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VOL. 38 | NO. 8 | Friday, February 21, 2014

Music City a crossover hit as a high-tech hub

Same creative spirit drives two Middle Tennessee industries

By Hollie Deese

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Is there anything Nashville can’t do? One of the most recent accolades making the rounds on social media is the city’s status as a tech town, and it’s not hard to see why.

In September, Google selected Nashville as one of seven inaugural cities participating in its Google for Entrepreneurs Tech Hub Network, a program to better connect burgeoning tech hot spots with Google resources and vice versa. The hub is hosted through the Entrepreneur Center, which receives new tools and technology to help startups grow through the program.

“It’s great that Google sees Nashville as a thriving entrepreneurial community,” says Julie May, founder of the Nashville-based technology firm bytes of knowledge. “It’s almost a certification like ‘Nashville, you guys are really doing things right, and we are ready to back you.’”

Bryan Huddleston, president and CEO of the Nashville Technology Council, isn’t surprised that Google made Nashville one of its selections and says it explains a lot about what has been going on behind the scenes for a while – or not so behind the scenes if you were one of the nearly 600 people in attendance at the fifth annual Nashville Technology Council Awards, held Jan. 30 at the Country Music Hall of Fame.

“Google has designated Nashville as one of the places where tech startups happen, a place where a burgeoning technology sector is happening, and they want to be a part of it,” Huddleston adds. “I think that speaks volumes for what our community has to offer.

“And I think if people have ideas about technology and want to start their own business, they are now looking to Nashville to come and make those dreams and those ideas a reality.”

Five assets

The Nashville Technology Council’s mission is to connect, develop and promote the technology community of Middle Tennessee. Prior to joining the NTC, Huddleston worked at Microsoft for eight years and has held positions at Ingram Industries, Oasis Software and Quest Software.

Huddleston says there are five assets that make Nashville deserving of the spotlight, all of which draw on its unique sense of community and culture. They are education, infrastructure, IT departments, tech companies, and people.

“And it is really that last one, the community of individuals, that drives our unique community,” he says. “These folks here in town are doing such awesome things. They are progressive, they are creative, they are nurturing, they are confident.

“I think that comes from the heritage of being in Tennessee, but I also believe that as we have gotten an influx of people from various other locations, who are now adopting that. It has just become this hub of creativity that I think is unique in any kind of tech city across the U.S.”

‘This wonderful secret’

The same creativity that fills the area with musical talent is the very same reason there are so many tech savvy folks.

Huddleston spoke about this very thing at Lipscomb’s Idea Center in Cool Spring in December, delving into what drives and motivates this creative class and what businesspeople can do to attract them into their organizations.

“Everyone is willing to help someone else,” he says. “This culture is willing to help other people out, we want to help others succeed. It’s like as the tide rises, all ships rise.”

May, whose 20-plus employee business is located in the tech-rich Germantown area, would like to see the talent pool grow even larger.

“We need to become more of a technology marketplace,” she says. “But the challenge is that we don’t have enough technical talent, and it’s because they get paid more elsewhere. And so it becomes a bit of a cycle. But if we can keep and attract businesses, we need to keep and attract technical talent.”

Tamara Dickson, vice president of economic development with the Nashville Downtown Partnership, says Nashville’s special brand of creativity really does help attract business to town.

“Obviously I think the local and national accolades help with recruitment efforts, there is a lot of energy here where talented and creative people attract other creative and talented people,” Dickson says.

“Nashville is just a talent magnet right now, and I think that for a long time it was this wonderful secret and now companies, individuals, and the entrepreneurial IT businesses are flocking here.”

Nashville’s status as an “it” city has benefits that are far-reaching, and recruiting and keeping tech talent is no exception, Dickson says.

“Being downtown is a great recruitment tool for the types of employees they are trying to draw,” Dickson adds. “A lot of it is Nashville’s cool factor, its hip factor, its foodie culture, all of the accolades we have been receiving.”

