As Web3, robotics, AI, blockchain, virtual and augmented reality, and other advanced technologies move forward, the burden to fill roles within these frontier sectors increases.
According to the US Department of Labor, it’s estimated that 3.5 million STEM jobs will need to be filled by 2025. Employment in STEM occupations has grown 79% since 1990, and that number is projected to continue to grow exponentially over the next decade. As technology evolves, STEM universities and training programs need to proliferate at a commensurate rate to keep pace with that evolution.
It is a monumental task, but tech havens like the one cultivated in Buffalo, NY, are providing a model that other cities can emulate to keep up with the existential demand for talent within the tech industry.
Buffalo’s bucolic canvas and traditional pastoral backdrop have blended with quiet suburbs and sustainability-focused tech districts in recent years to paint an idyllic picture. Buffalo families are in the unique position of being able to enjoy the life-enhancing qualities of nature, the value-building structure of a tight-knit community and the opportunity provided by a robust and forward-thinking local economy — a balance that is not easily achieved.
“It’s a wonderful place to start your career and start a family and to engage in all the things that we think are great about Buffalo,” said Sonny Sonnenstein, CIO for consumer business and digital banking at the Buffalo-based M&T Bank.
Buffalo’s geographic position also means that companies in the region have access to talent from Toronto, another major tech hub, and New York City. The proximity to these major tech cities, paired with the opportunities native Buffalo residents are afforded, puts Buffalo tech companies in an ideal position to retain homegrown talent while reinforcing their teams with professionals from nearby, tech-driven communities.
“I’m super excited when folks choose to come and stay in the Buffalo community,” said Sonnenstein. “I knew we were going to be successful a couple of years into our transformation when we had pulled enough folks out of the ecosystem, we started to put some technologists back into the ecosystem. I think that’s really powerful.”
Tech employment in Buffalo is projected to increase by 7% from 2022 to 2032. Companies like M&T, Tech Buffalo, and Odoo and the training programs they have created and collaborated on are driving the growth of the Buffalo tech industry, helping build the skills of the next generation of STEM graduates and providing on-ramps for newly certified tech professionals.
TechBuffalo is a non-profit organization that focuses on creating and growing an inclusive, accessible and equitable tech community in Western New York. The organization collaborates with businesses in the region to retain and grow talent, including those from communities that have been historically underrepresented in tech.
“It’s a broad mission, but our organization intends to be the glue,” said TechBuffalo CEO Sarah Tanbakuchi. “We’ve made a commitment to supporting non-traditional training programs, things like the data analytics community boot camp pilot, which was all about bringing community members that didn’t have prior data analytics experience through a training program, collaborating with employers to get them into entry-level roles.
“Talent is everywhere,” said Tanbakuchi. “Opportunity is not. And TechBuffalo is really thinking, along with a lot of community partners, on how we expand that aperture of what is tech and what tech opportunity looks like. That’s how I see tech evolving here in Western New York.”
TechBuffalo works closely with employers in the region — like ACV Auctions, Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield of Western New York, M&T Bank, Moog, Rich Products, and others — who are passionate about growing the tech ecosystem.
M&T is a prime example of a company investing in Buffalo’s future by taking steps toward making the city’s loft tech aspirations a reality.
As the 11th largest commercial bank in the country and a TechBuffalo partner, M&T is in a position to be a leader in the Buffalo tech movement. One way M&T is facilitating the continued success and growth of that movement is by offering accelerated training programs for STEM students.
“We basically built our own tech academy, which is focused not just on our own employees, but also creating on-ramps to technology careers, helping evolve the ecosystem,” Sonnenstein said.
As a University of Buffalo campus ambassador and a computer science engineering advisory board member, Sonnenstein has spent a lot of time on campus working to get to know the students and helping them build their skills. He also understands how to communicate with students in a way that helps them understand the philosophy behind computer science.
“It’s like learning a foreign language, like Spanish — it’s not as scary as many people think,” said Sonnenstein. “Programming and data analytics are a set of techniques and skills that can be taught. And if you have the aptitude, we can hopefully, as a community, provide the opportunity.”
While M&T has partnered with organizations like TechBuffalo, it has also created some innovative programs of its own. M&T’s technology development program brings in computer science engineers immediately after graduation. After an initial introduction, they are put through a nine-month training rotation where they continue to learn, grow and enter the workforce with all the necessary skills to succeed.
“It’s a great way for a computer science engineer to start their career because it doesn’t pigeonhole them into one thing,” said Sonnenstein. “And I think we find the best technologists over time aren’t locking themselves into one particular technology. That’s a big piece of our puzzle.”
M&T has also partnered with IBM and Franklin to create the ZDP program, which finds potential employees who have the aptitude for computer programming computer science and other STEM jobs but may not have been given the opportunity to pursue a career in those fields. The program provides a one-year apprenticeship and trains applicants in mainframe programming. After two successful classes, a third is set to begin later this year.
