Tech in Tacoma

City tries to attract and retain talent

Tacoma is determined to become a technological powerhouse. Seattle and the Eastside have reigned supreme as the Northwest tech hubs — drawing talent from around the world and the South Sound. City officials know Tacoma is ready to support technology companies. The infrastructure is certainly in place, but the driving force behind this prospective change is the groundbreaking work being done at the Institute of Technology at the University of Washington Tacoma.

With the computing and software systems (CSS) program opening in the fall of 1999, UW Tacoma laid the foundation for the qualified students coming out of the programs today.

“When we started, there were 50 students in our CSS program,” said Andrew Fry, lecturer and assistant director of Industry Partnerships at UW Tacoma. “And this year — juniors, seniors, and graduate students (equal) 750 students in five programs, and two centers of research.”

“I get more satisfaction now, every day, than I did when I ran my own companies. Working with these students, and advising them on projects and first steps in their career is where I really find the most happiness.” – Andrew Fry

Fry spoke to a group of more than 40 people crowded into the back room of Harmon Tap Room earlier this fall who came to learn more about where the tech industry is headed in Tacoma.

The event was sponsored by the Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County. The “Monday mixer” included technology professionals, newcomers, people wanting to network, and those who had questions. Fry was one of many well-versed speakers there that night. He’s excited to help produce future tech pros in Tacoma — and eventually keep them working in the city. Fry served on former Gov. Gary Locke’s Council on the Internet and worked for years founding companies. Now his focus is on helping his students make their dreams a reality.

“I get more satisfaction now, every day, than I did when I ran my own companies,” Fry said. “Working with these students, and advising them on projects and first steps in their career is where I really find the most happiness.”

His work with the industry partnerships program is some of his most influential in Tacoma’s growing tech community. The program pairs a faculty advisor with a local business professional as a counseling team to help students use skills learned at the institute in real-world applications. “(It) lets them see the opportunities (for post-graduate employment) they have in the community,” Fry said.

By setting students up with a professional working locally, it gives them a chance to see their skills used to better their community, something Fry encourages all his students to do. Last year, Fry oversaw some 200 students with community engagement projects. One of the teams Fry oversaw helped The Fisher House at Joint Base Lewis-McChord automate its proposal process.

The Fisher House is an organization that provides housing for families with a relative receiving care at a VA facility (in this case, Madigan Army Medical Center). A vital organization doing a lot of work, The Fisher House was inundated with requests, and an outdated network was hampering its ability to serve people in need.

“So this team went in,” Fry said. “(They) automated their system, and made it run smoothly. And they were awarded with certificates and challenge coins from Lt. Gen. Stephen R. Lanza for its work. Its just incredibly gratifying stuff.”

UWT is able to produce the caliber of students it does thanks to a combination of teachers like Fry, the state-of-the-art facilities on campus,
and specialized programs, like VIBE, that help give veterans the tools they need to run their own startup.

The Learning and Research Commons (LARC), located in the Snoqualmie Building, is where most of Fry’s teams set up shop. “This place is always packed,” Fry said, gazing at the expansive, glowing research theater.

Assistant Director of Industry Partnerships Andrew Fry

Assistant Director of Industry Partnerships Andrew Fry

The LARC has computers, projectors, printers, whiteboards, and everything else a tech team could ever need to support its bold ideas. The space is loosely divided into three sections: One is endlessly dotted with group-accommodating cubicles; another is set up in a more casual, discussion-based design, with couches and coffee tables; the third is a glass-enclosed lecture hall outfitted with ample seating and projector for visual demonstrations.

Every Wednesday, a lecturer presents research or current projects to a packed house of students. This group setting allows for collaboration between students and faculty, and produces progressive technological conversations that are positively impacting the local community.

“Venture capital is a big deal in the South Sound,” Fry said. “So it’s a huge benefit to have this research space where they can meet and get their companies going.” And students — who will soon be looking for jobs — see possibilities in their own backyard. And connections are made.

Tacoma is aggressively encouraging (and beginning to attract) companies to relocate or plant roots in Tacoma. And UW Tacoma is a big draw. Fry’s students are sought by major players like Google, Microsoft, and Facebook. In the last months, Boeing has made a recruitment trip to present in front of Fry’s students three times.

“They’re in high demand,” Fry said. “So the city is making an effort to keep them here. Bring companies to Tacoma that can benefit from having this pipeline of great talent.”

It seems the tide of tech activity is rising in Tacoma — companies like Accumula call it home. Accumula is made up of a small group of coders and engineers who help businesses integrate and tap into an online market, said Chris Karnes, who attended the tech Monday mixer.

“With the mom-and-pop shops in Tacoma it makes sense for them to implement e-commerce for their business and generate revenue that way. And money coming in through e-markets is obviously going to benefit the city,” Karnes said.

Small businesses like Accumula are comforted knowing the city of Tacoma has their back, and is helping generate tech-world buzz for their residents. In April, Tacoma’s Community and Economic Development Board took out a quarter-page ad in the San Jose Mercury News headlined: Is your tech firm looking to expand in the Pacific Northwest?

The San Jose Mercury News is one of the biggest papers serving Silicon Valley in California, a mecca for tech. “It’s exciting to see,” Fry said of the city trying to attract talent and business to Tacoma. That bodes well for his students. “I think we’ll start seeing more companies move to Tacoma, and these new graduates won’t be uprooted as soon as they finish school.”  

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