A Need For Raw Talent

Paul Jacobs is the founder & president of jacAPPS, a mobile app startup based in Southfield. Jacobs is a serial entrepreneur with a string of businesses in the media landscape. He got his start creating media consulting and consumer research firms. Jacobs was an early adopter in the mobile space, launching jacAPPS in 2008. Its first app was a custom job for the WRIF radio station and has created 775 mobile apps since then. It is now one the primary app makers for Ford. 
Jacobs describes jacAPPS as the house app developer for Ford's SYNC system. The Southfield-based company employs about half a dozen people and is adding interns this summer. Jacobs expects his firm to make a rapid expansion in 2013 to accommodate his company's growth.

Mobile technology is often referred to as one of the fastest growing, some argue the fastest growing, sector in the U.S. economy. Is this a trend that will continue for the next 5-10 years?
We've only reached the halfway point of smartphone penetration among cell phone owners, so there's a lot more headroom for market penetration. But we're in the bottom of the first inning in terms of potential and impact. The smartphone has emerged as the digital hub of everyone's lives. It's the one device that is never more than 6 inches away from you, and because of its multi-faceted functionality, has essentially replaced everything that's come before it - it's got media, Internet, games, and interaction.
And the next phase that's just upon us is interactivity in connected vehicles like Ford's SYNC and other digital dashboard system. Ford's AppLink software can now enable apps to be voice controlled in their vehicles, so soon, a lot of the functionality of your mobile apps will take on the added dimension in the car.
I keep revising an upgrading my business plan every six months, because honestly, new opportunities emerge with mobile all of the time.
When you look to hire for a young company, do you lean more toward finding raw talent that can be molded or toward an established professional with an effective skill set? 
It's really a mix, but we tend to gravitate toward the less experienced than grizzled veterans. We are a different kind of software developer because we come at this from a marketing and end-user perspective. Almost all of my employees have a liberal arts background, so they tend to use both sides of their brain. The result is better apps that combine the best of functionality and usability, and we have found that it's easier to find this mix of skills with slightly less experienced developers because their habits aren't hard coded.
You have have been running companies and hiring people for decades. Name one of the more unique processes you or a fellow employer have used when hiring?
There's no tricks to this. The one thing that I consistently ask prospects is what books, magazines or newspapers (print or online) do they read? You can learn a ton by discovering how expansive their thinking is. Are they students of the game and read a lot of trade and industry publications? Do they have interests outside of the field that could open up new avenues of growth? Or, do they spend their time playing video games, producing Vines, watching Hulu, and bugging friends and family on Facebook? I'll take the curious person over the couch potato any day.
A lot of local leaders are preaching that the region needs to up the skill sets of its workforce to meet the needs for the 21st Century workplace. Have you seen the need for this while hiring in recent years and if so, what needs to be done to make our workforce more competitive?
This is our biggest challenge, and I know that it also is with my colleagues and competitors. Our region has two essential problems - the overall decline of the education system, and the exodus of our best talent to other regions of the country. So, one is a long-term challenge that hopefully will be improved by the general turnaround of our economy, as long as our political leaders make this a funding priority. The second is more challenging. We can't change the weather. But we can control the types of environment we create for workers to keep them.
I recently was in a discussion with a potential partner in Silicon Valley. When it came time to compare salaries, benefits, etc., it was clear that we have a true advantage here in what we need to pay employees compared to other technology hot spots. So there's room to improve in this area. I realize that this flies in the face of the bean counters, but as an industry, it might be time to pay a little more, provide better benefits, and invest in great working environments to keep our best and brightest.
What have your companies done to make sure the skills sets of its employees stay sharp over time?
While we don't currently invest in ongoing learning (and we should), we've created a stimulating environment where there is a constant flow of ideas, information, and outside thinking. Our DNA is in research and strategic development, so between the research we're conducting and the volumes of publications we read and access online (yes, we are voracious readers which is why I look for this in a potential employee), our staff gets a pretty constant flow of information designed to broaden out their thinking.
Developers need to do more than just sit in front of a screen all day, so getting the most recent thinking on mobile apps from me and then sitting around and discussing it is just one way that we ensure that everyone's brains are engaged and hopefully expanding. There's a lot of sharing of ideas and opinions, even if the topic has nothing to do with creating an app. This is information and thinking that will come in handy one day, and let's face it, also keeps things from being boring.
And the other secret is that we make sure we regularly go out for sushi together and try to go to as many Tigers games as we can fit in (never enough).
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