Hacking Soda City

Momentum Builds in Columbia's Tech Sector
By Eva Moore
Wednesday, May 29, 2013

When Dirk Brown decided to move his Silicon Valley-based tech startup Pandoodle to Columbia a couple of years ago, he expected some pushback from his employees. Why, he expected to hear, would you want to move the company from the tech center of the universe to the backwaters of South Carolina?

But that wasn’t the response he got. Instead, he says, the handful of employees he had at the time basically told him, ‘If you want to move us to South Carolina, there must be good reasons.’

And — believe it or not — there are.

For Brown personally, the move was part of a gradual process that started with guest lecturing remotely at the University of South Carolina and ended with being recruited to head USC’s FABER Entrepreneurship Center. But for his company, Pandoodle — which creates interactive video content, and whose co-founder is featured on the Bravo TV show Newlyweds the First Year — one benefit of Columbia was the chance to be a big fish in a small pond. In Silicon Valley, it’s tough to get noticed. In Columbia, Pandoodle got the red-carpet treatment.

“We started Pandoodle in 2009; I moved here in 2011,” Brown says. “At the time, we were looking forward to expanding the company. We were looking for financial resources, infrastructure-support resources. And there was a lot of that in Silicon Valley — but there was also a lot of that here in Columbia, South Carolina. And when I came out here to visit, the university did a great job of showing me all the great resources that were available — of course, all at much better costs, and with stronger attention from those resources.”

“And when I told my team I was thinking about moving to Columbia, without hesitation, they said, ‘Let’s do it.’”

Josh Higgins, design director for President Obama’s 2012 campaign, speaks at the ConvergeSE conference in Columbia. Photo by Nate Croft

Hacking Soda City

To South Carolinians still shell-shocked by the massive security breach at the Department of Revenue last year — in which millions of taxpayers’ personal data was compromised — the term “hacking” no doubt conjures up the specter of computer crimes and identity theft. But in the web sector, “hacking” has a different meaning: solving problems through computing. And that’s exactly what’s starting to happen in the Soda City.

It might come as a surprise to locals, but Columbia’s nascent tech sector — which includes web-based and information technology companies, but is not limited to them — has a lot going for it. The city hosts two highly respected web development conferences, Converge SE and POSSCON (Palmetto Open Source Software Conference). It’s home to IT-oLogy, an innovative nonprofit dedicated to promoting and teaching information technology at all levels. It has a flagship university that is embracing entrepreneurship in general and tech entrepreneurship in particular. It has a large insurance-industry presence that needs — and therefore supports — a pipeline of tech-savvy workers. It has a growing awareness of the importance of small firms in economic development. And it has high degree of cooperation among all the major players.

What it doesn’t have is a critical mass of companies and workers. And it’s in a race with other cities to get them.

No doubt, there are some web- and tech-based companies here: software developer Computer Sciences Corporation (based in Virginia, but with a large presence in Blythewood); IT consulting firms VC3 and TM Floyd; web developer Cyberwoven; political consulting firm Push Digital, which has offices in Columbia and San Francisco; multimedia ad agency Mad Monkey; startups like 52 Apps and CloudShouts; creative media companies like Pandoodle and IDV, a Lexington-based company that dominates the market for animated trees in videogames and movies; and more institutional but still tech-focused companies like Direct Measurements Inc., which develops wire-free sensors and has contracts with the U.S. Navy, Halliburton and Northrop Grumman.

But there isn’t a lot of depth — multiple companies working in the same area. And for Columbia to thrive in the tech sector, it needs to attract and retain both workers and companies. Still, what the city lacks in depth it is making up for in momentum. Though Columbia is not even in the top 25 metro areas for the size of its tech sector, it’s ranked No. 2 nationally for its rate of growth, according to the Bay Area Council Economic Institute Report. Statewide, high-tech employment grew at 8.6 percent in 2010-11 — more than three times the national average — while in Columbia it shot up 28.2 percent.

Taken together, it all adds up to an emerging ecosystem of tech-sector development.

Cutting-Edge Web Conferences Put City on the Map
Converge SE, POSSCON

At the end of April, anyone trying to book a hotel room or buy a cup of coffee on Main Street learned quickly that something out of the ordinary was going on downtown. Hundreds of web designers and developers had come from throughout the country to Converge SE, a web development conference put on by local developers and entrepreneurs Gene Crawford and Jay Barry. The conference sold out the Marriott and the Sheraton on Main Street, plus a good chunk of the Hilton in the Vista. And the speakers it attracted are rock stars in the web development world: people like Josh Higgins, design director for President Obama’s 2012 campaign; Daniel Burka, design partner for Google Ventures, who has also worked with Mozilla, Digg and Flickr; and Jenn Lucas, interactive developer at Happy Cog.

