[Full disclosure: I am on the board of the SAO.] When it comes to professional organizations that touch the Portland startup scene, one of the more contentious entities has been the Software Association of Oregon (SAO). The organization has gone through a number of leaders in the past few years. This summer, the organization found itself with an open president seat, once again. And that led to a number of discussions about the SAO and its leadership, point and counterpoint.
Skip took a few moments to answer some questions about his new role and the role of the SAO in the tech and startup scenes.
Why the SAO? Why now?
I have lived in Oregon for six years now, and in that time I have come to appreciate the incredible depth of talent that exists within the state’s software industry. Surprisingly, for a community that has a reputation of being open and accessible, the industry here is not nearly as networked as other software development hubs. We don’t have the same kind of churn in the workforce that encourages a hyper-networked community. So how do you unlock the true potential of all that talent? You break down silos and help different factions to connect around common objectives.
To be successful, economic development requires participation by both the public and private sectors over an extended period of time. We have had some success these past few years with the public sector helping to incubate and launch a number of efforts to support the software industry here in Portland—CivicApps, PDX11, the Portland Seed Fund–but to be sustainable these efforts require coordinated participation by industry. The public sector simply does not have the capacity to organize an industry while simultaneously incubating and maintaining programs.
Ideally, industry coordination would be facilitated by a non-public sector entity that has a mission to serve the entire industry. And if you look at these programs—especially programs like PDX11—there’s no reason why these efforts can’t be scaled statewide. The SAO can make a big impact on both of these fronts.
Obviously some work needs to be done before the SAO can credibly say that it serves the entire Oregon software industry. This will require some time to earn the trust of those portions of the industry that the SAO has not served as well in the past.
What experiences from your work with the Mayor and the City are going to inform your position at SAO?
First and foremost, I will leverage my connections and relationships across economic development organizations and the public sector to position SAO as an important strategic partner. Second, I have been working very closely with the tech startup community here in the state, and that is an area that the SAO has not traditionally served well.
Third, there are people within the industry who either discount or frankly do not understand the open source software community here, yet it’s one of our strongest community assets. For example, Reid Biels led the development of epdx.org, which was created in a couple of week’s time as part of the PDX11 initiative, and it is one of the most important recruitment tools that I and others in economic development have relied upon in recent months. I have referred about a dozen software company executives to that site as a resource, and the feedback has been incredible. When deciding whether to expand to Portland, those execs want to understand the talent that’s here, and that website is both a useful directory and an authentic representation of our willingness to collaborate as a community.
Fourth, we need to do a better job of connecting education and workforce development initiatives to the needs of industry. I want SAO to be a go-to partner for our universities and workforce providers. Larger players like Intel, IBM, and Microsoft are looking for ways to solve their workforce needs and plug into their communities as sources of innovation whether it’s occurring in higher ed or in our startup community or among software usergroups. Higher ed wants to be at the center of these activities, and SAO can help make these connections.
I have also worked with a number of very large, diverse, opinionated stakeholder groups during the past three years. I mention this because SAO’s relatively large, “working” board has received a lot of criticism over the years as being too large and unwieldy. It’s also got a lot of talent and experience. From a management standpoint, the Board presents considerable challenge and opportunity.
Personally, I don’t think that a 30-person board is unworkable so long as there are clear expectations about engagement. Let me be clear about my expectations: there’s a clear distinction between actually doing work—like implementing programs—and providing periodic advice and feedback. I would like to see the Board evolve into a large advisory board focused on metrics and strategy that meets less frequently with a smaller, dynamic “Working” Committee (notice I do not refer to it as an “Executive” Committee) that meets frequently and is comprised of people with the expertise, time, and inclination to help implement initiatives.
What are the biggest opportunities for the SAO in the next 18 months?
There are at least two: 1) industry promotion and 2) developing better communication and support networks between hubs of activity in Portland, the Gorge, Bend, Eugene, Medford/Ashland, and Corvallis. Industry promotion can be achieved through a two-pronged approach–launch an industry website and plan a couple of strategic events to raise visibility and build connections with customers, talent, and funders in key markets.
