Blog: Bill Wagner & Dianne Marsh

My, how the ENIAC has grown! Southeast Michigan's IT companies, often overshadowed by snazzier startups, are in prosperous mode. Meet Bill Wagner and Dianne Marsh, co-founders of Ann Arbor software firm SRT Solutions. Their blog? The challenges of growing a tech biz and how the tech community is supporting the region.

Bill Wagner - Post 4: The Tech Culture in Michigan

The biggest challenge to growing the IT sector in Michigan is the erroneous reputation that we don't have the talent. There's ample evidence that Michigan has the talent to be equal to Silicon Valley in terms of software as an economic driver. The biggest indicator is the wealth of technical user groups and other technical organizations meeting around the state.

The term 'user group' is not the best branding, but it's been around so long that it's the accepted term for the technical community. 'User group' gives the connotation that it's about hobbyists, or part time enthusiasts discovering how to use a technology. That's not the case. These groups are professionals who attend meetings to learn more about their chosen tools, to network with other professionals, and often to present about his or her favorite technology.
Some of the groups are centered on a particular technology platform. User groups dedicated to development on the .NET platform are active in Ann Arbor, Southfield, Lansing and Flint, Kalamazoo, Traverse City, and Grand Rapids. These groups meet monthly to discuss techniques for building applications using the .NET platform. Similarly, Java user groups are active in Ann Arbor, Detroit, and Grand Rapids.  Python, Ruby, and iPhone user groups also meet in Ann Arbor, and a Flex user group meets in Lansing.

Topics range from server side technologies to desktop applications, from current mainstream technologies to tools that are now only available in tech preview or beta form.  Developers attend these meetings in the evenings to keep up with what's going on in their field. In addition to user group meetings, evening coding sessions are becoming quite prevalent, with Coffee House Coders meeting weekly in Ann Arbor to write code and meet with other developers.

Interesting conversations happen when professional developers interested in different technologies get together, and those groups exist in the Ann Arbor area as well.  The Ann Arbor Computer Society will discuss anything related to IT. The group has regular members that are in the Open Source community, .NET developers, Java developers, and other technical professionals. Hardware and software professionals attend AACS.

The biggest example of what happens when these groups all get together is CodeMash. CodeMash is a once-a-year technical conference held at the Kalahari Waterpark in Sandusky, Ohio. The purpose of CodeMash is to provide an opportunity for developers to learn about platforms and technologies that are outside of their everyday work experience. Then, they can apply those new techniques to their own environment.  The organizers are technical professionals from Ohio and Michigan, as are the majority of the attendees. Even in the midst of the economic meltdown last January, the three day conference was sold out, attracting more than 500 people to Northern Ohio in the middle of the winter.

a2geeks is a group by geeks for geeks, interested in continuing to improve Ann Arbor's thriving technology community, for work and for play.  By providing a virtual home on the web where events and groups can be listed, and free events for technologists, a2geeks really does fit a niche in the Ann Arbor community. 

The more traditional business community (SPARK, etc.) meets the needs of business leaders, but a2geeks taps into the new business model which meets the needs of technology based companies. It has held several events in recent months that have really rocked the startup community.  A2 Startup Drinks and the Ignite Ann Arbor talks are two examples of wildly popular events that are changing the voice of technologists from "What can you do for me?" to "Here's what we're doing".

There's clearly a wealth of technical talent in our area, and the technical leaders are able to make great things happen.  And yet, our supply of great technical talent is still too small. We need to continue to attract talent from other areas of the country to continue the growth of the IT sector in Michigan. A rich and vibrant tech culture is a start. More business leaders need to shine the light on the tech culture to attract more talent and more IT focused companies. Let's take advantage of their dedication, expertise, and forward thinking to rebuild Michigan's economy.