Utah’s Silicon Slopes has hit critical mass, making it poised for unprecedented recognition and success. A talent shortage is the only fly in the ointment. But with their willingness to disrupt traditional educational models, our panel of tech execs is optimistic about the opportunities for change.
Cody Broderick, inWhatLanguage
Manny Chavez, Impact Video Cards
Carine Clark, Banyan
Kat Kennedy, Degreed
Sharon Kitzman, Dealertrack
Tom Stockham, Experticity
Gilbert Lee, Pluralsight
Mitch Macfarlane, Instructure
Frank Maylett, RizePoint
Dan Might, Homie
Eric Montague, Executech
Porter, Holland & Hart, LLP
Tricia Schumann, Bach Health
Kristy Sevy, Fuzeplay
Julie Simmons, Contravent
Cydni Tetro, ForgeDX
Sunny Washington, Because Learning
A special thank you to Sara Jones, co-founder and COO of Women Tech Council, for moderating the discussion.
What have been some of the opportunities that you have seen as Silicon Slopes has gotten a lot of press nationally? And conversely, what are some of the challenges that you have seen?
CLARK: I serve on the board of Silicon Slopes. So I get to see it from an interesting view. There are countries that are watching Utah and there are states and cities that are saying, “What’s going on in Utah? Because we thought Utah was a backwater and it’s actually not. What have you done?”
But the challenge we face is we continue to struggle with diversity in the state. We continue to struggle with how to keep the workforce educated and how to make it easier for young people to get money and expertise in growing companies.
SEVY: On the flip side, the struggle with diversity is also a positive for people like me who are willing to dig in, because it is easier to create opportunity for yourself. There is more opportunity where people realize they need diversity and they are more willing to stretch their hand out and give you a chance and welcome you into the environment.
SIMMONS: From a client base perspective, what we experienced is the Silicon Slopes branding does help us. Even though out-of-state clients may or may not have heard of it, when we tell them about all the growth Utah is seeing in the tech sector, it helps our reputation.
LEE: The thing we are seeing is competition for talent, which is good for the state because you have a lot more good companies that are getting built up. But it’s also a challenge because we are always looking for engineers. Our recruiting team is working really hard. So it’s both good that there’s competition, but the talent pool is where we need to grow for Utah.
TETRO: There’s two sides of that story. We talk often about the diversity issues inside of the state. And across the state we actually export a lot of our senior female talent because they can’t find jobs here. Obviously we have an engineering talent issue. But on the other side of that, there’s a lot of effort that needs to be done to create more integrated networks of men and women across the state so that people can more easily find jobs. Because as we have grown up, we haven’t done that effort as much.
We track a bunch of senior women who are actively looking or get tapped for positions, and a significant majority of them actually end up out of state because they are not in the same networks as their male counterparts to find positions inside the state. So as we think about talent and expansion of talent, we have to figure out how to solve some of the networking issues so that diversity actually gets placed at the top.
Over the last couple of months, we have had a lot of CEOs of fairly large tech companies come and say, “I need to get more diversity in my senior ranks.” And one of the challenges they have is they actually have no women in any of their ranks. Not the senior boards or director levels. So we need to find ways to help accelerate some of the senior leadership into a lot of our tech companies. We have to figure out how to keep some of that talent here in those positions, because it’s not staying in Utah.
MAYLETT: I have hired two C-level positions in the last 12 months. One was a CTO. And we had a very difficult time finding female candidates. For the CFO position, we found two or three female candidates that were highly qualified, and couldn’t land them. So there are companies that are trying.
But your point about integrating the male/female professional networks is incredibly important, because odds are I could have found either of those positions here. My network wasn’t wide enough. That’s the challenge.
KENNEDY: We are in Silicon Slopes, but we are based in San Francisco. And the difference I see in the two networks is here your network stays pretty close; where there, you can get a meeting with anyone, any time, whenever you want it. It is a community. We could do a lot of work to build the community here, and therefore everyone’s networks.
JONES: What does that look like? I have heard that a few times. What is the different behavior? Because if we can hone in on behaviors, that would be super interesting.
KENNEDY: The challenge is that just demographically a lot of people here in Utah have younger families, where you don’t have that as much in the Bay, so it’s harder for people to get out at night. So it’s analyzing the opportunities that people could go and network, and capitalizing on that. Whereas in San Francisco, you will see meetups in the evenings, here we have more lunch and learns.