It was the fifth local Converge conference, and the sixth overall. The conference has become so successful that Crawford and Barry are now taking it to other cities, including Austin, Texas, and Richmond, Va.

It all started after they attended a conference in Florida several years ago. A big part of the impetus was to bring together people working in different spheres of web development to talk with their counterparts.

“When we first started Converge, there were a number of what were called meet-up groups around town, like Linux people and Microsoft people and [Ruby on] Rails people, and us, and graphic designers,” Crawford says. “There were all these little groups of 15 or 20 people, and we were friends with all the people who sort of ran the groups. And we thought, we should do something where we all kind of hang out ... that’s why we called it Converge.”

The first year, they drew about 120 people. All the speakers were from South Carolina. This year, the event drew more than 500 and was held at numerous venues downtown, including the Columbia Museum of Art, the Marriott and the Tapp’s Arts Center. The conference has grown so much in size and stature that people Converge couldn’t entice to come as speakers during its first few years now just show up as attendees.

But the event is important not just because it draws people to Columbia — it’s because of the type of people it draws, and the perceptions those people form of the city while they are here. One key challenge in tech-sector development is attracting workers — so if attendees have a good experience with Columbia, it could pay off down the road.

Todd Lewis, director of Columbia’s IT-oLogy office, speaks at POSSCON, the web conference he organizes. Courtesy photo

That’s something Todd Lewis takes seriously. He’s just been named director of IT-oLogy’s Columbia office, and he organizes the annual Palmetto Open Source Software Conference, also called POSSCON.

Like Converge, POSSCON is a nationally respected conference that draws some of the top names in web development.

Lewis has a background in IT consulting; he used to work for TM Floyd.

“While I was there, I started to notice a lot of movement around open-source software,” he says.

Open-source software is just as it sounds: Rather than being created by a single company, it’s created by multiple developers often working remotely throughout the world — some of whom do it for skills development, some to make connections in the industry, and some just because they enjoy a good hacking challenge.

It’s a good metaphor for the tech industry more generally, where project-based collaboration — as opposed to traditional full-time jobs — is often part of the lifestyle.

Lewis launched the first POSSCON in 2008, while he was still at TM Floyd. Like Converge, it drew about 120 people.

It also made some people take notice. Open-source was still something of a renegade movement at the time — some companies were resistant to using it. But Steve Wiggins, executive vice president and chief information officer of BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina, agreed to keynote the event.

“A lot of people were shocked, because they are primarily a mainframe shop,” Lewis says. “What I mean is they primarily process insurance claims, so they use a lot of legacy, closed type of systems to do that. So people were very surprised.”

Lewis says a lot of people came to POSSCON simply because “they wanted to see open-source accepted in a public way.” The next year, POSSCON drew about 230 people from four states.

“I knew we had something going on when people were coming from Atlanta,” Lewis says. “Typically, it’s the other way around.”

This year, the conference attracted about 500 people from throughout the United States and six other countries. Speakers included Harper Reed, chief technology office for President Obama’s 2012 campaign; Phil Robb, director of networking solutions for Linux; Nobuo Kita, CEO of SIOS Technology Group; Leigh Heyman, director of new media technologies for the White House; and Tracey Erway, product marketing manager for Intel.

“We’ve always had world-class speakers, but never like this year,” Lewis says. “People in Columbia have no idea how good our reputation is on a national level — that we are so well respected outside of South Carolina.”

A Wealth of Resources
IT-oLogy, USC Incubator and CETi

Web development conferences are great once-a-year boosts for Columbia, and they help put the city on the map in the minds of hundreds if not thousands of key people. But creating a viable tech ecosystem takes support day-in and day-out.

Though far from complete — in particular, Columbia is in short supply of startup capital — support is starting to fall into place.

Two recent changes relate to attracting and retaining a tech-savvy workforce.

“I think you can’t discount the new integrated information technology program at USC, creating more students in information technology,” says Karl McCollester, who directs community partnerships at IT-oLogy and is organizing the SC Day of Civic Hacking this weekend. The program trains students in computer networking, database systems, corporate training and development, and end-user support.