According to Sonnenstein, the model created by the ZDP program is so successful, it is now being adopted by others in the industry.
“I’m finding as I talk to other CIOs in the industry, that they’re interested in what we’re doing,” said Sonnenstein. “I was just talking to the CIO of another bank who said, ‘Yeah, I heard about the program through you, and I saw it on your LinkedIn. And I reached out to IBM and Franklin. We’re doing it now, too.’”
“We need folks who have those skill sets,” he added. “It’s not just enough to attract people here. We have to keep them growing in the ecosystem. We have to give them the opportunities to advance. And that means having a robust set of opportunities, not just for traditionally trained technologists coming out of computer science programs, but for everyone.
“There’s more demand for this technical talent than any one community can import or even just grow through the universities. We have to find more and more on-ramps for folks.”
Great programs can churn out tech professionals ready to hit the ground running in a number of fields, but where are they running to?
Odoo is one of a growing list of software firms receiving top-level talent that has come through Buffalo’s robust tech training pipelines.
Founded in 2005, Odoo provides a suite of business management software tools including customer relationship management (CRM), e-commerce, billing, accounting, manufacturing, warehouse, project management, and inventory management.
Born from open-source software, Odoo skyrocketed to the top of the business management software sector after launching its propriety suite of apps in 2015.
Since the V9.0 release that year, the company has transitioned to an open core model, which provides subscription-based proprietary enterprise software and cloud-hosted software-as-a-service, in addition to the open source version. In 2013, the not-for-profit Odoo Community Association was formed to promote the widespread use of Odoo and to support the collaborative development of Odoo features.
“We forked off of our community or our open-source edition, a proprietary edition of our software called Odoo Enterprise,” said Odoo managing director Nick Kosinski. “Odoo Enterprise is a true SaaS solution that companies have to pay for in order to utilize. That was the birth of our recurring revenue model, which since then has allowed for us to really accelerate our growth.”
Acceleration of growth is an accurate statement. As of August 2022, Odoo was valued at around $3.3 billion and has been growing at about 50 to 60% year-over-year for the last five years.
Although the company was founded in Belgium, Odoo’s Buffalo branch has been pivotal in growing the local economy and bolstering the tech presence in the region. Kosinski echoed what Sonnenstein and Tanbakuchi said about hiring STEM-focused individuals from Buffalo.
“We want people who are intellectually curious and who are really looking to dig in and build the future of what we see of management software. We are not a company that falls for bias. We do not value previous work experience. We value people who can think rationally and logically and are not afraid to confront a problem.”
With a software suite that integrates all management apps like eCommerce, WordPress, finance, sales and marketing into one system, there are a wealth of opportunities for software developers, web developers, UX designers, mobile app developers, IT project managers, systems architects and AI engineers within the company, and Odoo is not alone in that aspect.
Tech Incubator Programs
The city also provides several startup initiatives specifically targeted toward tech-focused companies. During 2021, Buffalo doubled its startup venture capital, raising more than $530 million.
Take 43North for example — an annual tech startup competition that has invested in 51 startups from around the world and created more than 800 local jobs in industries and verticals range from artificial intelligence to medical devices, consumer products, manufacturing and all-in-one software platforms.
Buffalo’s first tech unicorn, ACV Auctions, won 43North’s 2015 Finals and received a $1 million investment in exchange for 5% equity. Other notable local startups include Jerry, Circuit Clinical and Kangaroo Time. And most recently they have recruited Odoo and Rural Sourcing, two software companies creating over 300 new tech jobs.
“Buffalo is showing itself as a region where tech and innovation can thrive. More companies from outside the region are launching here, raising capital here and, perhaps most telling of our traction, choosing to open offices here. This success is fueling a renewed optimism across our city, while inspiring and cultivating entrepreneurship like never before,” said 43North’s president Colleen Heidinger.
The University at Buffalo also has a hand in the action with its startup incubator spaces and R&D labs, which has more than 50 successful startups under its belt. Through the Center of Excellence in Materials Informatics (CMI), which aids manufacturing companies develop innovative products and The Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences (CBLS), a hub for life sciences and technology-based scientific discovery, UB helps inventors transform their ideas into commercial technology, while facilitating collaboration among academia, industry and the public sector to create jobs that impact the region.
“Our technology ecosystem proves that the Buffalo/Niagara region has the pioneering spirit, talented people, funding and educational resources, affordability, quality of life and unique geographic assets that it takes to support innovative and growing companies,” said Tom Kucharski, president and CEO of Invest Buffalo Niagara.
As companies like ACV Auctions and Odoo expand, they are shouting into the ether hoping for tech professionals to respond as their companies expand. Because of Buffalo’s passion and investment in tech, those professionals are shouting back, ready to push the world forward.
This article originally appeared in Innovation & Tech vol. 8 issue 3. Read the article here.