SCHUMANN: I’m going to reiterate that because I do business in the Bay area, and I see women showing up everywhere, all times of day and weekend events. I don’t see that here.
MONTAGUE: You need to be willing to ask the uncomfortable questions. If I listed the top five most uncomfortable situations I have been put in during my career, a few years ago Carine put me in one of those five. Carine and I were talking and she said, “How many women do you employ? And why cannot I not have a female tech assigned to my company?”
To that point I had never had a female interview for a tech job at Executech, and it was a very uncomfortable situation for me, and I realized the problem we had.
That was six and a half years ago, and I have made a huge push since then to be part of Women Tech Council, to be part of some of the female educational tech items in schools and things like that. And it’s been amazing how Executech has changed since Carine asked me that question. We have now employed females in the technical positions. And until Carine asked me that question, I didn’t get it. It really put me on my back heels, and I’m not an easy one to be thrown.
TETRO: You point out one of the things we see, which is it’s not that anyone intentionally didn’t think about it. It’s just that something has to trigger it to be top of mind. And once we get to that place, the changes start happening because we all start realizing we can do a better job at integrating women. And I think that’s the place we are at now, which is where as a community everyone has to step forward and say, “We are a better place to work, we are a better environment when we leverage the talents of everyone. And we include not only all those talents but all the perspectives from men and women and different other perspectives around the table.”
But it always takes a trigger. So we have to do something to create a stronger awareness that will ultimately help us increase the talent pool.
CLARK: I have done this a long time, and I work with all men, pretty much. And most of the gentlemen that I work with, it’s not that they don’t want diversity in their organization, it’s that they haven’t stopped to really look and listen to some of the cultural details.
Women typically don’t apply for a job unless they are 100 percent qualified for it. Whereas men, “Fifty percent? Good enough.” Right? So if your screening process is to look at resumes, then you are already going to eliminate a set of the population. That’s kind of on the women for not being able to represent themselves. But that’s a cultural thing that’s easy to change.
In my organization, we had no women in the sales organization. And they said, “We can’t find anyone.” I hear that a lot. “We can’t find anyone.”
So I said, “All right. Do you believe that women under represent themselves on a resume? Do you think men over represent?” And they said “yes.” So I told them I wanted them to interview every woman who applies, and they said, “We can’t do that.” So I asked, “How many applied last year?”
“Ten.” OK. Can you do that? “We can do that.” Well, you know what happened: When they started to interview every female candidate, they started hiring women because they found out these women are more qualified than some of their counterparts. That one change actually changed the pH level in that pool.
Let’s talk about the competition you are seeing globally and from some of these other bigger areas, Bay area, New York. What type of competition is our area facing?
PORTER: I look at four things that make Utah really exciting. Number one is there are more capital sources locally than ever before. Number two, there are more outside capital sources that are investing in Utah companies than ever before. And that’s from the early stage all the way to these big, sophisticated private equity groups. Utah is on the map now, on the radar. There are a number of funds that are here and believe in this market. Number three, there are more companies that are being built here and staying here than ever before, even after acquisition, that are still using Utah as their base. And that’s because the investors and people on the board believe this is a market that can sustain the growth of these companies.
Number four is I have a number of clients who are not from here but came here to take a position, to start a company, and without exception they all love living here and they love the environment and they love the community. That’s a good sign. So, I don’t see very many people coming and then turning around and saying, “Gosh, this is awful. I don’t want to be here,” and leaving. They are staying and their families are staying. So, for all those reasons, I’m very bullish and optimistic and glad to be in this market and seeing it growing as much as it is.
KITZMAN: We are getting competitors out of Austin. When we are trying to hire technologists they are ending up in Austin instead. And now maybe hurricane season will help. But I think it’s a little more enticing for a younger crowd to go to Austin for whatever reason.
