How A San Antonio Startup Hub Is Reinventing Tech Education

STEM education needs a major overhaul. Graham Weston and Nick Longo, founders of the coworking space Geekdom, think they have the answer--and it lies in the tech desert of San Antonio, Texas, of all places.

American tech education is in trouble. According to this year’s Global Innovation Index survey, the United States ranked No. 11 in “knowledge and technology outputs” and dropped from No. 7 to No. 10 in innovation. Not only do American educators soft-pedal STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and math) at every level of the system, but tech innovations develop so rapidly nowadays, no formal classroom keeps pace. Instead, the newest, hottest skills get transferred in the most casual and isolated ways: informally, on the job, with one colleague helping another learn something new.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing as long as you can scale that type of learning into a broader-based system that helps ensure our future global competitiveness. Geekdom, a coworking space in San Antonio, Texas, has done precisely that, through an innovative combination of adult and youth educational programs.

“America has too big of a challenge ahead to have its tech growth concentrated in only in a few of our cities,” says Graham Weston, chairman and cofounder of Rackspace, a $7.57 billion provider of hosting and cloud-computing services based in San Antonio. Weston founded Geekdom last December with fellow tech entrepreneur Nick Longo on a hunch: that technology, collaboration, and education form a virtuous circle that can kick-start a city’s economic growth in a big way.

“We saw Geekdom as an opportunity to organize all the tech startups in the city,” Weston says. “People didn’t know each other. Investors with money to invest didn’t know the companies that needed funding. So first we brought people out of the woodwork.” Longo and Weston structured Geekdom from the beginning to encourage collaboration: In exchange for dirt-cheap rent ($50 per month, $10 for students), entrepreneurs joining Geekdom must contribute at least one hour of their time weekly to sharing their skills with other members.

“We’re not a rental play,” Longo says flatly. “We’re about building human equity--this is a grand experiment that’s long-tail.” Weston adds: “Most coworking spaces and accelerators try to take equity in the companies in exchange for cheap rent. But you won’t give away a truly great idea just for rent money. We may make no money off of the successes that arise within Geekdom. But we’ll measure success through the impact we see in the city a decade now”--a future Weston hopes will be teeming with thriving startups.

Weston was uncertain Geekdom would take hold in San Antonio’s modest tech community. (Last April, the top accelerator TechStars named San Antonio the home of its first thematic program, geared to cloud-based startups. But for the most part the city’s startup scene tends to be overshadowed by their flashy neighbor to the north, Austin.) “We were afraid we’d be pushing a rope--that’s a Texas saying for doing something futile, getting no traction,” he recalls. “But the reaction was far from that--we were embraced.” Since December, Geekdom has attracted nearly 500 members, with growth rates justifying an additional 15,000 square feet of space by year’s end. Longo sees the fruits of a collaborative atmosphere daily. Lawyers brief technologists on intellectual-property law (and gaining experience with pro-bono clients who will hopefully mature into paying ones). Technology marketers trade tips for instruction in web design and WordPress templates. Arduino-wielding geeks have wired up a virtual receptionist button that pings the entire office when someone knocks, and the office vending machine is programmed to email its supplier when goodies run low.

Having cleared a friendly space where technology-minded entrepreneurs teach each other, Longo and Weston realized the model could scale to educating kids, too. Both men thought long and hard about the quandary of American education and ultimately decided to home-school their children using K12, software hosted via Rackspace. Both had also struggled as employers to hire great tech talent. (Longo came to Geekdom having sold and exited two software companies of his own, Bluedomino Web Hosting in 2002 and CoffeeCup Software in 2007.)

SparkEd, Geekdom’s education program for middle-schoolers through university students, opens its doors on September 29 with a bang: 30 camps, about 1,300 kids enrolled, and 5,000 already signed up for next year. One hundred of Geekdom’s adult members have pledged to help teach the students classes in coding, circuitry, design, and entrepreneurship. They brought in Louie Pacilli to run the SparkEd program--educator battle-worn from 15 years teaching in New York City schools, as well as a stint on Riker’s Island.

True to his technologist roots, Longo’s not above a little bombast in describing the scope of his ambitions. “Every university, nearly all the high schools and middle schools participating [in SparkEd]--they all came to us,” Longo says. “Schools know they’re broken--our job is to replace them. Mentorship is the new classroom. Want to become a developer? I can teach you Ruby or Python in a few months and guarantee you a job earning $50,000 to $75,000 a year. You can start that at 18 years old.”

And, they believe, young people can start other aspects of a tech education even earlier. “How do we get kids to think early about tech careers?” Weston says. “It’s hard to know as a kid what software really is--it’s too abstract. We let them put their hands on robotics, actually write code. Blacksmiths [and] most of the trades in the past learned their skills as apprentices. We’re creating apprentices in the same way: by exposing kids to what working in the tech field is like.”

Whether they’re teaching kids or adults, Longo says Geekdom aims specifically at increasing the ranks of middle-management tech workers. “Our biggest problem is that we don’t have enough plumbers in tech,” Longo says. “We’re well covered in the top 10% of engineers, and in the very bottom in tech support. But we need a lot more of very middle.” Skills like Python and Ruby--new programming languages highly suited to cloud computing and modern web programming--“are so new, nobody’s instructing in them,” Longo says.

What about the threat of outsourcing? Aren’t mid-tier tech jobs liable to migrate to cheaper shores--say, India? Longo brushes off this concern. “India has filled those level-one tech positions very well, and they’re doing [low-level] tech support, too. But honestly, I don’t think any countries do the middle skill level well. India doesn’t have any special edge we don’t have.”

Geekdom’s model isn’t completely inclusive: Only white-collar professionals, disadvantaged kids, and, eventually, military veterans will be offered the golden ticket of free technology training. The hordes of unemployed tradespeople like factory or construction workers don’t really figure into Geekdom’s vision; if you can’t share a marketable office skill that other Geekdom members wish to learn, well, you could be SOL. (That said, if an unusually motivated plumber or auto mechanic proffered her skills to Geekdom, it’s hard to say if she’d be shooed off or welcome--it just hasn’t happened yet.)

San Antonio makes a compelling case study for Geekdom’s recipe for tech innovation: It’s a large city with a solid economic base, but hardly a creative-class darling or obvious tech mecca. The nation’s seventh largest city, San Antonio is already home to two Fortune Global 500 companies (Valero Energy and Tesoro Petroleum Corp) and five Fortune 500 firms (those two plus USAA, Clear Channel Communications, and NuStar Energy). The city’s strong military presence explains why Fitch rates San Antonio’s long-term bonds triple-A, and the Milken Institute named San Antonio No. 1 in its 2011 Best-Performing Cities survey, up from No. 14 the year before. Unemployment in May is correspondingly low: 7.3% according to BLS data from June.

Unlike New York or San Francisco, though, San Antonio’s tech sector suffers from an invisibility problem. Disadvantaged kids and underemployed younger workers may not know any tech workers in their city--or have any idea how many good local jobs are available within it. “Other cities like San Antonio are not producing enough role models for young people to see that tech is actually a viable career path in their city,” Weston asserts. “Creating systems for mentorship and apprenticeship gives people practical experience to believe they can succeed in this industry. It puts more fuel in the tank for the city’s tech future.” Longo concurs: “To me, Geekdom is open source. Any city can call me and I’ll share with them the formula.”

Follow the conversation on Twitter using the tag #WhyHere.

[Image: Monkey Business Images via Shutterstock]

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