by Clark Newell
February 8th 2020
TLDR: Utah is a a great place to start a business and the Silicon Slopes Organization wants the Tech World to know it!
This year, I had the pleasure of attending the Silicon Slopes Summit for the second year in a row. For me, the 2020 summit was even more inspiring and motivational than last year. I believe the organizers should name a theme for every year. Without being officially announced, however, it seemed to me that a good theme for 2020 would be “Solidify Utah As a Major Tech Hub.”
Funding for Utah Education and Venture Capital
The beginning of the conference was postponed a little due to a plea from conference organizers to raise money for computer science education in Utah schools. A recently proposed hike on food tax was turned down by petition from the Utah public. The funds, however, are still needed. Silicon Slopes organizers set up the Community Foundation of Utah and set up a texting system for conference attendees to donate money to Utah education on the spot.
Organizers were very adamant, and rightly so, that as tech becomes Utah’s largest industry with numerous high paying jobs (the industry salary average at $88,000 per year), it’s important that we do not leave the rest of Utah, especially Utah’s children, behind. Fostering computer science in Utah’s lower education system will also help solidify Utah as a major hub of technology on the global playing field.
It was reported that computer science is only taught in 66% of Utah high schools, which equates to 58,000 Utah students without access to these courses. The Utah Superintendent of Public Education, Sydnee Dickson, was invited to speak along with a West High School educator and student. All three again drove home the need for more funding in order to improve the education situation. The message from these educators and one student was that Utah is great at developing content, but is still not great at inclusive instruction practices.
Another thing that organizers had discussed for years was creating a Silicon Slopes Venture Fund that would grant capital only to Utah based start ups. This year Silicon Slopes organizers made that happen.
Best Place to Start (and Run) a Business: Utah
From the business friendly climate to the unparalleled outdoor amenities, Traegger grills CEO, and former CEO of SkullCandy, Jeremy Andrus, said that he would not want to run a business anywhere else but Utah.
When Chris Betts interviewed keynote speaker Mark Zuckerberg (more on this below), Mark stated that he would not start another business in Silicon Valley. While he didn’t say he’d start it in Utah per se, he confirmed that fact that starting a tech firm in Silicon Valley (Bay Area, California) is no longer ideal.
“Stand for something and stand for it all the time” ~Clint Betts
Highlights from Keynote Speakers
Author Patrick Lencioni, author of the Ideal Team Player presented how such a person is equal parts humble, hungry and smart and you have to have all three. He discussed seeking out these traits in others and yourself and how they can be applied to all aspects of life. Lencioni encouraged leaders to conduct non-traditional interviews, and to hire for attitude and behavior over technical skills. He also mentioned he felt it’s almost impossible to build a business in California and he is considering a move to Utah.
David Neeleman, founder of Morris Air, jetBlue and Azul Air, graduated from Brighton High School in Sandy, Utah, also believes Utah is an amazing place to start a business. It was here that he started his first airline, Morris Air. I love the approach that he and his partners took with jetBlue, when he said they were a customer service company that happened to fly planes, and jetBlue continues to operate with over 2000 remote customer service positions in Utah. Neeleman went on to found Azul Air in Brazil based on the same principals. I’m particularly interested in his next venture, Moxy, which is a phone app company that also happens to fly planes.
Gayle Troberman, CMO of iHeart Media, readily gave away all of her trade secrets with these hints and tips. She said we are raising the first generation of audio listeners since the 1940s. Audio is huge right now, and (I assume until we eventually have self-driving cars), will remain so. People lead ever busy lives now, and the easiest way to get your information is from streaming radio and podcasts. So the radio commercial is back folks! What’s old is new again. Also, podcasts that have such compelling sponsorship stories so that listeners don’t fast forward through the “ad” is key. Furthermore, brands themselves should consider doing their own podcast. I know from personal experience that podcasters and brands are in fact doing this and doing it well. I have been into podcasts for several years now, I am a dedicated listener of a few and it’s true, I rarely fast forward over the sponsorship spots because they are so interesting and well done. Furthermore, there is one brand whose podcast I also appreciate very much which is Mozilla/Firefox and their podcast IRL (In Real Life).
Lesley Slaton Brown, HP Chief Diversity officer pointed out that the numbers still don’t lie, women and especially women of color are still being paid way less. I personally have to wonder why this still is?
Kirsten Wolberg, DocuSign Chief Technology & Operations Officer discussed, in reference to the above talk, that she originally strongly felt in order to be taken seriously as a woman in the industry she had to be like a man. Eventually, this exhausted her, and she stopped when she realized that she no longer needed to do it to be successful or heard.
