Joel Reich says he knows what the future looks like, at least in part.
It looks like this:
To change the world, and to make a business successful, technology people don’t have to live and work in Silicon Valley anymore, he said.
They can live here, in Wichita, where hundreds of NetApp employees live and work.
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Reich, a senior vice president at NetApp, said most people would not think of Wichita as a destination for high-salaried tech workers.
But three years after NetApp bought a company here and got to know Wichita, that’s what they now think of this city. And it’s not all about how nice the people are.
NetApp has decided to bet heavily on staking part of its future here, and start growing its own workforce from our region, Reich says.
The reason is all about business.
“It’s like we found a secret source of really good IT talent – a source our competitors don’t know about,” Reich said.
Reich says the company’s appreciation for Wichita deepened in the past three years, so much so that NetApp is betting confidently that a collaboration it is creating with Wichita State University will grow more jobs for Wichita, for NetApp – and for other companies.
WSU officials are betting heavily that they can do more of that. In the last few months they’ve announced several initiatives.
Tech Mahindra, an India-based company, plans to collaborate with WSU on the new innovation campus, along with NetApp. Ken Russell, executive director of the advanced networking research institute at WSU, said more companies are talking about collaborations and partnerships with WSU, and that more announcements on new sign-ups will likely happen over the next few months.
NetApp, a California-based Fortune 500 company, entered Wichita three years ago when it acquired LSI’s Engenio external storage systems division. The Wichita company’s workforce then was about 400. NetApp has grown it to 550 in the last three years – even as it pared down its global workforce elsewhere.
Reich says NetApp has realized that Wichita has at least two things going for it: “They produce smart and highly trained information technology graduates at Wichita State,” he said. “And we find that people here have a really good work ethic.”
One other attraction, he said: NetApp has realized that if it helped WSU build a bigger information technology workforce, Wichita would grow and NetApp could develop a stable workforce of quality employees who want to live here. That is key, because NetApp and WSU officials say attracting people to come to Kansas isn’t easy. Grooming local talent is a benefit for everybody, Reich said.
So three months ago, NetApp decided to increase its presence not only in Wichita but on the WSU campus. When they learned that WSU President John Bardo was creating a new “innovation campus” to jump-start jobs and technology in south-central Kansas, they sat down for talks.
The result was announced in April: NetApp became the first big-name company to sign up as a tenant with the innovation campus. NetApp will create a collaboration with WSU. It will expand some project operations onto the WSU campus, using university tools and research expertise. And it will help teach WSU students by pairing NetApp innovators with students on real NetApp projects.
“What we’ll get is access to a lot of smart people at WSU,” Reich said.
NetApp has collaborated with WSU like this for years, but in a less organized, “one-off” project-by-project basis. Administrative and other details had to be created from scratch. Now, there will be a “repeatable process,” with a team in place.
This could help NetApp expand its workforce in Wichita and its presence on campus, he said. The innovation campus building that NetApp will work in won’t be built until probably next year, but 12 people hired by WSU are already at work on joint projects with NetApp, and another 12 will be hired by the end of this summer, WSU officials said.
“Both of us (WSU and NetApp) are putting up what we need for equipment and floor space,” Reich said. “We will get smart students to work with us on real projects that will impact our business. We’ll have engineers and engineering managers working on and guiding those projects on a daily basis, and the results will help us build a better product.”
Most people can’t see what NetApp produces, he said. But to cite two examples, he said: If you use airline tickets, or have medical records, it’s possible NetApp made their storage, retrieval and systems efficiency possible. They do much more than those.
All this fits nicely with what leaders at WSU say they are doing to try to create jobs for the area.
John Tomblin, WSU’s vice president for research and technology transfer, said Reich is right about the work ethic of people here – and how hard it is to attract mid-career professionals to come here.
“Once you get people here, they like it, but getting people here can be hard,” he said. “So we know that if our goal is to grow our workforce, we need to really work hard at growing our own. And that’s one reason why the agreement with NetApp is such a win for all of us.”