the Puget Sound region who work in tech, Lyles is a transplant. He came from Boise, Idaho to work at Amazon in 2013.

He said being from Idaho means he has a little bit more of a Pacific Northwest sensibility than some of his peers.

"I kind of look like I fit in," he said. "A lot of my passions are very popular here. I like to go out and drink beer, so I can go out to Fremont Brewery and have a couple IPAs."

Lyles said he studied computer science in college because he knew it would pay off. He got a good job right after he graduated and bought his first house in Boise when he was 21, which he has since sold. 

"It was definitely a means to an end, giving me the income to allow these sorts of things," he said. "It's also become a passion of mine."

Now, Lyles is putting down roots. At 29 years old, he just got engaged and cut his long hair. He bought another house this past spring in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood.

When asked about the election and the things he cares about, he talks about homeless camps, heroin use and affordable housing. He mentioned specific initiatives for transportation and cutting carbon emissions. In short, almost everything came up local.

Lyles said he tries to find ways to give back to the community and get involved, but doesn't always know the right venue to do so.

Part of that struggle comes from his peers and the bubble they sometimes occupy. He said sometimes he feels like his fellow techies aren't interested in having the conversations he wants to have.

"It's almost like, 'Washington's cool because there's legal marijuana and no income tax.' That's kind of the extent," he said. "I don't think people have a real long-term vision of Washington or Seattle because they don't expect to stay around."

Encryption And The Government

Lyles hasn't been impressed with the scope of the national conversation this election season. 

He sees himself as mostly progressive. He was rooting for Bernie Sanders in the primary, but said he will now reluctantly vote for Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

"It's kind of a lesser-of-two-evils sort of vote instead of that enthusiastic pro vote," he said.

One issue where he said the conversation has been lacking in the presidential election is cybersecurity. Specifically, he is worried about law enforcement having access to encrypted data on certain devices.

The debate over encryption made national headlines during the FBI's investigation into the shootings in San Bernardino, Calif., last December. The agency asked Apple to create a way to unlock the iPhone of one of the attackers. The company refused, but the Justice Department eventually found a way to access the information independently.

Lyles said Republican candidate Donald Trump has been vague on the subject. But it's one reason he's wary of Clinton, who he thinks would give government that access.

His concern is personal -- he doesn't want anyone reading his emails, for example -- but it's also professional. He worries people who use the technology he makes could be made vulnerable.

"If we have to put in all these back doors into our technologies, how can we guarantee the safety of data transfer?" he said. "I think people that understand the scope of this problem and what's involved are more inclined toward government staying out of encryption."

Beyond that, Lyles said he sees the government as a protector. For him, that's less about national security, and more about supporting social programs.

"Now that I have some money, I care more about tax dollars and where they're being spent," he said.

Lyles said as a property owner in Seattle, if he's going to pay so much in taxes then it should go to something that makes a difference.

"Really, I would like to see the government protecting the people that are the most vulnerable," he said.

For the country, Lyles said he hopes the gap between the haves and the have-nots gets smaller. Similarly in Seattle, he said it might be better for everyone if the changes in the city just slowed down.