Reflections on the Silicon Slopes Tech Summit 2020
This is the right place, right time. Be filled with gratitude but look outside yourself.
Recently I attended Silicon Slopes Tech Summit 2020 in Salt Lake City. This was my first year attending and I was awestruck by the magnitude of the event. 20,000 people were in attendance supporting the Utah technology community. The Salt Palace halls were filled with high school and college students, media, and startup founders. There were skateboards, scarfs, stickers, and swag.
I had somehow imagined the conference would be a sea of faces I recognized from ProductHive meetups but was surprised (and glad) that I recognized few people. I could really feel that the Utah technology community was much bigger than Thanksgiving Point, American Fork, or Cottonwood Heights. Its impact also goes far beyond software companies.
I had many takeaways from the summit. It was fun being a sponsor, sessions were informative, Zuck was … fine. Below are a few of the most important things that I’m still noodling on a few weeks later.
Be a Creator
The single best thing you can do in your career is to learn how to be a creator. Go build something end to end. … The future is about builders, so go learn the skill of creation.
— Derek White, Chief Digital Officer, US Bank
I love been surrounded by creators, people with a passion to think differently and aspire to make things more frictionless or delightful. Part of the energy of the summit was coming together with individuals pursuing their dreams.
In one session I sat next to a group of high school students. They were dressed in sharp uniform blazers with an embroidered crest. A local private school was my guess. At one point I noticed, unlike many teenagers, they weren’t passing the time between speakers by mindlessly scrolling through social media. Instead, they were practicing calligraphy on their iPads and experimenting with Photoshop on their laptops. I smiled. These kids were creators. Very fortunate, no doubt, but ambitious.
In a world of endless digital feeds tailored to one’s personal consumption too many people are sucked into unproductive time drains. Being a creator is hard. Being a creator is risky. But being a creator is in our nature. It’s satisfying to put something out into the world that didn’t exist before. The world may laugh at what you create but the world may reward what you create. To a creator it doesn’t really matter.
Developing a local community like Silicon Slopes is hopefully about encouraging those with an idea to act on it, to build it, or share it. It’s about creating opportunities for creators.
Great Opportunity, for Some
The conference was a celebration of the state’s success. Speakers echoed statistics and accolades from national news media. Utah has frequently been rated a top state to do business. That’s awesome. The market is hot and competitive right now. The economy is growing and unemployment is low. The Silicon Slopes are full of opportunities for those with the right skills.
The conference was also a keen reminder that this buzz of opportunity and skill development is not evenly distributed. While the average tech salary in Utah is $87,000, the average salary overall in Utah is $47,000. Furthermore, 1 in 7 children in Utah faces hunger challenges and only two-thirds of Utah high school offer computer science courses. Even in our own industry, many talented junior candidates are having trouble breaking in.
In the last 12 months, as an example of this opportunity asymmetry, at least 43 recruiters have contacted me on LinkedIn to see if I’d be interested in joining their company. I’m not currently looking for a new job so I politely declined. I’m not anything special, I’m sure it’s similar or higher for nearly all senior product, design, or engineering workers in the state. However, I doubt very much the average worker in Utah receives dozens of proactive requests for a better/different job or that most teenagers have their own computer equipment and software.
We need to ensure the silicon slopes don’t rise while everyone else in Utah falls.
— Clint Betts, Director of Silicon Slopes
I’ve been fortunate enough to be a great beneficiary of the rising Silicon Slopes. Through no effort on my part, I landed in the right place at just the right time. Those of us who have received abundantly from working in the technology industry should be careful of the arrogance that often accompanies startup success. Attribution theory tells us that humans natural tendency is to credit internal forces when things work out in our favor — our brilliance, our ingenuity, our incredible foresight. Meanwhile, we tend to credit external forces when things go poorly — a bad boss, customer constraints, market forces, etc.
I would be remiss indeed if I took credit for my own career’s gifts; my life has been a series of privileges many are not afforded. I was born here in Utah, white and male. My father majored in computer science. I grew up with a computer and high-speed internet in my home. He was a founding partner of a software startup. As a teenager, I got to observe from the sidelines the ups and downs of building a company. In high school, I earned college credit learning to write C++ and took my first classes in video editing, interaction design, and Photoshop. Before I was an adult I already had a foundation of market-valuable skills.
Without the guidance of my father Rex, my teachers Mrs. Bateman and Mrs. Smith, and multiple wise career mentors I would not be where I am today. I’m extremely grateful for the opportunities with which I have been blessed. It all makes me feel like there’s much more I should be doing to share of this abundance.
We Need You
Because of who you are you have a responsibility outside of you.… You are not an imposter. You are good enough. You don’t need permission. We need you. You matter. And because we matter we have a responsibility to use our talents to help others.
— Clint Betts, Director of Silicon Slopes
Ultimately, the Silicon Slopes Tech Summit 2020 helped me to reflect on some important issues. I’m very excited by the growth of technology in Utah; there are still 5,073 open computing jobs to fill. But we shouldn’t pat ourselves on the back just yet.
I was able to give back to a marginal degree. I spent some of my time at the conference boxing mac & cheese for the Utah Food Bank. I donated money (you should too, even if it’s only a little) to the Silicon Slopes Computer Science Fund to support the goal of every student, in every grade, in every school having the opportunity to learn computer science by 2022. Of course, these efforts are minimal. These alone won’t solve systemic problems.
As a hiring manager, I’m cognizant of the need to build a wider hiring pool. As a parent, I’m cognizant that opportunity seeds are planted early in life. I’m just one person. But I’m not an imposter; I have talents that can help in some way. I’m still reflecting on what else I can/should be doing.
Open to suggestions.