My friend Joe¬†Stradinger of Edge Theory has often spoken of the idea of a “Silicon Delta.” Tech companies and a knowledge-based workforce in Mississippi. I think we all realize that the way Mississippi can “win the future” is through being highly competitive in the knowledge economy and growing/retaining/attracting more of these leading edge companies. The idea of a “Silicon Delta” is definitely exciting.
As it turns out, the next Silicon Valley may very well grow from, well, another valley: Water Valley, Mississippi.
Yesterday, I had the opportunity to visit the Base Camp Coding Academy in Water Valley, Mississippi. The town of Water Valley is quite a story in and of itself. A partnership of private development and city support has lead to a real renaissance in the rural city’s downtown area which has received a fair amount of national publicity. As amazing as the revival has been, I want to talk about a totally new development that really can be a sea change for rural Mississippi and a model for future workforce development.
I walked up the stairs into a rehabbed, row-style brick building in the center of Water Valley’s downtown area. It was built in the 1860s, and the floors are wonderful old hardwood. The character of the space is something that we can no longer duplicate ‚Äì it comes only with the cycle of vibrancy, decline, and rebirth. Inside this building is a large classroom with what have to be 20-foot tall ceilings. A ping-pong table, large flat screen monitors, and whiteboards pay testament to the fact that this old building is a place for new tech.
Fourteen students with 14 laptops sit listening to an instructor giving a working lesson on the Python programming language. This in and of itself is not that remarkable. This same scene is being repeated – albeit in classrooms with less atmosphere – across the country. What is remarkable are three aspects:
- These students are fresh out of high school. Two of them are actually 17-years-old.
- This program is non-profit in a small relatively rural Mississippi town, not associated with a major university or job training center.
- These students will have the skills to be fully employable as highly-compensated software developers at the end of 12 months. Before most of them are old enough to sample the craft beer from the Yalobusha Brewery just down the street, they will likely be commanding starting salaries higher than the median Mississippi income.
Basecamp is the only program of its kind in Mississippi… and it is damn exciting. When we talk about changing the trajectory of this state, breaking community-based cyclic economic challenges, and putting our state ahead of the trending employment curve, it is programs like Base Camp that can play a – if not THE – pivotal role in making that happen. To put it another way, we are looking at a model that will be disruptive, exponentially positive, and a game changer.
Building the Pipeline
The story of how this academy came about is really one that would make Thomas Edison proud. The 1% “inspiration” factor was certainly necessary, but also obvious. The software/tech companies that call Mississippi home – such as C Spire and FNC and others – have a workforce problem. And this problem isn’t unique to Mississippi, either. The U.S. Department of Labor forecasts that by the year 2020 (that’s less than 4 years, folks) the U.S. economy will have the need for 1.4 million “computer science” type jobs. Currently, only about 400,000 students are enrolled in programs or courses of study that would qualify them for these jobs. That’s a one-million job gap.
Why can’t and why shouldn’t Mississippi play a big role is filling this gap? We can certainly help with the dreadful diversity numbers that have plagued Silicon Valley for sometime now. Somewhere around 3% of the workforce are people of color or female. That’s a huge under-representation of the population. And it’s not because Silicon Valley has been exclusionary. Far from it. They WANT diversity in their companies. But they are also not in the workforce development business. That’s where a program like Basecamp comes in. And the 99% perspiration that several dedicated individuals and sponsoring organizations continue to put into making it a reality. They, in all likelihood, are creating a new pipeline to “Silicon Valley” jobs.
Understand that when I talk about “Silicon Valley,” I’m referring to the tech industry, not the place. I’ve been yelling about the “brain drain” in Mississippi for years now. No, it doesn’t do the state any good to develop human capital in the form of highly educated workers, only to have them leave the state. That’s the biggest challenge here, and where we run into the most resistance. To this, I’ll make the following rebuttal:
- You have to accept the fact that you will inevitably lose some of the people that you educate. But it’s a numbers game. The more people you can expose to skills that command high wages, the more you will also KEEP in state. But…
- We still have to do our part to make sure we are keeping as many as possible. Mississippi tech companies are ready, willing, and able to hire developers. It saves them time, money, and ultimately increases profits. But we have to make sure that a pipeline is established between industry and programs that can serve as a conduit for our Mississippi knowledge workers.
