The “hackathon” known as 59 Days of Code returned to Fresno this year. Last held in 2014, 59 Days of Code seeks to create new applications and new business concepts in less than two months. Organizer Derek Payton told local media, “There was so much more work to get done, so we really wanted to bring it back.”
Technology companies have a long history in the Central Valley, from the ground-breaking gaming company Sierra Online (founded in Oakhurst in 1979) to the innovative Valley Agricultural Software in Tulare. The challenge is keeping the non-agricultural technology companies local, as Sierra Online demonstrated when it relocated down the street from Microsoft.
Over the years, I’ve met developers of city zoning applications, agribusiness solutions, logistic solutions and more, all within Tulare County. My wife and I know many skilled software developers, engineers and tech executives from Visalia, yet the majority left the area as their careers advanced. That brain drain presents a serious problem for the economic future of the Central Valley.
Over the years, I’ve told my students that you don’t perform on Broadway if you live and work in Nebraska. Live theatrical work requires you to be where the audience exists. Yes, you can act or direct or produce live shows anywhere, but if you want to earn a Tony Award, New York City beckons.
Pursuing a career in technology is possible in the Central Valley. But, if you dream of working for Apple, Facebook, Google or Microsoft, plan on moving at some point. If you want to design computer chips, you’ll live where AMD, Intel and other chip companies have design labs. Some jobs exist in specific locations, regardless of the promise of telecommuting. Companies believe working in teams, located centrally, leads to innovation.
The work to be done alluded to by Payton and others includes creating more business incubators, opening more shared makerspaces, graduating more technical workers, and both embracing and moving beyond the ag-tech assumptions associated with the Central Valley. We can and do create more than high-tech dairy apps.
Incubators take many forms. Ideally, colleges and universities expand their entrepreneurship programs and include non-degree programs in business. Our nearby universities have these programs and should expand them. Hosting regular lectures by entrepreneurship and tech leaders bridges the social networks that also lead to funding opportunities. Nothing beats face-to-face contact with decision makers.
“Makers” refers to the hobbyists and professionals creating new devices using basic parts. A Makerspace is a location where makers meet to collaborate. Fresno Ideaworks is a makerspace, targeting hobbyists and some inventors.
Shared makerspaces feature such equipment as 3D printers and machining equipment to build prototypes of new inventions. The spaces often include wide-format printers and high-end computers for everything from video production to game design. By sharing the costs, entrepreneurs gain access to technology they might not need on a daily basis. Many shared spaces also offer classes on software and hardware, taught by certified experts.
Overall, educational attainment remains the greatest single economic challenge for the Central Valley. The annual educational attainment list by region, compiled by WalletHub and the Economic Policy Institute consistently, lists our communities near the bottom. In 2017, five of the 10 least-educated communities are in the Central Valley: Salinas, Fresno, Modesto, Bakersfield and Visalia, at a disappointing 148 of 150. This index considers high school graduation rates and college degrees earned by residents.
Technology jobs vary. Some require a high school diploma and specialized training. Other jobs in technology require advanced degrees. We have good colleges and universities, but they are not awarding enough technology degrees to attract technology companies to the region. Instead, our graduates leave for other places. Our best and brightest students also leave immediately after high school for universities in other cities. Some do return, but many do not.
We need our young people to believe they can have a future in technology here, in the Central Valley. Schools should work with local technology companies to foster mentorships. We should ask former residents who have been successful elsewhere to return and speak to our high school and middle school students. Young people need role models, people from backgrounds like theirs who offer examples of success.
Creating a technology hub where none existed does happen, usually with significant local government, university and private employer cooperation. Texas, South Carolina, Minnesota and other states have tech hubs where none existed in the early 1990s. Pittsburgh, where I have been teaching and studying, attracted Apple, Google and Uber with programs such as Pittsburgh Promise, which ensured qualified local high school graduates could attend universities tuition-free. Several makerspaces were created with city support, converting empty spaces into sites of innovation. A small university also sponsors a speakers’ series, featuring leading thinkers including Michio Kaku and Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Too many residents and political leaders don’t believe in the potential for a Central Valley tech hub. One of the disheartening things I’ve read online is the suggestion that a high-speed rail will allow tech workers to live in the Valley and work in the Bay Area. We should be aiming for local jobs, and a local technology hub.
We need more hackathons and more programming courses. We need assertive leaders with faith in a sustainable, technology-based economic future. Most of all, Central Valley residents need to stop dismissing, or accepting, low-rankings in the areas that would attract technology investors and their companies.
Central Valley leaders successfully led the campaign for the University of California campus now in Merced. We need that same effort, possibly more, to attract technology companies to the region. It starts with expanding enrollment in existing technology courses within our high schools and colleges. We need to nurture the makers and coders already living in the Valley with spaces and other incentives.
Future innovators can and should create jobs here in the Central Valley. We can follow the proven strategies of other communities. There is room for a second Silicon Valley right here.