After a year of big-dollar deals, Utah’s Silicon Slopes urges Utah to boost computer science education, offers $4 million

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Participants cheer at the closing bell of the stock market, during the 3rd annual Silicon Slopes Tech Summit, at Calvin L. Rampton Salt Palace Convention Center. Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019.

Utah’s technology sector and the vibrant community surrounding it are at a turning point, judging from Thursday’s kickoff of the 3rd annual Silicon Slopes Tech Summit in Salt Lake City.

After years of growth, the cluster of tech companies and startups along the Interstate 15 corridor linking Utah and Salt Lake counties saw some of the biggest deals in its history last year, including major initial public stock offerings by Pluralsight and Domo and the $8 billion acquisition of Provo-based Qualtrics.

The glow of those and other big-dollar transactions brought bigger crowds and a heightened sense of energy to the two-day summit, which has drawn a record 23,000 tech workers and enthusiasts this year, filling ballrooms and exhibition halls at the Salt Palace Convention Center.

“We’re living in the Golden Age of tech and entrepreneurship in Utah,” said Clint Betts, Silicon Slopes executive director. This past year, Betts said, “will be remembered for decades to come as the year our community proved once and for all that Utah is a global hub of tech innovation that produces entrepreneurs and companies that rise alongside any in the world.”

The tech-focused NASDAQ stock exchange is a primary sponsor for the glitzy Utah summit, billed as one of the largest of its kind in the world. Organizers rang NASDAQ’s closing bell Thursday from the Salt Lake City gathering.

But along with momentum, there also were signs Thursday that the industry in Utah is taking stock and deepening its ties with the state, as speakers repeatedly hit themes of community service and social equality as they spoke in the rock concert-like environment of the summit’s main hall.

“We must also ensure that Silicon Slopes doesn’t rise while the rest of Utah falls,” Betts said.

Other tech leaders urged attendees to press for gender and racial equity in their workplaces and create more opportunity for the disadvantaged, including bringing access to computer science to more Utah school kids.

“Always hire the best person,” said Saleforce Chief Equality Officer Tony Prophet. “But you should hire the best person from a slate that looks like society.”

And some of the top CEOs behind Silicon Slopes pledged $1 million each Thursday to match money sought by Gov. Gary Herbert to expand computer education in Utah schools. The governor’s budget asks for $4 million, aimed at bringing tech instruction to the state’s middle schools.

The governor and tech industry leaders have endorsed a wider strategy of giving all schools in the state access to computer science instruction by 2022. At one point Thursday, summit organizers urged the audience to contact and lobby state lawmakers.

As the industry continues to expand, and as technology is infused into other sectors of the economy, employers face a shortage of highly skilled labor, both in Utah and around the world — an issue the state’s Republican governor says could lead the economy to “underperform” if not addressed.

One of the pledging CEOs, Aaron Skonnard, co-founder and CEO of Pluralsight, said so much had changed for the Utah tech sector in the past 12 months, he was sure the industry could achieve its goal.

“I know that this is going to be a reality for our state in four years,” Skonnard said, “and there is nothing more important to our tech-driven future right here on Silicon Slopes.”

Among the day’s sessions was a public conversation between Qualtrics CEO Ryan Smith and Bill McDermott, Smith’s counterpart at German behemoth SAP, which announced in November it would buy Qualtrics for $8 billion in cash — just as Qualtrics prepared for an initial stock offering.

The deal, which will let Smith and his brother Jared to continue to run the 17-year-old company, set records as the world’s largest enterprise-software acquisition.

In their first joint appearance since the transaction was finalized last week, McDermott called Qualtrics “a dream company” while Smith referred to the firm as “a runaway bride” wooed away from a public stock offering to SAP’s private deal in what he described as a kind of football “pump fake” to Wall Street.

“You guys move pretty quick,” Smith quipped to McDermott. “I’ve been impressed to watch how that’s played out and how scrappy your team got, especially when we were getting ready to go public.”