STOCKHAM: Silicon Slopes and Life Elevated and the capital focus on Utah have all created an aspirational Utah brand. There are other things we need to do to continue to make sure the Utah brand is a very aspirational brand. Fundamentally it’s all about talent. Who wants to move to Utah and build their career in Utah? Collectively we should work to polish that all the time, so the best talent anywhere wants to come and start building the rest of their career or build their portfolio in Utah. If we take what Silicon Slopes has done and is doing to help the Utah brand, all of the rest of us need to keep leaning in on what keeps making people say, “Ooh, I want to be in Utah.” Lots of great work so far, but boy it can be damaged quickly or undermined quickly if we don’t stay really focused on it.
BRODERICK: I’m really excited about where the state is headed from a long-term standpoint. We are exploring the inland port feasibility. Hyperloop, long term is considering creating a hub here. So Utah and Salt Lake City have a very bright future. We lost a Facebook opportunity. Amazon is looking here now.
But to go back to some of our challenges—air quality and education for sure, and talent. Most definitely talent. If we could put some muscle behind capital, build the community up, get some diversity in here. We speak over 130 languages in the state. We have a Brazilian festival and Greek festival. And people are surprised. So come here. We speak your language. Employees will be speaking your language.
There’s a magnifying glass on Utah, and we have this real hungry mentality that even though the data shows we are number one in all these categories, we are still fighting like we are second and third. There’s so much to do.
SEVY: Coming from the world of the stay-at-home mom where I had nothing to do with the business world, I feel like I have an interesting perspective where I didn’t know all of you guys. I wasn’t in this crowd or this culture.
And I see a pretty big dichotomy between the tech culture and regular culture in the state. In the tech culture, I feel like everybody for the most part is super inclusive. Especially to me. Men and women all the time are reaching out. Important people like, holy cow, I can’t believe you are meeting with me. So I feel we have it down within the tech community. But within the other part of the culture, that is maybe not business and is more Utah—talk about bringing talent in, retaining people in Utah, if there was a way we could impact that culture for the better, that would be really powerful.
TETRO: To be fair, because the community is family oriented, the way we have to develop community changes. I can reflect myself that as soon as you get done with work you are consumed with homework and activities. And because I’m working, the time to go network in the evening, I trade it off. Because I’m going to be travelling all the time, I’d rather be with my family. But I do think figuring out how to build the community with the constraints of the environment is super important because the connections matter. How do we create these ecosystems and hubs and environments that aren’t just about a lunch meeting but about real connections, so people feel like they are adding value and contributing and participating with their talent?
I’m going to switch gears to education. What can we do better? What legislation needs to happen? As a community, how do we build the talent pipeline that we are so desperate for?
MACFARLANE: Number one, you have to change the high school curriculum. I think it is interesting to do STEM in the K through 8 grades. But what you really have to do, what is going to drive these outcomes and have a fundamental impact on the talent pool in the short term, is change high school curriculum so that kids are required to do some coding. Maybe it’s UX designs, maybe it’s product management, right? Things that are going to give them the skills to compete in today’s economy and help move the state of Utah forward.
CLARK: I call it tech hygiene. What if we required technology hygiene for every student that came out of our schools. That they knew how to code. The challenge is the parents don’t understand that if the child doesn’t have some basic skills—and they don’t have to be a coder but they should be able to think like a coder.
If you look at the current students for computer science, IT, engineering in the pipeline for colleges, high school and college, if you look at all those kids, by 2024, there’s going to be over 1.1 million jobs that will not get filled because there’s no talent in the United States to fill those jobs. So if we know that and we believe that’s directionally correct, why wouldn’t we arm our students in this state to take advantage of the fact that there’s not going to be enough data scientists, there’s not enough engineers or product managers? Because it’s going to be a disadvantage for our country. It’s a tech war right now. It’s an arms race, and we are not keeping up.
WASHINGTON: One of the key issues, though, is that we simply don’t have a teacher population that can teach these skills. So if we say as a state every kid in Utah has to take a coding class, who is going to teach the coding class? There just aren’t teachers to teach that. Before we can do that, before we change curriculum, we have to have a teacher population that can teach the skills or have the materials to teach it. And it’s great that we come in and expose them to one hour a year of coding. It is just not enough.
I feel strongly that if we don’t make an impact in the traditional classroom then we are neglecting a significant portion of the population. There’s clubs and after school programs and things like that. But the kids who go to that, the parents are aware, or there’s some sort of passion that’s driving the child there. And then you are neglecting 80 percent of the kids that won’t get that.
