Lancaster has a bright future as a technology hub, but getting there’s going to take some work, according to Joel Walker.
Walker, president of Lancaster-based Industrial Resolution, gave an impassioned keynote address at the Lancaster Chamber’s inaugural Tech Talk on Aug. 6.
“It’s not an overstated, exaggerated, hyperbolic statement to stay that Lancaster’s future of economic stability does depend on embracing the technology industry,” he said. “Way more than we’re doing now.”
What Lancaster has in its favor, Walker said, is a cost of living way below that of current tech hubs like Seattle and Boston; a good, accessible location; a coming broadband network in Lancaster city that will offer fast, cheap Internet; the famed Pennsylvania Dutch work ethic and moral sensibility; and a growing and capable tech presence.
“When I was in high school we were 10 years behind the times,” he said. Now, “maybe we’re not bleeding edge, but we’re cutting edge across the board. But as far as tech goes, we’re up there; we’re on the forefront.”
Add it up, he said, and tech companies considering where to put their headquarters or satellite offices have compelling reasons to consider Lancaster.
That said, Walker continued, the area also has some weaknesses. Business here is siloed and secretive, a far cultural cry from the knowledge-sharing economy that tech thrives on. There aren’t a lot of programmers here, so the existing tech companies keep competing for them — and even so, their wages are below industry norms, with some here making as little as $35,000 a year, according to a recent anonymous survey he conducted.
And, he said, while the tech presence here is growing, it isn’t thriving yet.
“We need to really push it,” he said. “We don’t have the tech giants and startup culture that need to be here.”
Patrick Millar, co-founder of Formatic, agrees. Lancaster seems to have all the right ingredients to be a tech hub, he said, but they need to be organized and encouraged to come together.
His startup currently consists of himself and his co-founder, Millar said, and they’re located in the Warehouse 210 co-working space on West Grant Street in Lancaster.
“We hope to grow within the next few months and start to add technologists to the team,” he said. “If we can't find them here, we will likely relocate over to Chester County.”
Comparing the counties
Millar knows Chester County because he spent about a decade there working for Chatham Financial. Growing a technology team there wasn’t easy, he said, but they ended up with about 80 local software developers — some commuters from Lancaster and York — and 40 international ones.
He’s rooting for Lancaster, he said, but from his perspective Chester County is far ahead on the race to develop the tech industry.
“Chester County appears to have a more committed group of business leaders when it comes to investing in technology and creating an encouraging environment,” Millar said.
He also cited a business incubator and regular meetup events as key factors there that he didn’t see equivalents to in Lancaster.
As for a tech incubator, Walker thinks Lancaster’s growing co-working scene is a good step in that direction.
“When engineers work near each other, they all benefit,” he said, explaining that many times he has seen weeklong roadblocks solved in 15-minute conversations.
There’s also Aspire Ventures, the Lancaster-based venture capital company that’s focused on using technology to improve lives, particularly in health care.
Sam Abadir, one of Aspire’s four managing directors, also saddressed Tech Talk attendees.
“I challenge you to think about how can these technologies really revolutionze your businesses and your daily lives,” he said, noting that technology has already changed lives in more ways than most people realize.
Reason to change
Walker said one thing he thinks is key to helping the larger community understand the importance of nurturing a tech industry is realizing how the economy is changing.
He has been involved in several strategic planning processes, he said, and found compelling estimates that in 20 years the county will be out of space to develop. That has serious implications for the existing major industries here, he said: “You can’t fit many more Urban Outfitters distribution centers in the county.”
Lancaster isn’t the only community facing these realities, he continued: “Every Chamber of Commerce in the entire country would say we need more technology, we need more of that job market.”
Given the tech industry’s proven propensity to cluster around existing businesses, he said, that makes the development process a race. Pittsburgh landed a game-changer when Google decided to open an office there, he said, and with the right progress and connections, he believes Lancaster could have a shot at that kind of deal.
What locals can do
Even if they’re not in the tech industry proper, Walker said, local businesses can help move Lancaster toward the promising future he envisions.
One way is by keeping the cost of living down, he said. Another is to stop outsourcing, keeping money and jobs local as much as possible — even if that costs a little more.
He also counsels businesses to look at their job development pipeline. He doesn’t believe that college degrees are always a requirement for success, he said; someone who wants to be a computer programmer can become one without spending four years in school, given the right mentors and opportunities, and businesses could profit from embracing that.
Finally, he said, “if you know people in business development at big tech companies, share your network with us. We’ll invite them here; we’ll tell them what we’re doing.”