Episode 71 — Brian Waller of the Technology Association of Iowa

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Geoff Wood: Welcome to the Welch Avenue Show, episode number 71.

Today we’re joined by Brian Waller, President of the Technology Association of Iowa and a long time buddy of mine. We talk a bit in this episode about the Prometheus Awards, TAI’s big award show event, and that event has now happened. If you want to go back and check it out there is a livestream of the whole thing including pre-show and post-show red-carpet-like interview hosted by yours truly.

Hey, if you’re enjoying the Welch Avenue Show do us a big favor and share the post for this week’s show on Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, or  whatever social network you’re using these days. We’d love to grow the audience for the show and the sharing economy is a great way to get the word out.

Thanks and enjoy episode 71 with Brian Waller

Geoff:  What's the mission for TAI?  How do you usually say that?

Brian:    The Technology Association of Iowa is really the premier professional organization for technology in the State of Iowa. What we do is really three things. Workforce issues or talent. We do connectivity and public policy. Really, the whole goal of those three initiatives, which is to raise awareness of the technology industry and some of the needs that our members are saying they need through those three avenues. 

Geoff:    What is your background? What led you to TAI?

Brian:    Are we going now?

Geoff:    Oh, yeah.

Brian:    I didn't know that. We've got to start over then, right?

Geoff:    No. 

Brian:    Oh my gosh! I had no idea. 

Geoff:    You should listen to the show. Just kidding. What is TAI? What do you guys do? What does TAI do for the State? 

Brian:    Really focus on three things. Workforce, connectivity and public policy. The three of those really mean to us, workforce being hearing from our members we don't have enough people to hire. Obviously, that's one of the #1 things we do. We have a program called "HyperStream," which is in around 110 schools in the State of Iowa. It gets kids involved in working on technology programs and projects in conjunction with a mentor at a technology company or someone working in that role. Helping on that pipeline. 

The connectivity piece, think of the Prometheus Awards coming up. Think of TechBrews. Tech Town Halls. All across the State, we're trying to shake the tree and find out where all the technology professionals are or people that are interested in technology or entrepreneurship. We see folks that work in a bank, in a role, where they're the IT guy at their bank. Trying to build the community around Iowa. The connectivity piece is really important to us to make sure we find the people to highlight and connect to people we need to.

The final piece is public policy. We have a registered lobbyist. His name's Mark Joyce, who is at the State Capital every day, working on behalf of our members, on some issues that some of our members care about. Some people care about public policy. Some of them could care less about public policy. We have a guy, Mark Joyce, is up there every day, who's working on their behalf.

Geoff:    Who big is TAI? What types of companies are members? How large is the organization? That type of thing?

Brian:    Membership numbers around 260.

Geoff:    260 companies?

Brian:    260 companies. We have no individual members, so all company memberships. If you think of that, around the State of Iowa, around 60% of that comes from central Iowa. The rest is Eastern Iowa. Mason City area, Council Bluffs area, some representation. If you look at that 260 members, the bulk of those come from central Iowa, but not completely central Iowa. Outside of that, you look at the companies. You see the majority of the companies being from probably 10 to 100 employee numbers.

I think when people think of us, they either think we are all about the big companies or we're all about the startup and the technology, because of the Pitch & Grow brand. I think there's a misconception of TAI where, sure we have Principal Financial at the table. Sure, we have Rockwell Collins at the table. We sure do, do a lot for, we think ... Or, not a lot, but we do a lot for mid-size companies, for entrepreneurs and for start-ups. I think there's a misconception out there of who we serve.

Geoff:    It's tough because you don't really know, are the things that Principal and Rockwell are most interested in ... Are those the same issues being dealt with by the start-ups? I think that might be where some of that misconception comes from. You have some innovative ... Gravitate, which my company's a member of TAI. A small level. There's different levels based on the size of the company. Isn't that right?

Brian:    Yeah. Your membership dues are based on employee numbers. From 0 to 3, you can get in at ... What is your rate? $150.00?

Geoff:    I think I'm actually ... It's a service provider membership. Like $500.00 or $600.00, I think. It's not technically a start-up. That's probably more of a definition in my mind, that ...

Brian:    We appreciate. We wish you were 100.

Geoff:    Me, too. As long as I had the revenue to support that.

Brian:    That's right.

Geoff:    The profit, at least, to support that. 

