Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Why Idaho State Government and It's Tech Industry Can't Be Friends (For Now)

On Tuesday night I had the opportunity to attend TechBoise's networking event featuring a guest panel consisting of Chris Blanchard from Pronetos, Ryan Woodings of MetaGeek and former Idaho Statesman reporter Ken Dey, now with St. Luke's. While the gentlemen discussed their respective businesses, work and views on technology in the Boise area, the event turned into an open forum where the guests and panel participants had a healthy debate on the state of technology in the Treasure Valley.

I mostly listened to the discussion and took some mental notes that I decided I would use as source material for the post you are reading now. For the uninitiated: basically, the situation in Idaho and the Boise area is that the tech community is frustrated by the Idaho state government and what is perceived to be a lack of understanding and support for their industry.

Based on the discussion, here are my thoughts (albeit random):

Why Government Involvement Matters
Prior to the meeting, was very opposed to government involvement in Idaho's tech industry. My attitude was simply. "Forget about it, move on. If they don't understand or care about it, the people in the industry are smart enough to figure out a way around them."

What I did learn was it is necessary to have government involvement, but it should be very limited at best. The two things they can do to ensure the tech industry thrives in Idaho are:

  1. Provide a solid infrastructure with minimal obstructions to the movement people and exchange of data.
  2. Establish sound economic policies that will allow business to thrive.
If government involves themselves in these two areas, and these two areas alone, the rest will work itself out. It's a win-win situation for everyone involved. Talented workers move and are retained in the state, jobs will be created and the tax base will grow.

Defining Technology
Technology or "tech" is very hard to define. It has different meanings to different people and it is often associated to anything having to do with computers. That may have been true 30 or 40 years ago, but today technology is tied to fields like healthcare, environmental science or aerospace.

Because technology is hard to define, its tangible results are even more difficult to show or to demonstrate. The same can be said about innovation, which I understand is the way our tech leaders are trying to position tech as to our state leaders. Innovation is another fuzzy word because it has different meanings and is often intangible.

It's very hard to define tech to a group of people who only think of tech in terms of Micron, HP and call centers.

Software IS the Answer
A guest at the meeting went into a lengthy diatribe (sorry - that's the only way I can describe it) about how software is not the solution to growing our technology industry. He said it's in innovation, but as I just mentioned innovation is an ambiguous term. What does it really mean?

As many in the room agreed, the Treasure Valley is heavy in the hardware side of the tech industry and when those jobs go away, the skills of the worker laid off or downsized tend to be less transferable. Software is different because many of those skills are transferable. In the long term, software is not the answer but in the short term it is. Software, like most technology is a means to an end. It's what will get us to the next generation of tech that are (today) in the furthest reaches of our imagination.

20 years ago, software was king. Today, software is on the decline and with the advent of the Internet and web 2.0 tools the average person can do just fine in their work without ever purchasing a single piece of software. It's because of software we have the innovations (ah, there's that word) in internet technology and web 2.0 applications. Without it, we wouldn't be where we are today therefore we need it in the short term to take us where we want to go in the future.

Education is the key establishing a relationship between the Idaho tech industry and state government. As I learned last night, Idaho has the oldest state legislature in the country. Not to disparage the older generation - I have a lot of respect for them - but tech is something they are not interested in. Each of them have their own reasons as to why. Perhaps they don't understand it because for most of them they were brought up in agriculture or perhaps they don't see how it can be useful. Another reason, possibly, is that their support for endeavors must be apparent to their constituents. Tech, again, is not one of those things that is immediately apparent.

The problem, as I stated before, is that tech and innovation are intangible. The solution is to show the tangible results of technology in order to speak the same language as our state leaders and garner the support we're asking for. If it's bio-tech, show what is produced or what is a result of a recent bio-tech innovation. If it is clean-tech, green-tech or enviro-tech (whatever you want to call it) show how positive change in air or water quality resulted in the recent application of this science. Whatever the technology, show the most recent usable product or usable service result then you can help stretch their imagination to what can be created.

If there is one thing I have learned as a trainer, the more concrete the example, the easier it is for people to learn and understand the concept.

The tech community in Boise and the state government can't be friends until there is a clear channel of communication and understanding between the two. Once the barriers to communication are torn down and there is full and complete understanding between the two parties will we see true progress.


Dave said...

This is a great commentary on the meeting Justin. I do however have to disagree with last nights motion that software is on the way out. Software goes way beyond just the web. Even in 20 years from now I'm pretty sure we are going to need people to make all the nonweb things work such as, ipods, cell phones, automobiles, watches, cameras, etc. I don't believe either, that spending resources to teach our children software development is a bad idea. We are still going to need people with that skillset for many, many years.

Justin Beller said...

Thank you for the feedback.

I think you and I are on the same page regarding what was discussed at the meeting. There is nothing wrong with teaching today's youth software development. In addition to that skill I also believe they should (at the very least) get a basic eduction in business. I'm not talking MBA-level eduction. Just enough to understand the reasons behind why they are writing code. It's one of the ways our country will stay competitive in a global market.