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At Tampa Bay Technology Forum, it's time to stake a claim as a tech hub

Members of the Tampa Bay Technology Forum — from left, Kelly Kavanaugh, Jason Sango, Brian Murphy, Chase Stockon, Victoria Edwards, John Kuemmel, Chris Cate, Jeff Alagood and Cheryl Kleiman — are ready to make Tampa Bay a bigger name in the technology community.
Published Feb. 28, 2015

Look out. Swagger is spreading.

Just when you thought that the recent regional outbreak of swagger fever had been confined to Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and a few area economic development groups, a new case is emerging.

Meet the new, improved Tampa Bay Technology Forum, or TBTF.

Clearly, the regional confidence recently displayed by Buckhorn and area economic leaders — notably by Tampa Bay Lighting owner and real estate developer Jeff Vinik in his growing role as cheerleader for downtown Tampa's rebirth — has inspired TBTF to become a bigger player in shaping the regional economy.

TBTF is not new. But the 'tude is.

At least that's what TBTF's top executives and its executive council of area technology leaders insist is behind a new strategic plan and redo of an organization that's tried with varied success to serve as the greater metro area's tech advocacy group since about 2000.

Now TBTF wants to be bolder, louder and smarter, and market Tampa Bay as a "Go To" region for both emerging technology and for the young tech talent it wants to retain and recruit.

My initial take? I love the enthusiasm and Big Think this fresh group of tech leaders brings to the table. One of their best innovative moves thus far was the hiring in January of Daniel James Scott as TBTF's new executive director. A serial entrepreneur and former USF business school teacher who quickly rose to regional prominence in this area's aspiring business startup and entrepreneurial community, Scott now brings his collaborative smarts and ability to make things happen to the regional tech game.

"I would not have left the university if I felt I could not make a big impact doing this," Scott said. "We have to be the voice of Tampa Bay's technology ecosystem. We have to grab a megaphone and shout from the rooftops that we are a tech hub.

"This will not be some self-deprecating or apologetic message," he insists. "We are here and already on the national scene with world-class talent addressing world-class problems right here in Tampa Bay."

Here's the challenge: Tampa Bay may recognize it's tech savvy with growing bench strength. But what is the broader perception of this regional tech community?

Not to be too simplistic, but Google "best tech cities" or a similar phrase and look at the recent results.

Last month, CNBC's "five tech hubs you probably didn't know about" listed Omaha, Neb., Dallas, St. Louis, Washington, D.C., and — gulp — Miami. The website CIO (for chief information officer) last fall listed 15 "hidden gem" cities for tech job seekers, with names as diverse as Portland, Ore., Austin, Texas, Raleigh, N.C., and —gulp — Miami/Fort Lauderdale. The SmartAsset website last fall ranked the 10 "best cities" for tech workers and — whew — Tampa nabbed the No. 10 spot.

It seems TBTF has its work cut out reintroducing the bigger world to its technology clout.

Scott wants to retool the message. "We are aware we are not quite Austin," he chants before yelling, "Stop. Let's reboot." He starts again: "No, we are not Austin but something else that is cool."

This is not just a TBTF challenge. Tampa Bay's still trying to pinpoint its own brand identity in order to tell the greater economy what we are and why it should care.

That task and TBTF's ambitions are all part of the same effort to raise the regional bar. It is a work in progress.

• • •

I recently sat down with a dozen or so TBTF leaders to hear some ambitious reinvention.

"We believe more is going on here in Tampa Bay than we are given credit for," said Brian Murphy, this year's TBTF chairman and the CEO of Tampa cybersecurity firm ReliaQuest.

According to this dynamic mix of execs, technology is taking center stage.

In Tampa Bay, the breadth and depth of growing tech companies is approaching a critical mass. What does that mean? Here's one answer: When people outside the area interview for jobs at tech companies here, they rarely ask whether they will be left high and dry — that there are no alternative places to work here — if they relocate here but the position does not work out.

When they do ask, they hear responses like this: Around this table alone, these dozen execs estimated they have close to 500 job openings to fill.

Another transformation is under way, technology execs say. Companies outside the tech industry find they are looking less and less to their technology people as a nerd brigade fixing computer and voice mail glitches.

"They are becoming less back office and are now enabling the overall company," Murphy said.

That view is reinforced by people like executive committee member John Kuemmel. As chief technology officer at Triad Retail Media in St. Petersburg, his role increasingly involves helping set strategies for growth for his company, and less on overseeing the company's hardware and software systems.

TBTF council member Jason Warnke, managing director at the Accenture consulting firm, said long-awaited plans to benchmark the Tampa Bay tech community will help the larger world see what's here.

Chris Milan, a senior executive at Tampa's fast-growing Tribridge, points to the rising success of tech businesses in helping to shape area university curricula so that graduating students possess more relevant skills in the fast-changing job market.

Paramount to TBTF is ensuring a sharper, larger supply of tech talent in the region's workforce. One promising, collaborative effort to address that is just under way. With TBTF's blessing, a consortium of area companies, schools and tech groups launched the Exploratory Lab Boot Camp. The 70-hour free program gives about 40 selected area university students pursuing nontech or tech degrees real-life exposure to technology skills and internships. The boot camp is taught by employees from such prominent area firms as Tech Data, Valpak and software firm AgileThought.

Can TBTF deliver? Since the group was first organized, its various board members and top execs have visited with me to detail the latest, greatest plan to showcase this area's crazy quilt of tech services. It's fair to say, this time around it appears the group's high-horsepower leadership all seems remarkably focused on the same goals.

It's swagger time.

Contact Robert Trigaux at rtrigaux@tampabay.com. Follow @venturetampabay.

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