Local tech leaders weigh in on the challenges and opportunities in their fast-growing sector, along with the economic role they aim to play in Lafayette’s future.
Earlier this year, Lafayette was named one of America’s 50 Most Innovative Tech Hubs by the millennial-targeting financial website NerdWallet, which touts its list as a guide for understanding where the impact of tech funding, innovation and startup activity is the strongest. “Resident for resident and startup for startup, these cities have an outsize impact,” the story’s author writes.
Lafayette ranked No. 47, sandwiched between Charlottesville, Va., and New York, N.Y., with a tech density of 1.40. That density is a ratio that compares new companies in a region to the number of new companies in the U.S. controlling for population. For example, if an area’s density is more than one, NerdWallet notes, the area has a higher than average number of new tech companies.
ABiz turned to the following local experts to find out what’s driving Lafayette’s reputation as a tech hub and what the future holds for our tech community: Jacob Landry, president of Rader Solutions; Ned Fasullo, chief marketing officer of Global Data Systems; Christopher S. Hebert, founder and CEO of Aristotle’s Alexander; John W. Munsell, CEO of Bizzuka; and Tre King, solutions architect at InFascination.
WHAT ARE THE EMERGING NEEDS YOU ARE SEEING AMONG YOUR CLIENTS?
JL: Without question, it is educating the workforce on the topic of Internet security. Executives understand the importance of being able to access company data from anywhere and rely on the Internet to deliver this essential component to their business continuity strategy. Unfortunately, this created a sophisticated and profitable business model in the malicious industry of malware and ransomware. It seems like every day we are reading about a security breach in large Fortune 500 companies and government agencies. The good news is there are companies such as Rader that specialize in the technology, policies and procedures that make data accessible to those who need it and keep it protected from those who don’t.
NF: This is a two-fold answer. GDS provides solutions to the public and private sector. In the public sector, almost everything is centered around cost-reduction due to continuously shrinking budgets. In the private sector it’s more about consolidation of efforts and the convergence of the communications and technology into one system. The Cloud makes a compelling solution for both sectors.
CH: Given current oil prices, companies are looking for ways to reduce operational costs, Days Sales Outstanding (DSO) and cost of capital while improving billing accuracy, accelerating payments and stabilizing cash flow. These have historically been key areas of focus for virtually every company; however, their importance has been magnified in the current market environment. Everyone is having to do more with less. In response, clients are implementing strategies, supported by technology solutions, to yield smarter and more efficient management of their operations. To meet these challenges, we’ve developed an integrated suite of Cloud-based and mobile app solutions to streamline processes providing new insights, ROI and real business value; planning tools that better schedule, dispatch and utilize available equipment, resources and personnel; field ticketing solutions that work online or offline, allowing field personnel to pull customers, inventory, equipment and contract pricing from any accounting or ERP; and AR/AP Invoicing solutions built specifically for real-time electronic integration with billing portals such as Oildex, Ariba, ADP, Chevron, Quadrem, Cortex and Direct. By eliminating multiple data entry points, reducing staff burden, ensuring compliance with contract pricing and reducing DSO, clients are realizing a distinct advantage over the competition, including significant annual cost savings and improved cash-flow positions. In addition to field operations, field ticketing, asset management and AR/AP electronic invoicing solutions, we’re also seeing strong demand for Cloud and mobile technology solutions centered on learning management training, safety, QHSE, supply chain integration and business intelligence.
JM:** Mobile websites and mobile apps are emerging needs. On the mobile site side, mobile traffic to websites has now hit critical mass for virtually every business. We are seeing rates from 10 percent to as high as 70 percent, depending upon the business and industry. Google’s new algorithm gives favorable rankings to websites with mobile-friendly versions. While most sites had little negative traffic adjustment after the implementation of the algorithm, some have seen huge increases in traffic. In fact, we had one client with a mobile-friendly site experience a 700 percent increase in traffic. As far as businesses losing traffic because of the algorithm change, that was a bit of a non-event. Thus far, none of our clients has experienced any significant drop off because of the change. On the mobile app side, the Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) age seems to be giving some businesses problems. Hospitals, for instance, fear that the employees will be playing around on their smartphones, chatting on Facebook or browsing through Pinterest when they should be paying attention to their patients. However, the reality is that the mobile device is becoming an employee’s preferred method of communication, especially for millennials. Smartphones have proven to be a very effective communication tool in the workforce and not the disruptive devices many fear. Email has become fragmented and cluttered. Most people have at least three different email addresses, and each of those email channels is consistently hammered with spam and useless communication. We’re seeing clients use mobile apps to communicate more effectively and efficiently with clients and employees. Specifically, businesses or organizations that have a more distributed workforce or membership (i.e., they’re not sitting in the office all day by a desk or they’re not on the organization’s email system) are using a variety of mobile apps to get away from email and communicate in a method that is not so cluttered with noise and spam. Apps like Slack, What’s App and even our own Thinbox are helping businesses and organizations find ways to reach members in a manner that makes the most sense to the recipient of the message.
