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In Lancaster, changing the tech scene's 'churn and burn' to 'stay and play'

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Mike McMonagle, marketing director, left, and Joel Walker, CEO, of Pubforge, Lancaster.
Mike McMonagle, marketing director, left, and Joel Walker, CEO, of Pubforge, Lancaster. - (Photo / )

There's a disease ailing the technology industry, according to Joel Walker. It is called transient tech worker syndrome and it manifests as web developers or programmers jumping from job to job.

Causes include realizing it’s the easiest way to get a raise, and working for employers who don’t offer learning opportunities or new challenges.

“Right out of college, it’s a really tempting option — work somewhere for a year. Go to the next place for a year. Move to the next place for a year,” said Walker, president of technology firm Industrial Resolution. “In three years’ time, you’ll be making 40 percent more than the person you graduated next to in college.

“The problem is, you haven’t begun to set down long-term roots in an industry where it does help to know your client for more than three years,” he added.

Combatting the industry’s “churn and burn” of talent is a personal passion for Walker and Mike McMonagle, director of sales and marketing for Industrial Resolution, a marketing and consulting company that opened Pubforge, a tech-focused coworking space in Lancaster City.

On a rain-drenched March morning, the pair reflected on the future of Lancaster’s tech industry, a scene that has expanded in recent years as technology permeates the DNA of business.

As the duo talked over the buzz of construction on the top floor of Tellus360, the East King Street restaurant and music venue Pubforge adjoins, they identified one key ingredient to propel more growth: education.

Improving the “churn”

There’s a debate in the tech industry, Walker said, between fans of pursuing a four-year computer science degree and those who favor being self-taught. Walker’s staff is about 50-50, and you can’t really tell who followed which path, he said.

“The technology industry itself advances so stinking rapidly,” he said. “The reality is, no one who is working in my office will still be programming in the same manner with the same tools or the same skills that you would acquire in focused training that they are now in four years. Is it wise to invest all that money into a computer science education and end up with a four-year degree? It’s a vigorous debate.”

So Walker and other Lancaster-based tech professionals reached a compromise.

Walker, Chip Cargas of business software and consulting firm Cargas Systems and Elyse Ewing, director of software development for KnowWho, a data and directory services firm in Washington, D.C., worked with Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology to develop a two-year academic program: Computer Software Engineering Technology.

“The idea was in two years what do we want somebody in our office to know?” Walker said. “And if we’re going to start training them now, what would make a hirable employee?”

The associate degree program launched in January with a full class of 18 students and a wait-list of 25, according to Zoann Parker, vice president of academic affairs at the Lancaster-based college.

The curriculum delves into the technologies behind web development, as well as ethics and security, Walker said.

Prior to introducing the new program, the college offered only a computer and network systems administration path, in which students learn how to install and manage computer systems. Its job placement rate is around 94 percent, Parker said, and she anticipates the same results from the new program.

Indeed, if Lancaster mirrors national trends, graduates will have their pick over the next few years.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that by 2024 the employment of web developers will grow 27 percent from 2014 levels. Walker, McMonagle and Parker hope that students who graduate from the new program end up working for companies in the Lancaster area.

Avoiding the “burn”

Learning doesn’t end with a degree, McMonagle explained.

“The programming language changes and the tools themselves change,” he said. “There’s a constant iteration and shift in how things are done. The education piece becomes so crucial, particularly continuing education.”

In addition to improving tech training at the college level, Walker and McMonagle stressed the importance of engaging workers in events like meet-ups and lunch-and-learns. Pubforge regularly hosts Tech Lancaster, a gathering focused on tech, and Shine Lancaster, a meet-up for women in the field.

Such activities are part of their remedy for the industry’s “meat market” quality.

