Orlando: Poised For Tech (and IoT) Growth

Silicon Valley was born through several contributing factors intersecting, including a skilled STEM research base housed in area universities, plentiful venture capital, and steady U.S. Department of Defense spending. Stanford University leadership was especially important in the valley’s early development. Together these elements formed the basis of its growth and success.

—  Wikipedia

You need three things to start a fire: fuel, heat, and oxygen. In the case of a growth of any industry, the components are much more nebulous. What do you need to start a steel industry? In Pittsburgh, you had access to local coal for refineries. You had the convergence of three rivers and thus a major port. Then the Pennsyvania Railroad happened. At any given point, it could have failed, but through hindsight you see a manifest destiny of sorts. These varied facts built upon each other to make it nearly impossible to imagine Pittsburgh as being anything but a steel town.

And as the quote above notes, there were many factors that led to Silicon Valley’s rapid tech growth over the past three decades. Yet, the things mentioned: STEM research, venture capital, Department of Defense spending, etc., these were just fuel waiting for a spark. As you trace the history up, Fairchild Semiconductor’s shakeup in the late 1960s set the stage for explosive tech growth in the region. As the employees from this one company dispersed, they formed cottage industries that sprouted throughout what was to be known as Silicon Valley. The main outcome that was to be the backbone of growth was Intel. With a one-page business plan (and $2.5 million in funding) they started up, and the rest is history.

I often wonder if I’m in the right place. All the smart money goes to Silicon Valley, so it seems. Over a thousand people graduate from UCF with an Engineering/Computer Science degree yearly, and undoubtedly the best of the best are being picked off by recruiters to sell their souls to the devil and take that six-figure job in California or Seattle. If I sound a little bitter, perhaps I am. I want those people to stay. I want them to see what I see, the growing tech scene in Orlando and the daily job postings in the Orlando Devs’ Slack. I want to show them that if they stay, they can make things better here in their home rather than taking the chances in the hyped boom-bust-boom world of the West Coast.

But then I breathe. After spending three years commuting from Northern Virginia to D.C. I know some of the pros and cons in living in such a “happening” place. The pay is great, the cost is great, and the pace is fast. Well, except when you are sitting in traffic. The lawns are all manicured. You pay a lot of taxes, you pay a lot in rent. Everyone’s car is new, and having fun is going to a vineyard and if you work for a few decades you can afford that boat and can go sailing every weekend. And then you blink and your dead.

Maybe I’m being a little melodramatic, but I did go to college here and my wife and I did move back here for a reason. Life is different down here. If you want a boat, you make do. You get a stand-up paddle board or a kayak, because no one cares. No one is asking how many feet long your boat is or if you got the warranty or what the payments are, because people pretty much don’t care. Maybe we’ll just forgo the whole boat thing and get a cooler, sit on the beach and drink some beers.

And yet, we also work. We think outside the box, but we don’t take it too seriously. We have fun and play. We automate things so we can go back to the beach. It’s not forced. We don’t have suits and ties like the East coast, and we don’t have sweatshirts with our startup’s logo on them like the West Coast. We wear whatever we want, it’s fine. We’re here to get something done, and we’ll dress however we need to. Maybe slacks and some Sperry’s, maybe shorts and a button down shirt. Maybe just a t-shirt and shorts. It’s fine.

I breathe a bit more, because I think that someday those people who left will be back. When and if the startup bubble bursts or slowly deflates, they’ll be back. And even if not, we’re starting to build our own fuel. Florida Polytechnic has over a thousand students and is looking to get accreditation this year. I can comfortably say when that happens, its a matter of time before they are known as the MIT of the South. I hope that in a few decades, MIT is known as the Florida Polytechnic of the North. We have UCF, who’s growth is frankly incredible. And with so many different programs, we’re growing a society here, not just a tech hub. As you may or may not know, Research Park has untold monies flowing through it in Department of Defense dollars. Downtown Orlando is crammed with startups and techy folk just itching to build the next big thing. The Iron Yard and UCF’s Coding Bootcamp is pumping out legions of developers, all little seeds growing and sprouting. The Orlando Tech meetup is growing and expanding, we have the largest tourism industry in the world, we are the destination for many a conference (like Vegas, but we have a lot of substance to back up our style). All of this is fuel, fuel, fuel.

