Strategic CIO // Executive Insights & Innovation
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5/13/2014
01:45 PM
Kevin Casey
Kevin Casey
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Nurturing IT's Next Generation, Chicago-Style

There's plenty of talk about IT talent gaps and developing the next generation of tech pros. Here's how several Chicago companies walk the walk -- locally.

IT Jobs: Best Paying Titles Of 2014
IT Jobs: Best Paying Titles Of 2014
(Click image for larger view and slideshow.)

It's easy to moan and groan about a lack of available IT talent. It's another matter to actually do something about it, especially when the reward is unguaranteed and requires a healthy supply of patience.

The task can be even tougher when you're located in an area that's not necessarily known as a technology hotbed (even if that perception is off target). Yet when we spoke with a couple of companies in the Chicago area recently about how they recruit and retain IT pros, there was a common denominator: They invest in their community.

"Invest in the community" sounds like a lot of well-intentioned hot air, doesn't it? But if you dig a little, you'll find real work done -- and dollars spent -- to improve STEM education, professional development, career opportunities, and related areas. It's particularly compelling given that the return on investment is a long-term proposition at best; the tech industry, and especially the startup world, has a bit of a now-NOW-NOW! mentality that doesn't favor such thinking.

[To attract and retain tech talent, these Chicago firms got creative. Read IT Jobs: Hiring Strategies For Sweet Home, Chicago.]

"We get really connected into the community here," says Chris Jenkins, HR director at e-discovery software firm kCura. Among its current and recent initiatives: kCura will host Chicago's instance of the upcoming National Day of Civic Hacking; kCura employees can give $2,500 "geek grants" to organizations or schools to improve educational programs or provide children with access to technology; the company hosted 75 technology, innovation, and entrepreneurship students as part of Mayor Rahm Emanuel's ThinkChicago event; and kCura works with YearUp, a one-year program that connects low-income adults with area firms for internships -- a former intern is now a full-time employee.

And that's an incomplete list.

Zest Health, a mobile health startup, also spends a lot of time working on improving the local technology and entrepreneurship scene, aligning with area universities, startup incubators, and other programs to encourage talent development and innovation. It will hire four Metcalf interns from the University of Chicago this summer, for example. It also plans to increase its involvement with Future Founders, a youth entrepreneurship program for low-income children in the Chicago area, according to VP of product Jonathan Ozeran.

There's no short-term reward for such efforts, other than perhaps some PR and the satisfaction of doing good. A narrower organizational mindset would focus on strictly today's bottom line, next quarter's earnings, the next funding round -- that now-NOW-NOW! mindset most IT pros have probably witnessed (or been guilty of themselves) at some point in their careers. But that kind of tunnel vision fails to address real questions, such as: Where are the next generations of talent going to come from? Why don't more people and organizations stay in their local communities instead of flocking to Silicon Valley or New York? And so on.

Here are a few key takeaways from kCura, Zest Health, and other firms on how to better invest in your local tech community:

Empower employees to make the investment decisions. Investing in local talent and local communities becomes more powerful when employees get hands-on -- it's less effective when the CEO simply hands over a fat check to her personal pet cause. Recipients of kCura's Geek Grants, for example, are discovered and championed by individual employees -- not just by a select few in the C suite.

Reinvest in areas that enabled your company's success. You've heard the expression "pay it forward," right? For startups especially, consider what elements of the local community have fostered your success and reinvest in them. Big data storage firm Cleversafe, for example, spent its first three years on the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology. It has since graduated to its own offices in the heart of Chicago, with another location in Denver, but the company stays involved with IIT and other

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Kevin Casey is a writer based in North Carolina who writes about technology for small and mid-size businesses. View Full Bio

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Joe Stanganelli
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Joe Stanganelli,
User Rank: Ninja
5/23/2014 | 10:29:54 AM
Re: Chicago-style?
Hi, Chris.

