Austin Tech Through the Eyes of its Fathers #SXSW

Scott Francis
Next Post
Previous Post

IMG_0818 (1)

Three legends of Austin’s Tech Economy came to SXSW Interactive this year to hold forth on how Austin became Silicon Hills, and to talk about the future of tech in Austin.  It has become a popular pastime in Austin to pine for the good ole days, and complain about the growing pains. But these 3 gentleman remind us that the best days for Austin are now, and in the future – thanks to all the hard work of all the people that have come before us.

Neal Spelce, Pike Powers, and Howard Falkenberg are names known or familiar to many Austinites, along with other names like Inman and Kozmetsky.  They held a panel at the Austin Chamber of Commerce that should have been recorded for posterity, it was so good.

As Neal put it, they were in Austin at the very beginning of technology in Austin – the time of Adam and Eve as far as that goes.  And in that mythical time, civic leaders looked around Austin and saw a lot of city, state, and federal government jobs.  And a lot of university related jobs. And not enough diversity in the economy. Not to mention, all of these government buildings didn’t pay any property taxes to the City of Austin.  They say the mother of invention is necessity.  So Austin set about trying to change the script. 

The first big opportunity was to recruit MCC to Austin.  The feeling was that technology was a good fit for Austin because there wasn’t a transportation and manufacturing infrastructure, and tech was relatively low-impact on the environment.  Even in the 70’s the Austin culture was pro-environment, and this was a strong consideration.

I liked the story that Pike Powers told about being asked by city leaders to go talk to  Cisneros (Mayor of San Antonio) and the Governor Mark Smith and explain why luring MCC to Austin was so critical.  Pike recalled the governor telling him: “Listen Pike, I don’t want to lose. And I don’t want to win by an inch.   This is your total focus.”  This is a great example of both leadership and motivation in action. 

The team worked hard to recruit Bobby Inman and his team to Austin.  They invested their most senior leadership every time Inman’s team came to Austin for a site visit.  That personal attention helped overcome more established cities who didn’t need it as badly. MCC came. Then Sematech. Then the suppliers like Applied Materials, and the chip companies like AMD, Freescale, and Samsung. We won that competition for MCC against 57 cities and 25 states. An interesting point that Neal made was that Austin partly won because of the fresh air and outdoor amenities. Even in the birth of tech in Austin, both Austin and the organizations it attracted, cared about the environment and viewed it as an asset and an advantage.

Howard Falkenberg stated that Austin has doubled every 20 years since time began, but pondered whether that would have happened without efforts like these?  The efforts required get bigger as the city grows.  Soon we’ll be bigger than San Antonio, which is hard to believe, but likely true.

He also told a fun anecdote of how close Austin came to being known as Silicon Gulch, thanks to one article in the New York Times that referred to us as such. He and his team made it a point to always refer to Austin as the Silicon Hills in any media conversation from that point on, to cement a friendlier, more positive framing in everyone’s mind. It worked.

Given all that Austin has experienced over the last 40 years, you’d think that these three might be a little bit cynical about the future, or our current generation of leadership. But it isn’t so.  They point to some interesting developments:

  • The new medical school coming to Austin over the next year, next to UT. It took 10 years to make it happen, but that is the kind of investment horizon you have to have.  It was too important to let the idea die. People bet their careers on it.
  • An innovation district is being formed just south of the medial school – eventually four million square feet of space. 
  • Conde Nast is putting their digital convergence effort in Austin
  • Under Armour has located their software efforts here in Austin with their MapMyFitness acquisition as the core.
  • The transformation of Austin is spreading outward into San Marcos, Round Rock, Pflugerville, etc.
  • Lots of Transportation challenges – this is the next major investment. Austin missed an opportunity to move Union Pacific rail outside of the downtown corridor. One idea is a regional taxing district that can find and fund our own solutions.

I asked them if they felt like they were seeing the next generation of leadership emerge in Austin, to take us to the next level.  Perhaps not unsurprisingly, they said they did, with conviction.  They declined to name names but they see a lot of good things happening in Austin that will keep the momentum going.

It has become a popular pastime in Austin to pine for the good ole days, and complain about the growing pains. But these 3 legends remind us that the best days for Austin are now, and in the future – thanks to all the hard work of all the people that have come before us. And looking at all the cranes in downtown Austin, and seeing all the growing businesses here, and the burgeoning music scene, I have to agree.