We’ve got the tools

Alex Curtis works to empower local creative independents and startup entrepreneurs make a living from their art by, among other things, leveraging online tools, through the Nashville-based Creator’s Freedom Project.

He says it is an exciting time to be in Nashville, with new-to-town companies like ticket-tool Eventbrite and ride-sharing Uber only adding to the tools available to Music City’s creative class.

“If you can use a tool like Eventbrite to let people know about those shows that are happening, that is a great thing to be able to harness, especially for the do-it-yourselfers,” Curtis says. And Uber can help make the transition much easier for entrepreneurs moving to Nashville from bigger cities where they relied on public transportation.

“There is so much great potential in Nashville and the way things are progressing,” Curtis adds. “The creative workforce we have in this town is unique to us, and I think that is a great advantage we have over other cities who are essentially ‘tech towns.’

“I think we have a great culture that is here, and I think that is a great selling point to folks who are innovators and want to provide a great backdrop for a place to work.”

Synergy with schools

There are more opportunities than ever for people to gain the skills they need to do everything from sending an email to designing an app.

Nashville Tech Council’s T3 Initiative is a joint effort among the local schools and business communities to create solutions that bridge the gap between the types of tech skills that employers need and the actual skills students may learn.

“From that we have created the technology adoption program for Metro Nashville Public Schools,” Huddleston says. “The partnership at the universities here has expanded now to increase the curriculum and programming and courses that they have for technology. Lipscomb, for example, has an MBA in health care informatics.

“Additionally, there’s been all sorts of scholarship money that has been raised over the last few years, and the impact of that is that there are 41 percent more networking and telecommunications professionals coming out of students graduating, and there are 27 percent more computer science majors than there were in 2008.”

Dickson mentions the not-for-profit Nashville Software School, composed of a collection of the area’s tech professionals, as another organization helping to close that gap.

“They help train the next wave of software developers, and the school works really closely with the local technology companies to funnel the graduates for full-time jobs,” Dickson says. “That’s huge.

“And then, of course, you have all of the entrepreneurs that graduate from the Entrepreneur Center. And now you’re going to have the Innovation Center which caters to these young companies by offering open office layout space for these early-stage and incubation-type programs.

“They can lease the space through short-term flexible leases and that’s what these young companies need to grow.”

Many startup tech businesses help each other during their incubation phases, in some instances sharing office space and utilities during their early years until they are strong enough to support their own space.

“They get together, and it’s a community,” Dickson adds. “They worked together in a shared space and share paying the lease, and then as they grow, they get to the point where they can move out on their own.”

Huddleston says he is impressed with how universities and local businesses have worked together to create curriculums that are relevant for the types of employees that are needed.

“Nashville is a great place to get a technology education,” he points out. “You have Lipscomb, Belmont, not to mention the research that is coming out of Vanderbilt. Over on the plateau at Tennessee Tech. Even the IT academies. And there has really been a great synergy between the businesses and the universities here.”

Organically grown talent

The WorkIt Nashville website from the Nashville Chamber of Commerce is devoted to connecting people to technology jobs and internships in Middle Tennessee, further fostering local talent.

“That’s just another platform for folks who are looking for technology jobs as a way to connect them to local resources and jobs that are available,” Dickson says.

“We are really fortunate to have a great deal of local support for businesses. I think a good majority of it is the tech talent is just organically growing here.

“And that’s exactly what we want to cultivate. Sure, we’re happy if other tech companies move here to be part of the community, but I think we’re just at the beginning and there’s a lot of room to grow.”

Still, seven out of 10 Tennessee businesses indicated in a recent Connected Tennessee survey that digital skills were ‘somewhat important’ or ‘very important’ among new hires, and 40 percent indicated that they had difficulty finding workers possessing these skills.

“A growing tech sector in Nashville can mean new, high-paying job opportunities for area residents, but if we cannot supply companies with workers possessing the digital skills required they will have no choice but to either recruit workers from elsewhere or to relocate elsewhere,” Jennifer Cobb, public relations specialist with Connected Tennessee, stated via an email.

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