“We’re trying to put this upward pressure on other companies that are just cranking out websites like they’re chain letters and repurposing their talent … when what a programmer really needs is to solve a problem and move on,” Walker said. “The industry is dependent on continual learning. With that being the reality, if we don’t as employers create a space where people can continually learn and solve fresh challenges, whether they’re for ourselves or for our clients, we will lose our employees.”

In tech, health care is seen as ripe for disruption

As tech firms pop up around Lancaster, there’s one industry that could lead innovation: health care.

When the Affordable Care Act and HITECH Act came out in 2010, health care companies didn’t know what to do to comply with the new rules, said Kim Ireland, vice president of health care solutions at Aspire Ventures, a venture capital firm.

Ireland, who was a consultant at the time and has a background in health care information technology, said being able to make sense of it all was good. </>

“However, I think it also stifled innovation for a while because all of the electronic health record companies had to put all of their engineering resources into making these electronic health records that people now had to purchase,” she said.

“What I think that created is this environment where young startup entrepreneurs were like, ‘No, no. Health care can’t be like this. We need Uber and Amazon experiences,’” she said.

Ireland is the director of the Smart Health Innovation Lab, a partnership between Capital BlueCross, Aspire Ventures, Clio Health and Lancaster General Health/Penn Medicine. The lab seeks to test new health care technology and figure out how to inject it into current work flows. Opening this summer, the lab seeks to meet the “quadruple aim” of health care: providing a better patient experience, improving patients’ health, lowering costs and reducing physician burdens, she said.

Corey B. Meyer, director of strategic acceleration at LGH, said “health care is ripe for positive disruption.”

The advent of smart wearables, such as the Fitbit and Apple Watch, has already changed the way people monitor their health. The data-collecting devices dwarf the popular clip-on pedometers of 10 years ago, and that same data could transform the way health systems function.

“For providers, the focus is no longer on filling beds in a hospital, it’s about keeping people healthy,” Meyer said. “The ACA has made consumers more aware of their health care expenditures."

Pubforge aims to be a place where tech workers can talk about their latest stumbling blocks or bounce ideas off each other. Employees need to talk with their industry peers in a language they understand, McMonagle said, and it fires up curiosity to hear what someone else is doing.

It also removes tech workers from disruptions they might find in an office setting. They’re not barraged by cubicle neighbors interrupting a three-hour code-writing session and asking, “Hey, my son let my computer get hacked. Can you help me?” or “Hey, can you look at my phone? I want to show you some pictures.”

One of the things McMonagle noticed after Pubforge opened was Lancaster residents whose employers are in other cities. They expense their Pubforge memberships.

“Their companies saw value in them working in a space that had amenities and an office environment, and they thought that this was worth their while to have their employees work alongside other developers and have that thought-sharing capability,” he said.

A high tide raises all ships

Both natives of Lancaster, Walker and McMonagle are vocal about advocating for the city and its tech scene.

“I think it’s just rife with opportunity at this point and time,” McMonagle said. “There are enough shops like Industrial Resolution and fellow agencies around here that it’s not all agriculture. It’s more than the Route 30 corridor.”

Patrick Ambron, CEO of New York-based reputation management company BrandYourself, envisions a similar impact. His company opened an office in Lancaster last year, citing the city’s low cost of doing business, high quality of living and sense of community.

As with any movement, you need early adapters to prove something is a good idea, he said. As companies see it work for others, their interest will deepen.

As it grows, however, Lancaster could face more of a challenge filling specialized and senior roles than would a New York City or Washington, D.C., Ambron said. And it’s also probably more difficult for startup companies to raise capital in a city Lancaster’s size. Neither problem is insurmountable, he said.

“I think what you’re going to see,” he said, “Or I hope this is the case, is companies like ours, as they hopefully thrive and grow, you’re going to attract other companies.”

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Nicole Chynoweth

Nicole Chynoweth

Nicole Chynoweth is the web editor for Central Penn Business Journal. Email her at nchynoweth@cpbj.com. Follow her on Twitter, @NicoleChynoweth.

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