It really is a perfect combination of demand-side and supply-side economic theory. In-state companies have the need RIGHT NOW for new developers. The more these companies are able to grow based on their talent pool capacity, the more spin-offs, start-ups, and related tech companies will want to call Mississippi home. And they will be much more apt to do so because we are building the capacity to have the SUPPLY of knowledge workers necessary to make these enterprises successful.
The issue has always been that a large swath of Mississippians who are place-bound – either by choice or situation – haven’t had many options for upwardly mobility. The “remote” economy has turned that paradigm on its head. A 20-year-old in Clarksdale can write code of the same quality as someone in Cupertino. The compensation our Clarksdale coder makes will go a lot farther here than in the Bay Area, as well. So there’s incentive to stay. As that person stays and adds to the local economy, additional revenue flows in which can in turn be used to fund infrastructure, education, and other projects necessary to produce an environment that attracts additional commerce.
With this strategy, we may have hit on the secret sauce that snowballs our way out of the economic doldrums.
A project my agency helped to found – Kids Code Mississippi – has partnered with the non-profit Springboard To Opportunities organization to launch a summer-long coding academy for kids living in federally subsidized multifamily housing units across Mississippi. Concurrent with this Cyber Summer program, we recently held¬†”two gen” workshops at two apartment complex locations in Jackson, Mississippi. One was for mothers/daughters, the other for fathers/sons. At each of these events, we had a guest speaker address the young people who were participating. Sheena Allen, founder of Sheena Allen Apps, spoke to the girls’ group. Terence Williams – the only Mississippi-based app developer to be invited by Apple to the 2016 World Wide Developer’s Conference – spoke to the guys.
These are two young Mississippians who are successful and building their businesses in Mississippi, whom I personally admire. The are literally the picture of how Mississippi can become a hotbed in the 21st century knowledge economy. It is an inspiration for our kids to see that people CAN do it, and can do it here. The snowball gets a little larger…
The “Hack2Gen” workshop attendees we recently held for Kids Code Mississippi.
The Big Mo
The Base Camp Coding Academy is incredible. It is a life-changing opportunity, and potentially a model for Mississippi leapfrogging other regions in the knowledge economy. Programs like Kids Code Mississippi continue to generate awareness of the opportunity that exists for all Mississippians, and especially among communities who need opportunity the most. To its credit, the Mississippi Department of Education has been aggressive in implementing its CS4MS pilot program to get computer science incorporated into public school curriculum sooner rather than later. It feels like we have a lot of momentum. It feels as if Mississippi isn’t behind the curve, but maybe in some ways actually leading it. Let’s keep it going.
My plea to fellow Mississippians – let the kids who are interested in digital skills know how important what they are doing is for all of us. It is tough for an 18-year-old to grasp the concept that they hold the key to changing the fate of an entire population. We send kids of the same age to foreign lands to protect our freedom. Let’s not diminish the contributions of those who are taking steps to create an economic environment that is growing and vibrant. We’re all in this together, and we’re only as strong as our weakest link. Tired and cliched, but ever so true.
#Create4Good #Create4MS #Code4MS
At the risk of the MWB Blog looking increasingly like a tavern, I feel compelled to write a postmortem on our latest #MWBeer30 event. Jon Fisher, Donnie Brimm, and Bethany Cooper from Oxford-based FNC gave a great talk reviewing many of the practices and protocols their company has put in place designed to stir innovation and creativity. I think attendees of this event (4/17) will agree that it really was inspiring to hear a Silicon Valley-esque approach to innovation being undertaken by a company who is committed to being headquartered in Mississippi.
