Silicon Slopes is currently the epicenter of Utah’s booming tech world. But that explosion straddling the Salt Lake County-Utah County border could edge northward in the next few years.
Clint Betts, executive director of both the Silicon Slopes organization and the Utah Technology Council, said last week that expanding the tech industry throughout the state could result in the capital city becoming its heart.
“I think in 10 years, Salt Lake City will be the hub of tech,” Betts said at the Newsmaker Breakfast at the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute. “I think it has to be in the state of Utah. I think it’s already weird that it’s not right now. But the way to solve that and to make it go even sooner would be to build companies here.”
Betts contrasted Utah’s situation with that of Austin, Texas, where the tech ecosystem surrounds the city. “It is strange and there is something to be looked at, the fact that the hub of Utah’s tech community is not in Salt Lake City, its biggest city, right? It’s 20 minutes south.”
That Utah’s tech growth has been booming between Provo and Salt Lake City could be the result of available farmland that turned into tech buildings and campuses, but more likely was the region being appealing to companies wanting to attract talent from both Provo to the south and Salt Lake City to the north, he said.
Cydni Tetro, president of the Women Tech Council, agreed. “It has all been about talent pull,” she said, noting that a tech company located at Point of the Mountain has easy access to potential workers who have graduated from Brigham Young University, Utah Valley University and the University of Utah.
Much of last week’s discussion focused on issues facing the industry and how to spread its success to more people, including women, minorities and people outside the Wasatch Front.
Tetro said the tech industry in Utah needs to disperse, which technology will allow. While some old-school companies require their workers to be in the office every single day, “the coolest part about technology is, this is not true,” she said.
For example, technology enables her to work while at her son’s soccer game, during spring break or during late evenings after her children go to bed.
“It is the change in people’s minds who run companies, to make sure that they know how to operate in remote areas,” she said. “The best thing we can do to get companies to disperse is understand how you have a hub and how you support flexibility. It’s also the very best way to recruit women.”
Job growth in Utah’s tech industry averaged 3.6 percent a year from 2007 to 2017, more than double employment growth in the tech industry nationwide. Betts said Utah’s strong tech sector has led to “success challenges” that include issues related to talent, transportation, housing affordability, air quality, workforce diversity and education. All, he said, are about extending opportunity available in technology.
“We’ve never had the success that we saw in 2018 in our community’s history,” he said. “2018 was a semina year for Utah tech. The success of our community is unbelievable. It’s crazy, right? That success is not evenly distributed, by any means.”
For example, housing is perhaps the most critical such issue, he said.
“As you look at Silicon Valley and the fact that if you don’t work in tech in Silicon Valley, you no longer live in Silicon Valley and [there is] the class divide that has happened there,” Betts said.
“It is for sure a crisis there, what’s happened, and if we’re not being careful and thoughtful about housing and our density and where we’re setting up these hubs for tech innovation and thinking about how we can spread it along and not just [be at] Thanksgiving Point or not just between Provo and Salt Lake but really throughout the state, it’ll be a real challenge.”
One way to address that challenge is to ensure that students in every school in Utah have access to computer education by 2022 — a priority for Silicon Slopes. Tetro and her organization want to see more women in the industry — throughout the ranks.
“We know that diverse teams increase revenue and profits, we know they’re critical to the growth of the state,” she said. “We cannot recruit, we cannot retain, unless we have diversified workforces.”
Looking back, Betts said that while Utah needs workers at all levels in the industry, the state’s struggles to attract top-level management talent has eased a bit. Tetro noted that about 15 years ago, the industry in Utah had no venture capital — that, too, has improved — and its companies were too small to build management talent.
However, she added, “we had the foresight to start talking about it then.”
“Today, everything’s got to be focused on talent pipeline and the infrastructure to support it, so you don’t lose the way of life that people love and that attracts them to Utah. It’s a complicated problem. We have about two decades before our population doubles to solve that problem, but we have to solve it now,” she said.
“I think we have to get really good at being collective as a community to create both policies and programs and a combined effort on the things that we value most, to then build those out. It’s everyone. It’s universities, it’s government, it is the venture capital, it’s technology, it’s communities. Nobody gets to sit by the wayside. If we don’t all come together, we won’t solve these problems, and they’re big.”