Wyoming: a Hub for Tech Firms?

Wyoming has taken a steps into tech industry, surprising many, including a state senator.

by / November 6, 2015
Cheyenne, Wyoming Shutterstock

(TNS) -- Wayne Johnson was skeptical when business leaders began discussing plans about a decade ago to turn Wyoming into a hub for technology firms.

"I didn't think we could get any Silicon Valley-type things in Cheyenne," said the longtime Republican state senator, who represents parts of Laramie and Goshen counties. "I thought, 'Let's do distribution centers and concentrate on that.'

"But, boy, did I guess wrong."

The last several years have seen one of the world's fastest supercomputers and several data centers plant their roots in Laramie County.

But has the technology growth plateaued, or is this just the beginning?

State and business leaders offered their thoughts on this question Thursday during the fourth annual Wyoming Broadband Summit.

Gov. Matt Mead opened the daylong event at Cheyenne's Little America Hotel and Resort.

He said the creation of the Unifed Network, a broadband network that provides high-speed Internet access for Wyoming's schools and other areas, is one way the state has drawn national attention in the past few years.

But he said the current downturn in the state's energy sector reinforces the need for Wyoming to continue to grow technology-based jobs.

"As we face these times when we are challenged by revenues in the state, and we are, a lot of people are going to ask which direction do we go," he said. "And in my mind, this is a true reminder that we need to diversify our economy."

Wyoming has used millions of dollars in Business Council incentives to help expand existing businesses or lure companies, such as Microsoft, to the state.

But outside of offering more of these incentives, several business owners said there is more that Wyoming can do to expand its infrastructure and attract more high-tech jobs.

Shawn Mills is the head of Green House Data, which operates two data centers in Laramie County.

He said one of the biggest challenges for his business is recruiting and then retaining qualified workers. But he said Wyoming has an opportunity to train and inspire the next generation of workers by promoting computer-science education at an early age.

"We are fortunate to be able to live in a state that has been investing heavily in education," he said. "And with 4.4 million job vacancies that are going to happen because of big data and because of the Internet of things, there are things we can do to help push our state forward and have these kids, these employees of this workforce, be the innovators of the future in Wyoming."

Tighe Fagan, a principal of the Cheyenne-based Gannett Peak Technical Services, agreed that education is key to expanding Wyoming's high-tech presence. Even though some high schools are teaching students how to do computer coding, he suggested students start learning this skill as early as grade school or kindergarten.

"There is an effort in a lot of states where computer science is treated as a first-class science so you can get full credit, just as if you took physics, biology or mathematics," he said. "We have an opportunity to shape Wyoming to be a leader in that front."

Paul Tatum, national vice president of public-sector solution engineering for the San Francisco-based Salesforce cloud-computing company, was one of the few out-of-state presenters at the summit.

He said since Wyoming already has a strong broadband infrastructure, a computer programmer can live and work in Wyoming, even though their company is based in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., or a completely different country.

And with Wyoming's low cost of living and ample outdoor wonders, he said the state has an opportunity to promote itself to those who would rather live in a rural area.

"There is the ability to promote out to the industry and say, 'Hey, we are open for business, and we'll welcome you and your technologist here,'" he said. "'They can sit here at the end of our broadband and work for you, no matter where your headquarters is.'

"So this allows the best and brightest, quite frankly, to have the flexibility to live and work where they choose and raise a family where they want to."

©2015 Wyoming Tribune-Eagle (Cheyenne, Wyo.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.