When Utah tech companies recruit, they sell the state’s big peaks as big perks

Becky Frost was living in Arizona two years ago, when she was headhunted by Instructure, a Utah technology firm known for education platforms used in public schools and colleges.

The California native agreed to visit to discuss the job, but there was no way she would relocate her family, which featured two young boys, to Utah. Or so she thought until she stepped into Instructure’s Cottonwood Heights headquarters and gazed out the floor-to-ceiling windows looking onto the snow-shrouded Wasatch Mountains rising above the Salt Lake Valley.

“The view took my breath away,” Frost said. “It really helped me reframe that in my mind to say, ‘I could see our our family living here.’”

With the world’s finest snow blanketing amazing ski terrain only a few miles away, Salt Lake City and its suburbs no longer seemed like such a bad place to live and work. Now Frost’s sons, ages 9 and 11, are Brighton skiers and Frost is Instructure’s senior director of corporate communications.

“I just love being able to walk outdoors and literally have hikes right in our backyard. That’s been something that’s been really great,” Frost said. “You can’t really go hiking in the summer in Arizona when it’s 118 degrees. Here we can put on our jackets and enjoy Utah year-round. The snow was a huge plus for us as a family.”

Frost’s story illustrates the key role Utah’s outdoor recreation culture has played in the Wasatch Front’s rise as a tech hub. Without the proximity to public lands and a variety of activities, it is unlikely Utah’s economy could have grown as rapidly as it has over the past decade, economists say.

“It is something that makes us unique. It is definitely an advantage to our economy because we have something few metropolitan areas have and can even claim,” said Natalie Gochnour, director of the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute. “In my experience, that consistently comes up in conversations with companies. Our access to superb recreational opportunities is a huge advantage for our job creation and recruitment.”

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Recruiting edge

Entrepreneur Karl Sun, a avid skier from California, bucked pressure from funders who wanted him to headquarter his Lucid Software firm in the Bay Area. He chose South Jordan instead, because he wanted to be near world-class skiing, but he also wanted that proximity to the outdoors for his future employees, Sun said at Gov. Gary Herbert’s Outdoor Recreation Summit last year.

Now the firm’s recruiters look for interest in outdoor activities when they examine resumes, then target people who ski, fish, cycle and camp.

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“Those interests help us identify people who will be attracted by our outdoor lifestyle, and they give us a big recruiting advantage over companies hiring to other tech centers like Silicon Valley, Seattle or New York City,” John Harrison, Lucid’s senior director of engineering, wrote in a Salt Lake Tribune op-ed. “When applicants come to Utah for interviews, we take them to destinations like nearby ski resorts or southern Utah so they can envision for themselves a life where they can make a few ski runs before coming to work, mountain bike on a summer evening, and inspire their kids with a weekend camping trip to the redrocks.”

Such a strategy makes obvious sense for an outdoor gear maker like Black Diamond, but it is becoming increasingly common in Utah’s tech sector.

“This is why the tech sector is one-seventh of Utah’s economy, the reason they are able to recruit to Utah,” said attorney Doug Owens, an unsuccessful congressional candidate who launched a nonprofit last year with his two-time political rival, former Rep. Mia Love, that highlights the outdoors’ role in Utah’s economic future. “It is way bigger than people give it credit for. It’s academia, it’s finance. Realtors will tell you the whole downtown renaissance is because of Goldman Sachs putting all these young people in downtown.”

The global investment bank's second largest North American office is in Salt Lake City.

[Read more: How Utah’s Top Workplaces are determined]

Recreation tops taxes

With an eye toward protecting Utah’s scenic landscapes and improving its air quality and recreation infrastructure, Owens’ group Utah Outdoor Partners last year commissioned the Gardner Institute to survey executives of 50 fast-growing Utah firms, exploring their attitudes about the state’s outdoor amenities in relation to their companies’ growth and decision to locate in the Beehive State.

More of the executives named the outdoors (16%) over favorable tax rates (11%) and regulatory environment (9%). Ninety-four percent responded favorably to the question about whether access to a “outdoor recreation opportunities, such as parks, trails, mountains, deserts and wildlife areas” contributes to Utah’s quality of life.

“If Utah did not have the great outdoor resources it has, I would never have located my business in Utah," one of the surveyed executives said. "Not only would I have not been interested in living in Utah, I would not have felt confident about attracting a talented and motivated workforce.”

This is because Utah faces stiff competition from the West Coast, whose cities are awash with music, cultural diversity, pleasant weather, great food, museums, sports and countless other ways to enjoy the good life. But there is a catch for those working on the coasts, according to Tom Stockham, CEO of ExpertVoice, a marketing firm of 150 employees headquartered in downtown Salt Lake City.

“If you live in the Bay Area, in New York or L.A., you probably spent much of your professional life promising that you would find a way to get better balance in your life. You work all the time and then you spend time in traffic to get to a recreation activity,” Stockham said. “To get out of doors is a big planning activity — and sitting in a lot of traffic to get there."

His employees can stroll out of the office and be running or cycling up a mountain canyon that opens into downtown just a few blocks away. Weekday mornings can be spent skiing, October days hunting and weekends in the desert.

“I get calls from young professionals, people one or two years out of a school," Stockham said, “and they’re saying, ‘Look, I want to start my career there [in Utah]. I don’t want to live in this rat race. I want my first job to be there.’”

Providing playtime

But it’s not enough to be close to the outdoors; many tech firms provide ski passes and gym memberships to employees and their families, plus the time off to use them.

“It’s not just having the passes available. It’s making people feel like they have accessibility to use it," said Jeff Weber, Instructure’s executive vice president of people and places. "So not only accessibility to the closeness of the mountains, but also we have a very flexible paid time-off policy,”

So flexible, in fact, that Instructure doesn’t track how much paid time-off staff members take.

"They can leave the office in the afternoon and go on a hike or canyon or something like that, and that's not viewed as negative," Weber said. "Get your work done where you need to."

A smaller firm like RainFocus can’t afford to go that far, but it still offers its employees numerous benefits geared toward enjoying the outdoors and maintaining good health. This homegrown Utah firm, which organizes major events and conferences, employs 200, mostly out of its Lehi headquarters.

It sponsors employee clubs for various activities, such as mountain biking, hiking and off-roading.

“Work provides either a credit toward equipment for that club or sponsorship for events that they might be attending. That helps encourage those groups to get together and enjoy the outdoor activities as a team,” marketing director Brian Gates said. “The premise there is to get out and enjoy Utah.”

The firm also offers five paid days off to perform volunteer work. Some use that to improve hiking trails, others to build orphanages in Mexico, according to Gates.

No matter the size of Utah’s rapid-growth tech firms, they recruit heavily out of state, looking for people who may not be familiar with the state outside of a caricature portrayal as a Mormon-dominated backwater, where liquor is scarce and the culture is, ahem, unique.

The reality can be breathtaking, as Becky Frost discovered. Those big picture windows at Instructure’s headquarters, the ones that offered her a first look up Big Cottonwood Canyon, are actually one of the firm’s key recruiting tools, according to Weber.

“We say, ‘Hey, just come and visit us,’ so we can get people here. Since our building is located right next to the mountains, the views are all spectacular of the Wasatch Front,” Gates said. “They just stand at the window and stare for a minute and then we explain to them how we can access this benefit so closely. So it’s not just the outdoor lifestyle we promote, it’s the accessibility to the lifestyle. It’s so close and so easy to get to.”