Just look at all the students who came to USC from somewhere else and decided to stay: That’s how generating more information technology graduates at USC will make a difference to the city in the long run, McCollester says.

Lonnie Emard, president of IT-oLogy — which is based in Columbia but also has branches in Dallas, Greenville and Charlotte — emphasizes that Columbia is not alone in needing to attract talent.

“It’s not like we’re doing something wrong and everybody else is doing it right,” Emard says. In fact, “We’re starting to do something that’s right — that’s unique — and other people are going, ‘How are you doing that?’”

That’s where another big change comes into play: IT-oLogy itself.

IT-oLogy was formed in 2008 as a partnership between BlueCross Blue Shield of South Carolina and the University of South Carolina; it was originally called the Consortium for Enterprise Systems Management. (Its re-launch as IT-oLogy came in 2011.) Its impetus was filling a need: creating a pipeline of workers with skills in information technology. It does so by offering programs at all levels, from kindergarten through professional development. The nonprofit’s partners and supporters include BlueCross, IBM, Google, SCANA, Cyberwoven, BMW, Colonial Life, Intel and many more.

“IT-oLogy has been a big help to bring visibility and have a space where a lot of these user groups come here at night and use that space,” McCollester says. “Having the focus and visibility that there is IT here has been a big thing.”

Emard emphasizes that though IT-oLogy was launched as a partnership between academia and business, it’s also a partner in the region’s economic development strategy.
That’s where another key part of the tech support system comes in: support for entrepreneurs.

That support comes from a lot of places. EngenuitySC is a public-private partnership dedicated to growing the region’s knowledge economy. Through its annual Ignite! event and its Science Café series, Engenuity has been instrumental over the past several years in developing a more entrepreneurial mindset in the local economic development community. The SCRA USC Innovation Center has office space for high-tech and next-generation start-ups. Midlands Tech works closely with the private sector to produce graduates who can do technical jobs, from web design to high-tech manufacturing. And Brown, at USC’s FABER Entrepreneurship Center, is working to take local entrepreneurs global and attract global startups here.

Then there’s the USC Columbia Technology Incubator, which houses 40 tech startups. The incubator dates back to 1998, when local developer and entrepreneur Don Tomlin kicked in $200,000 to get it started. But it’s really taken off in recent years, and was just named among “Three College-Town Incubators to Watch” by Inc. magazine.

Bill Kirkland, entrepreneur-in-residence at USC’s incubator, has worked for pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and IBM, where he worked on new business ventures, as well as at a genomics startup and at his own company, Collexis, which he sold in 2010. Now he’s helping tech startups with strategic planning, business development and investor relations.

In the two years since Kirkland joined the incubator, it’s changed its focus from entrepreneurship in general to tech entrepreneurship in particular.

Among the incubator’s residents are 52 Apps, a software development company whose goal is to release one app every week; USA eShop, an Internet retail site dedicated to helping small businesses sell overseas; Dinobrite, a video production company; SysEDA, which produces cloud-based engineering software; Caroline Guitar Company, which makes world-class guitar pedals; and Sidar Tech, which is working on cancer biomarkers.

It’s a long way from when Kirkland first moved Collexis to Columbia.

“If I look back at 2005, other than Larry Wilson and PMSC [Policy Management Systems Corporation], tech was not here,” Kirkland says. “But I have watched the culture shift over the last seven or eight years to where it is a tech culture, in that guys coming out of school now — computer science, gaming, whatever it is they might do — they’re staying here, and we need that.”

Another key support element is USC’s Center for Entrepreneurial Innovation (CETi). Led by Greg Hilton, who used to work for EngenuitySC, the center connects entrepreneurs to the resources that are available to them.

As part of that effort, CETi has launched numerous events and competitions aimed at training entrepreneurs and fostering a culture of innovation, including the Start! Innovation series, a monthly networking and shop-talking meet-up; Open Hack Night, a monthly meet-up for web developers; and the Proving Ground, an entrepreneurial competition in which teams of students compete for $40,000 of startup money.

A New Type of Work
Cooperation, Remote Workforces, Project-Based Careers

McCollester works part-time at IT-oLogy; does development work on his own startup, Voterheads; works with USC’s Center for Entrepreneurial Innovation on its Open Hack Night project; and does consulting work. Before that, he worked as an IT manager and consultant for VC3.