Like I’ve said a million times before, Silicon Valley was an apple orchard 60 years ago. There’s no reason we can’t turn the Delta, red clay hills, pine woods, gulf coast, and mini-Appalachian landscapes that are Mississippi into something at least equally as impressive. And I don’t want to gloss over the fact that FNC – like so many other thriving entities – is committed to a robust corporate headquarters in our state. The company counts the majority of the top 20 banks in the U.S. as clients utilizing their applications. They are rapidly expanding operations into Brazil and Canada. I have a feeling new products are in the offing. FNC basically invented a category and is the market leader. Not bad for Oxford, Mississippi. Heck, that wouldn’t be bad for Oxford, England.
But back to the main point, the latest #MWBeer30. We had a great crowd attend representing Innovate Mississippi, the Mississippi Development Authority, the Clarion Ledger, EatShopPlayLiveJXN, C Spire, and various other highly innovative individuals. After a brief announcement about TEDxJackson 2015 (coming 11.12.15) and watching the newest Star Wars Trailer (yes, it looks uber cool) the folks from FNC took the floor. Here’s what we learned from their 6 minute 40 second presentation:
1. A 6-minute, 40-second, 20 slide presentation is called “Pecha Kucha.”
Here’s Jon Fisher from FNC getting into their talk. Many of you may be familiar with the “Pecha Kucha” approach. I was not. This is a presentation that consists of a total of 20 slides and each slide lasts no more than 20 seconds. Jon’s pictured here taking us “through the wormhole” that is FNC’s innovation process. The story I was told was that #MWBeer30 was the first time these guys had used Pecha Kucha in a talk… and they didn’t practice, either. They really had it down seamlessly, so I don’t know that I necessarily believe that “we didn’t do a run-through” story. Either way, they nailed it. This was a highly effective and engaging way to present information, so three cheers on the style points!
2. Play-Doh isn’t just for kids anymore.
Bethany Cooper of FNC talked specifically about some of the (dare I use the phrase) out-of-the-box exercises that the company utilizes to get the creative juices flowing. These include actual Play-Doh planning sessions. Don’t be skeptical. There’s a reason four-year-olds think they can do anything.
Other hyper-cool practices FNC has implemented include developing and maintaining their own internal Innovation Team, an annual all-night hackathon called The Forge (props to Jon Fisher for having a product from The Forge now in development), and their implementation of the “80/20” work principle. The latter of these, being a concept pioneered by 3M and really made famous by Google, roughly states that an employee has the freedom to spend 20% of their time working on pet projects they believe will contribute to a company’s mission, outside of “sanctioned” job functions.
3. People will show up and talk… for beer… (and for other reasons, too).
Many, many apologies to FNC, but I didn’t learn until they pulled into our world headquarters about 2:45 p.m. that they had actually missed out on the annual FNC crawfish boil to some speak to the attendees of #MWBeer30. I hate the thought of making someone miss their own event like that, but I will also say that we’re not BYOB. We had great craft beer (much of it brewed here in the great state of Mississippi) on hand for sampling. There are so many innovative people in Jackson and across Mississippi that we feel honored to provide a forum to evangelize the growing nature of our state’s knowledge economy, the great creative assets that we possess, and the how companies, organizations, and individuals are really fostering a culture of innovation.
Tasha Bibb (top) and Lynlee Honea (bottom) were among a contingent from Innovate Mississippi who attended #MWBeer30. Innovate Mississippi is a great organization who are champions of innovation culture and entrpreneurialism across our state. Always very glad to see these folks in attendance.
4. Mississippians are engaged and ready to support our knowledge-based companies.¬†
Plain and simple, we (Mississippians) get a bad rap. “We’re a backwater…” “we really can read and write…” “thank goodness for Arkansas…”.¬† Well we say phooey on all that nonsense. And apologies to our friends from the Travelers State, no disrespect intended. I’m just trying to convey the point here that we’re poised and ready to springboard into a prominent place in the 21st century.
Here’s Donnie Brimm from FNC talking. Donnie and the rest of the FNC crew got peppered with questions after their 6 minutes and 40 seconds were done. And I don’t mean peppered in a “Mike Wallace from 60 Minutes GOTCHA” kind of way. The people at #MWBeer30 were genuinely curious and supportive of¬† great knowledge-based business like FNC and wanted to know more about the industry, the development aspect, and especially what kind of stumbling blocks had the company encountered in implementing a real culture of innovation.
