What’s next for Pittsburgh tech?
To close out the year (and complement Technical.ly’s Lessons in Resilience Month), we spoke to five leading technologists about the successes of Pittsburgh’s tech community in 2021 — hi, IPOs — and what they want to see happen next year. From building better hiring opportunities for people with varied skill sets and backgrounds, to finding new ways of supporting homegrown companies now that the tech industry here is more established, these five community and company leaders shared insights on how Pittsburgh can make sure the wins of this year continue into next.
Below are five key takeaways from our hourlong discussion that we plan to keep an eye on for our coverage next year. (Psst — if you want to be invited to a future stakeholder meeting on Pittsburgh tech and entrepreneurship trends, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to meet you!)
Hiring companies, note: Budding software engineers want to work for socially minded companies.
That’s from someone who meets a lot of budding software engineers — John Lange, director and founder of local coding bootcamp Academy Pittsburgh. In past cohorts, he said, the majority of students would be most interested in using their newly learned tech skills to pursue opportunities in cryptocurrency, or other popular trends in mainstream tech.
“But now the past couple of classes have almost exclusively been [students who say] ‘I want to work in places that are going to make people’s lives better, and not be at a place where everything they do makes everyone’s life worse,'” Lange said.
And even if students go on to get jobs for larger companies with missions they don’t agree with, he said many of them see it as a short-term position that will give them the experience they need to pursue the social impact causes they really care about. Hiring junior talent? Better make your priorities clear.
Pittsburghers should prioritize support of its homegrown companies, both young and old.
Startups get a lot of attention, noted Chad Zwigart, a business development engineer for Dynamic Manufacturing, an electronics manufacturer in Armstrong County — “but we also need to talk about companies like Dynamic that have been around for nearly 30 years.”
While startups certainly deserve community support, so do the older companies that were grown here, Zwigart said. He’d also like to see more emphasis on supporting those firms as opposed to Pittsburgh locations of much larger, non-locally founded companies. Part of creating a thriving tech and innovation ecosystem, he said, lies in answering the worker- and entrepreneur-related question, “How do we get that talent to keep our momentum going to keep getting customers that want to use our capabilities to make the profit?” for companies large and small.
The tech industry needs to redefine its most common job titles to bring in new innovation.
“If everybody calls [entry-level tech positions] ‘software engineers,’ then you’re only hiring software engineers,” said Cara Jones, CEO and cofounder of social justice tech startup Marinus Analytics. “There actually are a lot of different roles and responsibilities that contribute to putting a new solution into the market.”
To resolve that, hiring teams and people operations departments at companies should reconsider how they describe their needed roles, so that they can make room for the “magic that makes for good innovation,” Jones continued. Part of that is a simple language problem, but it also has to do with tech companies being more open-minded about how people with different backgrounds and skill levels can still help to advance their mission.
“I think that in order to bring in multiple levels of multidisciplinary support to fill and make for a very robust tech sector, we need to just figure out that team composition, and I think that there’s a role for everyone to play,” she said.
Public companies open the door to more compensation opportunities.
The high volume of IPOs from Pittsburgh tech companies this year is exciting for more than just the local wealth and innovation those financial moves might promote, argues Colin Dean, the managing director of software engineering community Code & Supply and a lead AI engineer at Target. Instead, it also offers young technologists a wider range of compensation options that can give them a vested interest in growing here.
“I want to own the company that I work for, even if it’s one share,” Dean said of the chance public companies give to do that. “That has benefited me in all of my employment situations so far, and I want other people to value that and understand what they’re getting themselves into.”
With more chances to receive equity as part of a compensation package, there are also more chances for wealth in Pittsburgh to grow, hopefully feeding back into new startups that have the potential to do the same.
Everyone has a role in creating the entrepreneurship pipeline, but certain skill sets matter.
Before this year, Meter Feeder cofounder and CEO Jim Gibbs looked around the Pittsburgh innovation community and saw that “all of the people who were running tech organizations are not technical and all the people who are running entrepreneurship organizations weren’t entrepreneurs.”
Though glad to see people involved, he’s been wanting a shift in that trend. And now he’s starting to see it.
Pointing to the city’s new startup czar, Lynsie Campbell, and former Flexable founder and CEO Priya Amin’s new position as entrepreneur in residence at Robert Morris University, “we’re actually starting to see entrepreneurs get into these positions where our voices can actually be heard,” Gibbs said.
Having people with the right know-how in these organizational positions will help solidify the entrepreneurship pipeline and support system that Gibbs thinks Pittsburgh needs to improve. He hopes that these new positions and more will answer the question, “How do we start from an idea and actually build it to the point of creating successful economies for everybody, not just people who are currently going to CMU?”Sophie Burkholder is a 2021-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Heinz Endowments.
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