If it sounds like he’s wearing a lot of hats, he is. But it’s not uncommon in the tech-startup community. In interview after interview for this story, the same theme came up: entrepreneurship and project-based work — rather than a single job — as a lifestyle. There’s McCollester with his multiple, overlapping roles. There’s Dirk Brown, with his university job and his business, Pandoodle. Barry and Crawford, in addition to building websites with Period Three and organizing conferences, are about to open a co-work space in the Vista. Lewis, in addition to his work with IT-oLogy and POSSCON, has a company called Palmetto Computer Labs focused on open-source software.

It’s part of the culture of the tech space: It attracts people who are excited and driven about their work, and who want to do things on their own terms, but also people for whom cooperation and sharing are part of the ethos. So while everyone has to pay the bills one way or another, there is also a remarkable amount of work being done out of sheer passion.

“Our audience really isn’t corporate,” Crawford says of Converge. “We don’t get a lot of, ‘I work at Verizon, and I make their website.’”

Instead, Converge attracts a lot of freelancers, whose jobs are more project-based than corporate-based, and people who are passionate about web development work even if it’s not their official career. Some are working full-time corporate jobs and developing startup businesses in their off-hours.

There are a lot of freelance web designers whose companies are just one or two people servicing the needs of whatever companies they can get to take them on, Crawford says. And there are people who live in Columbia but have major corporate clients based in New York City or Washington, D.C.

“A lot of people just toil away in their bedrooms or their home office,” Barry says. “They’re doing work for people, but you don’t really know about it.”

That’s part of the idea of the co-work space, SOCO, which will launch in the Vista this summer. People doing project-based work out of their homes will be able to rent space and work with other people.
It’s all part of an open, entrepreneurial culture: If a copywriter needs help from a web designer, or an app developer needs the eye of a graphic designer, the end result could be a new project-based team or even a new company.

It’s this open culture that led to open-source software in the first place. And for Lewis, it’s a culture that can be a great career builder, too.

“A lot of people have gotten great jobs because they joined an open-source project,” Lewis says. “They might be working with someone from Google or from another large company, and they’ve made a great impression and been able to demonstrate the quality of their work ... and they end up getting hired.”

And, he says, a lot of new companies are formed from the connections made doing open-source projects.

“A lot of projects are done [remotely] today,” Lewis says. “You have distributed workforces, so people don’t work in the same room. You might have someone in California, someone in Raleigh, someone in Seattle, someone in China, someone in Russia.”

That kind of remote, project-based lifestyle is “huge in this space,” Crawford says.

Says Hilton: “The number of people we are seeing every year in a community that are self-employed, or doing something like Converge or POSSCON, or starting a new venture, or collaborating on projects — we’re just seeing more and more people who are saying, ‘You know what? I don’t need a job. I want to create my own future.’”

“A lot of this is happening in the tech space, because that’s just where the economy is going,” Hilton says.

A New Mindset

It’s a completely different mindset from the past, both on a macro level of economic development and on the micro level of the individual. Whereas economic development efforts used to focus on recruiting major companies, there’s a growing awareness that while that is still necessary, it’s not sufficient. Instead, cities have to create the conditions that attract and retain young knowledge workers, whether they are web designers, app developers, graphic artists or chemical engineers.

“People that create opportunities for themselves — entrepreneurs, innovators — they don’t really care about jobs,” says Hilton. “They can go anywhere and make their own jobs. If there is a good network to support them, if they can find the talent they need, if they can build great teams, if the tech environment is good, there’s nothing stopping us from doing what Silicon Valley has done.”

Not that Hilton is naive about that possibility: He readily acknowledges that Columbia is decades behind Raleigh, N.C., and well behind Greenville and Charleston, let alone Silicon Valley.
“Clearly scale and time are two things we are in short supply of,” Hilton says.

Still, he sees the culture here moving in the right direction.

“I have always felt that Columbia has been a little bit behind the curve, but I think that is dramatically changing. People are starting to realize: Why not here?”

“Some of it is just, ‘Duh — this is the transition our economy is going through,’ from manufacturing to services and now to this leveraged technology play, where people can make money and solve [problems] in lots and lots of different ways,” he says. “So part of it is we are just seeing a global shift, and we are getting our share of that level of activity. But I also think that we have had a lot of cool people that have recently come to town or have recently gotten into this space that really know how to do things well.”

