Unusual “Xtern” Experience Aims to Help Indiana Attract Tech Talent
When it comes to attracting high-tech talent, Indiana has some natural challenges. With no mountains or oceans to distinguish the state from others in so-called flyover country, local technology firms have struggled to overcome a perception problem and land skilled workers.
“We could not get enough tech talent to keep our pipeline flowing,” said Shelly Towns, senior vice president of product at Indianapolis-based Angie’s List. “And we weren’t alone.”
Real estate firm CBRE Research found that the Indianapolis area added more than 3,000 high-tech jobs from 2012 to 2014, according to the Indiana Economic Development Corporation, posting an 18 percent growth rate that exceeded the national average of 5.7 percent.
So Hoosier tech leaders rallied around an effort to grow their own talent pool, and two years later they’re starting to reap the rewards.
Not-for-profit industry booster TechPoint launched its “Xtern” program in 2014, placing 50 college students in paid, 10-week summer jobs at central Indiana tech firms. But the similarity to most other internship programs ends there.
Aiming to create a life-changing experience that would make the next generation of tech workers rethink Indianapolis as a stop on their career path, TechPoint arranged for the Xterns to live together in a dorm on IUPUI’s urban campus. And when they aren’t working or soaking up after-hours professional development, they have plenty of opportunities to explore the area—and learn from each other.
In addition to attending “family dinners” on Mondays, Tech Thursdays, and other structured group activities, participants enjoy Indianapolis’s nightlife, take in minor-league baseball at Victory Field, celebrate happy hour with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, and even get some mic time at a local DJ school.
On the job, they can make meaningful contributions to companies like Angie’s List, NextGear Capital, and Salesforce. “They’re putting code into production, touching products and making an impact,” Towns said. “This is the kind of talent you want to hold into.”
Angie’s List had three Xterns during the first summer and now hosts 10 or more at a time. And this year the company also hired four recent graduates through a new TechPoint talent initiative, a two-year IndyX Tech Fellowship.
The inaugural class of 20 Tech Fellows—many of whom have been Xterns—are placed with companies where they can hone their skills and fast-track their careers while learning about (and contributing to) their community.
Participants work with Xterns and bootcampers during the summer, and all of the up-and-coming professionals stay connected to one another through a variety of off-the-clock activities such as hackathons and volunteering.
“Our greatest strength is our community, and we’re making the most of it,” said Sally Reasoner, director of talent development at TechPoint. She’s an Ohio native who fell in love with Indianapolis during a different post-grad fellowship.
TechPoint is working on an updated Tech Workforce Study, but it’s clear the demand for talent is not letting up. In March 2016, central Indiana employers had 1,152 open software development positions, according to data from job posting aggregator Burning Glass, more than twice as many as they had in March 2015.
Although other cities are facing a similar shortage of qualified tech workers, Reasoner said Indianapolis’s broad-based approach and comprehensive programming is unique. “No one else is doing this to the extent we are,” she said.
One early indication that the Xtern program is moving the needle: TechPoint says before its internships, just 22 percent of participants said they would consider a career in the Indianapolis after graduation; by the end of the program, that number had reached 98 percent.
The program has grown in size every year. This summer, organizers selected 130 Xterns from more than 900 applicants representing 58 universities.
“On almost every level, it’s more than just an internship,” said Towns, who also sits on TechPoint’s board. “It’s putting Indianapolis on the map as a tech hub.”
Companies pay to participate in the program, which also received funding from the Indianapolis-based Lilly Endowment and the state’s Department of Workforce Development.
The Xtern program is particularly valuable to smaller companies that can’t afford to spend time recruiting on a single college campus—let alone many, said Bryan Everly, chief technology officer at NextGear Capital in Carmel, IN (he’s another TechPoint board member).
“The beauty is that [TechPoint] does all the heavy lifting for you,” he said. “And the quality is off the hook.”
One early NextGear Xtern was so impressive that Everly wanted to send her back to school with a job offer at the end of the summer. The problem: she was only a freshman.
This year, NextGear has 10 Xterns, and Everly still isn’t satisfied—especially considering the number of qualified applicants who were turned away. “I wish we had the capacity to do more,” he said.
The struggle to attract talent to Indiana isn’t new, said Everly, an Indianapolis tech veteran who worked for Software Artistry before moving on to ExactTarget and Aprimo. Still, he’s hopeful that the Xtern program and other similar initiatives are making a difference.
In addition to the IndyX Tech Fellowships for new graduates, TechPoint has introduced an Xtern Bootcamp for Indiana college students not quite ready for the Xtern experience and a six-week Sales Bootcamp for recent grads and career changes.
“We’re building an awesome pipeline that in four or five years is going to be spectacular,” Everly said. And that, he added, is “so important to the long-term health of the tech community in the state.”