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The Best Story Never Told – How Columbia became the hottest high-tech city in the South

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By Ron Aiken
COLUMBIA, SC
June 6, 2013

It's 3 p.m. on a weekday afternoon at the IT-oLogy offices at 1301 Gervais St., and the place is buzzing. As a professional training session held by First Citizens Bank lets out, the sleek, high-tech corridors quickly fill with professionals on their smart phones and tablets, catching up on work while enjoying the creative space afforded them by what is perhaps the single-most important business success story in Columbia in the 21st Century – IT-oLogy and the open-source, high-tech community it has fostered, helped develop and promoted tirelessly for the past four years and counting.

That it's also probably the least-understood or appreciated story by most Columbians, well, such is the cost in a town that's often struggled for an identity beyond the "Big Three" anchors of state government, Fort Jackson and the University of South Carolina.

Building off those, however, and combining Columbia's existing national profile in insurance software technology and hardware development (thanks to companies such as Intel, whose Columbia location is working on processors that won't see the market until a year or two down the road) with a rapidly growing nationwide reputation for its progressive open-source community, Columbia recently was ranked No. 2 in the country and fourth nationally from 2006-2011 in high-tech employment growth by the Bay Area Economic Institute.

What's more, because of these and other factors such as the internationally acclaimed Palmetto Open Source Software Conference (POSSCON) and ConvergeSC conferences, Columbia is now being viewed outside the borders of South Carolina and abroad as a thought leader with innovative ideas and programs that are right now in the process of being copied by cities such as Dallas, Charlotte, Baltimore, Richmond and Raleigh.

Could Columbia – Columbia!?! – possibly become the Silicon Valley of the East Coast, a high-tech, high-ceiling, New South smart hub?

The truth of the matter is that in many ways, it already is.

Welcome to Columbia, where the future – to borrow a previously disparaged attempt at a city slogan – is happening now.

ORIGINS

Some four years ago, Blue Cross Blue Shield executive Lonnie Emard and others were discussing a simple problem with a not-so-simple solution: a dearth of IT talent to service the needs of a national health care company with systems as complex and data as critical as any in the world.

"As soon as we started talking about our problems, which centered around securing and developing a stream of qualified people, we soon realized this was a national epidemic," says Emard, who still works for Blue Cross while acting as president of IT-oLogy, the non-profit that grew out of those conversations – and a $6 million commitment from Blue Cross to get it off the ground – and now claims membership from companies statewide, boasts innovative programs in K-12 schools across the state and already has influenced curriculum changes at the state's universities, not to mention acting as a portal for industry to connect to students in ways not possible before.

"We knew if we created a way to bring these pieces together – academia, business, economic development and the media – there was a way to do this differently and we could begin to compete again in this country around this talent space that runs horizontal across every industry vertical."

Emard says the idea was to begin at home.

"We're in Columbia, and so we said, 'This is an insurance hub,'" Emard says. "So OK, we know that IT talent is the key to that, because that's what we know. And if you look at health care reform and talked to the health care institutions, they'd say the biggest obstacle is access to IT talent, and we quickly realized we're just one example. You go to Charlotte and talk about transportation, distribution and logistics, and guess what they'll say? They'll say their biggest problem is lack of IT talent.

"You look at 7 million people in Dallas and say, 'Why would they say that they can't find enough IT talent?'" Emard says. "But they can't, and part of the problem is systemic. That's why we formed a model that starts at K-12 education and said, hey, the educational situation isn't broken, but it's designed to get results that are 40 years old. They aren't delivering results for today, and they need to transform."

Another key element to the puzzle was identifying resistance in state government.

"I'll give you a great example of that," Emard says. "The day that we launched this facility, some people from the State House came over and said, 'Lonnie, this place is real cool! This thing you're about, this IT thing, it's really cool. But why do we care?'

"I said, 'What do you mean?' They said, 'We've done our homework, and there's only about 15,000 IT employees in the entire state of South Carolina. So what's the big deal?'

Now at this point at Blue Cross we'd grown from 1,000 to 2,000 to almost 2,500 IT employees there, and I said, 'You know what, the number I have at Blue Cross is not in your numbers. That's the message.

