Find out why women are essential in technology companies, how staying in one job can be a programming error, and whether stereotypes are delete-worthy (think Mountain Dew in a dark room).
Jeanette Bennett, BusinessQ Magazine: What factors are leading Utah County to be “the place” for technology companies?
James Grierson, Bluehost: Our parent company is based in Boston and they look at Utah as their best talent pool because we have a lot of really smart, hard working people who take pride in what they do. We’re efficient in this area. We work hard, and we play hard.
Chad Bennett, Lancera & Box Support: Most of the people in my company have a mind for entrepreneurship. They’re excited about building something better, something new. That moves our businesses forward because I don’t have to think of everything. Everyone looks at the business as if it were their own.
Ryan Smith, Xactware: Local schools here invest in their IT education and infrastructure, such as the U of U, which is one of the pioneers of computer graphics. Schools here made it a focus early on, and now we have instructors with industry experience who turn out students who can join a company and be productive right from the get-go.
Grierson, Bluehost: We need to pay homage to the pioneers of technology such as WordPerfect and Novell who created that culture, who were the first ones to build big tech companies in this area and show that it’s viable.
Devin Baer, Google Fiber: The attribute that was interesting to us when we were looking to come to Utah was a strong heritage of successful technology companies. There was also a sense of what we call a “pioneer spirit” where there’s a culture of hard work and personal accountability. It’s inexpensive, it’s flexible and it’s easy for a business to come in and be successful.
Bennett, BusinessQ Magazine: Within our local tech community, is there a sense of camaraderie or competition?
Jared Turner, Boostability: When James was talking about early tech companies, I thought of the early ’90s with the boom and bust of the internet followed by a big lull. There was a huge saturation in the marketplace of engineers and technical folks. Then companies like Omniture, Xactware and Bluehost came and ramped up without huge overgrowth and costs. That fostered a rapid growth cycle, and other businesses tapped into that same talent. Now there’s a huge competition factor for resources, especially engineers.
Bennett, Lancera & Box Support: I see competition for sexiness. We want to attract people to our companies. On Instagram I see posts from all your companies, and I feel I’ve got to step up my game and have a better party or a better training class. It drives me. It’s competition, but it’s fun competition. It builds everybody.
Smith, Xactware: Once we established a technology base in the community, it fed off itself and created more companies. For example, you’ve got people leaving OrangeSoda to found Boostability, and a lot of times you’ll see two healthy companies emerge from situations like that. Omniture is bought out, and Josh James founds Domo. There’s this attitude of, “We can do this, too,” and it gets people excited.
Grierson, Bluehost: Last week I attended OpenWest, which is one of the largest open source conferences. I watched people walk by booths with signs of “we’re hiring” and I heard people say, “I’m happy where I work right now.” It’s different than years past when people were actively looking for jobs. People are being taken care of, which tells us as a community we are doing a good job of retaining our talent.
Bennett, BusinessQ Magazine: How competitive is the hiring environment? And are decisions based on dollar signs or is it more than that?
Grierson, Bluehost: This topic is on my mind constantly. We have junior talent that comes into our company, and we teach them a lot. I watch them leave and take jobs making $20,000 more per year after they’ve been with us a short time. It’s incredible how valued that knowledge and talent is becoming in the area. It is becoming harder to retain employees.
Turner, Boostability: I used to joke with my buddies before I was married that I was spending money on other people’s wives, and we do the exact same thing with employees — we train them, give them a nice foundation of how to succeed in the workplace, and then they move on. There’s a mindset shift taking place. What used to be viewed as “treasonous” now is more like “I want the best for you as an individual.” People stay four to five years instead of 40. It’s a healthy thing because it enables us to have people coming into our company with a diverse background. They are not a solo skillset — they haven’t done one job or been in one industry their whole life.
Grierson, Bluehost: Building on that, it’s the entry-level, mid-level talent we teach and train and then see making big jumps. The more experienced talent stays longer. As business owners, it’s up to us to retain talent by giving growth opportunities.
Baer, Google Fiber: There’s an expectation in the marketplace of internal mobility; it’s almost perceived as lack of ambition if you stay in one company too long. As far as recruiting, we pay acute attention to autonomy, especially in the younger generation. They want to work on problems they care about. At Google we try as much as we can to allow employees to work on what they want to work on. Jack Welch pioneered the concept that every year or year and a half you want people working on something new. That’s an expectation now, especially in technology companies where we want to be solving new problems and working on new challenges. It’s not always a title change that makes people feel they are growing in an organization — it’s gaining new skills and becoming more marketable.
Bennett, Lancera & Box Support: To bring new employees in the door, we’ve got to be compensating them. We all want to say it’s not the most important thing, but compensation is necessary to make that person feel comfortable. The second thing is that employees want to believe in what they are doing. They want to believe their work has greater value. Employees also want to be valued personally and feel like they are making a difference. They want the company to make a difference, but they want to make a difference themselves. They want other people to recognize the value they are providing.