An industry website would have a narrative about the industry, leading with profiles of companies that are here. These company profiles would also form the basis of a lead-generation application. I see pdx11.org and epdx.org as complementary sites that provide a window onto Portland’s tech community. It is my hope that these two resources can be expanded to include other tech hubs in the state.
Regarding strategic events, I have been talking to the Governor’s Office, PDC and Greater Portland, Inc. about ways that we can be more strategic and collaborative in our recruitment efforts, going after talent and expansion or relocation opportunities in key markets while also raising the visibility of Oregon’s software ecosystem. The key to doing this right is demonstrating alignment across public, private, nonprofit and conveying our message in an authentic way, and SAO could make an important contribution to this effort.
In terms of communication and support networks, we are currently working with PDC, OEN, and representatives from the Greater Portland area, Bend, Hood River, Corvallis, Eugene, and Medford/Ashland to convene a summit on entrepreneurship in Portland in mid-October. The focus will be on accelerators/incubators, seed funding, mentorship networks, and opportunities to collaborate and share best practices. In other words, we have a lot of separate initiatives going on all at once, so let’s try to get coordinated and aligned so that we maximize our collective potential.
The SAO has had difficulty moving beyond the Portland software scene. What plans do you have for making the organization more valuable for the entire state?
We need to create opportunities to share best practice through events like the Entrepreneurship Summit that I described earlier. Moreover, when we participate in events to promote the industry in other markets, we should be showcasing companies and communities from across the state. Additionally, we need to look at ways that we can help other communities leverage platforms such as an Oregon software industry website, PDX11, epdx.org, and a potential mentor app that is in the works.
The SAO has struggled to find relevance with early stage startups in Oregon. What should those startups expect from the SAO in the coming months?
I want to make sure Oregon software startups and their unique stories are well-represented on a future software industry website. I also mentioned earlier that we are working on the development of a mentor app as part of the PDX11 effort, as well as organizing some events featuring leaders within the tech startup community. For example, there was one event a couple of weeks ago on “How to Find and Work with a Co-Founder” with Alan and Dan from ShopIgniter. Did you know they found each other on Craigslist? Anyway, despite the fact the event was held in August, about 30 people showed up.
Now that the summer is over, I want to reinvigorate the PDX11 effort and look for ways to provide more consistent, on-going support for that effort—both in terms of dedicated staff and industry support. Additionally, I want to continue to move forward with efforts to build a mentor app for the community, hold some more events around mentorship, and leverage the Finance Network to help fine-tune the business “plan” for the Portland 100 concept that PDC and others are working on.
Finally, I have traded emails with Scott Case and others at the Startup America Partnership. They are interested in moving forward with a Startup Oregon initiative in the future, and we have discussed a project that PDC is working on with a handful of software firms to map relationships between high-growth software startups in the Greater Portland area, including connections between boards of directors, lead investors, co-founders, advisors, and other metrics. The Startup America team is working on a more high-level mapping initiative, and we are going to talk more this Friday about ways we might be able to collaborate.
Saying you’re stepping into a bit of a hotseat is an understatement. Obviously you’re going to need some time to acclimate, but what should we be seeing from the SAO in the immediate future?
Hopefully you will see some continuity with many of the efforts that are already underway to support the industry. Additionally, I intend to devote a fair amount of time to getting out into the community, introducing myself to key supporters, members, and board members, as well as people who may never have given SAO a thought or who might have written the organization off, and learning more about what SAO can do for them.
The SAO has developed a reputation of trailing the contemporary business atmosphere–that is, practically every business has some software focus these days from IT to full-on development. How do you propose to help bring the SAO up-to-date?
There are also hundreds of different variations on business models, some component of which might include software development. The issue of to what extent a business may be defined as a “software company” is, therefore, not very helpful. A more useful question to ask when developing programs is what are the shared issues, approaches, and interests of the likely participants?
Here’s looking forward to how the SAO evolves under Skip’s leadership.
For more information, visit the Software Association of Oregon (SAO).