Brian:    Our membership dues are based on your employee numbers. Obviously, the bigger companies that have a larger employee number are going to pay more dues. The question is, "Do they have the same concerns as, let's say, a start-up does?" Probably not, but in some regards, access to talent is really what everybody's ... The common thread is. I also think that when you can be the connector that I was talking about, that we want to be the straw that serves the drink. If we can create an environment where maybe we can bring together someone at Rockwell or Principal in a leadership CIO, CCO role or somehow be that connector from those two worlds, I think that's something we strive to do. 

Geoff:    I think that's interesting. I think you're probably known more for the events that you guys do than maybe the lobbying stuff. Not that the impacts are more impact-able. I think day-to-day, it's a lot easier to see you guys. Talk about TechBrew and how that works because you're all over the State with that.

Brian:    Sure. TechBrew is a fascinating, fascinating event. As you travel around the State to see the dynamic difference between community-to-community. Basically, eight times out of the month, we are in eight communities. God Bless Patrick Quinn, Stephanie Andrews, or Steevo as she's known, I've heard, that travel all around the State, from 5:00 to 7:00 on a Tuesday or Thursday out of every given week, they're going to be in Council Bluffs, Des Moines, Ames, Mason City, Cedar Rapids, Cedar Falls, and Iowa City. 

What that happens, is from 5:00 to 7:00, we're going to buy your first beer. It's again what I'm talking about. Those folks who identify themselves in the technology industry or from a larger degree, from the creative class, someone who's trying to get into a startup or you see someone from a bank or some sort of more established formal institution, wanting to cross-pollinate with some of these creative folks. You're seeing some dynamic things happen in that 5:00 to 7:00 networking, get-a-beer, casual environment.

TAI has done this sort of thing for about seven or eight years and been really, really successful in building community. I can tell you, obviously, you go to downtown Des Moines, there are lots of events that you can come and do this. There are some hyper-focused events. You go to places like Council Bluffs, who's really craving to build that ecosystem or that environment, and TAI comes in as that bridge builder. We're agnostic. We come into a community and say, "Hey, let's just get people in the room. We're again that convener. That's been very beneficial for TAI to again be that convener role all around the State. It's a really, really unique environment, I think.

Geoff:    It's pretty cool. We're friends outside of this and have known each other since before you were at TAI and before I was doing what I'm doing now. I've recently been working with you on the Tech Town Hall to help share the story as you go around. I think that's an innovative thing. There are lots of drink-focused events and coffee-focused events to get people together. You guys do a lot of those. This town hall, of trying to get issues out in front, I think is a really interesting evolution of that concept. I think it was probably your idea to bring this in. Talk about Tech Town Hall, what's going on there.

Brian:    The Tech Town Hall format really, for us, although it's going to be really great again to be that convener around the State. It's going to be great for us to learn as an organization what the State needs. If we say we want to be a statewide organization. We know that there are dynamic differences between Sioux City, Spencer, Mason City and Des Moines. I think we wanted to set up an environment where we could put together the leaders in that community, put together an audience that might share some concerns, have an environment where you could really ask questions. You can learn some things.

From an organizational standpoint, we're going to learn how dynamic the State is from the technology industry focus. We're going to come out with a network of a lot of good questions and a lot of good feedback. The format of the Tech Town Hall is you're going to have five panelists. It's going to be moderated by a local reporter. We're really engaging that local format. The five pieces or the five panelists are going to be one, a CIO or CTO. Who's your chief technology guy? When you come to Sioux City, who's your chief technology guy or Cedar Rapids.

A good example is we're going to be in Iowa City on May 20 to kick off my EntreFEST. Pat Steinbrech, who's the CIO of ACT is going to sit on the panel. That really chief CIO/CTO. Also, next to that would be a technology entrepreneur. Next to a K through 12 teacher. Someone who's in the classroom, who's doing that work, next to some diversity component. Everybody talks about diversity in technology and wants to overcome that. We're going to somehow personify that on this panel and hear from a different perspective of why maybe access isn't there. The final piece is maybe that legislative or policy piece, some decision-maker. Also open up questions from the audience.

Geoff:    Prior to recording this, you've done two of these. Des Moines and Mason City.

Brian:    Yes.

Geoff:    What has surprised you that you've learned in those two stops?

Brian:    What a great comparison here with Des Moines, as you know, and Mason City. Two different population sizes. Geographically separated. What the difference is, the conversation from community-to-community, is going to be very, very different. What has surprised me is the level of citizens and leaders craving this knowledge. You open up a newspaper, you turn on the TV, you're seeing Sony hacks. You're seeing technology gadgets. You're bombarded with technology in this fast-paced industry. 

