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By Jennifer Larino
The New Orleans technology industry was barely a blip on the radar when Daryl Pfeif moved here from Seattle more than a decade ago. Jobs were limited. Finding a fellow woman in the industry was a rare and significant occasion.
On a recent Friday, Pfeif looked bemused as she scanned the crowd gathered at the New Orleans Jazz Playhouse for NOLA Tech Week, an annual showcase of the local tech scene. Two men in black polo shirts showed off a pair of sleek drones at a booth near the entrance. Groups of men and women, both young and graying, chatted at a long bar, nursing a drink with one hand with the other hovering over a tablet or laptop.
Pfeif, a longtime tech consultant who now heads Digital Forensics Solutions, a cyber security and digital forensics firm she co-founded in 2005, said the New Orleans tech scene is attracting more talent and startups than ever before.
„It’s really amazing how far this city has come,“ Pfeif said. „This wouldn’t have happened 15 years ago.“
For Pfeif and others in the industry, tech is poised to drive future job growth in New Orleans. But will the city have the talent to fill those jobs? The answer depends on who you ask.
Pfeif said it is hard to find and hire tech talent, especially in a niche field such as cyber security. Growing that knowledge base will take time, she said.
Pfeif, who spoke on a NOLA Tech Week panel on tech jobs last Friday (Oct. 9), called for a greater emphasis on training and education if New Orleans wants to continue to rise as a tech hub of the future.
The need for cyber security is growing, but „it’s so hard for me to find good people,“ Pfeif said. „There just aren’t enough people in the field.“
Local tech boosters have had plenty to talk about in recent years. GE and video game developers Gameloft and High Voltage Software are among the big names to open development shops in the city, lured in part by digital media tax incentives.
New Orleans startups — which formed at a per-capita rate 64 percent higher than the national average from 2011 to 2013 — are also in growth mode.
The local scene includes established companies such as iSeatz and TurboSquid as well as high-growth newcomers like Lucid, which develops software solutions for large-scale market research, and Dinner Lab, a members-only dining club that uses technology to help chefs test new dining concepts.
As of May 2014, the greater New Orleans area employed more than 6,500 tech professionals, ranging from information systems analysts to software developers and computer programmers, according to the most recent U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
The Louisiana Workforce Commission projects information security analysts and software developers will be among the fastest growing jobs in the region over the next decade alongside jobs like home health aides and medical records technicians.
If there is a talent shortage in New Orleans, Lucid CEO Patrick Comer said he is not feeling it. Lucid — founded as Federated Sample in 2010 — has grown from a handful of employees to about 80 total. „We see a clear path to 200 employees,“ he said.
Comer said his new hires typically come from one of three pools. The first is talented locals who never left New Orleans. The second is the „trailing spouse“ who is following their husband or wife to a job in the city. Finally, there are the people willing to relocate from other cities.
Comer said the market for software developers and other tech talent is competitive globally. „That’s nothing new,“ he said. New Orleans has the advantage of being a city where people want to live and can afford to, he said. „So far we have not tapped out New Orleans as a place for fantastic talent,“ Comer said.
Chris Boyd, founder of Apptitude, a mobile application design and development studio, said it is hard to find skilled developers and programmers as New Orleans fills with tech firms large and small. He expects the market to tighten in future years.
Skilled developers „in the market are usually well-paid and comfortable,“ Boyd said, adding he hesitates to „poach“ workers from others in the tight-knit startup community.
Training is key
How will New Orleans fill the tech jobs of the future? Comer and Boyd echoed Pfeif in calling for the city to grow its own workforce.
Comer and Boyd praised training programs such as Tech Talent South andOperation Spark, nonprofits that offer weeks-long computer coding immersion workshops. Operation Spark offers boot camps for at-risk New Orleans youth in addition to adults.
Pfeif said many of her hires have come from the University of New Orleans computer science program, which offers a concentration in information assurance. The need for training for younger learners is still glaring, she said.
She started working last year to apply for federal grant money to pay for introductory digital forensics and cyber security programs for young people, particularly young women and other under-represented groups. She hopes to set up pilot programs at Algiers Technology Academy and International High School of Louisiana.
„I’d like to grow talent and I’d like to grow it here,“ Pfeif said.
Comer said New Orleans has long focused on importing the tech talent it needs. The future is home grown and needs to be inclusive, bringing in people from all backgrounds.
„We have to build a rising tide for all,“ Comer said. „We can’t just keep bringing people in from elsewhere.“