Success for Utah in the information technology and software industries is likely in the future, mostly because of cultural and environmental factors, industry panelists said recently.
Utahns tend to be supportive, collaborative and risk-taking — all of which can lead to innovation in business, panelists said at the two-day High Tech Road Show, presented by the National U.S.-Arab Chamber of Commerce.
Vincent Mikolay, managing director of business outreach and international trade at the Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED), said one of the leading indicators of success for Utah in all industries is “the people that we have here” and the state’s “hard-working, diverse atmosphere.”
“It’s a labor force that is committed to being successful. And that’s cultural and that’s not something you find everywhere in the U.S., and it’s certainly not something that’s easily manufactured,” Mikolay said.
“I’ve never seen a workforce as confident and committed as the one that I’ve found in Utah in the short period of time that I’ve been here. And that’s not something that is artificially manufactured. That’s something that’s home-grown.”
He cited the role of the Mormon church, an education system that turns out highly educated workers and “constant reinforcement environmentally of just wanting to succeed” among factors leading to Utah’s success.
“There’s something to be said about a state that’s 35th in population, [with] 2.8 million people, [because] you’re always the underdog in the grand scheme of things,” he said. Utahns nonetheless know they will succeed and will “fight forward” in a belief that they will be the best, he added.
“And if we can do anything right over the next decade, it’s how do we protect that, how do we harness that, how do we foster it more?” he said, adding that current successful people can serve as mentors for the next generation.
Vincent Brisebois, director of visual computing at Fusion-io, said Utah’s quality of life and employee work ethic are “spectacular.” The state’s strong emphasis on family results in people not expecting to work overtime hours — unlike, say, Los Angeles, where it’s a “24-hour-a-day job.”
But he agreed with Mikolay that Utahns often choose to work overtime.
“It’s not because of the great pay, the huge incentives or the stock options,” Mikolay said. “It’s because they’re happy in their environment, and happiness breeds additional effort on the job, which yields greater results for the organization.”
Brad Heitmann, cofounder of Trumio Inc., said Mormon missions help Utahns in a variety of ways, including building international acumen and awareness. “We have our fair share of ugly Americans who are loud and ego-centric and all of that, but we also have a number of people who are very attuned to what matters elsewhere in the world, that there is an elsewhere in the world,” he said.
Utahns generally also have “a culture of intrepidness” exemplified in the Mormon pioneers’ trek to Utah. “It’s no wonder that we have an entrepreneurial spirit here and that we’re willing to take risks and explore what’s out there, simply because of the heritage of the state,” Heitmann said.
Regula Bhaskar, president and chief executive officer of FatPipe Networks, said Utah’s advantages include strong universities, a strong history of innovation and young people who go on Mormon missions. “When you’re 18 years old and get out of the house, you learn to grow up a lot, and you’re willing to take more risks,” he said.
Mikolay said the state also features a collaborative culture that leads to innovation. In contrast, entrepreneurs in Los Angeles and Silicon Valley tend to keep ideas to themselves out of a fear that someone else will steal them.
“What I find in Utah, it’s the actual opposite,” he said. “I see a younger generation of recent graduates that want to be entrepreneurs because that’s all they know. They’re now hard-wired in their DNA to ‘you’re going to succeed, you’re going to have your own business, you’re going to be successful creating something that’s going to leave a legacy, but you’re never going to do it alone.’”
Heitmann said ideas that do not “circulate quickly enough” often do not advance to become “good” ideas.”
Brisebois acknowledged that when he worked in Los Angeles, he worried that his ideas would be stolen “because that’s what they do. Everyone was trying to take credit for everyone else’s work, and that’s just how it is. And out here, it’s so different.”
In Utah, the “no-barrier mentality” is bolstered by community backing, he said.
“It’s that moral support from the entire community, the way that everyone does it, the way that everyone’s into it and supportive of it, is very, very refreshing, and you don’t get that elsewhere,” Brisebois said.
Panelists said Utah has other features that make it conducive to business innovation, including proximity to Denver and Los Angeles if travel there is necessary and Utah’s relative low cost of living. “It really changes everything,” Brisebois said, noting that that factor helps make Utah a magnet for innovative outsiders. “It’s not something you can buy or foster somewhere else.”
David Bradford, CEO of CreoVirtus Consulting, said it is “remarkable” that Utah, with the 35th-largest population among states, has been ranked by Forbes as the top state for business and careers for three years running.
“We have one of the fastest growing economies in the country,” Bradford said. “We have a very flexible and powerful business environment that enables these strong clusters like the IT cluster to grow.”
He noted that Utah has competitive advantages in networking, hosted services, software, semiconductor manufacturing, telecom, Internet and e-commerce. And while the number of IT and software jobs in Utah, as a percentage of the entire economy, dipped in 2001-02, it has rebounded. The industry now has about the same percentage it had at the height of the dot-com boom.
“That,” he said, “is a pretty remarkable statistic.”