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Your View: Higher Education and Local Government Are Holding Back Miami’s Tech Scene

Your View shares our fellow locals’ perspectives on issues affecting our collective future. Want to weigh in? Pitch us your idea at thenewtropic.wpengine.com/pitch.

We’ve all heard the hype: Miami is the next Silicon Valley. At least that’s what my mother tells me. She’s almost 60 and read it in one of the hundreds of articles published last year that extols the growth of the Miami tech community.

“It’s amazing, Justin. CNNMoney says Miami is the best place to start a start-up right after Oklahoma City! emojiheartemojisnowmanemojisunglasses

I would love to believe her, but my mother is clearly not the best source of insight into the health of Miami’s tech scene. (She once grew concerned as to why I needed blood work when I told her I was “going to The LAB.”) The truth is the publicity surrounding our “tech scene” (a term I use, along with “tech community”, broadly throughout this article) is belied by the experiences of local observers. The fact is Miami is not the next Silicon Valley. It’s not even close. It’s also not the next Boston, Los Angeles, New York, District of Columbia, Atlanta, or Austin, all of which are exciting and prosperous hubs for emerging technologies. So what makes Miami so different and why do local companies have such a hard time competing with more established tech scenes for talent, capital, and influence? Well, it turns out it comes down to education and local government support.

Justin Wales, at a recent Emerge Miami meeting.
Justin Wales, at a recent Emerge Miami meeting.

Make no bones about it; Miami is in a period of rapid growth and it would be disingenuous to deny that our much hyped tech scene has seemingly grown out of nowhere over the last several years. The best measure of a tech industry’s health is not the number of articles written about it, but rather the number of investments made to local businesses in a given year. In 2014, Miami did not even crack the top 20. An analysis of the cities at the top of the list, and a study of their common characteristics, demonstrates why Miami is so far behind. In each instance top U.S. tech communities are located near institutes of higher learning that are renowned for their STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) curricula and are governed by municipal bodies dedicated to cultivating tech talent and entrepreneurial development through a variety of incentive programs and policies. In terms of both education and governmental infrastructure, Miami lags behind.

It would be unfair to expect Miami’s local universities to develop into the type of powerhouse institutions that anchor the nation’s most established tech communities. The University of Miami, Florida International University and Miami-Dade College will never have the history, prestige, focus, or endowment of leading STEM universities like Stanford, Cal Tech, or M.I.T. But our local universities do not need to reach such hallowed levels in order to fill the talent gap that exists in our community. For years, keen observers have witnessed young programmers leave to pursue computer science or engineering degrees at out-of-state universities because local universities do not place great enough focus on STEM. Fleeing local talent forces local tech entrepreneurs to relocate out of state to find a talent pool capable of meeting their demands, and prevents established tech companies from developing a local presence. The lack of tech companies located in Miami keeps experienced programmers from moving to Miami because of a lack of available work.

Over the past decade local universities have begun to focus more on growing their STEM programs, and computer programming “bootcamps” have emerged to help fill some of the need for local talent. However, unless and until our institutions of higher learning double down and drastically increase funding to STEM departments and make an effort to attract high-level local and foreign talent by offering more STEM scholarships, Miami will never be able to develop a robust and self-sustaining tech community.

As important as a community’s educational institutions are in fostering tech growth, the role of local government is just as important in developing a vibrant tech community. Emerging tech communities throughout the country have catalyzed growth by offering tax benefits and other incentives to lure companies to their city. Such programs have been proven to help turn once blighted areas, such as San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, into tech havens. When compared to officials for more established tech communities, our local leaders have been either woefully disinterested or outright antagonistic to the idea of implementing policies to foster Miami’s tech growth. For instance, last October Phil Levine, Mayor of Miami Beach, declared at the U.S. Conference of Mayors that “Miami Beach is never going to be a high-tech hub”, stating that Miami Beach should focus on tourism and luxury living rather than fostering tech. Mayor Levine’s comments are certainly not indicative of the attitudes of all officials throughout the Miami-Dade region, however the fact that an influential local official could so flippantly disregard the need to support local tech demonstrates how far away some of our leaders are compared to those in similarly developing municipalities who want growth for their region’s tech industry.