"We're not just talking about the industry of IT – Intel or Microsoft, Google, Apple, IBM. We're talking about the profession of IT which spans horizontally across every industry, from florists to agriculture to the culinary arts to insurance. Everything. Try to run a business without an IT professional."

CONNECTIONS

It was that awareness of what needed to change that became the thrust of IT-oLogy – promote, teach and grow IT by combining the work force needs of existing business with academic curricula from K through college with economic development, and it has been so successful that it is serving as a model cities looking to secure a future in an emerging IT world are all-too-eager to adopt.

At public schools, that meant engaging with administrators and guidance counselors to change the narrative on how IT jobs are marketed. At the university level, that meant engaging with deans and officials to ensure graduates were receiving the skills and taking the courses necessary to meet the demands of the workplace.

In both cases, IT-oLogy got fast results.

From its offices on Main Street, it now hosts weekend programs that bring middle and high school students together to explore and learn about open source technologies and IT careers, while at the university level, new programs at USC such as a minor in digital design and a recently added Masters in Signal Integrity (designed with help from Intel) have created a buzz that is being heard far beyond Columbia's city limits.

"In public education, one of the things we've addressed a lot of stereotypes," Emard says. "The stereotypes are females in high school looking at IT and thinking of code geeks and network administrators, right there in the shop next to the welders and cosmetologists.

"They think of people sitting in front of the computer writing code all day. Now those are very important. But there are 21 different occupations within the IT career cluster, and when you look at people picking schools, media arts, the Career in Technology Education, or looking at AP courses.

"We had to link that line-of-site to what those jobs look like that are out there and help the parents, students and counselors understand how to get them to where the jobs are going to be."

For colleges, Emard says the battle was one of perception.

"It's been about getting people to think differently at every turn," Emard says. "First we had to get business to think differently; they thought competitively, and we had to get them to think collaboratively. Universities haven't necessarily been collaborative, because their whole success is based on their image, what they produce and provide.

"We've asked them to realize that they have to look at their customer, the student, and forget about research for a minute and think about the paying customer coming through and how to offer that person a path to work success in the future and now, even, through internships and partnerships with companies. We've done that, and it's been very well received."

At the University of South Carolina, the message not only was warmly received, it was embraced by faculty leadership, including College of Engineering and Computing Dean Tony Ambler.

"We have created more online and distance learning programs for full-time working professionals including our Engineering Management and Systems Design master's degree programs," Ambler said. "Plus, we are continually adapting our undergraduate programs based on feedback from industry partners. This will ensure students are learning the skills that South Carolina industries need.

"We also are offering a new digital design minor program to all USC students, not just computer science or information technology majors. This program will allow all students, regardless of their major, to learn computer science and IT skills that most jobs now require."

Beyond course design, the commitment also reaches to faculty recruitment and retention.

"We have worked hard to recruit top-notch faculty, which is proven by our recent rankings from the National Research Council," Ambler said. "All our engineering and computing programs ranked No. 1 in South Carolina for faculty research productivity.

"We have an open door policy with industries throughout the state. Meaning we go to industry and ask them how we can better train current and prospective employees and how we can tailor our research to meet their needs. We are increasing interactions between our students and industries through internships and co-ops, which creates a win-win for both parties. Our students receive hands-on experience at the companies that they want to eventually work for and these companies have access to a stream of highly-trained, new professionals."

In particular, the digital design minor at USC is seen as a critical success of the IT-oLogy idea, as it allows students outside the computer science curriculum to gain skills valuable to a variety of IT industry sectors. The program has been speared by Michael Huhns, chair of the Department of Computer Science and Engineering. He said it was born of communication between the precise parties IT-oLogy works to unite.

"Computer technology has become an essential component for many civic and industrial occupations," Huhns says. "The Chamber of Commerce and other organizations interested in furthering a knowledge-based economy in the Midlands recently estimated that there are more than 500 unfilled positions in computing that are available locally.
 
"Recently, a group of civic, industrial, and academic leaders from the Midlands met to address the problem. They determined that many of the positions could be filled by graduates from non-computing disciplines, if they had a minor that emphasized knowledge of modern computing technologies.