As you might know, I organize the Orlando IoT Meetup (you should sign up if you haven’t already), and my goal with the meetup is to grow IoT development opportunities here in Orlando. The fuel has been growing for a long time, and I’m hoping to make a few sparks in the kindling with the impending growth of the Internet of Things that some say is going to dwarf that of the internet itself.

Source: IHS (https://technology.ihs.com/Services/507528/iot-devices-connectivity-intelligence-service)

I honestly can’t contain my excitement. BRIDG, a $70 million facility built for the advanced manufacturing of sensor technology “like those in smart technology and other Internet of Things-based products” in Osceola is set to open this March. That’s next month, for those who are counting. Graduates of nearby colleges are pouring out with graduates ripe with the seeds of knowledge in hardware and software needed for this arena. I feel like the spark is lit, the match is burning, it just needs to be shielded from the wind so it can ignite the flame. What will be our Intel? What will be our Fairchild Semiconductor?

So what do you think? Is Orlando poised for tech growth? If you think I’m bonkers, send an email to me at jporcenaluk@gmail.com or Tweet at me @jporcenaluk. Heck, reach out to me anyway, I’d love to hear from you.

Should You Contribute To The “Orlando Tech Community” Kickstarter?

In case you missed it, Wednesday at around 10:00 AM the Orlando community started buzzing with requests to contribute to The Orlando Tech Community Kickstarter. The campaign is a Hail Mary pass at the start of the season; they are looking to raise all of the funds required up-front to keep several well-known local tech-centric organizations afloat. Specifically, Orlando TechFireSpring Fund, Starter Studio, and Canvs.

And at first brush, their goal seems…lofty. Standing at a whopping $165,000, the literal shovelfuls of cash required to meet this all-or-nothing goal is daunting. And besides, where was it all going? As is Kickstarter tradition, the description of where exactly the money will go is loose. For example, the Starter Studio portion notes the money will go toward “the funding needed to use the beautiful Dr. Phillips center for demo day.” How much does that  cost? Why should I contribute money so they can use the beautiful Dr. Phillips center?

[edit: Gregg Pollack was kind enough to send me a message on Kickstarter about this. He hadn’t realized the adjective “beautiful” could be construed as lavish, so he removed that from the Kickstarter description. He also noted that the demo day event last year actually made money for the organization.]

I’m fairly critical and tend to question any organization I give to. In the checkout line at Publix, whenever they ask “Do you want to give a dollar to Whatever Fund?,” I can’t help but wonder what that fund’s impact is. How much do they pay staff? Is this just a glorified tax haven for Publix or their CEO’s friends? Do they throw lavish parties? Due to the store’s insistence at exploiting typical social contracts, I give a dollar so the cashier won’t think I’m Hitler. In the back of my mind, it irks me that I may have wasted that dollar on an ounce of caviar to be eaten by some debutante at a “charity event.”

Back to the Kickstarter page, I thought “At least these four organizations are working together.” I have no numbers to quantify this, but lately the Orlando tech scene has felt a bit stagnant and lacking cohesion. Several things have contributed to that gloomy feeling. Orlando Tech has had a lot of upheaval with the original founder Orrett Davis joining financial chat bot company Abe.ai in July. In the Orlando Devs Slack, arguments in #career-advice regarding moving to San Francisco happen like clockwork. UCF seems like a natural ally to the downtown tech scene, but it seems like their involvement is incidental at best. Same goes for the tourism industry here. I’ve met a total of two Disney employees at meetups, and I’ve attended my fair share.

