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Future is now: Tech leaders, job creators, econ-dev officials on Louisville’s talent strengths and weaknesses

by Staff

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In lieu of our Monday Business Briefing, we’re bringing you  a post-holiday post on a topic that’s growing more critically important by the day – workforce skills.

Everyone else is talking about the unemployment rate.

We believe Louisville actually has a serious, systemic talent deficit.

Specifically, we worry the region lacks the next-gen skills to be competitive at a time the world is on the verge of multiple technical and manufacturing revolutions including 3-D manufacturing.

During a recent Monday Start-up meeting at Insider Louisville’s offices, Jay Garmon, formerly with Backupify, made the point that the number one reason Rob May relocated the tech company to Cambridge, Mass. back in 2010 was trouble finding tech talent in Louisville.

Backupify, which backs up companies’ social media data to a cloud,  needed to hire 25 Ruby on Rails coders in less than 90 days. Garmon told our group Backupify could have hired all the Rails coders in Louisville and still would have been five slots short.

That was 2010.

Where are we now?

Well, Impulcity creators Hunter Hammonds and Austin Cameron moved the social-scene startup to Cincinnati back in October, in part because, they said, they couldn’t find enough data scientists and computer engineers in Louisville.

This is not reassuring.

On Saturday, Roobiq founder Adam Fish sent us a New York Times piece about General Electric recruiting hundreds of engineers to its new software center in San Ramon, Calif., just across the bay from San Francisco. GE’s goal is to incorporate sensor technology and the data collection/data crunching power of the Internet to increase efficiency in everything from hospital admissions to jet engine manufacturing.

From the piece:

The company plans to increase that work force of computer scientists and software developers to 400, and to invest $1 billion in the center by 2015. The buildup is part of G.E’s big bet on what it calls the “industrial Internet,” bringing digital intelligence to the physical world of industry as never before. The concept of Internet-connected machines that collect data and communicate, often called the “Internet of Things,” has been around for years. Information technology companies, too, are pursuing this emerging field. I.B.M. has its “Smarter Planet” projects, while Cisco champions the “Internet of Everything.” But G.E.’s effort, analysts say, shows that Internet-era technology is ready to sweep through the industrial economy much as the consumer Internet has transformed media, communications and advertising over the last decade.

Is Louisville ready for this new industrial/technology epoch?

That’s essentially the question we put to a broad cross section of entrepreneurs, business owners, techies and start-up veterans, seeking their wisdom about how competitive Louisville is in terms of having enough people with the right 21st Century skills.

Deborah Boyer

Deborah Boyer, entrepreneur and consultant:

What the general workforce UPS, GE, the hospitals and retailers need,  I really do not know. When sitting around talking with them off the record, they say it is employees who take pride in their work, who can grow in their jobs and who understand the finer points of taking initiative. For tech/hi-growth start ups/businesses, it is people who have been there before. Someone in customer development who understands how consumers or businesses buy (or knows how to find out), marketing folks who know how to do “growth hacking,” tech people who understand how to build out a system. (It is never as easy as it looks and staying on track requires great skills.) And by the way – folks who take pride in their work, can grow in their jobs, and understand the finer points of taking initiative. Frequently the only way we can get people trained in those skills is by putting them through a start-up or having them work in a growth company.

Doug Cobb

• Doug Cobb is the former chairman and CEO of Appriss, a firm that creates software-based services allowing victims, police and federal criminal justice agencies track offenders through automated notification systems. Cobb also is the former CEO of Greater Louisville Inc., the  Metro Chamber of Commerce, and he founded the Cobb Group, Louisville’s first tech-oriented media company:

At Appriss, we have hired several hundred people over the course of of the last 15 years, including software engineers, database administrators, IT professionals and other supposedly hard-to-find talent. I can’t think of a time when we were unable to find the person we needed, and in general I would rate the quality of the people we hired very high. I’m not saying it was easy to find the talent we needed – we worked hard to build a great employer brand and to create a great workplace that would allow us to attract and retain top people – but I am saying that we did not experience the infamous Louisville skills gap.

