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Diversity, education key issues for Utah's tech industry

SALT LAKE CITY — While the rise of Utah's tech sector graphs like a hockey stick, leaders in the industry aren't squeamish about identifying what factors could derail growth or send it on a downward spiral.

On day 2 of the Silicon Slopes Tech Summit, education and diversity figured largely in discussions of issues that need to be confronted to ensure continued vibrance.

Pluralsight CEO Aaron Skonnard took the main stage at the Salt Palace Friday morning and exhorted attendees to sign a letter to Utah legislators that includes some stark statistics reflecting current unfilled tech jobs in the state and the related upstream issues of lack of opportunity in K-12 computer science courses.

"According to the conference board, there are more than 4,000 current open computing jobs in Utah, with an average salary of over $81,000, nearly double the average salary in the state," the letter reads in part. "At the same time, only 405 exams were taken in AP computer science by high school students in Utah in 2017."

Skonnard, whose company has found huge success in online education, said allowing the current computer science situation in Utah schools to go unaddressed was a recipe for disaster.

"How can we be the future of tech if our kids aren't studying computer science," Skonnard asked.

That message appears to be resonating with Gov. Gary Herbert, who appeared at the summit Friday to announce the launch of a new IT Pathways pilot program aimed at "filling critical workforce needs and ensuring the continued success of Utah’s tech industry."

"The tech industry has asked, 'Where’s the new labor going to come from that’s got the skills that we need for our businesses,'" Herbert said. "This is going to develop that pipeline and allow our students to get on-the-job training, see if they have an aptitude for it, if they in fact like the job and get some skills training. They also sometime will get paid for the job."

The program will be piloted this fall in Nebo, Provo and Alpine school districts in partnership with Mountainland Tech College and Utah Valley University; Canyons School District with Salt Lake Community College and the University of Utah; and Davis School District with Davis Tech College and Weber State University.

Silicon Slopes leaders have united behind the program, offering opportunities for job shadowing and real-world experience in the tech realm. Utah companies participating in the IT Pathways program include Dell EMC, DOMO, Instructure, Pluralsight, Workfront, Xactware, Banyan, Nuvi, Microsoft, Qualtrics, Vivint and InsideSales.

Another Utah tech employer, Adobe, has a large and growing presence here in Utah thanks to the company's decision to buy a succesful web analytics company called Omniture back in 2009 for $1.8 billion. Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen told the crowd there was a logic to bringing Adobe to Utah, rather than shuttering Omniture and moving the operation to Adobe's Northern California headquarters.

"We go to where the talent is," Narayen said. "It's as simple as that."

The company, best known for its creative suite, the PDF and Photoshop, announced plans late last year to build another office complex near its current facility in Lehi and add 1,500 more Utah employees. The company is also widely known for efforts to build diversity among employee ranks, and Narayen noted the company has achieved true pay parity throughout its ranks of 15,000-plus employees. He also underscored why diversity should matter for all business endeavors.

"Your customers are diverse," Narayen said. "If anybody thinks that you can deliver great products to a diverse set of customers without having a diverse employee pool, you're in denial."

Sukhinder Singh, founder and chairman of Boardlist, a service that connects "highly qualified women leaders with opportunities to serve on private and public company boards," discussed diversity with Qualtrics CEO Ryan Smith and Kim Scott, author of the best-selling "Radical Candor."

Singh noted it's not enough for tech ventures to just hire more women.

"Companies need to create conditions to make it possible … for women to stay in their careers all the way up to becoming a vice president or some higher position," Singh said.

Cydni Tetro, co-founder and president of the Utah-based Women Tech Council that is dedicated to increasing the number of women in technology nationwide, said the work to build diversity in tech needs to happen all along the career "pipeline" literally from elementary school through college. She noted that at the end of that pipeline, companies need to do the work to create equitable working environments.

Last week, her organization released a list of companies identified for creating and enacting practices to "remove the glass ceiling."

"Shattering technology's glass ceiling requires companies to invest more and be actively engaged in creating cultures and activities that expect and demand inclusivity from top to bottom," Tetro said in a statement. "By highlighting the companies and practices that are actively championing women and are making strides to change the industry's landscape and culture, this list accelerates the technology sector's journey to increase the number of women in technology and break our own glass ceiling."