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Posted on Tue, Jan 11, 2011 : 5:55 a.m.

If you seek a software company, look about you: Sellout of midwest CodeMash conference shows there's talent close to home

By Dianne Marsh

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to meet with business owners who are planning their business growth. They were evaluating their options: stay in Michigan or expand in the Bay Area. Their primary concern was talent attraction, particularly in terms of software developers. The owner expressed concern that he doesn’t see a large number of software developers hanging out here in bars, restaurants and coffee shops as he has become accustomed to in Silicon Valley.

I assured them that we have a vibrant software community. More interesting, perhaps, was our discussion about what keeps businesses in our region and what attributes are common to the developers that we have.

Our community differs significantly from those on the coasts. As companies, we tend to attract employees who stay longer and who want to stay in the Midwest. Since employees can afford to buy homes, they are often more committed to the region. Companies in our area aren’t typically tied as strongly to the startup mode as those in the Silicon Valley. Our labor isn’t as transient, and we don’t suffer as much cost in terms of employee turnover.

It’s no secret that this region has suffered significantly in the economic downturn. But during the past five years, we’ve also seen companies prosper by taking chances that have paid off. Let’s take a look at just one example of taking a chance and how success was achieved, risk was mitigated and how, ultimately, that success has been received nationally.

The CodeMash conference exemplifies taking a risk during a downturn. In 2006, a group of Midwest software developers, including myself, got together and decided to start a conference in the region. We were weary of traveling to the coasts for software conferences and paying the high fees associated with big events. By providing a low-cost, developer-organized event, we knew we’d be able to attract a dedicated group of regional software developers.

After about six months of planning, creating a corporation and signing a promise to pay a significant amount of cash, CodeMash was born. Regional software experts were recruited as speakers. We weren’t sure anyone would come. Until just a few weeks before the event itself, the conference was in the red. Finally, we hit enough registrations and sponsorship money to go into the black, but just barely. Folks still tease me about pulling all of the water bottles from the floor, insisting that people drink tap water (I wasn’t just being green).

Each year since the first has been a little easier. We increased the number of attendees we could accept and rented increasingly more space. Each year, we attracted more sponsorship money, as companies in our region realized that a gathering of a few hundred software developers was a good place to seek talent. Others realized that this was the best training deal around. In the third year, we added an optional day and were surprised to see that sell out as well. Last year, CodeMash’s fourth year and at the peak of the economic downturn, we had 650 attendees and sold out in 30 days.

But this year’s registration shocked even the event organizers. We sold out the conference (750 seats) in three and a half days. A social media blitz via Twitter likely fueled the early sell-out, with attendees fretting that they didn’t want to get shut out. Based on feedback that we received, we could have easily sold twice as many seats.

We’ve built it and they’re coming. And now, some of the folks from California have suggested that we move our conference from Sandusky, Ohio to the Bay Area. And isn’t that the same story that we get with our companies? But the reason that we don’t move conferences ... or companies ... is that the secret sauce is in the people in our companies. And that talent can’t be replicated.

So, if you’re wondering if we have software talent in this area, consider the 750 developers who are convening at a waterpark in northern Ohio this week. These folks represent a hardy and dedicated bunch, and they’re only a small fraction of what this region has to offer. They’re just the sort of folks you want to count on when you’re adding staff for your company. That’s the story that I told the business owners who were trying to decide whether to move their company to California or grow it here. We have the talent. You just need to ask where to look.

Dianne Marsh is co-founder of SRT Solutions, specializing in custom software development and technical customer mentoring.


Catherine Juon

Sun, Jan 16, 2011 : 11:16 a.m.

Kudos to the event organizers for turning the "flyover" states into a destination so attractive they sold out a 750 seat conference in 3.5 days. Wow! Creating this sort of a regional tech presence is exactly what Michigan needs to recruit more tech businesses to the area. And kudos to the Michiganders presenting - what a great way to show off the talent here in our state to a broader audience. Bravo!

Dianne Marsh

Sat, Jan 15, 2011 : 3:41 p.m.

To "let's get real" commenter: I'm sorry that it wasn't clear from the article that the conference was organized by a group made up of both Ohio and Michigan developers. So we never took it out of Michigan. It's always been at the Kalahari waterpark in Ohio, by design. This is accessible to the entire region, whereas a conference in northern Michigan would not have been. And, we don't have a waterpark venue of this size near Ann Arbor. The local economy is supported significantly by other things that the software development community does, including 1 day conferences and weekend give camps, which build software solutions for charities in our region.

Lets Get Real

Fri, Jan 14, 2011 : 7:19 p.m.

Too bad they took the conference out of MI. Started by the software community here - but let's take the $ somewhere else. Certainly we wouldn't want to contribute to the economic recovery here. Great idea, good success. Too bad for the local economy.

Wed, Jan 12, 2011 : 12:43 p.m.

Awesome story! That's great that the software community started its own conference. I'm still surprised that Ann Arbor and the surrounding area doesn't have more companies nearby, because there are a large number of well-qualified U of M graduates who would LOVE to stay in the area. Hopefully conferences like these will help companies realize that Michigan isn't a sinkhole, but a beautiful vibrant community.