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Pittsburgh tech firm workers romp on soccer field to burn off energy, network

Tribune-Review
| Wednesday, July 27, 2016 11:00 p.m
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Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Omar Muya (left) an electrician at the National Robotics Engineering Center, and Nic Byrd, an engineer for Google Pittsburgh, battle for the ball Saturday, July 23, 2016, during a Tech Cup soccer league game in Shadyside.
ptrtechsoccer072516
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Emily Hofmeister of the National Robotics Engineering Center soccer team and Alex Topolski, a program manager for Google Pittsburgh, compete in a league game Saturday, July 23, 2016, in Shadyside.

Adam Panzica’s nose was still slightly swollen a week after he broke it during a soccer game against a league rival.

The injury happened when Panzica dived to save a goal — with his face. He kept playing, and his team won the game. Seven days later and on one of the hottest days of Pittsburgh’s sweltering summer, he was ready to play again. Team Uber was counting on him.

“I’d say we work hard and we play hard,” said Panzica, 29, an engineer at the ride-sharing firm in the Strip District. “We’re people driven to succeed, and that comes out on the soccer field.”

Uber was among the favorites to win the league championship. Its only loss was to top-ranked M*Modal, a software company in Squirrel Hill.

The Tech Cup soccer league, now in its second year, fields 10 teams from Pittsburgh tech firms including Google, IBM, 4moms, Nowait and the National Robotics Engineering Center. What began as a small pickup game among Google employees six years ago now boasts more than 100 players who work at software and robotics companies.

Weekend warrior sports leagues are nothing new. Softball leagues or bowling teams have for decades been a way for a company’s employees to blow off steam outside the office. But the Tech Cup league, which is not officially sanctioned by the companies, still underscores the industry’s growth in Pittsburgh and highlights the prevailing values in high-tech culture.

It is an industry that is at once collegial and hyper competitive, as well as intensely entrepreneurial.

“It reflects the interests that tech companies have,” said Sam Romano, 29, a Google software engineer. “Create the world that we want.”

There can be a bit of professional networking among the players, too. That’s kind of how the league got started.

Google employees had been organizing regular pickup games on Thursdays when, four years ago, a few people from the software startup Duolingo approached them about the companies playing regular matches. Severin Hacker, Duolingo’s co-founder, is a native of Switzerland and an avid fan of the German club team FC Bayern Munich. He was a fan of Google’s talented staff and hoped to persuade them to join his young company.

“The motivation was to get more visibility in Google,” Hacker said.

His recruiting overtures did not work, but the league kept growing as more soccer-loving staff at other tech companies asked to join. Last year was the first as an organized league.

There is something to be said for getting employees of rival companies together outside professional settings, particularly in the tech sector, said Toni Cusumano, the technology sector people and organization leader at consulting firm PwC.

“Ideas come in all shapes and sizes,” Cusumano said. “You should be engaging with people as much as you can, whether it’s through pickup soccer games or finding ways to do a strategic partnership.”

Teams often reflect the prevailing culture of their companies, said Phil Anderson, a league organizer who plays for Nowait. Uber is the younger, more competitive group, he said. Google is egalitarian, more concerned with everyone having equal playing time than with winning. The National Robotics Engineering Center is more academically inclined and not so worried about winning sports trophies. Indeed, its team lost every game this year. But even after a 3-0 drubbing at the hands of Google on the final game of the season, NREC players seemed just as pleased to share post-match orange slices.

“Our team personality is basically about having fun,” said Kevin Zhang, 19, an intern at NREC who had not played soccer competitively since elementary school. “We know we’re not going to do very well.”

Duolingo is the underdog, Hacker said, though that wasn’t apparent in its last game. Third-ranked Duolingo was playing undefeated M*Modal and jumped out to an early 1-0 lead.

Both teams were assured of making the playoffs. (It’s a forgiving system in which eight of 10 teams advance.) But Hacker and his teammates kept charging hard, making sprints toward the goal even late in the game. Duolingo won the match 3-0. It was the only time M*Modal was shut out all season.

A couple of Uber players watching from the bleachers exchanged surprised looks. Suddenly, M*Modal did not look so invincible heading into the playoffs.

Not that anyone takes the competition too seriously.

“We’re just approaching it as a chance to get out and play with each other,” Panzica said.

It’s just a little friendly rivalry among colleagues, he said. Even if someone’s nose gets broken.

Chris Fleisher is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7854 or cfleisher@tribweb.com.

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