IT industry innovators helping transform Detroit into a tech talent hub


IT industry innovators helping transform Detroit into a tech talent hub

Tara Reed grew up in Southern California and attended college in New York, where she was a liberal arts major – making her an unlikely Detroit tech titan. But the founder of Apps Without Code, a Detroit-based online school, is among those helping to make Southeast Michigan a hub for tech talent.

Tara Reed didn’t necessarily set out to become a Detroit tech titan, but that’s the path she’s on after a string of recent successes.

At the same time, she’s part of a growing number of individuals, organizations and businesses that are helping to put Southeast Michigan on the map as a tech talent hot spot.

In fact, a 2018 Brookings Institution study ranked the Detroit area fourth on a list of the country’s hubs for advanced industry employment, largely because automakers are ramping up to build the cars of the future by hiring software engineers, coders and app developers.

“I think what’s important to note is Detroit is building a workforce of the future,” said Reed, founder of the award-winning Apps Without Code, a Detroit-based online school that helps entrepreneurs turn their ideas into functioning apps and businesses – much as she has done. “A lot of the value comes out of the Detroit culture of doing more with less.”

While the region’s burgeoning tech scene isn’t news to those who are part of developing it, they say the third-party acknowledgment is gratifying.

“I’m not going to say we are New York, Austin or Silicon Valley, but I think Detroit’s growth rate is comparable to any city in the nation,” said Kyle Bazzy, chief operating officer for Grand Circus, a tech training institute in Detroit and Grand Rapids. “Our startup and tech ecosystem is strong, and a lot of people around the country are starting to see and contribute to the growing momentum.”

That’s exactly the type of message that the Talent and Economic Development (Ted) Department of Michigan is working to spread throughout Michigan – and even elsewhere in the country.

Meeting employers’ needs

While CNBC last year declared Michigan a Top 10 State for Winning the War for Talent in its America’s Top States for Business study, leaders in business, education and government agree that much more work remains to satisfy Michigan employers’ hiring needs and keep local economies moving forward.

As part of that effort, Michigan’s career development programs are supporting training in a wide range of emerging high-demand, high-tech industries such as information technology, cybersecurity, healthcare and advanced manufacturing, spurring Ted’s creation of the all-encompassing term “Professional Trades.”

For example, Ted has launched Going PRO, a campaign to attract students to Professional Trades careers, including filling 6,200 jobs this year. The campaign involves connecting employers with education leaders to align curriculum with employers’ needs, grassroots events such as public forums with students and parents to inform them about Professional Trades career opportunities, and paid advertising.

Through Going PRO, Ted also highlights the fact that Professional Trades pay healthy wages and typically don’t require four-year degrees – or accumulating the accompanying student loan debt. Indeed, graduates of Grand Circus’ coding boot camp earn more than $50,000 a year on average as entry-level developers, Bazzy said.

On another workforce development front, Ted’s Choose Michigan campaign shines a spotlight on the state’s abundant job opportunities, low cost of living, outdoor recreation and rising creative culture, with a focus on retaining and attracting millennial-generation talent in the science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (collectively known as STEAM) realms.

Initially targeting Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Madison, Wisconsin – as well as in-state college towns – the campaign is encouraging millennials to “Choose Michigan” as a place to work and play.

“The overarching goal of our talent initiatives is to build a 21st-century workforce in Michigan,” said Stephanie Beckhorn, Ted’s acting director. “With a working-age population that is projected to decline by 7 percent between 2020 and 2030 – the steepest decline of any state during that decade – it’s imperative that Michigan address its workforce challenges and find solutions that bridge the talent gap.”

‘The spirit of Detroit’

Reed could serve as a Choose Michigan poster child.

The San Diego native was working at Microsoft in Seattle after graduating in 2012 from New York’s Columbia University. Then in 2015 – after only visiting the city on occasion – she moved to Detroit to launch Kollecto, an app that matches people to artwork that fits their taste and budget.

Although Reed said physical location isn’t always overridingly important to her and her millennial peers – “I can work from anywhere where there’s a laptop,” she said – Detroit did offer distinct advantages over cities whose tech scenes sport bigger reputations. Among them were a sustainable cost of living and a closer-knit tech community.

“Because of that, you’re able to make more connections in a different way,” she said. “Really, Detroit was a city that allowed me to officially launch my first business. I’m really excited about the spirit of Detroit.”

Detroit also offers more institutional support for budding entrepreneurs in comparison with Silicon Valley, where private investors or entities are the primary providers of startup capital, Reed said. She cited as an example the Innovation Fund Macomb Community College, Powered by JPMorgan Chase & Co., a $2.7 million effort to stimulate economic development and job growth among promising Detroit-area entrepreneurs and next-stage companies with high-growth potential. There’s also Detroit Demo Day, a Quicken Loans-led initiative that awards interest-free loans to startups in or willing to relocate to Detroit.

Reed began developing the idea for Kollecto while at Microsoft, where she was a Windows product manager. She left Microsoft after three years to focus on the app’s startup and began blogging about building a tech business as a nontechnical person.

Like many in the industry, Reed doesn’t have a computer engineering background. She studied comparative ethnic studies at Columbia, where she “learned how to think critically” – a highly valued attribute in the tech field.

In 2015, her blogging earned her an invitation to give a TEDx talk in Detroit, where she discussed how to launch a tech startup without knowing how to write computer code.

“After I gave that talk, people began contacting me for advice,” Reed recalled. “I realized I might have another business on my hands.”

That business – Apps Without Codes – received a boost last fall when Reed won $20,000 in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Inclusive Innovation Challenge, a $1 million global competition to promote the use of technology to drive economic opportunity for workers.

Building an entrepreneurial mindset

Now, Apps Without Codes offers free introductory workshops and a fee-based two-month boot camp in which participants develop their own app and plans to launch it. Participants from 14 countries have taken part in the online boot camps. 

“I see a lot of the workforce development we do as training entrepreneurs,” Reed said. If Apps Without Codes program participants don’t immediately wind up launching their own business, they at least develop an entrepreneurial mindset that makes them more valuable to employers, she said.

Reed said that she not only regularly provides informal mentoring to Detroit-area residents, but that she also represents the success that black women can have in the tech industry. A January USA Today article identified black women as the nation’s fastest-growing demographic of entrepreneurs.

“I actually know a lot of the women in that article and can relate to their stories,” Reed said. “The only difference is I intentionally chose not to be in Silicon Valley.”

For its part, Grand Circus has set the goal of having each of its graduating classes reflect the community from which they hail, including women and people of color, Bazzy said.

Grand Circus was one of the nation’s first tech training institutes of its kind when it opened in 2013 with the goal of developing technical talent among Detroit-area residents. It launched its Grand Rapids location in 2017. Since its creation, Grand Circus has seen more than 1,500 of its graduates placed at 300 companies around the state.

“We knew that tech talent and recruitment was one of Michigan’s biggest challenges,” Bazzy said. “We are actively working to solve a shortage of talent by quickly and affordably preparing Michiganders to fill high-end careers that employers need, right now.”