Keeping our Tech Talent in Chicago

Keeping our Tech Talent in Chicago

Categorized under: technology trends

We’re facing a generational crisis in our city. For the second year in a row, Chicago is the only one of America’s ten largest cities to see it's population decrease. Residents are leaving the entire Chicagoland area en masse, mostly for the Sun Belt states. The Chicago Tribune has found various reasons for this shift, including taxes, state budget issues, crime, the unemployment rate and weather. Most of these problems are the result of complex, interacting social forces, and the occasionally unforgiving weather will always be a fact of life here in the Midwest. But there are a couple of areas where we can push the needle in the right direction. 

Sustainable Growth and Employment

Chicago’s tech industry has seen significant growth in the last ten years, but it's important to shape the industry in a way that fits Midwestern culture. Unlike many coastal cities, most people in Chicago have deep ties to the Midwest area. Our people value tradition and long-term relationships. While these qualities may not be well-suited to tech culture in the Bay Area, we have a special opportunity to differentiate ourselves with slow-growing, long-lasting companies that build on Chicago’s strengths. Basecamp’s approach to business feels more interesting and better aligned with Chicago’s culture than the typical startup that aims for total industry dominance. The bootstrapped company develops project-management software and has a slow, sustainable perspective on growth. Basecamp has still managed to become an industry leader in the space, while holding to values of long-term community and healthy work-life balance. Companies in this mold feel uniquely suited to Chicago. 

Our business at Digital Adventures depends on long term relationships with our students and their parents. We only do well if our students demonstrate sustained progress over time and keep wanting to come back, month-after-month. So when we set up a learning studio in a neighborhood, we plan to stay for a while. We want to be embedded in the communities we serve, acting as a ‘third place’ for kids to go between school and home. This long-term approach applies to our instructors as well. We don’t hire for the short term. Having a low-turnover staff lets students feel more comfortable taking intellectual risks, like asking questions and making mistakes, that are critical for high-quality learning. Chicago is a great place to build this kind of business. 

Building Networks of Technology Creators

Most approaches to increasing tech talent in an area focus on existing technology professionals. Tax subsidies for tech entrepreneurs, fun co-working spaces and language-specific meetups are great, but they’re most useful for people who are already steeped in technology. To really transform a region's ecosystem, it’s critical to give non-technical individuals professional pathways to joining the tech industry. Tech Bootcamps are one solution, but they target professional developer positions for their graduates, which are in limited supply and often require experience beyond three months of training. We need positions that provide technology experience without requiring it of new employees.  

We’re trying to build up a new category of tech worker that doesn’t require a degree in technology to get started in the industry. While we screen potential instructors for experience in either technology or education, we don’t require a degree in either area. Our instructors need technical aptitude and must develop a minimum level of proficiency across a range of software and hardware platforms, but they don’t need to program at the level of a professional developer. Also, the small class sizes at Digital Adventures limits management problems that occur in groups of 20-30 students, and means that instructors can be very effective with a subset of skills needed to work as a certified schoolteacher. It’s most critical that our instructors are enthusiastic, compelling technical communicators and generalist troubleshooters. Our instructors end up building this hybrid skillset largely in-house.  

In addition to creating entry-level tech positions for non-technical workers, we directly develop technology skills in our students. Most of our students start at Digital Adventures sometime in the middle of elementary school, so we fully expect them to be capable of making meaningful contributions to civic technology projects in Chicago by the time they’re in high school. We don’t know if our students will come back to the city after college, though. So we think it’s key to encourage strong relationships between our students before they leave. One of the strongest determinants of whether a startup succeeds is how well the team can work together. When our students work on progressively more complex projects together for years during the most formative time in their life, we hope that the creative relationships that form will persist through our students’ careers and give them a reason to come back home and continue building. 

Chicago already has so many qualities that make it an attractive place to start a business - we just need to drop in the last few puzzle pieces to create a compelling case for talent to stay. There aren't going to be any quick solutions, but we've found that everything worth doing takes time. Digital Adventures is in this for the long haul. 

About the Author: Omowale Casselle is the Co-Founder & CEO of Digital Adventures.