TK: Cybersecurity is a growing concern. Many business websites are not using SSL encryption on their web traffic, which allows hackers the opportunity to intercept that traffic using techniques like M-I-T-M (man in the middle) or “ARP spoofing.” The majority of area web development and hosting providers are not able to offer SSL encryption or choose not to offer it.
CAN YOU IDENTIFY ANY EARLY ADOPTERS OF NEW TECH TOOLS OR TACTICS THAT ARE SHOWING SOME RESULTS?
JL: We strongly believe companies that have made the decision to focus on their core business and utilize fully managed services for their technology needs have a huge competitive advantage. We have customers across the country who experienced a natural disaster but were able to be the first in their market to get back to business because their entire IT infrastructure was hosted in the LITE Data Center. Eric Guidry, COO of the Community Foundation of Acadiana, said it best, “Rader gives me one less thing to have to worry about.”
NF: Certainly in the energy and health care sectors we see early adopters of the latest and greatest. With the energy sector, it’s all about getting voice, data and security to remote and hard-to-reach locations, like the middle of the Gulf of Mexico or the wilderness of Wyoming. With health care we see innovation in measures around compliance and physical security for sure.
CH: One of the innovators and early adopters we’ve worked with is United Vision Logistics. Alex Mottram and his team have leveraged transformative B2B technology to integrate their supply chain from procurement to payment. They’re connecting to vendors and customers electronically in real-time, providing operational efficiencies and value throughout the entire process. Their relentless pursuit of safety has driven them to develop state-of-the-art information services providing integrated fleet management, regulatory and incident tracking and hazmat-certified transportation solutions. Arrow Aviation engages in selling, leasing and repairing aircraft for commercial, offshore, corporate, emergency, medical and private aviation clients. It offers helicopter leasing services; sells new and used helicopter parts; and manufacturing, installation, and product support services. Richard Campbell, CFO, has been able to achieve unparalleled operational efficiencies through the use of vendor and customer AR/AP integration technologies across multiple business systems and subsidiaries. By connecting operational and accounting systems in real time, processes which used to take days are now performed in seconds. These operational improvements are passed on to their customers providing them with a distinct competitive advantage. Pine Island Chemical Solutions is a full-service oilfield chemical company offering a wide variety of products and services to the Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas markets. Pine Island President John Michael Chachere has deployed Cloud-based applications to manage all aspects of field operations — from tracking wells and tanks on fields for customers to running reports and submitting field tickets. By implementing field ops Cloud and mobile applications, Pine Island has been able to streamline its field operations allowing it to more proactively respond to customers and their chemical management needs. Superior Performance is an industry leader in premium threaded tubing and casing products and services. The executive management team at SPI invested in software tools and platforms that would allow them to stay one step ahead of customer and regulatory requirements. Leveraging Quality, Health, Safety and Environment software, SPI’s management system currently exceeds industry requirements providing them with a competitive advantage. Clearflow Solutions is a specialized filtration company providing custom solutions to the oil and gas, refining, petrochemical and environmental markets. Clearflow was an early adopter of Cloud applications that allowed them to better manage their rental assets and personnel. The business value was up to date visibility into their resources, improved billing accuracy and better resource utilization. The added business intelligence allows them to respond to customers’ needs in real-time, enhancing their relationship as a trusted partner. PetroQuest Energy is an independent energy company engaged in the exploration, development and acquisition of oil and natural gas reserves. Bill Russell, IT manager and early adopter, is leveraging Cloud technologies and services for mission critical business applications to provide PetroQuest with high availability, redundancy and disaster recovery during major natural disasters or events. Business continuity during these events is vital for PetroQuest’s employees and shareholders. By deploying Cloud technologies they are able to maintain mission critical services and communications when they need them the most.
JM: We have several sports teams using Thinbox (read more about Thinbox on Page 22) successfully, because they can reach participants (parents, coaches and players) via push notification, text message or email in one single app. We’ve also got a fast-food franchise using it for the same reason. The recipient gets to choose how they receive the message, making it easier for the employer to reach everyone. While we use Thinbox for pushing out critical information, we use Slack as our primary method of internal communication. It has cut down on our internal email flow by 30-50 percent and has increased cross-departmental communication significantly. This new level of transparency has made our company and our production process far more efficient and has also greatly improved morale. Slack seems to be taking off, as the company recently raised more than $120 million on a valuation exceeding $2.8 billion. Not bad for a 3-year-old company. They have many success stories where companies have virtually eliminated email as the primary means of internal communication.