For Hilton and Crawford, embracing the mindset of tech-oriented entrepreneurship is a key challenge for Columbia. One of Columbia’s greatest strengths — its stable economy, boosted by state government, the University of South Carolina and Fort Jackson — is also one of its biggest hurdles. Big institutions provide stability, but by their very nature, they don’t move quickly.

“It’s the whole scale, from [embracing] the offbeat to building businesses that are from here,” Crawford says. “A lot of other cities kind of get it and they are years down the road toward making that happen. We’re kind of just going, ‘Hey, Greenville is doing this.’ But there are people in this city running around saying, ‘Hey, we can do this s#!t. Just pay attention.’”

Still, both Crawford and Brown mention the need for more depth. After 52 Apps and Cyberwoven, Crawford asks rhetorically, what other local companies are doing something similar? Brown ticks off a list of areas Columbia is trying to grow in — insurance technology, biotech, pharmaceuticals — and says the region lacks critical mass.

Nonetheless, he says, “We’re seeing a lot of interesting one-offs, especially in the digital space,” Brown says. “And they don’t really depend as much on the overall ecosystem as long as there is strong technology talent to support them.”

For Brown, it’s not just about building an entrepreneurial ecosystem here; it’s also about building one that capitalizes on Columbia’s unique strengths.

“CETi, IT-oLogy — we’ve all read Lean Startup and we’ve all read Business Model Generation,” Brown says. “We kind of know what the best practices are for supporting an entrepreneur. And we all know what we’re missing: We’re missing money, we’re missing talent ... so we have a lot of initiatives in play to do that.”

But what he’s most passionate about is the chance for Columbia to leapfrog past other cities. He sees that opportunity in the area of global business development, “Because we are actually better than many entrepreneurial ecosystems with our global business strengths,” he says.

Columbia has a top-ranked international business program at USC, with relationships at other universities throughout the world; an intellectual property program within the business school (instead of in the law school); and a supportive entrepreneurial ecosystem. Put all those assets together, Brown says, and Columbia could become one of the top places anywhere to launch global, intellectual property-based ventures. It’s a “presumptuous” idea, he admits, but he doesn’t think it’s far-fetched.

And as far as lacking depth, Brown also suggests that perhaps Columbia can do OK anyway.

“Maybe critical mass [in a market area] doesn’t matter as much if you have critical mass on core competencies that are important for entrepreneurship,” Brown says. “In my opinion, that might be the driver for Columbia.”

“I’ve only been in this state for two years, but even in those two years I have seen the energy building up,” Brown says. “These things tend to take off exponentially. I sort of view it as this rocket ship that’s now starting to shake. We can all kind of feel it shaking, and we know it’s about to take off.”

“Or blow up,” he jokes. “But hopefully, take off.” 

SC Day of Civic Hacking

Columbia Mini Maker’s Faire
EdVenture Children’s Museum
Saturday, June 1 (9 a.m. to 5 p.m.)

From robotics to rockets, technology to textiles, the Maker’s Faire is all about celebrating invention, creativity and innovation. Artisans, tinkerers, creators, technicians, programmers, coders, crafters, DIYers and performers will demonstrate their talents. Expect to see everything from 3-D printing and light graffiti to frisbee-throwing robots and zombie dolls.

Learn to Hack
Richland Library
Saturday, June 1 (10 a.m. to 3 p.m.)

Richland Library hosts lectures and classes designed to help beginners take on technology projects and community leaders become more familiar with useful data already available online. Register online at scdoch.eventbrite.com. No technical skills required.

Introduction to Blogging and Web design (10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.)
Introduction to iOS (Apple’s mobile operating system) (10 -11:30 a.m.)
Hot Jobs in Information Technology (noon-1 p.m.)
Data Manipulation: Getting and Using Good Information (1-2:30 p.m.)

Design a Hack
Columbia Museum of Art
Saturday, June 1 (10 a.m. to 5 p.m.)

Designers will work to re-design the museum’s online catalog to make its content richer and its searches more robust. In the Infographic Create-a-thon, designers will also compete to produce the best informational graphics featuring data about the Columbia area. Sign up under “Design a Hack” at scdoch.eventbrite.com.

Saturday, June 1 through Sunday, June 2

Take part in a 24-hour coding project to help others in Columbia. Coders can join a project launched by event organizers or create their own project and assemble a team. Qualified developers can sign up at scdoch.eventbrite.com.  

Let us know what you think: Email editor@free-times.com.

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