When Liza Mowery Massey was hired as CEO of the Nashville Technology Council in 2011, she became the 14-year-old organization’s sixth chief executive officer and the first to be recruited from outside the Nashville area.
A former IT executive in both San Francisco and Los Angeles and the ex-CEO of consulting firm CIO Collaborative, Massey (pictured) arrived in Music City with high expectations, ready to guide the council into the decade with an outsider’s perspective and energy.
Then, after less than two years on the job, Massey — citing a desire to “spend more time with her family” — resigned unexpectedly in early July.
Insiders insist the split was amicable, but the departure was undoubtedly abrupt and unceremonious, raising the question: What’s really going on at the NTC? Is this high-profile organization — meant to grow the region’s pool of technology talent and help Nashville define itself as an internationally influential technology community — meeting its goals? And is another “outsider” likely to be hired to replace Massey.
Part of the answer could lie in the details of council’s current search for a new CEO. Board members are adamant that the new leader must come from within Middle Tennessee’s intricate web of education, technology and entrepreneurial networks.
“We’re being aggressive in our search process, and I think we’ve recognized that the next leader needs to be a bridge builder, someone who can reach out to and interact with various stakeholders,” said John Kepley, founder and CEO of technology staffing firm Teknetex, longtime Nashville Technology Council board member and chair of the search committee for the new CEO.
The council’s next leader, which it hopes to have in place by early November, will oversee a $1 million budget, four full-time staff members and a 40-person board of directors, Kepley said.
Kepley, who also chairs the council’s T3 Workforce Initiative — which aims to bring together academic, business and government leaders to expand tech talent and recruitment in the area — said that Massey, who could not be reached for comment, was “great at setting processes into place.”
“That’s very good, because the new CEO will come into a situation where all the systems and processes are functioning well,” he said. “Now we need to make sure we can move to the next level.”
David Klements, Nashville Technology Council board chair and president and CEO of Qualifacts Systems Inc., is disarmingly direct about the challenges facing the council and the next CEO, namely addressing a shortage of folks who can fill tech jobs.
“We have strong support at NTC, and in the past three or four years we’ve seen our membership double from 250 to 450 or more,” Klements said. “But I don’t think we’ve done as good a job as we could have. We’ve done a great job of identifying critical problems such as the need to fill local technology jobs, but we haven’t solved our basic problem.”
The lack of qualified workers isn’t just a theoretical concern for Klements and the many others directly involved at the NTC. He said at any given time, about 17 technology jobs remain unfilled at Qualifacts, the result of no one with the appropriate skills applying.
NTC’s own research provides concrete data showing that despite the organization’s efforts, the demand for skilled technology workers in the area continues to outstrip the supply of available qualified workers.
An NTC report released in May showed the number of technology-related jobs in the region wasn’t decreasing. In the first quarter, there were 838 technology-related jobs advertised in Middle Tennessee, compared to 836 in the last quarter of 2012. A similar NTC report released in 2012 showed nearly identical results.
“We always have positions open,” said David Condra, former NTC board chair (2000-05) and the CEO and founder of Amplion Clinical Communications. “I wouldn’t say we aren’t able to fill them. It’s just that it takes longer. Not all technology talent is created equal.”
Kepley and Klements, both highly active in NTC, stress they want the organization to finally make a dent in filling the job openings. They say all eyes will be on the new CEO to lead the effort.
And they aren’t looking for a national powerhouse unless that person has deep knowledge of the local technology community’s family tree and is willing to maneuver freely within it. They want a communicator who can convince high school and college students in the area to stay in Nashville to hone their tech skills or inspire mid-career or underemployed professionals to retrain as programmers or coders.
That same person would be able to make even deeper inroads into key talent hubs such as Vanderbilt University.
“We already have a mandate that tells us filling technology jobs here is a priority,” Klements said. “We need a leader who’s a connector, someone who sees commonalities and brings people together.”
Condra thinks Vanderbilt is a resource that’s never been fully tapped.
“The Vanderbilt community is very, very significant,” he said. “I just don’t think we’ve been as successful as we could be at converting the talent and ideas [from Vanderbilt] into tech jobs in Nashville.”
Meanwhile Kepley sees great promise in the Nashville Software School, a 2011-launched nonprofit startup that identifies and trains people from all industry sectors to become software developers.
John Wark, founder and CEO of the school, thinks a key way to grow a pool of software developers that can make a formidable dentin filling empty job openings is to approach the problem on a grassroots level.
Wark says everyone involved, including NTC, needs to move from the idea of finding a specialist and hiring her or him to identifying a talented generalist and training that person.
“I think NTC could take an even more aggressive posture in looking for broader solutions to the jobs problem,” Wark said.
“We can’t just say it’s an education problem that schools, colleges and universities need to address.
Since 2012, the Nashville Software School has graduated 40 students, 25 percent of which came from outside Middle Tennessee. The school’s five-day-a-week, six-month program carries a tuition of $1,000.
The majority of the school’s graduates have been hired in jobs that pay an average annual salary of between $40,000 and $50,000 a year, Wark said.
Kepley says the school is just the kind of organization to which NTC wants to build a bridge. “It’s a fantastic program,” Kepley said. “I think they can have a long-term impact.”