There are, of course, signs of hope. Investments into local businesses have increased over the last several years and a number of local tech businesses have committed to remaining part of the local community (so long as local talent exists to sustain growth). We have also seen some local leaders embrace the idea of developing municipal practices to foster tech development.

An exciting example of this recent shift towards a pro-tech agenda was the announcement on Saturday by Mayor Carlos Gimenez that the County has developed a regional open data portal, which can be found at opendata.miamidade.gov. This announcement marks a sea-change in terms of local government support of Miami’s developer community and allows, for the first time, local programmers and entrepreneurs to make for-profit and not-for-profit applications that rely on bulk County-owned data.

While the County’s decision to create a regional open data portal should certainly be commended, it is only one of many steps necessary to truly encourage the growth of Miami’s tech community. As of its launch, there are only a handful of non-GIS data sets available through the County’s data portal, and the process for requesting the addition of new data sets, as well as how often each is updated, remains unclear. Since this data is only as useful to local developers and entrepreneurs as the procedures surrounding its maintenance, the County (by means of either an executive order or a legislative enactment) needs to implement an Open Data Policy which outlines the procedures by which the County operates to maintain and grow its data portal.

That our community does not yet live up to the hype surrounding it does not mean that Miami cannot develop into a healthy and prosperous tech community. It’s just going to require patience, as well as a commitment by local educational institutions to develop talent and by our elected officials to promote tech entrepreneurialism. How to fully achieve these goals is complicated, but as with all tasks, it’s best to start with the lowest hanging fruit: local universities should commit to increasing STEM scholarships and Miami-Dade County should implement an Open Data Policy so developers can make full use of its newly announced Open Data portal.

Justin Wales is a First Amendment attorney at Carlton Fields Jorden Burt. He is a New Leaders Council Miami Fellow, a member of Emerge Miami, and he serves as a policy adviser for Code for Miami.

  • anthonyvop

    So our tax dollars should be taken from us and given to these guys so they can make money?

    Yea….no. I don’t think so.

    • luis_espinal

      Your post is proof that reading comprehension is a vanishing skill in this country.

      • anthonyvop

        Please feel free to tell me how I am wrong. I so want to see what you come up with.

  • Miles Varghese

    Chicken meets Egg. What drives STEM? Probably in part from successful startups and individuals like ourselves pushing government to ask. We operate with or without the government’s consent (i.e. Uber, Lyft). Make it attractive for the universities to double down on current efforts. Also agree on the not being silicon valley part. But I can see us being the “silicon valley” of Latin America…at the very least. Love the direction miami tech’s headed right now personally – don’t get that positive vibe from this article.

  • Imper

    Orlando is going to be the next major tech hub in Florida, not Miami. The pieces are coming together there, not to mention local government supports it highly (money where mouth is) – Miami… not so much. They have the upcoming OrlandoIX event in October which will be pretty interesting to watch. It is the first one. If it goes well enough then subsequent years it should become a lot more popular (and known nationwide) – perhaps on the level of SXSW in Austin. When I look at Orlando it really is on a path much like Austin and Austin has really grown in high tech startups and VC funding since the early 2000s. None of this is even on the level of Silicon Valley or even New York City but the growth and trajectory cannot be denied. I hate to break to you, Miami will never be any kind of tech hub for the forseeable future. Look at Orlando if you want to get a small taste of (growing) startup energy without leaving Florida.

  • Justin,

    I couldn’t agree more with your article. Miami needs to develop it’s tech abilities not so much to compete with SF, NY or even Atlanta but simply to be a viable sustainable city in the 21st century. While scholarships would help attract students, the key to this success lies in the higher ed institutions like UM, FIU and the several smaller institutions in their ability to foster research and get grants, federal grants, in STEM fields. From the private sector, companies big and small should be incentivised to invest in training – to raise the bar in technology, development and sector specific processes. There is a lot of hype around tech in Miami but that is the easy part. Until some strategic decisions are implemented, substance will be much harder to come by, unfortunately.

