Thursday night, Austin Free-Net hosted a panel at the Google Fiber Space, "Solving the Emerging Technology Skills Gap." Moderated by Hugh Forrest from South by Southwest, the panel was a speed-format effort to discuss solutions to a shortage of tech workers to creating a more diverse tech industry.
I wasn't able to stay for the entire event, including the Q&A portion, but here's some of what I heard from what turned out to be a great event from one of Austin's most important tech-focused organizations.
- In a town that doesn't always do a great job of putting together technology discussion panels with a diverse group of panelists, this was an example of doing it right. And I don't just mean in terms of people of color or women on the panel. It also featured a good cross section of experts from different industries, from the President and CEO of Huston-Tillotson Dr. Colette Pierce Burnette from academia to Belinda Matingou, regional executive director of the Texas Association of Business to Parisa Fatehi-Weeks, representing Google Fiber and announcing an expansion of the service to address lower-income customers.
- Hugh Forrest, who said at the outset of the panel that SXSW has barely scratched the surface on discussions about diversity and inclusiveness in the tech industry, said that after some reorganizing at SXSW, his new job title has been finalized as "Programming Chief of SXSW." It was previously "Director of SXSW Interactive."
- Matingou proposed that the tech industry may be looking too hard at people with tech degrees in filling jobs. "We need to create a pipeline of non-traditional job seekers to meet our tech skills gap," she said.
- Preston L. James II, co-founder and CEO of Divinc, a startup pre-accelerator focused on ethnically diverse and women founders, said that innovative thinking can come from anywhere, but that some entrepreneurs simply don't have the connections or resources to find a path to success. He pointed out the availability of scholarships for coding schools geared toward women and minorities that are not being taken advantage of.
- Fatehi-Weeks, a former civil rights attorney, made the case that what Google Fiber is doing is filling a critical need in communities that don't have access to Internet service in the home. She said 50,000 Austin households are without Internet service and that it's not just about speed, it's about access to educational resources and job opportunities.
- Dr. Burnette offered an intriguing point of view: that in our rush to push STEM and get more people into tech education, that we shouldn't forget the value of a liberal arts education and creating well-rounded graduates. "We're missing something by only focusing on tech," she said. "To be innovative, we need to dig deeper."
- Other panelists included Free-Net director Juanita Budd and IBM corporate citizenship and corporate affairs manager for Texas Beth Tracy.
- This was a busy events night in Austin. At the same time as this event, Facebook was hosting a big party for Austin influencers and a startup was hosting a pitch competition. It was nice to see an event focusing on a major tech-industry problem and offering up an array of solutions and ideas to address them, and to see a healthy audience for that kind of programming.
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