Sarah South, VP of AncestryHealth: talked about the unprecedented amount of ancestral research that is done right here in Utah, and it’s no wonder that this is also the birthplace of personalized medicine and targeted cancer therapy. I was also particularly impressed with her discussion on creating cancer tumor avatars that can be tested for reaction to different treatments outside the patient’s body. It definitely seems this is yet another area where Utah is a bright shining star on the worldwide technology stage.
Clint Betts, Executive Director of Silicon Slopes had the most memorable quote: “Stand for something and stand for it all the time.” This really struck a chord with me because I occasionally falter from my core values or the “brand” I am establishing for myself. Despite having a formal musical training, I really feel compelled to take my coding skills in a health and physical fitness direction. While I am currently enjoying the best shape of my life, I still have a way to go before I’m satisfied with my personal health level and achieving my fitness goals. I believe my biggest challenge is total consistency or standing for fitness all the time. Betts also reiterated many times over the need to not leave the rest of Utah behind, to support lower education funding especially for computer science. He also supported other overarching conference messages of intentional connections, inclusion and support. Betts said, “you belong here, you are good enough.” I really appreciated this sentiment because I’m still just starting out and sometimes it feels really slow going because I’ve had to maintain a day job the whole time. Of course imposter syndrome tries to set in often, but I know I’m not alone. As far as belonging here, I’ll go more into that below. Betts also mentioned that entrepreneurs are crucial to keeping the innovative spirit alive here in Utah, however, we must support one another. Being an entrepreneur can be lonely and even lead to suicide. This also hits home for me, not that I’m much of an entrepreneur yet, but I understand being lonely. I left great friends and connections behind in Colorado to come to the Silicon Slopes for the opportunity. I’ve been rekindling old relationships with Utah friends and family, however, I’ve also spent countless hours over the last 18 months alone in the basement creating content and learning to code. Suicide is another topic that hits home for me, and it’s a tragedy I’m all too familiar with from incidents with loved ones in my life. I definitely appreciated Bett’s words of encouragement and admonishment.
Highlights from Breakout Sessions
Jeff Sutherland, author of Scrum, gave a breakout session. Like many, I had already read Scrum cover to cover and recently blogged about in a separate post. I agree with Sutherland when he says that Scrum is so easy to follow, and yet so hard to get people to do it. He believes in agile methodology so strongly that he feels if any leading company that is not currently applying this to their workflow, and does not, will not be leading in five years.
Troy Williams, Executive Director of Equality Utah, talked about building bridges and partnering with local religious leaders and conservative politicians to create real, measurable change in policy and understanding. Williams discussed how he and Equality Utah partnered with the presidency of the LDS (Mormon) church to get policy passed in Utah that would make illegal housing discrimination according to race, religion or sexual orientation. This is a policy the Utah legislature would not willingly pass on it’s own. Williams and Equality Utah also worked directly with Utah Governor Gary Herbert to criminalize conversion therapy for minors, another subject the Utah legislature would not willingly touch. These changes in policy indicate the evolving social climate in Utah and it’s readiness to foster more diversity and inclusion.
Sahar Yousef, Cognitive Neuroscientist, UC Berkeley, had some shocking revelations for the tech community. First of all, studies have shown that the popular open office plans have actually caused a decline in productivity. Another jaw dropper is that studies show having a smartphone near you, even if turned off reduces brain power. She suggested that if you really want to get serious work done, you will turn your phone off and leave it in a basket at the door. Yousef also hit home on another principle we all reluctantly know to be true: multi-tasking does not really work. A better strategy is “task switching”, but just know that with this, there are always “switch costs” involved. One word that popped up a lot during the conference was “intentional.” Yousef also proposed another alternative to multi-tasking, which was setting aside intentional blocks of time to complete a task, e.g. “batch process” your email, then shut it down and turn off notifications. Another tip if you’re a “tab hoarder” is to have an active window and a passive window. By the way, another tip I personally have for tab hoarding is to use the “Pocket” browser extension. Finally, the last tip that Yousef gave was to determine when you are most productive. For most people this is during the morning, unless you are “biphasic”. During your predetermined peak performance time, block out time to intentionally get work done. Set goals, set timers, leave your phone in the other room, eliminate all distractions and turn off all notifications.