I think people know that their citizens and their society's probably going to change. Technology's a big part of it. Their businesses are going to change the way they look at retaining their young people. The whole game is changing. I think TAI is one of those people and organizations that are out there engaging that conversation. You're seeing people really craving this conversation, whatever it is. I think we don't necessarily know how we want to lead it across the State. This is a really great vehicle to learn what's out there, some pockets, maybe be a connector, a provider and some help in some of these communities. 

Geoff:    I think it has been cool. Especially, Des Moines, I wasn't really surprised because I know a lot of the people in Des Moines. That's where we both are. In Mason City, I didn't know any of the people on the panel prior to sitting in that. It was interesting to see ... I'm also on the committee that's helped put this together. I think the committee's very cognizant of not wanting to take what's working in Des Moines and tell other people around the State they should be doing that. Like, it has to be about those local issues.

Brian:    Right.

Geoff:    It's been cool that you do an introduction, then you get out of the way and facilitate that conversation locally and obviously end up with drinks to let things go on. I would say that a lot of the issues were the same but not all of them. Right?

Brian:    Yeah.

Geoff:    Some of the things that they were talking about in Mason City were ... We know that we're not maybe the first choice for people coming out of school. Des Moines not the first choice for people coming out school. How do we grab those people later in life? How can we show off the recreation that is north Iowa, which I don't know a whole lot about and show them it's a place to be? It will be really interesting when we go to even smaller communities because I think I underestimated the size of Mason City. It's like 30,000 people?

Brian:    Yeah.

Geoff:    That's a decent metro for Iowa. We go to a place like Spencer that's going to be significantly smaller or university towns like Iowa City and Sioux Falls. I'm excited for that this year.

Brian:    I thought of another thing that really surprised me is that when you put a panel together like this in a community even like Mason City and Des Moines, it's staggering to see the people that are meeting each other for the first time in these communities.

Geoff:    Yeah. That was the last comment, right?

Brian:    Yeah. To me, it even more validates what we're doing that we are introducing these people. It goes to show you, if you're in your community, you sometimes don't look beneath ... It's right in front of you, the people you should be working with. You really should be interacting with. You always think on a macro level what you should be doing. That's really surprising to me.

Geoff:    That's a great point. Talk about some of the lobbying work that you guys have done. What are some of the bills or policy or whatever that's in place that you guys have helped shape with the tech community?

Brian:    Sure. Old disclosure. Five-and-a-half months into the new role as President of TAI. The historical perspective of public policy I probably cannot tie up with a bow tie. I can tell you right now, two things that we're really working on and in the past we've been focused on. The #1 thing is the STEM Internship Program. If you are in a STEM field, in college, and you want to have an internship, there is a match program that the State has put aside $1,000,000.00 to help companies hire interns. 

If you're a company that doesn't do internships a lot, you can't really provide that pay for someone. If you're doing a STEM field, you can't really ... It's really competitive. If you're a company, a mid-sized company, at TAI, trying to identify or start paying those folks to come in or identifying that program or internship. Those dollars are set aside. We're heavily lobbying for more access to those dollars so companies can hire STEM interns, which is very important to us owning the T in STEM.

The second is, I refer to a HyperStream program. The governor gives out ... Actually, that's the wrong way to say, "gives out," but has about $3,000,000.00 that go to STEM scale-up programs. Basically, what that says is, we're going to put $3,000,000.00 aside saying, "We need to get more kids engaged in STEM, projects, careers, down the road to the pipeline." We need to do it in middle school, elementary school and high school.

HyperStream's a program that TAI runs is one of those programs. One of our big push is to advocate, keep that money going into over 15 to 20 programs like HyperStream that get young kids access to technology, engineering, mathematics, and science programs. Those two things.

Another thing on the radar is, "How can we influence curriculum? How can we get some level of coding or computer science into curriculum?" I'm not sure we would go so far as to say we want to "instead of" a foreign language now or "instead of" something. How can we get that as part of a day? How can we get that part of curriculum in even ...

Geoff:    At the high school level?

Brian:    At school level. Yeah. At grade school level or middle school level. How can we impact the curriculum conversation to a point where this is something that's being taught. You don't have to take it as an after-school program, once a week, offered by HyperStream. We need to have more access. We talk about diversity a lot. Diversity also means to us getting non-technologists. Somebody like me, who's not a technologist, who growing up, probably would have gone and played basketball after school or baseball with my friends. Although, I feel like now, I could probably provide a lot to a technology team and talk that language now because I'm comfortable in it. I don't think I had access to it. Part of our curriculum's conversation is, "How do we get more access to somebody maybe during the school day?"