"The structure of the proposed multidisciplinary minor in digital design was defined by faculty members from Media Arts, Geography, the School of Business, Computer Science and Engineering, English, Library and Information Science, and Integrated Information Technology, as well as instructors in computing from Columbia College, Benedict College, and Midlands Technical College."

One of those local industry partners was Intel, whose Columbia Design Center is at the company's cutting edge of processor design and is in almost-constant need for the best engineers and IT professionals available not just here but anywhere.

"Intel CDC has found a great willingness for state schools to explore and adapt to Intel's unique engineering disciplines in pursuit of the highest customer excellence for our products," says Sam Vause, Site Champion for Intel in Columbia. "Intel helped to structure and promote USC's "Masters of Science in Signal Integrity" program and continues to use USC as a rich pool for both intern and full-time engineering talent and unreservedly encourages active engagement by all employees in their local schools.

"In the past, Intel gave $100,000 to USC's Engineering School, and more recent opportunities in which Intel has engaged include memberships in IT-oLogy, the Information Technology Council and the state chamber. Intel was a March sponsor of POSSCON and has completed initial donations of equipment to area schools (more are planned). During recent onsite meetings with the Mayor and also with other elected officials, the leadership team continues to stress the importance of high-tech to South Carolina's future."

The result of these partnerships is a relationship between the state's academic and business interests whose vibrancy cities is becoming a regional and national envy.

"We were just in Charlotte, and the public schools are going this way, the colleges going that way, the businesses each doing their own thing," says Rachel Barnett, marketing and communications director fot IT-oLogy. "They were blown away by what we had here and saw the value immediately.

"Getting all these different groups together, number one, then all understanding what's at stake and willing to pull together to move forward, it's amazing what's happening in Columbia right now."

Barnett will get no argument from Jonathan LeBlanc, an executive at PayPal in California (his title is the ambitious and whimsical "Head of Developer Evangelism") and a nationally recognized industry expert. With six colleges and universities in the downtown Columbia area each with a stake in the future of their graduates and a buy-in to the IT-oLogy model, LeBlanc says he has been impressed by their embrace of new curricula and participation at conferences such as POSSCON and ConvergeSC.

"The universities have been amazingly supportive of industry there and jumping on the technology bandwagon, because at every event I go to there's a huge university presence there," LeBlanc says. "There are students who come seem pretty interested in learning, and they've contributed back to the conference over the years. When you see so many people committed to a high-tech future, from education to business to local government, what you have in Columbia is a place that is a true rarity in the U.S. It's amazing to see."

For Emard, it's the result of hard work.

"When you have the three components of education, the K-12 audience, the higher-ed audience and the professional development audience, you now have a continuum that goes from zero-to-CEO, from classroom to board room," Emard says. "That's what gets people's attention nationally.

"And here's where the outcome of realizing the value of doing it differently has an advantage – we knew going in that if you had academia really working together with business, sharing what was real instead of waiting for the byproduct to come out of the system and realize, 'Oh Gosh, this is the wrong product, this doesn't work, and really getting in there and working together to collaborate arm in arm to help k12 education, to help the faculty, to help the higher-ed environment that the final outcome of that is that you produce a higher quantity of qualified people.

"And then it follows that if you have more kids with higher interest, you have higher enrollment. If you have higher enrollment, you have to do things that are preparing them with the right skills, so now it's not just the quantity, it's the quality. You do that right, and all of a sudden you have greater reach and greater access on the part of your business partners, and the quality being better says they're more productive quicker.

"When you do that all of a sudden you have an economic development advantage because now you're doing something that a lot of other cities and a lot of other places struggle to do, and the real message here is that's what we've been doing in Columbia and have been for going on four years now, which means the rest of the country is four years, at best, behind us. We're setting the pace, and we have been for a while now."

COMMUNITY

It is difficult, if not impossible, to overstate the importance of POSSCON and ConvergeSC in moving Columbia to the forefront of the national open-source movement, one that is recognized internationally as representing the future of software engineering. That's one reason IT-oLogy recently hired its first full-time executive director, Todd Lewis, who brought extensive experience and instant credibility in the open-source world to the position.