I did indeed enjoy it.  (I quoted you too in a recent article.)  One of the things I appreciated most about meeting and chatting with the Cleversafe folks over the course of the conference is that 1) it was clear that they knew what they were talking about and 2) they were uniformly able to keep my interest in discussing all the cool things that Cleversafe is up to right now.

Any company at a conference with whom I remember and enjoy the conversations better than their swag is a thumbs-up in my book.
Chris Gladwin
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Chris Gladwin,
User Rank: Apprentice
5/19/2014 | 2:43:22 PM
Re: Chicago-style?
Joe, thanks for the kind words – I'm glad you enjoyed the presentation at Bio-IT World in Boston.

Chicago is a great place to start a company like Cleversafe – the quality of people we've hired and our ability to retain them is outstanding. We recognize how fortunate we are to work with some of the best talent in the industry in Chicago, so we're dedicated to giving back to the community that is cultivating that engagement.
Joe Stanganelli
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Joe Stanganelli,
User Rank: Ninja
5/14/2014 | 7:06:13 AM
Re: Chicago-style?
Plus, so much of it is developing a weird idea with the hopes of getting bought out by Google or Yahoo or Facebook or the like.

Remember in the '90s when we were complaining about Microsoft buying up all the tech startups?  Now it's an actual business model!!!  The VCs call it an "exit strategy."

And who wouldn't want to keep the door open to be able to leave?!  My goodness.
Whoopty
IW Pick
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Whoopty,
User Rank: Ninja
5/14/2014 | 6:53:55 AM
Re: Chicago-style?
While I haven't seen the show, I can't help but agree that Silicon Valley isn't necessarily the mecca of ideas. The problem with making an almost self-contained nerd haven, is while it might bring together large numbers of the best and brightest, they'll quickly fall into the trap of developing products for those around them: other nerds.

A quick look at Google Glass makes it clear that it wasn't designed with the everyday tech user in mind. 
Laurianne
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Laurianne,
User Rank: Author
5/13/2014 | 5:59:10 PM
Re: Chicago-style?
Silicon Valley doesn't do deep dish pizza, either. Startups gotta eat...
Joe Stanganelli
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Joe Stanganelli,
User Rank: Ninja
5/13/2014 | 5:30:37 PM
Re: Chicago-style?
Indeed, HBO's new satirical series Silicon Valley is making it all the more clear how the environment of Silicon Valley can get in the way of innovation just as easily as foster innovation.
ChrisMurphy
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ChrisMurphy,
User Rank: Author
5/13/2014 | 5:19:22 PM
Re: Chicago-style?
Innovation doesn't have to mimic Silicon Valley to be relevant. There's some good energy in downtown Chicago around digital business initiatives -- I've talked with at least 2 big companies out in the Chicago suburbs and 1 in Milwaukee who've set up hip offices downtown to attract the creative types they feel they need to drive digital strategy.

The 1871 incubator is an interesting spot to stop by for a cup of coffee (don't expect any real food) if you have an hour or two to kill between meetings downtown -- I did that just a couple of weeks back. In the Merchandise Mart.
Laurianne
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Laurianne,
User Rank: Author
5/13/2014 | 2:54:31 PM
Paying It Forward
The "one school at a time" program sounds like a win-win; the kids get new technology and an example of adults giving back to their community; the company gets a solid connection to a promising group of students. Well done.
Joe Stanganelli
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Joe Stanganelli,
User Rank: Ninja
5/13/2014 | 2:52:22 PM
Chicago-style?
I saw the headline and thought it involved shooting competitors and giving kickbacks to corrupt politicians. #ChicagoStyle

That said, I got to meet a lot of Cleversafe folks (all awesome people) a couple weeks back at Bio-IT World in Boston -- including its founder, Chris Gladwin, who gave a terrific presentation about what lies ahead for the company.

Gladwin also founded another tech company based in Chicago, MusicNow, about 15 years ago.  In 2004, he sold the company -- and founded Cleversafe less than six months later.

It's no Silicon Valley, but Chicago definitely has its innovators.
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