Someday, When folks talk about the tech boom in Utah, they’ll likely name-check companies like Word Perfect and Novell. Other folks will tell you about the beginnings of Atari, Pixar and the capital “I” Internet itself from the computer science department at the University of Utah. And while all that’s true, the truth is that tech innovation in Utah started in 1954. With cows.
Computers in 1954 were less desktop and more floor top. They lived in giant, temperature-controlled rooms, tended to by men with vinyl protectors protecting their pockets from mechanical pencils and slide rules. That year, IBM debuted the IBM 650, the world’s first mass-produced computer and brought data processing power out of the realms of military and big-think research into the broader world. The IBM 650 weighed 6,000 pounds. The power unit and CPU were 5 feet tall and took up 12 feet of floor space, with another 3 feet required for the card reader. Its proto-nerd tenders input and output data with manila punch cards. It also had a big, comforting panel of blinking lights, making it the first computer that actually looked like it was doing something after the data went in.
But back to those cows.
The new access to computing power caught the attention of researchers in Utah State University’s Agriculture Department. They were trying to devise better ways for dairy farmers to keep track of their herds beyond just going out to the barn and counting cows. Milk was big business in Utah and the world’s first big (literally) business computers were about to change the way farmers worked—from measuring production to calculating costs; managing feed to shipping product, everything could be counted down to the last curd. The USU Department of Agriculture was about to become the USU Department of Agricultural Science.
The effort at USU created the private company Dairy Herders Incorporated (DHI) in 1954. DHI, as it’s known today, was the first data processing company in Utah and, heck, the first tech company west of the Mississippi. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, both born in 1954, were literally babies while tech was growing here in Utah, out in the milking barn, with the cows.
Silicon Slopes Defined (Sort of)
Today, we are a long way from punch cards and mammoth machines. You have more computing power in your pocket than a room full of IBM 650s. Data whizzes back and forth in the air we breathe. There’s gold in them thar data packets and the rush is on here in Utah’s Silicon Slopes.
Silicon Slopes is many things. It’s a term coined by Domo founder Josh James to assert Utah’s place next to the dominant noun of Silicon Valley, where baby Steve Jobs grew up to wear turtlenecks and create the tech that put that room full of IBM 650s in your pocket. It’s a place, loosely considered the area just past the Utah State Prison as you cross the border from Salt Lake to Utah County. (But really tech companies are located all up and down the Wasatch Front.) It’s an organization, something like a chamber of commerce created by the dominant figures in Utah’s tech world to promote Utah as a place to do that voodoo that tech innovators do.
Silicon Slopes, the one with the logo and offices, is administered by Clint Betts, a fast-talking wunderkind with sneaker game who came out of the startup world and saw the need to create an entity that could share information, bring people together and tell the story of the Utah tech community.
“In the startup world, everyone knows who’s who in Utah,” Betts says. “We all knew all the names and the history, but no one was telling those stories to the larger community so we started thinking about what it would look like to really tell those stories and connect to the world.”
The non-profit outfit exists to draw attention to the Utah tech scene, attract talent and encourage them to stay. It also works to create and retain tech talent from within, lobbying for legislation like the recently passed HB 227—The Utah Computer Science Grant Act—which provides funding for Utah schools to teach computer science. (See sidebar: “Did Utah Blow Millions for Tech Funding?”) It also presents free monthly workshops and networking events at its HQ at Thanksgiving Point and other locations around the state. Its big show is the annual Silicon Slopes Tech Summit, that this year brought more than 20,000 members of the tech industry (nerds!) to the Salt Palace for workshops, rah-rah keynotes from the likes of Alexander Rodriguez (yes, that one) and networking klatches.
Why Utah is The Place (Again)
Word Perfect and Novell were truly the two first tech “giants” in Utah in the early 1980s. The first, founded by Bruce Bastian and Alan Ashton, created the industry standard for word processing. Novell, under the leadership of Ray Noorda, was, in its day, the industry standard in networking.
Both were perfectly positioned for their time. Personal computers started showing up in homes and offices and, well, we needed ways to use them. Word Perfect took that befuddling blinking green command line and gave you the power to turn it into a familiar typewriter-type interface. Novell, meanwhile, made business-grade networking technology that allowed computers to talk to each other.
And both companies were acquired or absorbed into bigger players that came along as tech innovation heated up. Microsoft essentially crushed Word Perfect, while Novell slowly became obsolete as desktop computers began to come with networking capabilities built in.
But their true legacy was to start a culture of tech innovation in Utah, says Val Hale, Director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED).
Before Word Perfect and Novell, companies would grow, expand and move away,” Hale says. “Those two were on the cutting edge back then and they trained a whole community of skilled tech workers who chose to stay in Utah Valley and build their own companies.”
And those companies begat more skilled workers, who begat more companies and so on, and so on. Suddenly there’s an ecosystem of talent and skill that wasn’t there before. For example, in 2009, Adobe purchased Omniture, an analytics platform, instead of shutting down the Utah shop and moving it to Adobe HQ in San Jose, Calif. Adobe opted to build an outpost here in 2012.
“These companies are realizing that they can grow and prosper in Utah,” Hale says. “They don’t have to move to California or Boston.”
Another case is Skullcandy, the whiz-bang headphones company that started in Park City. Jeremy Andrus came to Utah in 2005 from the Bay Area and was instrumental in Skullcandy’s success. When the brand went public, Andrus decided to move on but also to stay in Utah for his next venture: Traeger, a high-tech grill company (yes, that’s a thing) with an HQ in Sugar House.
“First, Utah is a very business-friendly state and people here are incredibly entrepreneurial,” Andrus says. “But it’s more than that. There’s a sense that we are the underdogs and so you have a lot of people who are willing to grind it out and do the work.”
“Our intent was not to shut down a decades-old company in Oregon,” Andrus says. “But the people we had in Utah were just much more passionate and committed. We could build a better team here. So, we shut down our Oregon office and brought it all here.”
For Aaron Skonnard, a founder of Pluralsight, a global tech-training company, Utah was the most compelling spot when he was considering where to locate.
“In 2004, my cofounders and I lived in different states,” Skonnard says. “We were just a virtual company. When we compared Utah to California and the East Coast there was lots to like. A pool of developers, sure but it was also the culture of the state. There’s a feeling of community here where people really want to build things. We’ve never regretted the choice to locate here. We’ve had all the talent we’ve needed to grow at an incredible rate.”
Did Utah Blow Millions for Tech Funding?
At last January’s Silicon Slopes Summit, five of Utah’s tech leaders gave the Utah Legislature a challenge. If lawmakers could come up with at least $5 million in funding for computer science education in Utah schools, they’d each pony up $1 million to match the effort. That’s $5 million if you’re counting along.
In an effort to respond to the challenge, lawmakers proposed HB 227 to provide grant money to schools from kindergarten (start ’em young) to high school, to build computer science programs. The original bill called for $7 million in funding for the effort that would have surpassed the threshold and released the $5 million.
But alas, last-minute wrangling over the budget beat the bill down to $3 million in one-time funding. The hang-up? Governor Gary Herbert’s push for tax reform. Bills like HB 227 were all reduced and marked as one-time allocations in anticipation of the special session to revamp state taxes. The deal isn’t dead, exactly, just caught in a morass of politics begging the question: What do a bunch of billionaires gotta do to give away $5 million bucks around here?
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