Tech Tip: Seeking Employment in the Silicon Slopes
Salt Lake City. So hot right now.
Literally — it's midsummer — but also in a tech industry way as well. Nestled in near the famous ski slopes are the so called "Silicon Slopes," a term referring to the rapidly-growing tech industry in the Salt Lake metropolitan area and a few of the nearby cities, including Lehi, the twin cities of Orem and Provo and Park City.
In recent months, sites like Dice and Forbes have recognized Salt Lake City's rapid growth into a tech hub, with the latter referring to a favorable U.S. Chamber of Commerce study as "just one of the high ratings that's proving that the state's centrist government and wise investments are working."
Didn't know that Utah was home to such a lively IT industry? Well, it may have snuck up on you. Startups are big business along Utah's Wasatch Front population corridor, which is home to such companies as Vivint (home automation), Jive (telephony), Overstock (retail), 1-800 Contacts (eye care) and Qualtrics (educational services). These companies are young (relatively speaking), but they are not small: Qualtrics, for instances, is worth an estimated billion dollars, and Vivint is worth two.
But that's not all! Industry names such as Adobe, eBay and Sandisk have large operations in Utah. The Wasatch Front is also home to a massive NSA data center — though perhaps the less said about that, the better — and has been angling in recent weeks to lure a similar, slightly less sinister byte warehousing operation from Facebook. Provo is one of just six cities in the entire United States where the Google Fiber is operating, and Salt Lake City is squarely in the sights of Google's expanding ISP empire.
With all of the growth and new opportunities, venture capital is practically flowing down the Silicon Slopes. And while Salt Lake may not make as many deals as San Jose, the deals that it does make are huge. Just glance through this breakdown compiled by Inc.com.
To get down to the brass tacks, some people with deep pockets are betting a lot of money that Utah continues to grow. Judging by past performance, their odds are pretty good. So, why is Salt Lake's tech industry exploding?
The foundation for a good IT industry was laid in the 1970s, with the founding of tech titan Novell (now Micro Focus). Based in Provo, Novell both created technical professionals, and created a greater demand for them. Other tech businesses like WordPerfect soon followed.
Culture also plays a part: 60 percent of Utah's population is Mormon, compared to the national average of 2 percent. The church-owned school, Brigham Young University, has excellent technical programs and produces a lot of STEM graduates, and overall the influence of the conservative religion on the culture has produced an exceptionally hard-working population. Mormons also have a tendency to marry young, which also contributes to the stability of the workforce.
Besides BYU, the Wasatch Front is also home to the University of Utah, Utah State University and Utah Valley University, as well as numerous smaller trade schools and colleges. As a result, a large portion of the state's young, educated adult workforce in concentrated along the Silicon Slopes, either needing work while they complete their education, or fresh out of school and eager to prove themselves. It's a perfect combination for any tech startup.
Former Utah governor Michael Leavitt played a huge role as well, making regular trips to Silicon Valley to encourage businesses there to take a chance on Utah. He advertised Utah as having two important things that are harder to find in San Jose: eager college grads, and room to expand. As Leavitt put it, "We have workers, we have space, we have proximity."
Silicon Valley is sure to remain the ground zero of IT innovation for the foreseeable future, but for established companies, Salt Lake's culturally stabilized workforce, cheap land and commuter-friendly infrastructure begins to look very appealing. That lured eBay, which in 2013 solidified its already sizable Utah operation by opening a 36-acre facility near Salt Lake City. Current state government leaders, rallied by incumbent Governor Gary Herbert, have eagerly continued Leavitt's tradition of working to make the state as attractive as possible to outside investors.
A few things to consider before packing your wagon:
Because of the emphasis on education in Utah, an unskilled worker is going to have a difficult time finding placement. If you have a degree, however, then the Silicon Slopes will provide you with a variety of employers to choose from. And with the economy being as stable as it is, you'll most likely have the option to stay with your employer or move on as you please.
The strong influence of the Mormon Church means that Utahans tend to be conservative and helpful, but not always friendly in the way that outsiders sometimes expect. The emphasis on family means that many workers, regardless of how collegial they may seem during the workday, generally head home directly after work instead of being inclined to chat, network, or socialize.
"Howdy, neighbor!"-type friendliness can also be somewhat less common, as most Mormons get the majority of their socializing done at church or via church-related activities. While Utah as a whole is still about 60 percent Mormon, however, Salt Lake City is considerably less so. If you're heading in just for work, the entire state is your burrito, but if you crave diversity and/or nightlife, then you'll probably want to research the employers in the greater Salt Lake area specifically.
Ultimately, Salt Lake City and the Wasatch Front have consistently proven themselves as great places for business, and there aren't any indicators that this tech-fueled trend might slow down anytime soon. As long as the local universities continue to pump out skilled workers and driven entrepreneurs, as long as state government continues to provide large incentives for business, and as long as the venture capitalists continue to congregate, Utah should remain a great place for ambitious IT professionals.