Are Arizona Universities Developing the Talent to Fuel the New Economy?

We like to talk a big game about growing the economy with technology startups in Arizona.  Many brag about our universities being a strong pipeline for talent to fuel that economy.  I personally haven’t seen that to be true based on my involvement in the broader startup community.  It is time we asked, are Arizona universities developing the talent to fuel the new economy? Arizona State University certainly has a monopoly with the sheer volume of students across a number of disciplines.  In 2014 they had over 72,000 students enrolled.

Arizona University Rankings

However, volume is not enough.  They also claim to have quality, ASU is ranked 88th in the world by the Academic Ranking of World Universities and 48th among all universities in the United States.  Much like standardized testing those metrics for quality don’t always pan out in the real world.  The only real metric is in the result.  How strong are the candidates for our schools in placing students (in this case in startups).

LinkedIn has a new University Ranker. They looked to answer, “Which schools are best at launching graduates into desirable jobs?”

They analyzed millions of alumni profiles to find out how schools around the world stack up across a variety of careers. Here’s how they found the top schools for software developers at startups:

  • First, they identified the top startups where software developers are choosing to work.
  • Next, they found people on LinkedIn who work as software developers and saw where they went to school.
  • Finally, for each school, they found the percentage of these alumni who’ve landed software development jobs at these startups, then compared the percentages to come up with the list.

Sadly no Arizona school cracked into the top 15.  Our neighbors University of California San Diego (UCSD) and University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) both did.  The University of Arizona did make it into the top 25 for software developers.  Again Arizona State was no where to be found, which is staggering based on the size of the student body.

How do we start to elevate the engineering mojo at our Arizona institutions of higher learning?


Creating The Arizona We Want

I was recently named a Tech Titan by the Phoenix Business Journal. I was asked to speak on a panel with Jeff Pruitt, Craig Barrett, Wendy Jameson moderated by Patrick O’ Grady at the formal event unveiling the Titans. Here are some of the questions that came up.

The Arizona We Want

What are the biggest challenges facing the technology sector in Arizona?

Lack of talent. We think we have a lot of entrepreneurs, but that isn’t the same as the workforce needed to execute. Scaling a company to thousands of people in a year or two is an enormous task if you have to train every employee from the ground up. As our market heats up the lack of talent will only increase and so will the pain.

Lack of density. We are too sparse. People are not connected enough to allow for maximum serendipity. We have to start thinking of ourselves as a region with cores in various cities. No one wants to hear this, but it is a reality. The other option is embracing this and figuring out a way to make it an advantage.

Lack of culture\tolerance. We don’t have the essence of placemaking at our core. People love the weather and the outdoor activities, but we aren’t creating the attachment to physical place. Music and Art are poorly supported. Tolerance for view points outside those made famous by our politicians is limited in most areas.

Lack of leadership. We are a young state. We lack quality leadership in nearly every way civic, education and business. Those with experience aren’t connected to Arizona. Accelerating young leaders needs to be a top priority.

How are small technology companies being pushed to succeed in the state, and what more needs to be done to develop more technology companies.

I believe at this point we have more incubators, collaborative spaces and angel groups than we do actual entrepreneurs. Excuses shouldn’t be accepted anymore. What is missing?

Experience. We lack “smart” money. We don’t have the “pay pal mafia” or “Tony Hsieh’s” that have been there and done it in the new economy to invest in the next wave.

Cohesiveness. Arizona is fiercely independent. Every cowboy wants to own the gold mine. I think this is a by product of our land development mindset. Everything is fear and scarcity based. Instead of trust and abundance based. Arizona needs to learn to work together.

Workforce Development. The need for a digital blue collar exists. Think of operations at Paypal, Go Daddy and Yelp. They require technical literacy but not advanced technical knowledge for a lot of their positions. We need to have programs in place to transition people through the entire chain of technical opportunity.

Education. We need to be fast tracking technology the same way we do healthcare professions. High school students should be graduating with enough skills to be workforce ready or primed to fast track through university. Arizona could lead in this category. Hello EVIT and WESTMEC.

What are the biggest opportunities available for Arizona technology companies?

Climate. Creatives like to get out and explore. Arizona is primed for outdoor activity 300 days out of the year and is a great base camp to explore the entire Southwest. We can not under estimate this asset. We need to stop gutting our state park system and instead INVEST heavily in our open spaces.