"We just finished up POSSCON and had people here from seven countries and 16 states," Lewis says. "It was sold-out almost a month in advance, and it was fantastic. We had industry leaders, thought leaders from all over the country come here, and that not only develops a workforce on the local level, it gives people here an exposure to world-class people they'd never have a chance to learn from otherwise and also enhances our brand on a regional and national level.

"I can't tell you the times I've had people contact me from Silicon Valley and ask, 'Hey, can you help me with our conference? How have you guys been so successful?' I really don't know if people in Columbia realize what is going on here. The synergy IT-oLogy has created, the connecting of the dots and holding people accountable, bringing them to the table, holding conferences … in the open-source world Columbia is viewed as a thought leader.

"I wouldn't say Columbia has an identity crisis or inferiority complex, but pretty darn close. A lot of people from Columbia or other parts of the state have a hard time believing what's been going on, just want to assume things are terrible for some reason. I have news for them – Columbia is a superstar on a national level in high-tech engagement and the synergy that IT-oLogy ahs been pushing. From Silicon Valley to San Francisco, people love what IT-oLogy is all about."

One of those people is California-based Jim Jagielski, co-founder, member and director of The Apache Software Foundation and recognized leader in open-source software technologies.

"Certainly Columbia is creating a reputation as the place to be on the East Coast for open-source communities," Jagielski says. "This is certainly due to the efforts of POSSCON and IT-ology in not only promoting Columbia itself, but in showing real-world effects of leveraging the power of open source and the open source methodology. And since all high-tech growth is based on or around open-source, Columbia itself is sitting in the catbird seat.

"Within the open-source community, the pull and draw of Columbia and POSSCON are huge; it is creating an enviable reputation. For businesses, especially those involved or using open-source, Columbia is seen as business-friendly, with ready access to an incredibly talented pool of human resources and true understanding of how to help open-source and IT companies.

"Certainly, the beautiful location and the Southern hospitality of the community goes a very long way, but the direct, hands-on involvement of the mayor and the local government in wanting, welcoming and appreciating the involvement of the open-source community cannot be discounted. Plus, POSSCON is able to pull in top-notch experts in the open-source and high-tech IT field, and boasts a speaker list, year-after-year, second to none."

PayPal's LeBlanc says beyond the conferences, beyond the hospitality and beyond the unparalleled commitment between partners, what makes Columbia stand out is its people, its community.

"I've been thinking over the last couple of years, 'Why do I keep coming back to Columbia, South Carolina?,' and to be perfectly honest it's the people fostering a community that they want to be a part of," LeBlanc says. "It's like working on a close team where you all get along, and the entire community is like that. That creates bonds between people, gets people excited to come and learn and share, and that's what's happening in Columbia in a field that in a lot of ways represents the future of computing. It's something I have never seen with the exception of maybe one or two other conferences in the world.

"Columbia's so great because it's small enough to still have a community feel, but big enough to draw some really interesting people and have plenty to do. And when you have government agencies targeting these initiatives and working with the local conferences to really get the idea across that Columbia is becoming something special – which you don't see very often – you get this kind of community where all these things are so tightly intertwined with each other that people want to be a part of.

"It's no accident when you have the best people in a field as high-tech as this, key people from across the country, working out their yearly schedules to make sure they're in Columbia, South Carolina."

For Lewis, such testimonials are the kind of affirmation he hears time and again, one he wishes more Columbians, in fact, could appreciate.

"People from San Francisco jokingly ask me, 'What is it you have going on there that other places don't?,' the answer is IT-oLogy," Lewis says. "That's the differentiator that links the conferences, the community and the business and educational partners, and that's why we're taking it to other cities. People love it, and they get it immediately, even when people here sometimes don't."

Barnett agrees.
"The bottom line is we're a home-grown national non-profit that is being adopted nationwide from right here in Columbia," Barnett says. "People don't realize this jewel that we have right here. What has worked here is what other cities are counting on working for them.