TK: Cyber security services such as breach detection, server monitoring and SSL encryption are excellent examples of tactics and technologies our clients enjoy the benefit of — for protecting their communications. Hackers are not able to decrypt website traffic when you see the padlock icon in the address bar of your browser.
AS AN EMPLOYER IN THIS SECTOR, WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES AHEAD?
JL: Our biggest challenge as an employer in this sector is also our greatest advantage and differentiator: hiring great communicators who are passionate about technology. Once we find these unicorns, the opportunity is to give them an environment to be motivated, challenged and inspired by the collective team and atmosphere. We work very hard at Rader to make decisions based on our Job of Choice value, which in turn allows our culture to blossom from the inside out. The Lafayette tech industry is booming, and I am confident our passion for creating a certain quality of life both in and out of the office will continue to be a winning strategy.
NF: Workforce development and training are the top priorities for anyone in the technology or communications sector. Not losing talented people out of college to other states is always a concern as well.
CH: Given the rapid decline in oil prices and resulting industry downsizing, the market appears to be in a state of fear and uncertainty at this point. Many companies are in liquidity preservation mode, unsure of how long they will have to ride out the storm. Companies are downsizing, budgets are being cut, and timelines are being delayed. However, there are many forward-thinking executive management teams that clearly recognize the opportunity at hand. Yes, they realize the need to be cautious and methodical; however, they also see this pullback as a chance to take a breath, strategize, get lean, make operational improvements, target M&A activities and prepare for the next round of growth. They are making strategic investments into technology that will enable them to be better, stronger, faster. When the market returns, they will be better positioned than the competition. They will have the technology. We’re aligning ourselves with these forward thinkers to help them strategize and implement. Our view at Aristotle’s Alexander is that the opportunity is in the challenge itself.
JM: The greatest challenges we face as an employer in this sector is the increased demand for skilled and knowledgeable workers in this space. There are fewer workers available and more and more employers seeking these types of workers; therefore, it has become highly competitive. This, of course, puts upward pressure on salaries, which in turn puts upward pressure on prices or downward pressure on margins. We have had to respond by hiring people all over the country (not just local) who prefer to work from home. This has allowed us to find high caliber talent without regard to location. In turn, it has forced us to seek out products that help us communicate more efficiently with a mobile, distributed work force. So, we’ve become the poster child for the very technology we help clients implement.
TK: As with most area businesses offering technology services, finding qualified professionals can be a challenge. As a result, we have experienced team members statewide and across the country. The greatest opportunity is the growing cybersecurity awareness in the area.
OTHER THOUGHTS YOU MIGHT HAVE ABOUT TECH-RELATED TOPICS OR TRENDS WITH LOCAL RELEVANCE?
JL: The reason the tech industry is thriving in Lafayette is often under-appreciated. We have both a world-class data center and fiber infrastructure right here in our city. There are many companies that would benefit from a better understanding of how to leverage these assets.
NF: The worlds of communications and technology are on a runaway path to collide and converge. The companies that are aware of this, like GDS, are in a position to provide better solutions and more efficient costs to their customers.
JM: In Lafayette, we’ve had a number of tech companies come to town or announce their pending arrival. This theoretically means more tech jobs in Lafayette, but the reality is that there aren’t enough tech workers in town to support the new businesses. That means that the new businesses will either have to pick off talent from existing Lafayette IT firms, pay to move new workers into Lafayette, or recruit home-based workers outside of the region. I don’t think moving talent into Lafayette will make economic sense in the majority of cases, so in the short run, I’m not convinced there will be a massive influx of IT workers into Acadiana. That being said, however, the increase in job openings will be great for UL students graduating in computer sciences. It will also be a good opportunity for 9-12 feeder schools to promote programs that educate and influence future knowledge workers and help get them more prepared for UL and SLCC tech-oriented programs. If we, as a community, are able to capitalize on this, we can produce and retain a highly skilled, well-compensated tech workforce that will drive a well-balanced and thriving economy.
TK: In collaboration with INNOV8 Acadiana, the Opportunity Machine we will be hosting a regular technology-focused meet-up group called INNOV8: Frequency. The mission of this meet-up is to serve as an anchor and grow the local tech community by bringing us together frequently on predefined topics every week at LITE.
Write Leslie Turk at [email protected]
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