Geoff:    Is that a conversation with the Legislature or with the school board association? Who are you guys ...

Brian:    That's where you start. This has been a really good learning experience for me, having not had a job where I would interface in public policy like that. You really think about where you should leverage. We've talked about this. Where you should leverage your time and money. What a powerful network as we all know. When you can speak to a school board association, it's going to be a little better off if you've channeled that way through rather than going to one-off school districts or teachers. 

I think we want to again, listen, because this might not be the best idea in the world. I think that's where we start from a policy, legislature piece is with that school board association. 

Geoff:    You mentioned the Prometheus Awards is coming up.

Brian:    Yep.

GEoff:    Maybe give a little rundown of what Prometheus is and how people get involved and that type of thing?

Brian:    Sure. This is the 10th Annual Prometheus Awards, which is the technology awards of Iowa. Think about honoring the mobile app of the year, top technology company of the year, CIO of the year, best start-up of the year. There's over ten categories. Every year, this is really our time to step back and say, "Okay, in the last 12 months, who can we honor that has done a lot in this space? Who have been innovative? Who are the leaders? Who's done something new? Who has done something nationally? Who can we really raise up and be really cheerleaders for in the industry?" 

From an outsider, I've looked at the Prometheus Awards, being a spectator sitting in the audience the last five years. This really gives a validation to technology companies in Iowa that is really, I think, accepted throughout the State. It's a good validation. I think companies think a lot about it. I think if you're an employee of a company that wins a Prometheus Awards, I think it's a real validation for some of the work you're doing. If you look at the nine-person judging panel that was judging these folks, these are some esteemed folks across the State. I think it's a really good ...

Geoff:    Did you just release that?

Brian:    ... badge of honor. 

Geoff:    The judging panel?

Brian:    We will. It's in the program the night of the event. It'll be in the press release that we send out when we announce the nominations and the finalists.

Geoff:    The date of that is?

Brian:    Thursday, April 16. At 5:00, we'll start off at Live at the Lounge. Then, go into the awards at 6:00.

Geoff:    Okay. It should be really cool. I did not make it last year but I've been to several Prometheus Awards over the past ten years. I'm excited to do some fun stuff with you this year at that. Really interesting, I'm not necessarily a big fan of awards in general, but I think it's a good way to look back on a year. We've talked about this in the Podcast before and see how did we mark the year that was? Events like this, I think, do a really good job of showing who had a big year, who didn't have a big year, that type of thing. 

Having no knowledge whatsoever of even ... I don't remember who the finalists are. We had that first software IPO in a long time, in 20 ... Right? Or, was that in January? I think that was in 2014. It's a big year for technology in the State. I'm excited to see who shakes out with that.

Brian:    Yep. It's always challenging. I, again, going through the process and being an outsider, getting good perspective of both, it's always challenging to make sure you have the right nominations in. That's my call for next year to everyone. We need more nominations in. It's challenging but I look at the winners now behind closed doors. I feel really proud that I get to be at the tip of the sphere of the top cheerleader in this industry. It's really easy to do with the winners you're going to see that night.

Geoff:    You going to wear a tux?

Brian:    I think I'm wearing a salmon-colored coat, perhaps, if you give me yours. 

Geoff:    It may or may not be in the closet downstairs. 

Brian:    That's right. We should say, though, you are going to be hosting our Live at the Lounge webcast that night. Those listening to check in that night and see you. You're going to be interviewing the top people in the tech industry.

Geoff:    I would say that they should do that but all the listeners will actually be there so they won't be able to see it, will they? 

Brian:    It'll be Live in the Lounge. They can walk up and see you.

Geoff:    That's true. That's true. That'll be interesting. I've never done the red carpet-type thing.

Brian:    The question now, I didn't know I'd be asking this, Geoff, but what are you going to be wearing that night?

Geoff:    That same type of coat. We'll trade it off. 

Brian:    Is that right? Okay. Share a coat. 

Geoff:    That'd be great. Looking forward to it. I haven't prepped a whole lot on that so we probably need to have some conversations.

Brian:    Yeah. You'll be fine. It's what you do.

Geoff:    Folks, who want to get involved in TAI, what's the first step to get involved?