When I moved from DC back to Orlando, I was pleasantly surprised to see the resources we had. This was in 2015; Orlando Tech was going strong and there were typically three startups giving talks each month. I attended the Canvs one year anniversary when they announced the second location in Winter Park. Once I was on the Orlando Devs Slack, I felt like a whole other world was opened to me. However, as time went on, I stopped going to Orlando Tech. It’s not that Orrett didn’t do a great job (he did and I think his efforts are a big part of why we have a tech “scene” at all), it’s simply that I lost interest in the subject matter. I don’t think I’m alone in that.

“I’ve been a few times [to the Orlando Tech Meetup], I like knowing what the community is up to around the area.  A few of the startups have interested me.  Most haven’t.  Few job offers here and there, but yea the general feel is ‘business business business…  numbers.  Is this working?’… I think I attended four or five through 2016. Each time I went, I felt like I was witnessing demos from a weekend hackathon, but where the devs got drunk and the designers had a cold. It was absurd to me to hear that these products were seeking investment. So maybe I’m the asshole.”

— Andrew Studnicky, Software Engineer in Orlando

It seems like in their eagerness to fund and support Orlando’s potential unicorns, an unintended consequence was that some of the very people on which those tech companies rely, the developers and designers and people in the trenches every day, felt alienated. Perhaps it was the lack of interest in slow-growth service companies, or the infiltration of get-rich-quick “idea guys,” or some other intangible that kept me from going.

However, with the kickoff of this Kickstarter, it seems like the horses are starting to pull in the same direction and I’m liking where they are going.

It feels like the start of Oceans 11, or perhaps Gone in 60 Seconds. Pressing matters has brought the old gang back together and the audience wonders if they can pull it off like the old days. Orlando Tech feels like a spiritual cornerstone of tech in Orlando, and now with a well-supported Diane Court acting as Executive Director it seems like they have their footing. I have not met Diane personally, but I have heard nothing but great things. I’m hoping she and the rest of the board can help make Orlando Tech into what it can become.

Starter Studio, along with the UCF Venture Lab, has been one of the big tech accelerators in Orlando, and it seems Gregg Pollack is back in full force manning the effort. Although he never left, lately it seems as if he’s playing a more active role in both hyping Orlando Tech and the closely aligned Starter Studio. We don’t need to worry too much about Gregg being in it for the money, thanks to his multi-million dollar exit from Code School and activism in the community. Working legalese into that transition that included keeping the Orlando office open and staff employed shows his commitment to the community here.

When I moved back here from the DC area, one of the first things I did was get a desk at Canvs. The company I now work for, Nebbia Technology, started out of Canvs and graduated from there. We now have our own downtown office, have seven employees, and turn a profit. We need more success stories like that and places like Canvs and Catalyst can be the difference between success and failure for early-stage companies. Not only do they provide cheap working space, but more importantly, foster an environment where water-cooler talk about who can help who comes naturally. Dayle Moore is the manager of Operations and Programming for Canvs, Starter Studio, and FireSpring Fund. The world is a small place, previously she worked at UCF Venture Accelerator and I met with her to talk about my now-defunct business. And who can mention Canvs without mentioning the always bubbly and helpful Shanika Marlow? As Operations and Membership Coordinator at Canvs, her job is getting and retaining Canvs members. When I finally realized it didn’t make sense to keep a desk there when I never used it, it was extremely difficult to look Shanika in the eyes and tell her I no longer needed it.

And then there’s FireSpring Fund, of which I know so little about that I can hardly comment. Suffice to say that I hope they, too, are making meaningful changes.

As you can tell from the paragraphs above, I’m not a blind cheerleader. Even acknowledging that certain organizations aren’t perfect can be social suicide, but at this point in time we have to wash our face with cold water and take a good, hard look at ourselves in the mirror. What do we stand for? Are we not a community? At the end of the day, these organizations have a solid track record. As the Orlando Tech website says, we have a $14 billion dollar tech industry here. Can we not raise $165,000 to help some of our most visible organizations that support our industry?

When we look in the mirror, what do we see? Be honest. I hope we are a community that’s willing to risk a few bucks for the good of our tech industry. That’s why I gave some money.

That, and the sweet t-shirt.

Consider chipping in to the future of tech in Orlando yourself.