Turner, Boostability: In my department we’ve instituted a quarterly program. It’s a pool of money given to various managers, and it’s at their discretion how to share it with the employees. Someone could conceivably get the lion’s share of the salary bump pool and bonus bump. It’s a short three-month cycle, so they can see the objective and they know the short-term expectations. The compensation has to be there from the onset, but the quarterly bonus/salary program has been tremendous for my team.
Smith, Xactware: I’ll disagree a little bit. I don’t think salary is the most important. You have to be competitive, but after that there are a lot of other factors, such as using current technology. Our employees want to be working on projects and technologies that are exciting. Where it sometimes gets challenging is when you need a specialist. People who have specialized skillsets can demand nice salaries, and frankly, you have to pay it because there aren’t many people with those skillsets at a senior level.
Baer, Google Fiber: One of the things I would add is that traditionally, companies have been very top-down and hierarchical. That’s changed. Even entry-level people want to be involved in formulating a strategy; they want to debate their managers. We love that. The role of a manager has changed. Managers aren’t supposed to dictate what the strategy is; they’re supposed to clear the runway for the employees. Kids fresh out of college get that we’re all on the same level here. Traditional companies struggle with this.
Bennett, Lancera & Box Support: Culture is the No. 1 thing — over compensation. Look at all the top companies in the valley, they’re not all paying the most. If you look at Qualtrics, for example, they don’t pay the most for every position there, but they’re consistently hiring great people. We don’t pay the most, yet we are hiring 10 to 15 people a week. Culture is the things you do as a company, how you work together as a team.
Grierson, Bluehost: It’s very community-driven, especially in the tech industry. You have communities built around specific software, and they build a camaraderie amongst themselves. They group together and get passionate. As a company, one of the best retention tools we have is allowing our team to explore those passions and having the company invest in them. Giving our employees time off from their day jobs to learn, grow and develop their talents is a huge aspect of retaining our employees.
Turner, Boostability: I’ve always had a mantra to look at successful companies in the area — whether it’s Bluehost’s attitude toward pingpong since they have world champions on their staff or Google with their “dev days,” meaning one day a week, the employee gets to choose what to do and they can switch projects at any time. We started having “dev day” and giving employees a chance to solve business problems. We’ve had tremendous things come out of that. We manage 1,500 servers, and our employees redefined a process using the Amazon cloud platform to make it horizontally scale, while lowering costs and creating efficiency. If you aren’t looking at successful peers and gleaning success from the things they’re doing to drive their own culture, then you’re doing a disservice to yourself.
Baer, Google Fiber: Yes, he’s referring to 20 percent time at Google. Our employees can spend 20 percent of their time on what they want, as long as it makes the world a better place. Gmail was a “20 percent” project. A random developer at Google decided to build his own email system. All of Google started to use it. On April 1 a few years ago — which was a terrible date — we offered a gigabyte of data, which is unheard of. Gmail is now the No. 1 email server in the world.
Grierson, Bluehost: Creativity in technology is an art. Allowing employees to be creative and problem-solve is good because they want to be part of creating the solutions. They want empowerment to solve problems.
Turner, Boostability: Training is another aspect of creating and retaining a team. I’ve made it a point to dedicate training budget for every employee on my team so they can attend summits, seminars and conferences to expand their skillset. I want them to grow as individuals. If I am keeping them in a little box, they can’t expand. But if I’m promoting that expansion, they don’t feel the need to job-hop.
Bennett, BusinessQ Magazine: Let’s talk about employing techies. Are the stereotypes about them being more difficult to communicate with actually true? What are the keys to employing developers and engineers on your team?
Smith, Xactware: It’s true there are some fantastic developers who are difficult to work with. They walk into meetings arrogantly, and they don’t think anyone else has a good answer. I think most people who come in that way quickly realize other people do have good ideas. Valuing developers’ work is one of the key things about communicating with and motivating them. Providing opportunities to experience leadership also creates positive behavior.
Turner, Boostability: It’s a generalization that technical people are socially backward. There are those cases, but that’s changing. Technology used to be a small segment of society — people in general didn’t know anything about computers. Now my 4-year-old knows how to use my iPhone, and he’s never touched a typewriter. The entrenchment of technology is vast, and it’s accelerating. Technical skills are ingrained at a young age.
Baer, Google Fiber: That generalization is a function of the current pool, which is severely dominated by white analytical males. That’s a problem, but the cause makes sense. Ten to 15 years ago, white American boys were the only ones in middle school computer science classes. The web will be so much better as women and minorities continue to contribute. There are multiple programs bringing computer science to girls and minorities. Hopefully 10 years from now, we will have a more balanced internet. A lot of what you see online now was built by analytical white males, but it can be so much more than that.