SPREADING THE WORD

Taking that message and communicating it to the rest of the the state and beyond has been IT-oLogy's challenge from Day One, beginning with an economic development establishment that for decades most loudly has trumpeted the state's low-wage workforce as a chief incentive to the manufacturing whales it year after year has trained its slender harpoons on.

"For so long you have people who say, 'Manufacturing is what South Carolina is all about,'" Emard says. "And I don't think we're ever going to change that – and by the way, people like Michelin still need IT – but I think there's a realization in economic development circles that now, the IT conversation needs to be on the table every time.

"You talk to (South Carolina) Secretary of Commerce Bobby Hitt and you explain that, and what finally happens is that it created an opportunity to go engage Boeing and say, 'Listen, we know you love to come here because of our cheap labor and this great opportunity in the Lowcountry. But what about IT?'

"Two years ago, I was involved in that conversation, and they said, 'No way. We're a centralized model and we're staying in Seattle and we can manage things from there.' And you know what? They're no dummies, and over the course of time they're looking and saying, 'Look, if I can have access to talent, if I can have a great business climate to work in, people who want to help me, there's an ecosystem there ad you can do IT anywhere.' So the centralized model might have had some advantages to begin with, but a decentralized model of IT with lower wages, comparatively, than Washington or California suddenly becomes very attractive, and we've seen them pursue it right here in South Carolina.'

IT-oLogy's message and results no longer are falling on deaf ears but instead are resonating within the ultra-competitive economic development industry, including Sec. Hitt himself.

"Innovation, research and development, science and technology – all are important to South Carolina's economic development strategy and to moving our state ahead of the competition," Hitt says. "When we work together and make connections among researchers, funders and innovative companies interested in doing business in South Carolina, we all win."

Locally, C. Grant Jackson, senior vice president of community development for the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce, says the message of Columbia's high-tech success is becoming more powerful year after year and is beginning to reap serious rewards.

"We have begun to see a critical mass of talent call Columbia home and that has led to expansion in a number of businesses, most notably in the Insurance Technology and Services Cluster with companies like Aflac, BlueCross and BlueShield, Colonial Life and Accenture," Jackson says.

"I think that has been spurred by the collaboration of a number of organizations – EngenuitySC, New Carolina, IT-oLogy, the Navigating from Good to Great Foundation/Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce, USC and USC's Innovista and COR – Columbia Opportunity Resource.
 
"For the first time we are really working together. These organizations – and others need to join them – need to increase their collaboration and work for the common good of the region, caring more about the outcome than who gets credit.

"We need to have an attitude of extolling what we have here and bring more companies and more individuals to the region. We know that when we can get a company to come and look at Columbia their people are generally blown away. We get a lot of comments like, 'I had no idea Columbia had all this.'"

It's one thing to impress attendees at a Chamber of Commerce breakfast. It's quite another to impress the best minds in the hottest computing field in the nation.

"The model that IT-ology has come up with is a proven success, which requires commitment and understanding," Jagielski says. "But with those in place, the benefits (for Columbia) are huge."

That they're producing results beyond the wildest dreams of what Emard and his colleagues had in mind when they sat in a room to talk about the trouble hiring enough qualified IT people is a testament to the passion and vision of those with skin in the game and a willingness to look beyond the traditional walls of competition and embrace something more, something better.

"You put the parts together, and all of sudden now you're seeing results that people are almost shocked by," Emard says. "You tell people we're number two in high-tech growth, and it's like a revelation, and yet it shouldn't be, because we've been at this a while now.

"And now, we're taking IT-oLogy to Dallas, to Raleigh, to Charlotte, and it's not because people think it might work, it's because it has worked, right here in Columbia, South Carolina. The synergy we have right now between business and academia and economic development, where you can generate a vibe that produces real results in terms of employment and companies locating here and commercial real estate downtown – that's not just fluff. That's not just idle talk.

"The vision of IT-oLogy to make it a national solution to a national problem is underway, and what's benefiting Columbia can and will benefit the rest of the country, and the positives are only just beginning to come to fruition."

Ron Aiken is a freelance writer and editor based in Columbia, S.C. His award-winning journalism has appeared in newspapers, magazines, websites and books across the country. 


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