“If I could, I’d rebrand Utah as “Unicorns Elevated” instead of “Life Elevated”. ~Jon Huntsman
This was a first for the Silicon Slopes Summit and the first political debate for a major position that I had ever seen live, so that was great. All the candidates for Utah governor lined up to sell us on their platform. Probably the funniest thing that I heard all day was from former Governor Huntsman, (now running again, was previously called to leave his post to become Obama’s ambassador to China and Trump’s ambassador to Russia), who said if he could he would rebrand Utah as “Unicorns Elevated” (instead of “Life Elevated”). LOL. Sideways laughing face with tears emoji. But, it was funny, flattering and memorable.
Startup Pitch Competition
This was like watching Shark Tank live! So fascinating and inspiring. I also appreciated that the moderator interviewed the judges panel while the results were tallied on the spot and a winner was immediately chosen. Very satisfying.
Packing 1 Million Meals
Several nonprofits including Hunger Fight, JustServe, Latter-day Saint Charities and Silicon Slopes worked together to organize a two-day service event during the Silicon Slopes Summit, and took place right on location at the Salt Palace Convention Center. During the conference organizers asked several times if attendees would take time out of their day to pack meals and asked if they would stand up to show their representation. I proudly stood up and happily contributed 1 hour to the cause. The overall goal was to package 1 million mac and cheese meals. Numerous assembly lines were set up and when we arrived for duty we were directed to open spots on one of the lines. Somehow I got put on one of the package sealing machines. Our supervisor told me congrats you got the hardest job on the line, and then continued to reprimand me for letting too much air into my packages, but he still let me do it for an hour without firing me so I guess I did ok, and I felt awesome about it.
“Facebook has plans to become more personable with aspirations for augmented reality in order to enhance interaction with others and make online interactions more intimate.”
Mark Zuckerberg Main Keynote
Zuckerberg did not have a prepared speech, he was interviewed by Silicon Slopes Executive DIrector Clint Betts, so his comments were not necessarily prepared (although we can assume that the questions were submitted in advance.) Within the first 30 seconds of Zuckerberg's interview he said Facebook was proud to have a presence in Utah with a data center in Eagle Rock. When quickly corrected by Betts that the location is actually Eagle Mountain, Zuckerberg was naturally embarrassed and whether feigned or not, was very humble in his position. Throughout the interview, Zuckerberg addressed the challenges that Facebook has recently faced.
Originally, social media has caused division and loneliness and they can feel that people are longing again for connection. Zuckerberg stated “at first we gained access to the entire world, but it was disorienting.” Facebook has plans to create community through better social media outlets for smaller organizations. Zuckerburg also stated “now intimacy is an increasing trend over the next few years and social products to help build those small communities and groups as well.” Also, Facebook has plans to become more personable with aspirations for augmented reality in order to enhance interaction with others and make online interactions more intimate. Zuckerberg said that “right now we’re in the box of having to build stuff for the phone,” but it seems they (and we as a whole) are already looking at ways to get outside of that box.
“You belong here, and you are good enough” ~Clint Betts
A Few Criticisms and the Future
While not the organizer’s fault at all, the Salt Palace venue has room for improvement with the restroom situation. There was always a constant line at the only two men’s rooms available and I’m sure the women’s situation was not any better. Dear Salt Palace: more restrooms please! And while we’re at it, please get better WiFi. They may need to get boosters for attendees of a tech conference. The WiFi was constantly slow and dropping users. One major thing the organizers can undoubtedly improve upon for next year is a more reliable phone app. Unfortunately, the app kept crashing during the meeting. In days prior to the conference, I tried repeatedly to reset my password, but the link was never emailed to me until days later. Fortunately I had finally remembered it. Forgetting my password was clearly a user error, but the reset link should always be working. The last bit of criticism I have is that conference organizers encouraged attendees to pre-register for breakout sessions, however, in the end, it appears they just let whomever into the sessions. Despite pre-registering, I had to sit on the floor, twice. Unfortunately, this took away from the meetings as I was super uncomfortable, could not see the speaker, and was kind of just waiting for the session to be over with. Nonetheless, I still got some great notes and some great takeaways from those and all of the sessions.
Overall, attending the conference solidified my desire to continue finding opportunity in Utah because I know it’s here. Since I’m training for mountain races in Utah and Alaska this summer, I love the easy proximity to gorgeous mountain trails. I also love being close to family and old friends. Post-internship, I have been working a lot on my personal blog-site, including the content, the headless WordPress CMS and improving my front-end coding skills with a Gatsby / React UI. I’m ready to start applying for my next opportunity with a focus on Utah first and foremost before looking elsewhere. Hopefully I’m still in Utah next year, and if so, I can’t wait to attend the next Silicon Slopes Summit!