Turner, Boostability: Pay-equality goes along with that as well. I’ve worked with women in technology through the years, and there is a pay differential that has nothing to do with skillset. That’s a sad fact. Part of it is an onus on the employers who need to be willing to pay more. But it’s also a function of having the confidence to ask for what is fair. There’s an onus on both sides. But we need balance in technology. We have a couple women on our product team who offer a different viewpoint for our betterment.
Smith, Xactware: If you’re a good female developer, we pay more.
Bennett, Lancera & Box Support: If she’s a woman and if she’s good, we hire her. It changes the dynamic of the development team. We need the female role on the team. With developers, it changes the dynamic to add a woman.
Turner, Boostability: The whole team is more respectful and hard-working with a woman on the team. There can be a juvenile nature to engineer teams and discussion can degrade if it’s all-male.
Grierson, Bluehost: It makes people grow up to have a woman next to them.
Smith, Xactware: It’s not a frat house if a woman is there. In nine years of interviewing developers, I’ve had three female candidates. There is a dearth of women going through the programs in college. We have a handful of women engineers in a company of 600-plus people.
Grierson, Bluehost: A large portion of our project management and leadership within development teams are women. It adds professionalism. We laugh and joke about the days when all you needed was Mountain Dew, pizza and the lights turned off for great development to happen. That’s not true anymore. This has changed with more types of people interested in technology. In Utah we have some big STEM initiatives. The jobs of the future revolve around technology — you are going to be a business owner or a coder. We need to emphasize in our communities that these are the jobs we’re hiring for. There is a 2.8 percent unemployment rate in the tech field. We’re going to drive that number down even further. We focus on foreign languages in school — well THIS is a foreign language.
Baer, Google Fiber: I totally agree. It’s worth noting that this isn’t a Utah problem — it’s a national one. There’s basically limitless demand for coders, and there’s a shortage nationally. Somehow we have to figure out a way to get people the skills necessary to meet the demand, and it’s not going to happen on a national level. It’s going to happen in communities.
Bennett, Lancera & Box Support: It starts with making programming sexy. How do you do that, and how do you involve girls so they aren’t turned off the first week in class?
Turner, Boostability: A viral video shows a boy showing what it’s like to run like a girl. The brother flailed his arms around — he looked ridiculous. Then they asked his little sister to run like a girl, and she ran strongly and confidently. This has to start young. We have to build confidence in young girls and in their relationship to technology before it’s destroyed by media bombardment. Young women need that foundation and confidence going into the workplace so they feel like they are equal.
Smith, Xactware: From a manager’s perspective, girls’ coding is the same as guys’ coding.
Baer, Google Fiber: By and large, females are far more creative than males. They have a holistic perspective, so instead of focusing on results and outcomes, we need to give girls opportunities to be creative. If you try to teach technology in a traditional way, you may not get traction among females. Here are a couple of examples — a high school girl dropped out and with her parents’ recommendation, she went to a coding boot camp and then got hired as an engineer. I also know a stay-at-home mom who is a front-end developer for one of the largest technology companies in Utah. It’s an incredibly flexible role.
Turner, Boostability: As adults we only want to listen to things we’re interested in, yet we have an expectation for children to pay attention all the time. We go to work to get paid; they go to school pro bono. But if they can focus on things they are interested in, they will succeed — no matter which gender.
Bennett, BusinessQ Magazine: What’s the future of technology, especially as it relates to your company?
Smith, Xactware: The future for Xactware will be taking huge data sets and figuring out how to extract information and make it accessible and useful.
Bennett, Lancera & Box Support: Our mission is to intelligently protect the world’s information. The things that matter to us are sitting on our devices, and the technology being used to protect it is insufficient and outdated. By 2020, there are supposed to be 25 billion devices on the cloud. What is being used to protect all of that? Our mission is to provide that protection.
Turner, Boostability: Our intention is to help small businesses grow and thrive in an online ecosystem. It’s somewhat hard to know where to put information and how to drive customers to your website. We want to help increase companies’ web presence as well as social presence. We also want to beautify the web.
Baer, Google Fiber: I love following industries with a huge emphasis on innovation. The two that are most exciting to me right now are renewable energy and healthcare. It’s astounding to think about the past three years and the progress we’ve made with renewable energy. With healthcare, if we can diagnose diseases earlier through technology, we can lengthen the span of life.
Grierson, Bluehost: Our mission is to bring the power and promise of the web to people. Technology as an industry is in its infancy. If you look back 15 years, we used to imagine things that we now have. Technology allows us to take what we dream about and create it. We have no idea what it will look like in three to four years, and that’s the craziest part. Technology is growing so fast and melding together at such a rapid pace.
Bennett, BusinessQ: Thank you for your insights on technology today. I’m going to sign my daughters up for programming classes asap!