South Florida’s tech sector is not growing talent as quickly as it should, according to billionaire entrepreneur Jim McKelvey.
The co-founder of mobile payment company Square was addressing more than 2,000 technology professionals gathered Thursday at ITPalooza at the Greater Fort Lauderdale/Broward Convention Center.
McKelvey also said South Florida’s educational institutions can’t compete with places like New York. And that free education from his nonprofit LaunchCode is more valuable than a technology degree from a university that profits from those students enrolled.
LaunchCode trains people of all ages to be coders and guarantees them jobs if they graduate.
Lower-ranking education and less talent are two reasons why South Florida didn’t get the nod for Amazon’s second headquarters last month, even though it was among the 20 finalists, McKelvey said in an interview before his presentation at the annual event.
“Was [South Florida] really a finalist?” McKelvey said, pointing to Amazon’s selections of New York City and Northern Virginia for its two new campuses. “Let’s look at what they chose: high tax, low lifestyle, high talent. The educational attainment of those regions blows South Florida away.”
“I think some Amazon execs wanted to expense a trip to South Beach,” said McKelvey, who splits his time between South Florida and St. Louis, where Launch is based. “Were we really in contention? They went to where the talent was.”
South Florida can better compete for high-tech projects by improving education, he said.
The answer is “talent, talent, talent,” McKelvey said. “You have a phenomenal lifestyle down here. The business climate is fantastic, the infrastructure, tax advantages. … What are we missing? We’re missing, basically, the talent. The educational institutions of Miami are not world-class. We just don’t have it.”
“Sometimes you only need one thing not to work for everything not to work. Every programmer knows this. You can have a thousand lines of code and you can have only one little one that doesn’t work, and that stops the whole thousand from working,” he said.
LaunchCode operates in Miami but has plans to expand into Broward County. The program uses a Harvard University curriculum.
“We need a talent pipe, and that’s what we are at LaunchCode,” he said.
McKelvey said the free education provided by LaunchCode is more valuable to students and employers because LaunchCode programmers are being trained for what employers need.
Some audience members disagreed with McKelvey’s comments about academic education.
“I was furious,” said Yair Levy, professor of cybersecurity for Nova Southeastern University in Davie. He said NSU teaches students not only how to code, but also how to communicate and collaborate. And he said NSU updates its technology curriculum every year.
He said 20 years ago, programmers sat in a backroom coding. Today, they need more well-rounded skills because “they have to sit in front of venture capitalists.”
Alex Funkhouser, chairman of ITPalooza and CEO of Miami Beach-based recruiter SherlockTalent, said he agrees with McKelvey that South Florida needs to build a better educational infrastructure to lay the foundation for tech talent.
He said South Florida is making some progress in internships and apprenticeships for students through GetMyInterns.org, a program for high school students that works with Miami-Dade public schools. The program placed 3,000 students with local companies last summer and will be expanding to Broward, he said.