“Arkansas” has never been synonymous with “software coding expertise,” but according to the AEDC, that disconnect is disappearing quickly as the state’s high schools and digital employers gear up under the leadership of Governor Asa Hutchinson to make computer-coding classes easier and more rewarding to those enrolled.
Two years ago, Hutchinson, the legislature, and the Arkansas Economic Development Commission (AEDC) began to create a coding-friendly culture in the state by requiring public high schools to count coding classes as a math credit toward graduation and by allowing seniors to take coding as a fourth math credit for graduation instead of trigonometry or calculus. Then Governor Hutchinson himself barnstormed the state to help generate student and educator enthusiasm in the program — and in the idea of turning The Natural State into one of the biggest digital redoubts in Flyover Country. “We moved very quickly, and being a smaller, flyover state were able to adapt quickly and get our curriculum into schools at a quick pace,” said Mike Preston, executive director of AEDC. “We’re the only state that ever had undertaken such a quick effort. We were the first ones to be there.”
Preston said that the coding-curriculum program became imperative as Arkansas “kept losing people going to Silicon Valley for technology jobs. We felt: ‘Why not Arkansas?’ We have such a strong corporate base with companies such as Walmart, Tyson Foods, Dillard’s, and JB Hunt, but we were seeing a lot of their tech jobs leave the state. Arkansas also has some significant tech-based companies, such as Alltel and Acxiom.”
Preston further explained, “We wanted to be able to field the workforce to support those jobs. We wanted them not to have to move those jobs to either coast but build on a footprint here in Arkansas.”
Arkansas Technology Companies
AlltelLittle Rock, AR
Arkansas has some significant tech-based companies, such as Alltel.
AcxiomLittle Rock, AR
Acxiom is also among the tech-based companies located in Arkansas.
InuvoLittle Rock, AR
Inuvo is a Little Rock-based software and data-analytics outfit.
ElyxorNorth Little Rock, AR
Elyxor is a software-engineering consulting firm that moved its headquarters to Little Rock from Boston in 2015.
Metova, an app-development and cybersecurity concern, has two operations in Arkansas.
In fact, more recently, AEDC formed a blue-ribbon commission to study opportunities to grow the state’s economy associated with computer science and analytics, focusing on business challenges in those fields, potential for growing niches within those sectors, and ways to build Arkansas’ talent pipeline with the required skills. And the state legislature has followed up by creating a $2 million accelerator-grant program for startups, aided by corporate sponsors providing matching funds to create accelerator events throughout the state.
The moves already are making a difference. “These initiatives in tech have a big impact on us and the kind of people we’re hiring,” said Richard Howe, chairman and chief executive officer of Inuvo, a Little Rock-based software and data-analytics outfit. “It goes to the kind of people we’re hiring: We need a strong contingent of kids coming out of colleges so we can continue to fuel the growth of our business.”
We need a strong contingent of kids coming out of colleges so we can continue to fuel the growth of our business. Richard Howe, chairman and chief executive office, Inuvo Howe explained that the coding initiative and related programs are beginning to help Inuvo by alleviating at least two major problems. First, he said, “We have open positions that we can’t fill day-to-day. The workers aren’t here, and Arkansas hasn’t been the easiest for recruiting people from out of state.” Second, Howe said, “When we can’t find the skilled workers we need, we have to hire less-skilled workers and train them. That means it takes longer for us to grow our business.”
Elyxor is a software-engineering consulting firm that moved its headquarters to Little Rock from Boston in 2015, before the coding initiative — but now has plans to grow from a staff of about 10 to 50 people in the next two years, enabled in part by Arkansas’ rapt new attention to growing its own coding talent. The company grew from infancy in 2010 in Boston and Cambridge, Mass., a font of coding talent. But seemingly paradoxically, the company soon found itself handicapped by its location.
“We were competing for talent there with Google and Facebook, and they would hire hundreds of engineers at once,” explained Rob Lentz, partner and chief strategy officer of Elyxor. “Because of their brand recognition, it was making resources scarcer and more expensive for us.”
Lentz said he “was surprised at the quality of the talent we could get” in Arkansas even two years ago. And now, while Elyxor is still hiring senior engineers, “we want to build a pipeline of new talent here.”
Josh Smith, managing partner at Metova, an app-development and cybersecurity concern with two operations in Arkansas, said that “the coding initiative is fascinating to me. When the governor or someone on his staff goes and talks at a school about it, we typically get an e-mail out of the blue from a computer-science teacher there who asks us to host a field trip. We obviously welcome that.”
How It All Began
One of the significant reasons that Arkansas started down the path toward its coding emphasis already is almost legendary in the state. Hutchinson’s middle-school-aged granddaughter helped develop an app for his 2014 campaign for governor, and he began stumping on the idea that such digital savvy should become commonplace among the state’s youth.
Preston conceded that concrete impacts from the coding initiative and other tech-friendly steps by the state are just starting to form. But Arkansas already has created a narrative that bespeaks leadership in this important arena — a narrative that in itself is proving beneficial.
We were competing for talent there with Google and Facebook, and they would hire hundreds of engineers at once. Because of their brand recognition, it was making resources scarcer and more expensive for us. Rob Lentz, partner and chief strategy officer, Elyxor “When you get headlines in places like Wired, and people start talking about Arkansas, it’s an opportunity for an economic developer and a governor even to go to Silicon Valley and make it known what we’re doing,” said Preston, whom Hutchinson appointed in 2015 after Preston spent more than six years as vice president of Government Relations for Enterprise Florida.
“It helps with economic development when we’re trying to recruit and retain companies that are focused in computer science and software engineering and require sufficiency in coding. We’ve met with executives of large IT and data companies to let them know that, when they’re thinking about expansion, don’t forget about us here in the middle part of the country. We have a reputation here now. We know how to code.”
And, said Preston, “A lot of those companies have put us on their radar screen.” In fact, he added, “Other states are starting to model what they’re doing after what we’ve done. So we’re trying to stay ahead of the curve and move this forward.”