Tech Tours tapping into Vancouver’s ‘hidden’ tech workforce

By Troy Brynelson, Columbian staff writer

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It might have looked a little like speed-dating.

Stationed in Vancouver bars and offices Tuesday evening, people traded quick handshakes, introductions or business cards. Mark Tishenko, president of local cybersecurity firm Edge Networks, held down a table at Main Event Sports Grill. Barely above the volume of sports on TV, he said he was “getting to meet a lot of great people.”

“It seems like a lot of them are technology focused, which is great,” he said.

The night was Vancouver’s debut tech tour, a meet-and-greet for tech companies and prospective employees. Sponsored by the Technology Association of Oregon, it’s a popular annual event for companies on the south side of the Columbia River. But on Tuesday it was Vancouver’s turn to showcase 19 local companies scattered across the downtown area and talk with a combined 100 registrants, per local organizers.

As software development, advanced manufacturing and other high-tech industries take on greater prevalence, many believe Clark County is already positioned for the future. But even with a wealth of talented programmers and advanced manufacturers, many feel the community has been too loose-knit. So, Tuesday seemed to be a matchmaking for the two sides of the Vancouver tech scene – workers and companies.

“I’ve always felt that there’s got to be a bunch of people in tech here,” said Cary Fender, a Vancouver resident who works from home for a Chicago-based maker of payroll software. “I mean, how many people go over the (Interstate 5) Bridge every day?”

New initiatives

Executives such as Eric Preisz of Graham Software Development and Dave Barcos of The Bridge Incubator hope to lead the effort to keep more technology workers in Clark County. They helped orchestrate the event alongside WorkSource Southwest Washington.

“It’s a baby step, in a sense,” Preisz said. “If you create the visibility that there’s a tech workforce here — companies are starving for that kind of talent — they won’t have to compete as hard for employees in Vancouver, because (employees) don’t want to drive all the way into Portland.”

Using Tech Tours as a springboard, Preisz also announced a series of monthly meetups to help people meet, socialize and learn more about coding. For example, one meetup will be a morning coffee and tech news discussion. Others will teach basics or, for advanced programmers, machine learning.

The aim remains to get the community moving in concert, Preisz said.

“I think tech people need to be around other tech people because technology moves so quickly, you can’t just cover it all yourself,” Preisz said.

Likewise, Barcos plans to retool The Bridge Incubator from a nonprofit into a trade association so he can lobby in Olympia. Ultimately, his goal is to establish a venture capital fund that focuses entirely on Southwest Washington.

Those kinds of initiatives help lay the groundwork, said J?nus Sanders, an entrepreneur and engineer for Bonneville Power Administration. Sanders is trying to launch his first startup: a manufacturer of a gun-mounted camera that could be used in combination with police body cameras to further improve policing tactics.

Places such as Columbia Collective, which hosted the Tech Tours after-party, have been helpful for him just to get his ideas off the ground. They could do the same for other would-be captains of industry and maybe land funding, he said.

“I know this for sure: Vancouver has a lot of hidden geniuses,” he said. “You have got to mine the potential.”

Openings

Now is an ideal time to raise the Vancouver tech scene’s profile because many firms are preparing to hire.

RealWear, a maker of wearable technology, recently named Fort Vancouver’s old Artillery Barracks as its new headquarters. It hopes to hire close to 200 employees in the near future.

Perfect Co., which builds internet-equipped kitchen tools for precision mixing and baking, employs 23 people today. CEO Mike Wallace said he expects to double that in 2018. However, the company has to compete against Portland’s heavy-hitters such as AWS Elemental and New Relic, and bringing up Vancouver to recruits sometimes leads to a side-eye, he said.

On one hand, Vancouver has no state income tax and favorable commute times. But there’s the stigma of the Interstate 5 Bridge, as well as Clark County’s less-stylish reputation.

“I’ve been frustrated that people in Portland don’t understand. They always look at us like, ‘Why the hell are you in Vancouver?’ and I’m like, ‘Do the math,’ ” he said. “We need a few more restaurants downtown, food trucks — it would make it so much easier to attract people. But what a perfect spot. We’re just a few minutes off Interstate 5 and we’re a reverse commute.”

That said, even Wallace is surprised to discover new tech companies on this side of the river sometimes.

“I’ve gone to some of these meet-ups and I’ve met (companies) there, and it’s amazing to me how many software engineers they have. When they tell me, my jaw drops,” he said. “I’m like, ‘Where are you?’ Because we just don’t (mingle) — once in awhile we run into each other at bars and talk. But, they’re around.”

Part of that disconnect might come from an internal shift in the industry. Larger hardware companies such as Sharp Corp. and HP Inc., while still around, have given way to clusters of software firms. In place of large, sleek office parks are nondescript smaller offices in older buildings.

SmartRG, a Vancouver-based company that engineers hardware and software to help connect devices to the internet, laid off some of its hardware division workers but plans to double employment in its software division.

CEO Jeff McInnis echoed some of what Wallace pointed out about competing with Portland for workers. However, he said Tech Tours could be an introduction to some of the new restaurants, brewpubs and cafes that Vancouver has opened recently.

“We’ve brought people over from as far away as Lake Oswego, Ore., or the Pearl District, people that wouldn’t normally ever come over here, once they come over and they do more stuff locally their eyes really get opened up,” he said.

All three companies participated in Tech Tours on Tuesday. Prior to the event, Wallace said it was important to support it no matter how it fared.

“I think it’s important that we support it. Even if maybe it’s a bit of a bust this year, I think it’s worth starting and try again next year,” he said. “I think it’s good for us, all the companies up here, to be doing this.”