Silicon Slopes summit pushes for more computer science education

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Silicon Slopes Tech Summit in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020.

Leaders at Utah technology companies are continuing their push to bring computer science instruction to every public school in the state.

At the Thursday opening of this year’s Silicon Slopes Tech Summit in Salt Lake City, prominent CEOs told an enthusiastic crowd of thousands that maintaining the sector’s phenomenal recent growth hinged on expanding tech learning to all grade levels by late 2022.

Aaron Skonnard, co-founder of online training provider PluralSight, said Silicon Slopes organizers were backing a new bill before Utah lawmakers that would provide $10.2 million yearly for teacher training. He also announced the creation of a computer science education fund — already seeded with $4 million — to accept donations toward expanding access K thru 12.

“If you’re passionate about the future of our state, the education for our children and what will ultimately become the pipeline of talent for all our companies,” Skonnard told the thousands in attendance, “pull out your mobile phones and make a donation.”

His pitch echoed a theme of community service at the two-day gathering, held at downtown’s Salt Palace Convention Center. Participants were urged to connect, learn and serve, highlighted by a campaign for attendees to donate 1 million meals this year to the Utah Food Bank.

Part industry champion and part marketing vehicle, Silicon Slopes is the collective name given to nearly 6,700 technology companies spread across southern Salt Lake County and northern Utah County.

The annual event’s attendance has grown by leaps yearly. And where its inaugural four years ago drew participants overwhelmingly from the Beehive State, nearly 20% of attendees this year came from out of state, organizers said.

Josh James, CEO of software-as-service giant Domo, said the event now lets executives, data scientists, coders, app developers and other industry players interact with and learn from their national counterparts — without having to travel to California’s Silicon Valley.

“It’s so fun to see that opportunity to connect,” James said.

Opening speeches Thursday had a rock festival feel, punctuated with swirling lights, pounding music and flashy graphics on three huge screens. Thursday afternoon saw dozens of smaller seminars and lectures on topics including cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, workforce diversity and the growing sub-sectors of financial and health technologies.

Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg is scheduled to speak Friday in a public interview with Silicon Slopes Executive Director Clint Betts.

In advocating for expanding computer science, Skonnard was joined on stage by Utah Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson, House Speaker Brad Wilson and Senate President Stuart Adams, all of whom highlighted the sector’s growing sway.

“You have more influence on what happens in the state than you may realize,” Wilson told attendees, calling the industry’s leadership “unprecedented.”

The Kaysville Republican said the sector’s top executives were also helping elected leaders navigate difficult public policy issued as the state’s economy continues to shift toward technology.

A recent economic study found tech now accounts for 1 in every 7 Utah jobs, with employment growing at twice the national average in the past decade. But major tech employers in the state also report that more than 5,000 openings for skilled workers remain unfilled.

Dickson pointed to what she called “pockets of promise” in both urban and rural Utah schools, where computer science instruction had taking hold. But she said the state must reach “not just a few kids but all kids” irrespective of socioeconomic background — while also integrating technology more tightly into statewide curriculum.

“It’s our future,” added Senate President Adams. “It’s really important that we embrace it.”

The tech summit will feature a debate among the six Republicans vying for governor on Friday, another sign of the sector’s growing political clout.