Columbia's tech scene searches high and low for talent | KBIA

Columbia's tech scene searches high and low for talent

Jun 20, 2012

Compared to the rest of the country, Columbia’s economy is pretty good.  Unemployment is well below the national average.  But the numbers can also tell a different story, one where massive changes are already underway.

Manufacturing continues to trend downward.  And a budget deficit in the state and higher education system raise questions about the future of economic growth in Columbia.  Out of this, a small but active tech industry is forming and the potential is huge.  The only thing stopping them right now is the need for tech talent. 

“Last year," says Gary Lee, CTO for Veterans United Home Loans, "we basically doubled in size from about 350 employees to 750 employees and we had over 8000 people apply for jobs in that year.”

Veterans United helps vets across the country get mortgages, mostly through its website.  The company’s been hiring at a breakneck pace and it’s Lee’s job to make those hires.  But he’s got a problem and it’s the same one a lot of start ups are having.  He can’t get his hands on the right programmers.

“The thing is with all these startups," says Lee, "they’re trying to utilize new technologies.  So yeah, there is a shortage of that because it’s not the stuff they’re being taught in schools.  If they wanted programmers in C++, what the university is turning out, then they could find them.”

Dale Musser, head of MU's IT program thinks differently:  “It’s such a wide field," he says.  "Think of all the different platforms, all the different languages.  We cannot make our students experts in everything.”

Musser knows that to work for a tech start up or to build your own, a programmer usually needs to know the more modern, "trendy" languages.  The languages that power web based applications and mobile apps.

“Companies would like us to specifically train our students," says Musser.  "But that’s a very narrow niche.  Generally in education we don’t try to train.  It’s an education.  It’s a lifetime career, it’s development throughout your life with whatever technologies are in front of you.  The education you get gives you the basis for doing that.” 

Most MU IT grads don’t leave the state.  But they don’t really stay in Columbia, either.  A good many end up in big companies like Cerner in Kansas city or AT&T’s regional headquarters in St. Louis.  Their more fundamental educations serve them well there. 

Learning Where The Money Is

Programmers who want to work for a startup are going to have to keep learning well after they get their degree.

David Oster is one such programmer.  From the shared workspace called Museao, he tries to tell me that his title is VP of Technology but one of his fellow co-founders corrects him.  He's actually the CTO of Rockupied, an iOS gaming company.   It's easy for Oster to forget his exact title.  It's a young company, and these young founders still have to balance work and school while they get their business off the ground.  It's an incredible amount of work and the roles aren't clearly defined quite yet.  

“I originally was a journalism major" says Oster, who will get his B.S. from the University of Missouri this December.  "But I found out I hated it.  So I switched to IT.  And I eventually learned out how to develop and do all the things we do at Rockupied.”

But it wasn't the coursework that prepared Oster for this life of entrepreneurship.

“I’ve taught myself everything I know," he says.  "The school, the things they teach you it’s not--a lot of it isn’t relevant right now.  Like, you learn a lot of basic languages and the basics of programming.  But if you want to do anything where the money is, you kind of have to learn that on your own.”

Using books and youtube videos, Oster taught himself whole new programming languages so he could build on Apple’s mobile operating system.  But Oster often seems like a rare person--he's someone who's both willing to educate himself outside of school, and he's willing to stay in Columbia with those valuable skills.

Bringing the Talent to Us

Heidi Fuhrman, director of Museao, thinks that the problem is not necessarily about creating the right programmer right out of school.  She thinks its about finding the talent that might be hiding out there and getting it connected early.

“And we have work here for people," says Fuhrman  But we need to get them connected now.  Instead of seeing the opportunities as being only in the bigger cities.  There are things that are happening here.  Columbia is really flourishing as an entrepreneurial community and becoming known as a techy city as well."

Fuhrman and the League of Innovators are planning an event that they hope will attract programmers to the startup community and educate them about the opportunities here.  They’re calling it Hack for Good.

“It’s an event that’s focused on building projects that are benefiting the community.  We have three different project options.  We have a project for the United Way.  For the city bus system and then for Startup Como that wants to be a database for entrepreneurship and development groups in the community.”

In 12 hours, programmers will build something that connects people to these organizations.  Like a mobile app that better serves up city bus routes.  Or software that connects people to volunteer opportunities in United Way.  This is a way for programmers to showcase skills they might not have a chance to use in school or their current jobs.  

Played right, they could see tangible benefits beyond that one night.  “Especially with the city bus app system," says Fuhrman, "if the city likes the way someone is building a project, they can bring them on in a longer term relationship.”

Whether a job comes out of this or not is not necessarily the point.  For the League of Innovators, it’s about building an entrepreneurial community that will continue to grow.

Hack for Good happens Friday the 22nd, 6pm to 6am at Museao on Buttonwood Drive.