Tech leaders talk about widening net, changing standards for employees

Tech leaders talk about widening net, changing standards for employees

In Friday’s print edition of the Kansas City Business Journal, we explore the challenges facing the Kansas City tech sector.

The Business Journal invited a panel of area tech experts to its downtown offices to share their views on the state of the industry. Much of the conversation involved a shortage of tech workers that is impeding some area companies.

Lucky you: Not everything from the hour-and-a-half conversation could fit in print. So here’s an opportunity to be a fly on the wall of a roundtable discussion with Kansas City tech leaders.

But first, here are the panelists:

On the need for tech talent in Kansas City…

Laura Loyacono— As we know, technology jobs are going to be the fastest growing sector of our economy in the next years. We’re expecting as many as 10,000 new technology jobs in Kansas City. One of the things that I’m concerned about is that we have enough local talent here in Kansas City to take advantage of those opportunities. I think it’s wonderful to attract new talent to Kansas City. But the way it is now, we’re leaving out large sectors of our own population.

Females make up not even 18 percent of jobs in IT and technology, and it’s just not good to leave out 51 percent of the population not fully participating in the new economy. So I think that’s what I and my organization is highly focused on — making sure that more local students can fully participate.

Kevin McGinnis— If organizations like Sporting Innovation and Sprint and Cerner think about this is in a long view and work together to identify that this is an attractive market to be in, because … there’s plenty of work, it’s a great place to live, those types of things, we have to attract talent now.

Ryan Weber— Our board is the CIOs or CTOs of most of the major employers in Kansas City, including Greg and Kevin. … We had a great conversation about this. It was pretty clear among the top technology executives in Kansas City that they understand that is not a strategy to just take from other companies in their backyard or just shuffle that mix around.

I think that they are absolutely right to take that long view of how to position Kansas City so that we can attract talent. We’ve talked to recruiters all the time about Kansas City and how easy is it to bring people in. Two years ago — and this is from the major employers and then some of the smaller companies, too — they couldn’t even get people to get on a plane and fly to Kansas City and interview for a technology job here. That has totally changed over the last two years.

Now, that is not a problem. Getting them to stay in Kansas City long-term is an issue they’re very concerned about, because if they’re from another part of the country, there’s always the concern that maybe they would go back, that this is a launching pad. So we’ve shifted a little bit of that attention to how do we retain a lot of that talent now. …

Instead of talking about Kansas City and talking about barbecue and jazz, how can we talk about the other great things that make this a place to live long-term?

On attracting and creating talent …

Kevin McGinnis— We like to use a sports analogy when we talk about recruiting tech talent. … The sports view of it is those kids grow up wanting to play for the Royals because it’s the team that they grew up with, it’s the team that they idolized, the guys that are on the field every day, they see them every day. They want to grow up and they want to play for the Chiefs or they want to play at a local university because that’s their team.

You want them to have those same visions about working at a local company. When I grow up, I want to work at Cerner.

Greg Kratofil— I have a little boy. I want to get him engaged in technology and being in the technology field as well. … Innovation is what we do well. Whether you’re talking about Kansas Citians, Kansans or Missourians, Americans. I mean we do innovation well. So to the extent that we can focus our energy, efforts, resources, men and women, all our children toward what we have a competitive advantage in, I think that’s great.

Kris Strauch— Exactly. I think we just have to build that excitement at a younger age, and that will keep them in the field and get them through the education system.

On evolving requirements for tech talent …

Adam Arredondo— The best technologists that I know don’t have a degree in computer science. They’re the ones that have been living and breathing it since they were 10 years old and, actually, several of them went and got business degrees just to balance out the fact that they weren’t going to learn what they needed to learn because they knew it.

This is one thing that I think is a very key thing to remember with the current way education works — curriculum cannot keep up with technology. It’s not even close. So by the time (it) gets worked into a traditional college setting, it’s going to be old school.

So I think the thing is, I think a college degree shows something about the individual that values learning, and I think that’s a key thing. … The degree is valuable. I think it shows something about the individual more than necessarily what the degree says.

Kris Strauch— We’re always looking for the right person for the role. They got to have solid technical skills, but it’s that well-rounded person, right. I’ve seen across all the years in the industry, some of the most brilliant people I’ve seen … haven’t necessarily had a four-year degree, but they’re brilliant. They know what they’re doing.

So I don’t think there’s necessarily a cookie cutter. When you go into it, you have to assess the person and look at that well-rounded view of who they are and do they fit into your culture and have the skills that you need?

Laura Loyacono— Obviously there are jobs that don’t require a four-year education. But I do worry when I hear people holding people like Bill Gates up as an example of someone without a four-year degree. Let’s not forget that he did get into Stanford and many of the people that we see in technology, they qualified to get in. They chose maybe not to complete.

So what I think is important for our young people to know, especially in the urban core but all throughout our community, that you have to prepare yourself to think, to work in groups, to achieve in math and science. Because even if you choose not to go to a four-year university or to get your master’s degree in computer science, you must be able to be smart enough to complete something like that and be able to pull up those skills, particularly in math.

Ryan Weber— Most of the major employers in Kansas City still require a four-year degree. However, they all have aptitude tests, and if you score and rank very high on that aptitude test, they will want to have you work for them, and they will help you finish that four-year degree. So professional development is almost always part of the conversation when you’re talking to big employers.

Source: Kansas City Business Journal, Story by Bobby Burch, reporter