When New Orleans hosted the SIGGRAPH conference on computer graphics in 2009, there was some confusion about why an event that attracts tens of thousands of people working in the motion picture, engineering and video game industries was being held in a city not exactly known as a technology hub.
Michael Hecht, president and CEO of GNO Inc., an economic development organization that covers metro New Orleans, said there were marketing materials that promoted SIGGRAPH as being “totally digital,” while New Orleans was “totally analog.”
But over the years, things have changed. Last year, New Orleans was ranked as the second-fastest growing city for growth in knowledge industry jobs, which covers careers in fields such as software publishing, computer system design, custom computer programming and web search portals. According to the report by Economic Modeling Specialists International, the Crescent City had a 37 percent increase in knowledge jobs from 2007 to 2015. Only Austin, Texas, which had a 52 percent increase, fared better.
And starting Tuesday, New Orleans will host the Collision conference, which bills itself as the fastest-growing tech conference in the United States, showing how far the city has come as a tech destination.
“What’s happening in software and digital in Louisiana I think is one of the most extraordinary economic development stories in the recent history of this country,” Hecht said last week during a panel discussion at the Statewide Economic Development Summit in Baton Rouge. “We came from almost nowhere to become one of the fastest-growing tech markets in this country.”
It’s not just New Orleans that is seeing the benefits from the expanded tech sector.
Major firms such as IBM have set up operations in Baton Rouge and Monroe, with others in Lafayette and Bossier City. A number of factors have helped Louisiana attract tech jobs, including generous tax incentives for businesses, a low cost of living and collaborations between state, local and university leaders to tailor college curriculums that provide a steady pipeline of workers.
“The culture was very welcoming,” said Christine Alford, general manager for IBM’s Client Innovation Centers in North America. IBM has two software development centers in Louisiana. One in downtown Baton Rouge will have 800 employees by the end of 2017; the other is in Monroe, where ground was recently broken on a building that eventually will house 400 workers.
Not only is IBM creating more than a thousand jobs statewide, it’s partnering with colleges and universities including LSU, Louisiana Tech, the University of Louisiana at Monroe and Grambling State to enhance their computer science programs. Students are getting a chance to work with the company’s Watson software as part of their classes. “We’ve been amazed with the quality of graduates and the caliber of employees we’re getting,” Alford said.
It isn’t just students earning degrees in computer science who are benefitting from these jobs. Will LaBar, a vice president with CGI Federal, said the 230 employees at the company’s Lafayette office represent 47 different college degrees, including those who majored in physics, business, communications and philosophy.
CGI is the fifth-largest independent information technology and business service provider in the world, with clients that include federal and state governments, retailers, logistics companies and health care firms. LaBar said CGI is committed to hiring 400 people for its Lafayette office over a four-year period. “We haven’t had our ribbon cutting yet, and we’re running out of space,” he said.
The quality of Louisiana technology workers was so strong that when GE decided to divest its banking portfolio last year, the company switched its GE Capital offices in New Orleans to focus on its industrial partners. Instead of building apps for the financial service industry, the 210 GE employees are now supporting the company’s oil and gas, power, renewable energy and health care interests.
“In less than 60 days, we were able to take a team servicing financial services to building apps for our industrial teams,” said Mike De Boer, chief information officer for the GE Digital Solutions Technology Center. “We beat all of our third-party partners to the game. That’s the importance of talent.”
GE plans on adding 100 workers in New Orleans this year and another 100 in 2017. That’s allowed people who left Louisiana for tech jobs in cities such as Dallas or Austin a chance to come back home for good jobs in their fields. “The three years behind us were great years,” De Boer said. “But the 10 years ahead of us are going to be better.”
Follow Timothy Boone on Twitter, @TCB_TheAdvocate.