  • Antonio Llanos

    Money needs to be invested in our local universities to improve STEM programs to make them more attractive to top-tier students and competitive nationally. Why can’t we have the best civil engineering program focused on highway / traffic engineering, a nationally known big data specialization in computer science, or a great biomedical engineering program focused on robotic surgery? Local universities need the funding to attract top notch PhDs who in turn generate a lot of research money in these specialty fields. This research gets spun off into local companies who build the ground-breaking technology that creates great companies.

    Most bright STEM high school grads already have a full scholarship to state universities, they opt to not go here because even to spend $10’s of thousands if not $100k at a really good school has proven to be worth it. Students are attracted to like minds with similar interests in nationally prominent programs that challenge them. I see this all the time, and in fact, I personally didn’t take a full scholarship to a local state university to pursue a computer science degree at an out of state top-tier school at full cost. While they are away, they realize the opportunities out there that just don’t exist here, and if they do return to Miami, it is only briefly while they seek work elsewhere.

    You’ve got some good points though, great article.

  • Will Silverman

    Justin, One item of note: FIU alone graduates over 250 computer science/IT students every year – placing it in the top 4 nationally for number of yearly grads. We need to address more than just increasing funding to STEM departments. As a community, we need to hire students from the local colleges as interns and employees and be vocal that if they want to stay here, we can employ them. The question for me is this, “Are they learning what they need to learn to be useful employees to local tech companies?” That may be more important than increasing funding to these departments.

    • WinstonOno

      Hey Will,

      Believe me, I know how many students FIU can churn out a year. The institution is undeniably massive. I maybe was not as articulate as I intended, but my suggestion of increasing funding for scholarships was not necessarily to allow the universities to grow in size, but in stature. One way to do that is to improve the quality of its recruiting class by luring top recruits interested in STEM with free education. I would agree that our universities need to continue to reach out to the community and help place its STEM students in local tech companies through internships or job placement programs so better connections are made between education and industry and to make sure the students our local colleges graduate are ready able to contribute.

    • luis_espinal

      “Are they learning what they need to learn to be useful employees to local tech companies?” – the answer is no. We are churning people to make websites because the entire vision of what CS/IT is that is being imparted to them is … to make websites… or maybe a phone app.

      Just look at the curriculum. These students only get a few weeks of C++. There is no longer teaching of assembly. Now, the question would be “who needs those nowadays?” And that becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy – in the same way that “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”, replace the hammer for “web site” or “IT”.

      When you look at real tech hubs, people, engineers have an education that encompasses from the high level to the low level with a decent understanding of hardware/software integration.

      And that broadens the vision of what innovation is or could be, including innovative hardware/software integrated solutions (and the entire ecosystem of products that follows them.)

      It is there that real innovation comes, the one that creates revolutionary, potentially high margin opportunities.

      When “our” notion of innovation is exclusively focused on web sites in-house IT development and/or support of businesses outside of technology (retail, banking, for example) then the results of “innovation” are opportunities that are not revolutionary, typically low-margin and with salaries below the median observed in other metropolitan areas.

  • Justin,
    I would have loved to have seen some actionable items to resolve this (beyond “doubling STEM funding”). If the tech community were waiting for the government to pave the way for it down here, we would be stuck forever waiting. You seem interested in this idea, why don’t you write some follow up articles about solutions and strategies to execute on them? I am not disagreeing on many aspects being overhyped of this community.
    – Brian Breslin / Founder – RefreshMiami

    • WinstonOno

      Brian,

      The tech community will continue to evolve, innovate, and grow because there is an ever-increasing amount of money to be made by members within the community who do so. There are different motivations at play for local government and local universities–which is why those institutions lag behind the private sector with regards to innovation. As the community continues to grow it will necessarily force change among government/education (we are already seeing it — the Open Data Portal being a great example), but in order to create an eco-system where tech can truly thrive there needs to be advocates demanding more get done to promote growth in our community and better training opportunities to potential programmers, developers, scientists, and engineers.

      I’ll try to articulate some more strategies in the next article I put out and speak of specific legislation I think Miami-Dade could enact to help support tech in Miami.