Brian:    You can go to biotechnological or you can pick up the phone and call us. You can call me directly at 515-418-3553. Go go our website. You'll see all of our contact information and pick up the phone and call. We're not a huge staff. We're really accessible.

Geoff:    A lot of the events are free. I know memberships start pretty low if you're in a start-up as we already talked about. Give folks a little bit more on your background. What did you do before you got to TAI. 

Brian:    Sure. Originally from Sioux City. Went to Colorado State to college. Came back, worked at the Science Center of Iowa, here in downtown Des Moines for six years. After that, was executive director of the downtown Chamber of Commerce in Des Moines. The last three years spent at the Iowa Economic Development Authority, at a really cool job, where I got to run around the country. Again, be a cheerleader for Iowa. Tried to do business recruitment, business development for Iowa and really focused on the tech space and being, again, a cheerleader for the tech space. Also, was a young guy at a State organization that was telling everybody about entrepreneurship and startups and trying to convince people what you and everybody else was convincing me outside those doors. Being a cheerleader of the tech space in Iowa and technology, in general, I think put me in a nice spot to take the next step here with TAI. 

Geoff:    Yeah. I think it's pretty exciting to see where that has all gone. Speaking of where that's gone, what is the next big thing for TAI? Other than what you've already spoke to with the lobbying and STEM initiatives, what's the 2016 agenda look like for that organization?

Brian:    One exciting thing we're really working on is an IT apprenticeship program. Again, workforce is something we hear from everybody all the time. Is there something more we can do? We've been developing with the Department of Labor, an IT apprenticeship program. What that would look is an actual technology association of Iowa certified apprentice. You think of "apprentice," you're thinking about the trades, the pipefitter’s union, or some other trades like that. 

We think we're going to be developing maybe one of the first in the country, apprenticeship programs where you can maybe take someone in your organization, maybe that's in HR, that interfaces a lot with your technology group. Or, you have someone that's been with the company for 20 years. They think, "Gosh! I would love to get over there and be on the technology team or do some programming. I don't have the skill set. I don't have the degrees to do that. I can't go back to college. Is there a mechanism to do that?" 

We're applying for a federal grant to launch this apprenticeship program where it would be 50% on-the-job training and 50% educational classroom time. The employer would sign on and say, "We're going to put you through this program. Then, we're going to lean on our local providers like DMACC or Kirkwood or a community college locally or we can go to a private trainer. If you were training people here at Gravitate, a company could say, "We want to put this person through 50% on-the-job training and we need them to take classes x, y, and z at Gravitate. We're hoping with this standard and this apprentice program, that we can hopefully do that with 18-year-old kids, not just this example of a mid-career HR person, but more people like that.

Geoff:    As you mentioned apprenticeship, I think of earlier stage, like right out of high school, in lieu of going to college, maybe. Mid-career is interesting as well. Like, actually someone's transitioning into a new career.

Brian:    I think when we hear back from our companies, those are the more realistic people that they see would ... If you're looking for talent, you're thinking, "Gosh! You talk about someone that's working in a different department. What an opportunity to go make a lot more money, to get a really unique skill set, to get paid as you learn." It's going to be a really nice, nice process. We'll be working on that.

Geoff:    Is there a component to that for ... We had a guest on a couple of weeks ago. Shonna Dorsey from Interface, the web school in Omaha, for those types of programs too. Like Dev/Iowa boot camp, that they do in Iowa City? Like that type of training where it's like a six week or nine week intensive "Learn to Become a Developer?" 

Brian:    That's what we're working on right now because really what we're finding is ... You look at our membership. Industry needs to be working and training at the same speed as the community colleges and the private industry folks. The folks that you just talked about, IC having a larger role moving forward in training, because they're quicker, they're more agile. They can communicate with an industry saying, "We've already learned that." They don't have to go back and say, "Is there a class for that? What class is that?" 

For us, all the providers are going to be at the table. The ones that are more agile, like the ones you've thought about, I think, are going to be maybe better in that space in some regards. 

Geoff:    Interesting. I really look towards ... That's a 2016 initiative?

Brian:    Yeah. 2016. We're working on it, right now, for 2016. 

Geoff:    That's awesome.

Brian:    Hopefully, we can roll that out.

Geoff:    Excited to learn more about that as information becomes available. Finally, if you want to follow up with you. What's the best place to do that?

Brian:    Sure. You can email me at brian.waller@technologyiowa.org.

Geoff:    Sounds good. Thanks for coming in, Brian.

Brian:    Thanks, Geoff. This was fun.