They say that an indicator of creativity and intelligence is the ability to ask great questions. That being said, we certainly had a highly creative and intelligent group of people who attend #MWBeer30. Being a connoisseur of great craft beer is simply a plus. By the way, our craft beer is courtesy of the great guys at LD’s Beer Run, serving a huge selection of local, regional, and national craft brands. Stop by and see them if you’re ever in the neighborhood.
5. Star Wars The Force Awakens looks super cool.
One of the warm-up acts for FNC’s presentation was screening of the new trailers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. To quote Mississippi icon Marshall Ramsey, “I watched it at least a dozen times and I felt my heart swell when Han said, “Chewie, we’re home.” To quote MWB VP Keith Fraser, “OhMyGodOhMyGodOhMyGodOhMyGodOhMyGod.” Yes, it certainly sends chills throughout your spine. The folks gathering at MWB world heaquarters gave a standing ovation after the trailer. Well, technically they were already standing, but I feel certain if they could have levitated, they would have.
6. It’s ok to hire people with purple hair.
This was actually a happy little coincidence of parallelism. A couple of years ago FNC CEO Bill Rayburn was giving the luncheon keynote talk at Innovate Mississippi’s annual luncheon. During his impassioned delivery (those of you who have ever heard Mr. Rayburn give a talk know exactly what I’m talking about), he made the statement – I’m paraphrasing here – that in the new economy we have to get over not hiring people because of things like tattoos and purple hair and instead be meritorious in our approach. Basically, hire the most creative, innovative, and driven person for the job at hand.
Well MWB new hire Erica Robinson just happened to show up at her first #MWBeer30 sporting a rather glamorous “Friday wig,” as she calls it. Everybody loved it. She’s a great addition to our creative staff and innovative culture and certainly the embodiment of how not to let individualism and self expression be an impediment to raising your organization’s intellectual talent. Can’t wait to see this Friday’s colour-de-jour.
In fact, one of the best TEDx talks I’ve heard was given by purple-haired Heather Crawford at the TEDxAntioch event I also spoke at in 2014. Check out Heather’s talk here, titled “You really ARE what you eat.”
Correction, 1:37 P.M. Also do not be afraid to hire people who’s names are spelled in unconventional ways. I just realized her name is actually “Hether Crawford.” Our apologies, Hether.
So anyway, a great time at April’s #MWBeer30. Again, many many thanks to FNC for sending down some of their most impressive folks to give a great 6-minute, 40-second presentation. We’re already working on the agenda for #MWBeer30 in May, so if you want to keep up with this and other #MWBeer30 events, please opt into our MWB Tap special alter system. Cheers!
Ray Harris (MWB), Tasha Bibb & Lynlee Honea (Innovate Mississippi), various unidentifiable pairs legs.
All photography via MWB’s Tate Nations.
We have a great #MWBeer30 lined up for April. The good folks from FNC in Oxford are stopping by the MWB World Headquarters to give a talk about innovation drivers they have incorporated into their company. If you’re interested in the 80/20 model, intern innovation, hackathons, or various other creative strategies for building a corporate culture of innovation, please join us 4/17 at 3:30-ish.
Oh, and as always, there will be a great selection of Mississippi craft beer on hand for sampling.
See you then!
We understand the importance that innovation and creativity play in creating an expanding and thriving economy. As 2014 has been proclaimed the Year of the Creative Economy, we want to emphasize how important creativity and creative thinking will be beyond what is traditionally thought of as “creative” jobs. Mississippi is rich in art and architecture, music, writing, and fine art compositions of all sorts. We are equally as creative in our approach to innovating business and industry.
