& & by Julia Silverman & & & &
Smack in the heart of the Spokane Valley, the Agilent building sprawls solidly, a giant among a slew of newly built high-tech headquarters.
Back in 1979, when Agilent -- then Hewlett-Packard -- first arrived in Spokane, there was no tech corridor to speak of, let alone the development that has grown up around the company's Liberty Lake site.
In fact, the building's inhabitants celebrated when a mini-mart opened nearby in the early '80s: finally, a place near work to get gas.
Today, of course, it's a different story: the names of every other business in the area seem to end in -tech or -tek. And Agilent has changed too: Entirely spun off from its better-known parent company in June of 2000, the Spokane facility has grown, physically and technologically. Today, the building's 1,300 workers need a floor map to decipher which cubicle their colleagues are inhabiting, and its engineers are working on devices to test the next generation of wireless phones -- virtually unimaginable back in 1979.
But one thing hasn't changed: Agilent remains an anchor of the tech industry in Spokane. It's one of the area's largest industrial employers and is often held up as an example by politicians and others looking to recruit more new high technology, higher wage paying firms to the area.
The employees at Agilent in Spokane aren't working on the sexier products of the technology revolution. There are no flashy Web sites and no e-commerce. Their work is more behind-the-scenes: For example, the engineers on the third floor design devices to test the viability of wireless phones, working alongside phone manufacturers like Nokia and Samsung, ironing out bugs during development.
Right now, computer engineer Wanda Walsh is working on a testing device for the third wave of wireless phones, a wave that will allow cell phone users to surf the Web.
"What they pay us for is problem solving," she says. "That's what our job is, and every day we get better at breaking down problems and solving them. It's amazing to be helping to implement a brand new technology, to actually have done something no one else has put out on the market."
One floor down, rows and rows of workers labor away assembling the green-plated circuit boards installed inside electronic equipment -- taking care of the Spokane branch's other primary function. Most consumers are dimly aware that circuit boards exist inside stereos and microwaves, but they usually don't wonder how and where they are assembled. And yet, says Liz Cox, a spokesperson for Agilent, as electronics have become more handheld and more specialized, circuit boards have needed more components too delicate to be assembled by a machine.
Although the tech market is fluctuating, and some high profile tech companies in the area have announced layoffs, Cox says Agilent's jobs in Spokane are largely secure, although the growth of the last few years is likely to have topped out for now.
"We have cycles," she says. "The last one was the Asian financial crisis, which hit Korea, where there are lots of cell phone manufacturers, very hard. We managed through that. This is another cycle. We ride them out."
Even more than the sputtering economy, the spinoff from Hewlett-Packard has shaken some at Agilent, says Cox.
All though Hewlett-Packard today is known internationally for the computer and printers it produces, the business began in 1938 in a Palo Alto, Calif., garage. There, HP's founders invented a resistance-capacity oscillator, which tested sound equipment -- a legacy of testing and measuring to which the 47,000 Agilent employees, who work in 40 different countries today, can lay claim.
"I think there was some degree of resentment," Cox said. "We were the primordial roots, but they got the name."
Now Agilent wants to make its name as well known around here as HP is in the rest of the world.
Although the bulk of the company's philanthropy falls into the lap of Palo Alto, where its headquarters are located, Agilent has a distinct presence in Spokane. Company officials -- however unsuccessfully -- lobbied United Airlines to change its decision to suspend direct flights between Spokane and San Francisco, and Agilent often sponsors local science fairs and programs aimed at involving more women and minorities in science careers.
"We have a real stake in this community," says Cox.