Why Silicon Valley companies are betting on America’s heartland

Mark Orttung
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July 5, 2019
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Published in
Columbus Dispatch
Columbus Ohio skyline reflected in a woman's sunglasses

‍Maybe you know someone like my friend Pete. He grew up in a small town in Ohio dreaming of a big tech career. By working hard, he was able to study computer science at Northwestern, move to California and become a successful Silicon Valley executive.

It’s a classic American success story, but something always nagged Pete. Did he really have to leave the state he loved to build his dream career?

If that was ever true, it’s not anymore. World-class jobs are popping up around America’s Heartland, especially in the tech industry.

Look beyond New York and San Francisco

Tech jobs are projected to grow about twice as fast as any other occupation in the next eight years. But increasingly, tech businesses are betting on Heartland cities like Youngstown, Detroit and South Bend. They’re realizing that so-called flyover states are actually huge talent pools brimming with hard-working, talented techies.

I should know. I’m the CEO of a software development company headquartered in Silicon Valley, but most of our hundreds of engineers are in Michigan and Indiana. When we started planning our newest product development center, we asked the questions we always do: Where is there room to grow the business? Is there a competitive talent pool? Is the quality of life attractive?

We researched, visited and asked the hard questions. After all the calculations were in, we had a clear winner: Columbus, Ohio.
With more than 20 Fortune 1000 companies headquartered in the region, Columbus already overachieves for a city of its size. But only in recent years did the region once nicknamed Cowtown begin staking its claim as one of America’s great tech hubs.

In 2017, the entrepreneurship-focused Kauffman Foundation ranked Columbus in the top three U.S. cities for growth of startups, scale-ups and large companies. The millions invested in its Short North neighborhood last year have already attracted a vibrant startup community, complete with user groups, meetups and hipster happy hours. Local innovators include blockchain-for-real-estate startup SafeChain, wireless-powered “internet of things” provider Nikola Labs and Ohio’s first “unicorn” (a privately held startup valued at more than $1 billion), CoverMyMeds.

The Midwest is home to 25% of America’s computer science grads. Great schools like The Ohio State University, University of Michigan, Indiana University, Miami University and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign pump huge classes of young engineers into the region’s innovation economy. Quality of life? Columbus and Indianapolis are just two among several Heartland cities in the U.S. News & World Report’s list of “Most Fun Places to Live.”

What’s true of Columbus is broadly true of many Heartland cities. Office leases run 50% or lower than typical New York or Silicon Valley prices. That’s not because businesses have gone away. The Midwest is home to more than 150 of the Fortune 500. Madison, Wisconsin, added 6,720 tech jobs in the past five years. Ann Arbor and Memphis are ranked among the top cities for female entrepreneurs.

It’s no surprise, then, that Heartland cities once focused on manufacturing, banking and health care have become magnets for software development. Techies also are starting to notice the Heartland ticks the boxes they care about — and a few that more-expensive coastal cities can’t.

Make your dent in the universe right here

When I joined Nexient a few years ago, most of the hires in our Ann Arbor product development center were locals. They were excited to work with top American brands in retail, entertainment, health care and fintech without having to travel constantly like consultants.

While we still primarily draw from the excellent local talent pool, we also recruit nationally for positions in the Midwest. Of the dozens of developers we relocated last year, two-thirds were from coastal states like California, New York and Florida.

As one of our new engineers said, “Everything I need is here.” She’s just bought a house, adopted a dog and joined a women-in-tech networking group.

So if you’re a Heartlander like my friend Pete, wondering whether to stay in a place you love or go for the career of your dreams, think again. To “make a dent in the universe,” as Steve Jobs famously said, you might already be in exactly the right place.



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Headshot of Mark Orttung

Mark Orttung

Mark Orttung is Nexient’s CEO. Mark has over 30 years of experience leading organizations in consulting, systems integration and SaaS product development. He is also an inventor who holds more than 30 US patents.

Mark Orttung

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