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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.

startup-friendly programs. It launched the Academic dsNET program for fostering data scientists, engineers, and designers, for example, and is active with the startup incubator 1871. Zest Health also works with 1871, holding office hours there at least once a quarter.

Do it because you care. Don't look for instant payoffs, and don't do it just for the PR. The return on community investment is long-term; particularly in areas with fledgling technology scenes, the reward will come down the road, in the form of a thriving community with abundant talent that doesn't immediately flee for greener pastures. Ozeran points to the Chicago chapter of Girl Develop It, which offers software development education and mentoring to women -- he notes that the organizations that donate instruction and other resources don't get much, if anything, in return. "They do it because they care," Ozeran says. "They do it because they want to bring more people in [to the technology field] who absolutely want to do it, no matter what challenges or roadblocks are in their way. I think that's good for Chicago."

Look for underserved people and places. Like the Girl Develop It program, smart community investment often arises out of identifying people who haven't been offered ample chances or places that have suffered from an opportunity gap. The kCura Gives, One School At A Time program partners with the Chicago Public Schools to make major investments in area schools, with a heavy emphasis on STEM programs. As the name suggests, each year the company selects a school with a visible need for technology resources. In the 2011 through 2012 school year, for instance, it picked Gale Science & Math in Rogers Park; the school previously had 30 cranky old PCs and zero technology curriculum for its 550 students. kCura spent $250,000 on a complete IT upgrade: new desktops, mobile laptop stations, LCD projectors, ELMO scanners, science lab tables, and other equipment. More than 30 employees spent a Saturday installing and setting everything up.

"We're not just looking at the tech talent today; we're looking at the future tech talent," Jenkins says, adding that the public school system isn't a level playing field, and some schools need more help than others. And it's not just a matter of philanthropy -- kCura ultimately hopes it's investing in its next cloud architect or software engineer and giving them reasons to stay in Chicago when they finish school. "We're hoping that by doing so, we'll get them invested in the Chicago community and hopefully keep more tech talent here by getting them at an earlier age. We're hoping that other tech companies join us in that initiative and will continue to help fund the STEM community here."

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