• Adam Fish is CEO of Roobiq, which is developing a mobile personal assistant for SalesForce called Roobi. Fish also is the chief advocate at Forge, Louisville’s start-up advocacy group:

In terms of technical talent, I have tried to separate my thoughts from talents that would be great in an ideal world and what could realistically be supported. On the realistic side, I think Louisville – with support from the region’s higher ed. schools – could and should support more “data science” engineers. I believe this is a growing field … i.e. think “Big Data” which is just a general trend to try and gain valuable insight from the mounds of data that companies are storing simply because the cost of storage has fallen so low. Furthermore, we have two companies I believe are (essentially) data companies: Humana and UPS. Logistics is (largely) a data puzzle, while health insurance is also (largely)  a data puzzle. Humana hires several PhDs in the data science field and I have spoken with Brian Carter (also a PhD) a little about this. After reading this article, I reached out to Roy Lowrence,  who told me what they are doing at New York University to launch a data scientist Masters and PhD level program.

Adam Fish

My goal is to … push U of L or others in this direction. If UPS and Humana would be supportive since it is in their interests, I think this is a niche that the region could carve out. Given the breadth of technologies “data science” covers, I think this could lead to interesting data-based startups which would require different talents, and thus this would allow us to expand and support those. For example, the only engineer I know who is working with “Hadoop,” a system used to analyze big data, works at Cafe Press, analyzing all their web logs to optimize the site for conversions. So you can see how quickly engineers with this background could be useful for lots of companies.

• Jay Gamon, former marketing director at Backupify, and a veteran of multiple start-ups and tech-focused businesses:

Well, as we all know, we need more software engineers. Not IT guys, not network administrators. Software ENGINEERS, particularly guys that work with newer, more experimental/open source stuff. If they don’t have a Github login, they aren’t the right techies. We have people like that here, but not nearly enough of them. The frustrating part is I know there are hundreds of corporate software-dev guys here in town who could become this type of engineer if they ever had an incentive to do so.

As a subset of that group, we need mobile development talent. You have no idea how hard it is to get an Android or iOS app built in this town. You could fit everyone who does that kind of work in Louisville at the same table at Wick’s Pizza and you wouldn’t need more than three pizzas to feed them. Parallel but not equivalent, we don’t have enough hardware hackers. LVL1 has been a godsend in gathering together all the soldering-iron savants here in town, but we need to increase their  number by an order of magnitude. Hardware is poised for a comeback – look at companies like Square, which have married smart hardware and software to do something new and disruptive – and Louisville isn’t remotely ready to capitalize on that in a meaningful way. Alex Frommeyer (at BEAM Technologies) and Madison Hamman (at Mavison) seem alone in the wilderness on this front.
I’d start there. We have lots of really good business development types here. We are overflowing with great design talent. We can draw beautiful pictures, and sell beautiful products, but we don’t have the tech talent to build what we like to draw or want to sell. We get those guys here in big numbers, and Louisville is primed to explode with new businesses.

•David Jones, Jr., founder and chairman of Chrysalis Ventures, and former Humana chairman:

From my perspective, the need goes well beyond just tech and engineering folks. Nurses and allied health, managers who can organize the complexity of healthcare and social services, big data analytics folk, sales (needed everywhere and changing as things get more complex) and more.

Suhas Kulkarni, director of the Fischer Administration’s Office of Globalization:

Aging care:

  • A workforce to support our claim to be an Aging Care center. We are recognized as leaders in Aging Care and innovation. We should have the largest concentration of geriatric professionals – ranging from physicians to CNA’s and everyone in the middle – in the United States.
  • Researchers and more concentration on Aging Care and innovation in our University and Colleges.
  • We need to have training programs to attract more immigrants into our skilled workforce, as they make for great and motivated workers.

° That includes translating technical documentation

° Workplace etiquette and acceptance training

Phil Moffett

• Phil Moffett, Louisville-based businessman, managing partner for CSS Partners, which manages wireless systems, and a former Republican candidate for Kentucky governor:

In hopes of trying to keep my answer focused on technology, I reached out to a couple of local small business owners, Tony Fink at New Age Technology on .com, and Tony Deye at Kelly Fabricators on skilled trades.