Examples abound. Recent ones. Dr. Hannah Gay thinks outside the box at University of Mississippi Medical Center and implements an HIV treatment regimen that will likely one day prove to save millions of lives. Academics in Oxford have an idea for a software product that literally revolutionizes the mortgage origination business: Thus is born FNC, one of the fastest growing private companies in America. Also on that list is Bomgar, an IT support technology that is the brainchild of a few college students and which has grown to be a model of the digital economy. This creative innovation extends to large corporations, as well. Mississippi’s energy and aerospace clusters are second to none. As Governor Phil Bryant often says, “Man may walk on Mars, but he’ll go through Mississippi to do it.” Virtually every commercial airplane operational in the world today contains a component that was either produced or tested at Mississippi facilities.
How do we ensure that creativity and innovation drive our economy even farther, faster? How does Mississippi effectively position ourselves to be a leader in the 21st Century knowledge economy? As we celebrate 2014 as the Year of the Creative Economy in Mississippi, we believe that we must take a creative look at how we are preparing our youth to win in the world of tomorrow.
Just prior to 2014 being declared the Year of the Creative Economy, the month of November, 2013 was proclaimed as “Mississippi Innovation Month.” A series of events throughout the month highlighted the creative and innovative things happening in Mississippi’s public and private sectors. As one event for the month, MWB teamed with the Mississippi Department of Education and Innovate Mississippi to host a series of coding workshops at schools across the state. Through a partnership with Highland Elementary School in Ridgeland and Ridgeland-based IT company Venture Technologies, one of the workshops focused on training educators in how to teach coding to elementary students. We believe that in order for Mississippi to lead in the new economy, we must ready a workforce familiar with the digital skills that will likely dominate it. Hence, our commitment to the initiative.
Through their participation in a national contest sponsored by Code.org, Highland Elementary was actually awarded $10,000 and spent the week of December 9th participating in an “Hour of Code” initiative. (See story here). The purpose is ultimately to draw attention to the kinds of digital skills education that will ensure Mississippi maintains a highly competitive workforce well into the future.
The simple fact is that innovation, education and creativity cannot be separated. The most creative among us are the most influential innovators, and vice versa. A creative solution to 21st century workforce and economic development likely means incorporating things like coding into our educational system.
We should all be proud that Mississippi is taking a leading and visible role in this effort. For more information on how you can get involved with Mississippi’s Creative Digital Skills Education initiative, please contact us.
We’ve been on a kick lately for advocating teaching coding in Mississippi elementary schools. So much so that we partnered with a few other innovative Mississippi companies and helped implement a Saturday Hackathon. As a company vested in the continued economic development and expansion of knowledge-based ventures, we believe that exposing kids to coding in 2013 is tantamount to teaching the basics of industrial mechanics in 1913. A working knowledge of coding is likely to become a valuable part of the resume, regardless if the direct job acquires coding or not.
There’s no better way to back this up than to see what an important part coding and development is right now in our growing economy. Oxford-based FNC, Inc. was the first company to develop an IT solution in the mortgage origination market. Since their founding, the company’s growth has skyrocketed. FNC has been on the Inc.com list of fastest growing private companies multiple times. The company put together a video of staff members discussing some the the innovative projects that they’re working on. Watch and get a better understanding of how incorporating coding into education would be beneficial.
MWB is one of the supporters of Innovation Month in Mississippi. November was so declared by Governor Phil Bryant in order to highlight the myriad of innovative people, companies, and organizations that are driving Mississippi’s economy to the top. A great example of this comes courtesy of Oxford, Mississippi-based FNC, Inc. It’s called The Forge.
FNC is a software technology company the builds systems giving mortgage lenders and servicers access to the most current residential real estate information available. The company is a national leader in the space, has grown rapidly in the past decade, and is a real success story. What’s more, FNC continues to drive innovation from within with special initiatives like The Forge.
The initiative is open to all FNC employees, and consists of a 23-straight-hour, junk-food infused, caffeine-fueled development fest. During the event, FNC staff focus on developing, creating, and innovating company products and processes which will positively impact FNC customers. And yes, there are prizes and awards.
As we move farther into a knowledge-based economy, companies will find it necessary to make creative investments in internal innovation. It is great to see a Mississippi company leading by example. Way to go, and best of luck with The Forge.
For more information about Innovation Month in Mississippi, please visit msinnovationmonth.com.