The exodus of tech talent, as we often hear, has been a concern for Chicago’s economy forever even though these tales of departures are relatively ancient in the tech world where 5 years is a lifetime of change. We’ve heard the comparisons to Silicon Valley and the same tired stories of founders leaving for the coasts. Our future as the center of the Midwest’s technology resurgence (the “rise of the rest”) has been lamented by writers worried about what happens when all the talent is gone, even though there’s a constant, renewable and growing stream of superstars being educated right here in our backyard, and Chicago has increasingly become the preferred launching point for international businesses seeking to enter the U.S. market.
The problem with “experts” is that too often they only see what they’re looking for and miss the bigger picture. The fact is Chicago’s tech economy is thriving with: huge exits; record years of funding; tens of thousands of new tech jobs created; and dozens of thriving co-working spaces, led by 1871.
Is talent drain still a concern? Of course. We’re competing in a global economy. No one’s standing still. Tech centers like New York and Boston (albeit only focused on limited sectors of the economy) and emerging tech hubs like Austin and Raleigh-Durham are thriving. But we’re making consistent progress here for four main reasons: We've had some notable successes; we've built an amazing and livable city which is more successful today at both attracting and retaining talent; we've embraced our strengths and uniqueness as a diverse and distributed economy; and, most importantly, we have a viable plan for the future that we are executing every single day.
First, the successes: Cleversafe, Fieldglass, Coyote, grubHub and Braintree. Companies moving forward in billion dollar mergers or huge IPOs. And, most critically, they are staying in Chicago. As Mayor Emanuel often notes, when PayPal recently bought Braintree, they kept the company here, and doubled down hiring hundreds of new employees. Some day, a Braintree will buy a PayPal. Until then, it’s good news that our companies being acquired continue to grow and attract talented people here and also that the sale proceeds largely remain here for reinvestment in new opportunities.
Second, the city. Chicago has become a highly desirable destination and a place where grown-ups return to grow their businesses and their families. Quality of life is essential to attract and encourage mature talent to return to their roots. Working in a crummy walk-up in Williamsburg or watching the wharves from your SRO in San Fran just doesn’t cut it for people trying to make a life and not just a living. Mike Gamson from LinkedIn recently said he insisted on staying in Chicago even when LinkedIn tried (multiple times) to move him out West. Brian Fitzpatrick built a world-class engineering team at Google and now he’s helping build a new software business here. All these things result in high caliber employees – technical or not – who want to stay in Chicago, grow their families, and do amazing work.
Third, our approach. Chicago has embraced its B2B history and roots. Our companies reflect the power, stability and diversity of our city’s economic environment. We have dozens of Fortune 500 companies and major corporate headquarters. Those companies have pressing enterprise and legacy problems and are natural customers for the next generation of serious tech companies. We’re focused on companies most likely to succeed in this environment. Not everyone wants to work on social sharing or build the next dating site for pets. This matters when it comes to the tech talent competition. These companies are solving real and costly problems and they need top-level engineering talent to do so; serious engineers and computer scientists want to work with other talented people on important problems which are going to make a difference in people’s lives. Period. Our collective embrace of this approach has enabled many highly talented tech employees to stay in Chicago and build careers here, and it has made us competitive on a national stage.
Finally, the plan. It starts with training. Across the city there are efforts underway to train the next generation of tech talent. At 1871 alone, we have almost a dozen different classes teaching coding, entrepreneurship and design, and training hundreds of people, from all backgrounds, with all levels of technical expertise. It will take some time before these training efforts pay dividends, but they will, and they are worth our investment.
The plan continues with cooperation. Multiple organizations are working together to put the city’s best foot forward, attract companies, retain employees, promote the city’s growth, and do what is necessary to advance the collective interests of our economy. No other place has our amazing level of private, public and civic engagement in the missions that matter most. We’ve talked about two potential ideas that will help with talent – a study “abroad” program in which undergraduate students from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign will spend a semester in Chicago, and the notion that tech companies which are seeking to attract talent from the coasts will work together to show off more than one company when a candidate comes to town. Each of these ideas requires real cooperation to have a chance of success. These ideas would be dead in any other city. But here, we have the chance to make them happen.
Finally, the plan requires time. We are making enormous progress, and moving quickly toward our goals. We are not Silicon Valley, for better or for worse. But we know what we do well and where our strengths are.
It’s incumbent on all of us to make sure we are focused on what we can control – building a city to be proud of, working together to improve our economy, celebrating our uniqueness, and most importantly, keeping an eye toward the future. If we double down on what we’ve done and what we’re doing, our future will be very bright.