Greg Gianforte is Montana’s high-tech rainmaker whose tiny Bozeman startup morphed into a $1.5 billion software corporation in just 15 years and spawned dozens of offspring when it was sold to one of America’s richest companies.
When Gianforte speaks of high-tech, Montana’s government and education leaders listen. What he’s been saying loudly is that Montana isn’t producing enough computer science workers to keep up with a burgeoning industry, one that offers the state’s computer science graduates in-state jobs with salaries starting at $65,000 to $80,000.
“We just don’t have enough kids pursuing technical degrees,” Gianforte said. “By my calculation, using Department of Labor Statistics, as well as my work with entrepreneurs, there’s about 400 jobs in Montana every year for entry-level computer science graduates. And Montana State University, the University of Montana and Montana Tech combined only graduated 44 last year. So as a state, we’re only producing about 10 percent of what we need for this high-tech economy.”
Montana has more than 6,000 computer-related jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics. In communities like Bozeman, those jobs helped keep the economy afloat during the recession when the housing boom went bust. Construction in Gallatin County isn't forecast to completely recover until the next decade.
Technical computer jobs grew throughout the recession in Montana and continue to do so, most significantly in Gallatin County.
“There is a nice steady growth in the custom computer programming services,” said Barbara Wagner, chief economist for the Research and Analysis Bureau of the Montana Department of Labor.
From 2010 through the first quarter of 2013, the number of computer programmers in Gallatin County increased more than 29 percent, as the industry added 109 new jobs, according to state data. The sharp increase only tells half the story, Gianforte said, because not everyone involved in high-tech is a programmer.
“People think that high-tech companies only hire technical people, but at RightNow Technologies, (Gianforte’s former company) only 10 percent of our expenses were research and development. The computer science graduates were sort of like our seed corn. Without them, we couldn’t hire the marketing majors, the accounting majors, the lawyers, engineers or whatever because we needed that core group. If you want to have a vibrant economy you have to have the seed corn to jump the high-tech industry.”
Two companies have opened in Bozeman in the past 18 months because the population of tech workers appears strong enough to support new business. WebFilings, whose programs allow companies to file complex business reports online with agencies like the Security and Exchange Commission, has been recruiting University of Montana and Montana State University graduates since opening in 2012. The company is very tight-lipped about its growth in Montana, but computer professionals familiar with both RightNow Technologies and WebFilings said the early growth pace appears similar.
“We decided to open a Bozeman office because we found high-quality talent living there,” said Matt Rizai, WebFilings CEO. “Our employees are critical to our success and we feel fortunate to be part of the Bozeman community.”
Apptus, a San Francisco company specializing in online merchandising products, opened in Bozeman in mid-2013 and immediately announced it would be hiring 50 workers by year’s end.
Ideally those jobs will be filled by Montanans who want to remain in the state after graduation and earn a good wage, but there’s work to do for that to happen, according to both Gianforte and Oracle CEO Safra Catz, who told a Montana audience in September that Oracle planned to grow its Montana presence with RightNow’s former campus becoming the Fortune 100 company’s cloud computing center.
“Why Montana? It’s really, really simple: Employees are our company,“ Catz told a crowd assembled in Butte for an economic summit organized by U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont. “There’s been absolutely wonderful work done by Montana Tech and Montana State University” graduates. “I will tell you those people are running our groups.”
The number of computer science graduates at Montana universities is on the rise, said John Paxton, head of the Department of Computer Science at MSU. His program is on track to double its graduates this year.
Montana’s universities were cranking out computer science graduates a decade ago, Paxton said, and then the dot.com bubble burst and students previously attracted to the major by the promise of well-paying jobs and a tight labor market quickly backed off. MSU’s graduation rate slumped into the teens, he said. The dot-com gold rush hadn’t panned out.
“In fall 2000, there were 324 undergraduate computer science majors,” Paxton said. “That fell to 142 by fall 2007, basically less than half of the dot-com zenith when things were crazy.”
What people didn’t see was the rise of smartphones and the demand for applications, or apps. The number of people interested in computer science degrees crashed at universities nationwide. The demand for computer savvy workers roared upward with the smartphone craze.
This fall, Paxton’s department had 267 undergrads. The number of declared majors is increasing year to year by about 40 students. The graduation rate from 1999 to present is about 47 percent.
Montana's two year colleges have also developed an information technology career cluster to give students marketable skills in short order.
The challenge is positioning students for success from the beginning, Paxton said, which means making sure they’re taking the right courses in high school, taking the right math courses and when possible taking computer courses in high school.
Few Montana high schools offer computer programming, Paxton said. Some schools had computer programming courses but cut them during the early days of federal No Child Left Behind testing, because money was tight and computer programming wasn’t on the tests students needed to pass.
Montana’s Office of Public Instruction, contacted for this article, did not know how many of the state’s high schools offered computer programming courses.
Some schools kept their computer programming classes. In Billings, both Senior and West high schools offer computer programming. There’s also a partnership with Rocky Mountain College that allows students from those schools to receive both college and high school credit for work at Rocky.
Skyview High eliminated its computer programming courses after its instructor moved on.
Duff Gray, who teaches computer programming at West High, reaches about 150 students a year, mostly males. In a good semester, girls may make up 20 percent of his classes. Education groups are calling for more girls and minority students to get involved with computer programming because the demand for computer programmers cannot be met by the white males that currently dominate the field. Gray said girls are some of his best students and some are more detail oriented.
At West High, the goal is to get the students programming, even programming microchips to direct machines by third semester. The school district’s technology bond is helping the keep the course and equipment up to date. Gray has been teaching the program for 15 years.
“We’ve been very fortunate. A lot of things get cut when money is tight. I have never felt like, ‘My gosh, this is on the chopping block,’ ” Gray said.
Gianforte has launched a project to give Montana high school students some exposure to computer programming, even if their schools don’t offer courses. The online program “Code Montana” allows students to log on to codemontana.com and participate in a 90-day study program.
“Our young people are surrounded by technology. They have mobile devices, they’ve got the Internet. They have Twitter and Facebook. They are consumers of technology,” Gianforte said. “What Code Montana does is allow them to be creators of technology. There’s a big difference between enjoying a good meal and being able to prepare a good meal.”