Tony Fink runs a technical staffing firm that hires programmers. His answer was quick and to the point: .net programmers.

Tony Deye runs a specialty sheet metal fabrication plant – low volume, custom parts – usually requiring a bit more skill than a typical break press operator. His answer was more interesting: Skilled trades people. Tough to compete against GE and Ford. Line jobs pays well and are easier than the physical labor required in sheet metal. Immigrants have covered building trades, roofing, framing and drywall but haven’t shown up in sheet metal, which is higher skilled.

My answers are policy oriented as opposed to technical. I believe when the business environment changes, highly qualified people will be drawn to the area by growing companies/job opportunities. The environment changes when tax and regulatory policies are reshaped, giving business owners the comfort of fair and reasonable taxation and regulation.

•  Chris Poynter, spokesman for Metro Mayor Greg Fischer:

We see a significant need for skilled tech labor in advanced manufacturing. People don’t have the skill sets to operate in the high-tech Ford and GE plants, for example. The Fischer Administration is working on a plan to address that – more to come in the coming months on that effort.

Ted Smith

• Ted Smith, Louisville’s director of Innovation and Economic Development:

Ever since I started my new role in the mash-up of Innovation and Economic Development, I’ve been tracking daily job openings in Louisville every day since February. It is very clear that between sales and customer service, we are really falling short of meeting known visible skill demand. This is the reason I’ve created a new “open course” program called the Mayors Salesforce Career Institute – any qualified trainer can offer this one-day program to help nudge folks with natural ability into sales without the complexity of a higher education program. The first session is next week. My goal is to get 1,000 through this year.

• Albrecht Stahmer, a former Louisvillian, is a management consultant living in Tokyo:

In my personal opinion, mind set is the key skill for the 21st century. Future business leaders will need to understand how other people from other cultures think. Global business models are changing. Instead of multinational corporate structures with a headquarters in a home country and wholly-owned subsidiaries in host countries, future corporate incarnations will look far different with a company having its global HQ in San Jose or NYC, but its global R&D completely located in Mumbai and its global HR in Singapore. The consolidation of back office functions in a single HQ is coming to an end and that time is not that far off. Only folks with a flexible, open mindset will be able to survive in these companies, yet alone lead them.

Think of the radical changes over the last 50 years: Domestic companies turned into export companies which turned into international companies (home country HQ that controlled satellite sales offices around the world) which turned into multinational companies (home country holding company/HQ with wholly-owned host country subsidiaries with vertical legal and tax footprints in said host countries) which will turn into global companies (in essence, borderless entities that disperse key horizontal functions throughout the world for the purpose of economies of scale–think KFC, Beam on a lesser scale).

Chris Vermilion

• Chris Vermilion, a physicist and engineer, is co-founder/CFO at Roobiq:

I agree with Adam Fish that a strong data science community would be a powerful and obvious complement to Louisville’s existing resources. My impression is, this is currently a very small community that doesn’t have much of a U of L connection. Grace Simrall (@greendrv) would be a good person to ask about local data science ….

My personal experience only covers Roobiq, and there I can say we’ve had trouble finding talented people for the niche technologies at their core of our business – language processing and reasoning. But these are pretty unusual fields; machine reasoning in particular is hard to find anywhere. It’s also been my (totally subjective and anecdotal) impression that the area is not overflowing with really great iOS and mobile design talent. It’s possible I’m just not looking the right places ….

Beyond that, I can only report what I’ve heard from the broader community. There’s a pretty consistent refrain that U o fL is not teaching the programming skills and languages that startups are looking for — in particular, nothing on Ruby (and the associated Rails framework), which lots of folks building web applications are using these days. One thing I’d emphasize is that startups and established companies have quite different talent needs. Big companies with long time horizons can afford to train people. If time isn’t a (big) issue, it’s presumably cheaper to train a smart person. Startups don’t always have that luxury, especially if they’re trying to launch a product in a rapidly changing space.


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