Derek Neighbors

The more I learn, the less I know.

Arizona Creating The Arizona We Want

By Derek Neighbors, Published on March 12, 2013

I was recently named a Tech Titan by the Phoenix Business Journal. I was asked to speak on a panel with Jeff Pruitt, Craig Barrett and Wendy Jameson moderated by Patrick O’Grady at the formal event unveiling the Titans. Here are some of the questions that came up.

The Arizona We Want

What are the biggest challenges facing the technology sector in Arizona?

Lack of talent. We think we have a lot of entrepreneurs, but that isn’t the same as the workforce needed to execute. Scaling a company to thousands of people in a year or two is an enormous task if you have to train every employee from the ground up. As our market heats up the lack of talent will only increase and so will the pain.

Lack of density. We are too sparse. People are not connected enough to allow for maximum serendipity. We have to start thinking of ourselves as a region with cores in various cities. No one wants to hear this, but it is a reality. The other option is embracing this and figuring out a way to make it an advantage.

Lack of culture\tolerance. We don’t have the essence of placemaking at our core. People love the weather and the outdoor activities, but we aren’t creating the attachment to physical place. Music and Art are poorly supported. Tolerance for view points outside those made famous by our politicians is limited in most areas.

Lack of leadership. We are a young state. We lack quality leadership in nearly every way civic, education and business. Those with experience aren’t connected to Arizona. Accelerating young leaders needs to be a top priority.

How are small technology companies being pushed to succeed in the state, and what more needs to be done to develop more technology companies.

I believe at this point we have more incubators, collaborative spaces and angel groups than we do actual entrepreneurs. Excuses shouldn’t be accepted anymore. What is missing?

Experience. We lack “smart” money. We don’t have the “pay pal mafia” or “Tony Hsieh’s” that have been there and done it in the new economy to invest in the next wave.

Cohesiveness. Arizona is fiercely independent. Every cowboy wants to own the gold mine. I think this is a by product of our land development mindset. Everything is fear and scarcity based. Instead of trust and abundance based. Arizona needs to learn to work together.

Workforce Development. The need for a digital blue collar exists. Think of operations at Paypal, Go Daddy and Yelp. They require technical literacy but not advanced technical knowledge for a lot of their positions. We need to have programs in place to transition people through the entire chain of technical opportunity.

Education. We need to be fast tracking technology the same way we do healthcare professions. High school students should be graduating with enough skills to be workforce ready or primed to fast track through university. Arizona could lead in this category. Hello EVIT and WESTMEC.

What are the biggest opportunities available for Arizona technology companies?

Climate. Creatives like to get out and explore. Arizona is primed for outdoor activity 300 days out of the year and is a great base camp to explore the entire Southwest. We can not under estimate this asset. We need to stop gutting our state park system and instead INVEST heavily in our open spaces.

Young. Arizona may be 100 years old but it didn’t really start attracting people until the 60’s when air conditioning became mainstream. We are a mere adolescent compared to other states. This means the business leaders of today will define the future of Arizona. It will be difficult work, but will offer significant rewards to those willing to pioneer.

Affordable. The cost of living here and doing business here is just hard to beat. We need to leverage it while we still have it.

Family. Despite what the overall numbers say, most of the suburbs have fantastic school systems. Neighborhoods are safe. We are well positioned for raising families. We should recognize and embrace that.

Cities such as Boston and Austin have been successful in developing an ecosystem for technology companies, both in terms of developing them and recruiting them. What can those cities and others show Phoenix about developing its own ecosystem?

Culture. Culture. Culture. Boston was at the center of the creation of this country. Austin has made a point to be weird. They are willing to be unique and embrace their DNA. We should be willing to do the same.

Tolerance. Tolerance. Tolerance. To be blunt we are the laughing stock of the world in this department. We need to stop judging, oppressing and silencing those that aren’t like us. Ideas and execution need to matter more than appearances.

Sense of place (Density). People need to be able to identify with landmarks, neighborhoods and memories. We need to engage people and make a mark on them. Transportation plays a part in this.

Define a better tomorrow. We need a deeper university system. More research, more private options. See education above.

Boston had deep pockets (Venture Capital). Austin had Dell and University of Texas. Portland, Seattle, Boulder and Las Vegas are all rising. We need to use our unique attributes to differentiate ourselves.

What do you see as the role of groups such as the ACA, GPEC and cities in developing technology companies?

Arizona Commerce Authority (ACA). They need to be influencing legislation. Help implement everything listed above.

Greater Phoenix Economic Council (GPEC). They need to continue recruiting and doing site location. They need to be fostering/amplifying what is already happening. They need to drive density cluster activity without picking winners/losers.

Cities. They need to provide the infrastructure for success. They need to emphasis place making and strengthen their downtown cores. They need to build talent hubs and provide migratory growth patterns for high growth companies.

How do you bring together the different sectors of technology, from software and hardware to everything from aerospace, renewables and green, together to speak with a unified voice to further the future of technology in the state?

Technology is technology. Stop trying to specialize. Load up with smart people. Create the right environment and get the hell out of the way.

Talent. Everyone needs it. Focus on that. Unify on making sure that a pipeline of quality talent is here for years to come.

ACA has outlined a strategy that focuses on aerospace, entrepreneurs and renewables in its approach. Are there other legs to the stool that need exploring?

Stop picking winners. Let the market decide. Help existing clusters.

Richard Florida says it well. Technology. Talent. Tolerance. The three T’s. ACA get on that. Help stop stupid policy and encourage good policy.

I am ready to make Arizona better. Are you? What are your opinions? What is the Arizona We Want?