Young. Arizona may be 100 years old but it didn’t really start attracting people until the 60’s when air conditioning became mainstream. We are a mere adolescent compared to other states. This means the business leaders of today will define the future of Arizona. It will be difficult work, but will offer significant rewards to those willing to pioneer.

Affordable. The cost of living here and doing business here is just hard to beat. We need to leverage it while we still have it.

Family. Despite what the overall numbers say, most of the suburbs have fantastic school systems. Neighborhoods are safe. We are well positioned for raising families. We should recognize and embrace that.

Cities such as Boston and Austin have been successful in developing an ecosystem for technology companies, both in terms of developing them and recruiting them. What can those cities and others show Phoenix about developing its own ecosystem?

Culture. Culture. Culture. Boston was at the center of the creation of this country. Austin has made a point to be weird. They are willing to be unique and embrace their DNA. We should be willing to do the same.

Tolerance. Tolerance. Tolerance. To be blunt we are the laughing stock of the world in this department. We need to stop judging, oppressing and silencing those that aren’t like us. Ideas and execution need to matter more than appearances.

Sense of place (Density). People need to be able to identify with landmarks, neighborhoods and memories. We need to engage people and make a mark on them. Transportation plays a part in this.

Define a better tomorrow. We need a deeper university system. More research, more private options. See education above.

Boston had deep pockets (Venture Capital). Austin had Dell and University of Texas. Portland, Seattle, Boulder and Las Vegas are all rising. We need to use our unique attributes to differentiate ourselves.

What do you see as the role of groups such as the ACA, GPEC and cities in developing technology companies?

Arizona Commerce Authority (ACA). They need to be influencing legislation. Help implement everything listed above.

Greater Phoenix Economic Council (GPEC). They need to continue recruiting and doing site location. They need to be fostering/amplifying what is already happen. They need to drive density cluster activity without picking winners/losers.

Cities. They need to provide the infrastructure for success. They need to emphasis place making and strengthen their downtown cores. They need to build talent hubs and provide migratory growth patterns for high growth companies.

How do you bring together the different sectors of technology, from software and hardware to everything from aerospace, renewables and green, together to speak with a unified voice to further the future of technology in the state?

Technology is technology. Stop trying to specialize. Load up with smart people. Create the right envirnoment and get the hell out of the way.

Talent. Everyone needs it. Focus on that. Unify on making sure that a pipeline of quality talent is here for years to come.

ACA has outlined a strategy that focuses on aerospace, entrepreneurs and renewables in its approach. Are there other legs to the stool that need exploring?

Stop picking winners. Let the market decide. Help existing clusters.

Richard Florida says it well. Technology. Talent. Tolerance. The three T’s. ACA get on that. Help stop stupid policy and encourage good policy.

I am ready to make Arizona better. Are you? What are your opinions? What is the Arizona We Want?

Political Bites : When Should We Hold City and School Elections?

Election count

Should city and school elections be held separately from the partisan November elections?

No.  The cost of having an election is relatively high.  Requiring material to be sent out via mail, assembling volunteers at each polling place and tallying up the votes.  Having a second election in essence doubles this cost.  Additionally, turn out rates tend to be much higher during partisan November elections.  With already abysmally low voter turn out rates why would we want to do something that we know isn’t effective?

Political Bites : Extra Year of Science/Math To Prepare for Tougher Standards?

School House Prison
Will an extra year of high-school science and math improve students’ skills in the subjects?

An extra year will probably not significantly help.  The real problem is that students are not engaged in their learning.  We continue to relax requirements because doing the work of getting kids excited about learning is more difficult than most schools are willing to invest in.  It is becoming increasingly difficult to tell schools from prisons on the outside.  Have we ever asked what impact that has on the inside?


Political Bites : Are Rising Tuition Costs Making You Change College Plans?

I Can't Believe It!

Are increasing tuition costs making you rethink college plans for yourself or your children?

The combination of escalating costs and 20th century learning models have begun to make attending post secondary institutions less appealing for most potential students. Students are leaving with higher student loan debt and entering a market that doesn’t value their diploma. It is becoming more difficult to encourage my children to enter the university system, soon even the community college system will be unreasonable. It is time that we confronted a system that is clearly broken.