SD Software Group Looks for New Direction with Leader’s Departure

1/24/13Follow @bvbigelow

Bob Slapin says he was on the board of the San Diego Software Industry Council in 2000, after the dot-com bubble broke, and Internet companies were suddenly in dire straits.

“We had just an administrator at that time, and the board said we need a business person to turn things around, and I said I’ll do it for two years,” Slapin recalled. “And I forgot to change my calendar.”

Now, after 12½ years, Slapin has resigned as executive director of the non-profit industry group now known as Software San Diego. He remains on the group’s board, and wrote in an e-mail over the weekend that he plans to remain active in the community and in the business of software and analytics. Slapin, a software entrepreneur and lawyer, also intends to start a new software company here.

“I hope I’ve made a difference,” he told me by telephone. “Now it’s time to do other stuff.”

Bob Slapin

Bob Slapin

With Slapin’s resignation, Software San Diego and the local software community in general have come to a crossroads. With more than 26,000 people working in software development (and another 25,000 employed in communications equipment) the sector embodies the biggest workforce of any local technology sector—and perhaps the most amorphous.

As I’ve written before, San Diego has a cluster of analytics software companies and thousands of programmers developing embedded software systems for companies like Qualcomm (Nasdaq: QCOM) and Solekai Systems. We have clutches, if not clusters, of expertise in cybersecurity, specialized IT services, and social media. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of entrepreneurial coders at startups seeking to become the next big thing in Web services or mobile apps. Yet the big question confronting San Diego’s software community is where do we go from here?

“The primary focus of Software San Diego was to be a place for advocacy, networking, and education for the software industry,” says Tom Clancy, a longtime software venture investor and chairman of Software San Diego. “In the last couple of years, there’s been more attention given to analytics and data science because those areas have been very hot.”

Yet Clancy concedes the software group hasn’t done a good enough job of understanding and defining the local software industry and its needs. While interest remains high in the group’s biggest events—the annual Super Data Summit and CIO Forum—Clancy says attendance has fallen at many of Software San Diego’s events for smaller special interest groups.

Clancy says he’s asking himself, what is the software industry’s baseline in San Diego? And what’s the model be for Software San Diego?

“I’ve been surprised at how many smaller, nimble companies I’m stumbling across,” Clancy says. “My perception is that there are a lot of small companies [generating as much as $10 million a year in sales] in San Diego that are doing vibrant, interesting work. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of mid-size software companies here that are doing $10 million to $50 million in annual revenue.”

Tom Clancy

On the other hand, Clancy says San Diego’s larger software publishers and providers have traditionally been the predominant supporters of Software San Diego. So the proliferating number of Web and mobile app startups would seem to comprise a different constituency.

“What we really need are the entrepreneurs and experienced folks who are ready to roll up their sleeves” to help mentor software startups, Clancy said. The Bay Area has become the center of the IT industry, he added, because, “There’s just a lot of fundamental training that people get to become seasoned executives with networks who know how to go through the entire life cycle of a software product. If you have to learn that on venture capital’s nickel, that’s a different proposition.”

Slapin says one of the problems he’s worked to correct over the past two years was a misperception about unemployment in the region, which has been hovering around 10 percent, when there were thousands of unfilled jobs in software development. He contends the real problem has been a mismatch in skills.

In a report last year, Software San Diego estimated the number of software job openings at about 5,000. Yet many companies with openings voiced frustration over the difficulty in finding qualified applicants.

“There’s just a major shift in what’s happening in the workforce globally,” Slapin says. “Even if you’re looking at manufacturing jobs that are coming back to the U.S., they’re not the same kind of manufacturing jobs we had before. They require different skills.”

Developing better ways of serving such a tangle of different interests might seem like the kind of problem that analytics could help address, but that’s a problem for Slapin’s successor to address. In the meantime, he says, “I see so much opportunity to get excited about. I’m kind of looking forward to a new adventure.”

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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