TETRO: It’s about making tech mainstream in the public education.
SEVY: With education it’s a bigger problem with infrastructure. And you talk about the metrics and data, but schools don’t have a good way to measure output. They are great at measuring input about the materials the teachers are using. But you talk about output and educational outcomes, the very standards they have to measure that, especially teacher effectiveness, are counterproductive.
So it’s a lot deeper than in the classroom. It’s even us lending our business experience to policy makers to help change the core infrastructure of testing input and output and helping them measure effectiveness.
KENNEDY: So that puts the onus on us as individuals. We have a huge edtech ecosystem in Utah, and yet when I talk about it just with my friends, no one knows what Pluralsight does. And I’m like, “Are you kidding me?” You have access to train yourselves in any skill you want. How can we as leadership make the population aware of the opportunity that they have? Because as they become aware, then they get their children aware as well. And that’s something actionable that we can do today. Of course we should be doing stuff to change curriculum, but that takes time and we don’t have time.
MONTAGUE: I do a lot of work with charter schools where they have us come in once a month, either myself or some of my team, to teach something. And what blows my mind is in all the charter schools that we have worked with, it’s welcome, it’s exciting. You get emails from board members of these charters and it’s interesting to see where these people are coming from. Of the charter schools I have worked with, half their board members are in tech. Literally.
Then you compare that to the public schools. We have offered the same thing for public schools, and it’s absolutely unequivocally not accepted or encouraged, compared to the charter schools, because the charters have their own ability to make their decision. And they see it. They are bringing in a lot of tech. They already know, “I don’t have a teacher here capable of this. But I have a whole ecosystem of professionals that will come teach this.” It’s polar opposites. It’s the same communities being taught, but these kids are being allowed to be taught something that somehow the traditional public schools won’t allow because it doesn’t fit with whatever you have to be able to do to be a teacher.
MAYLETT: We talk about education change and governmental reform. But I would question how many of us as business leaders, as CEOs of our companies, have adopted a Title 1 school here locally, have sponsored STEM scholarships to underprivileged kids, have really taken an active role in trying to help solve this problem from a very frontline position?
We have done a lot of that. We have adopted a Title 1 school and we send our engineers over and do engineer days, and they teach basic coding to these kids. And we talk about technology. And they will let you in. I would encourage all of us, as leaders, to do that. Find somewhere where we can step in locally and help influence maybe not the entire educational system, but Midvale Middle School. Union Park Middle school. Pick a school and help them out. Take the time to do that.
TETRO: You have to make it a priority. I take our Tech Zone into the elementary school every year. I’m just going to show up with all the STEM stuff and we are going to go operate for a couple of hours. But it takes a bunch of time and planning. It’d be great to get some more resources to make it easier for people in industry to jump in. Because most of us are willing to give time. Sometimes it’s the organization of jumping in. But our public schools, any time I’m willing to do something for them, they let me come in any time.
MAYLETT: When I took over this company two years ago, community outreach is one of my platforms that I wanted to build the company on. And we approached Granite School District and said, “We want to do this. We want to sponsor STEM scholarships. We want to be part of the community,” and we got virtually no response.
We then went to Canyons School District, and they not only threw the doors open for us but they rolled out the red carpet and they have been great partners in doing that. So you have to be persistent and in the right place to plug in, but you can plug in.
LEE: We probably have the best position in the state to actually help with this problem because we are focused on tech. We have the curriculum, we have the courses, we have the content. We just hired Lindsey Kneuven, who was with Cotopaxi, to be our head of social impact at Pluralsight. And she is developing a program that is really around not just helping the students but also the veterans, the under employed, the unemployed. And we have to look at it from that perspective: that a lot of these people are either changing their careers when they are professionals or they are just starting from high school to college.
STOCKHAM: Utah inevitably has a problem of fewer tax-generating people for the number of people who need education. And that problem is intensified in tech education—particularly when you look at the number of people who could be competent teachers to the size of the population that needs that tech education. Then how effectively, really, can the legislature solve a set of problems like this? If we, as a community of businesses that have built tools to help change those kinds of paradigms—one teacher can impact many, many, more people; one curriculum can really be effectively taken up by a broader group of people—if we can create an aspirational program for solving this tech education problem in a way that is pioneering in the country, it could be really, really exciting.