Clovis News

Fresno promotes its software-development stars

The geeks are here -- and they want you to know it.

Silicon Valley claims a booming population of tech workers, but Fresno is trying to highlight its own lesser-known cadre of software developers.

A showcase of what local programmers and designers can do is under way, organized by the Central Valley Business Incubator and local software developer Irma Olguin Jr.

Participants in the event, dubbed "59 Days of Code," are creating computer programs and smart-phone applications that will be presented in a showcase event June 22.

It's an effort to draw attention to local programmers, get companies to hire them and foster growth in the local technology industry.

But as tech workers try to move out of the shadow of their Northern California counterparts, they face other challenges: Companies here may not be able to afford them, and may not yet have much use for applications for iPhones and other smart phones, according to one marketing expert.

It's not clear how many people or companies here currently do software development. The number is difficult to determine because some programmers work in other jobs by day and as free-lance software developers by night, said Olguin, who runs Geekwise, a Web development company.

She said she often hears entrepreneurs who need programmers say they can't find a local person to do the work.

But Olguin said there are plenty of talented people here, including some who are full-time freelance programmers.

Programmers operate under the radar, and people may not realize that the person sitting next to them at the coffee shop with a laptop is writing a program, said Travis Sheridan, director of member services for the incubator.

"It's not like programmers are attending a lot of Rotary meetings," he said.

Olguin wants to not only raise awareness through 59 Days of Code, but increase the number of technology workers here. An active technology community will keep more talented young people from leaving the area for jobs, she said. And it will boost the local economy because programmers often start their own companies and are highly paid.

Creating apps

Twenty-two teams of up to five people are participating in 59 Days of Code. It kicked off April 23, challenging participants to create new applications and helping them with workshops on marketing and other topics. It culminates with a June 22 event at the Clovis Veterans Memorial Auditorium, where two winners will be named.

The applications they will develop range from mobile-phone tools to Web-based applications.

For example, Michael and Lauren Wanke have teamed up with Daniel Charles to create a program that allows people with food sensitivities and those who cook for them to check which ingredients and products are safe.

The user can search for Kikkoman soy sauce, for example, and find that it's not appropriate for people who are gluten intolerant because it uses wheat as a thickener, said Michael Wanke.

He works at Fresno-based software company Forward Advantage, where he writes software that helps hospitals maintain digital patient records. But as a student at California State University, Fresno, even he wondered whether he could find a job here.

"I had no idea how many software companies were actually here," said Wanke, who graduated in 2006. "I was quite afraid I wouldn't be able to take education to employment in Fresno."

The 59 Days of Code program is not the only local effort promoting the technology industry. The Regional Jobs Initiative's software cluster, the city of Fresno's technology affinity group and the Technopolis Clovis Core Committee all hope to improve the climate for technology here.

Fresno hosts

Even if Fresno had more programmers, small businesses here might not be in a position to hire them, said Eric McCormick, founder of McCormick Mobile Media, a company that offers text messaging, Web sites designed to be viewed via cell phone and other forms of marketing.

Cell phone apps can cost as little as $5,000, but can run into the tens of thousands of dollars -- a price many local businesses can't afford, he said.

And cell-phone applications reach a limited number of people, McCormick said. About 30% to 35% of cell phones can access the Web. Of those, iPhone users are most likely to use cell phone apps, he said.

Out of 1,000 core customers for a local business, only about 75 are iPhone users here, he estimates.

"It really doesn't make a heck of a lot of sense," he said.

Because applications are so expensive, it's often more efficient to hire an out-of-town company that sells an iPhone app nationally. That's what Valley Yellow Pages did. The company bought an iPhone application from Wisconsin-based InformationPages that allows Valley Yellow Pages customers to search for nearby businesses and see them on a map.

Even large, successful software companies in Fresno may find a dearth of local customers. One example is Fresno-based Decipher Inc., which has more than 100 employees. The company programs and hosts online consumer-opinion surveys for companies like eBay, Yahoo and Google -- but doesn't have a single local customer.

But co-founder Jamin Brazil said that's not a bad thing.

"The globalization of apps transcends geography," he said. "If you've got a mechanism to get your application in front of an audience ... then it wouldn't matter where you're based out of."

And yet, it makes sense to foster the technology industry here because local demand is expected rise, especially for agricultural technology, said Joe Bezerra, a member Technopolis Clovis Core Committee, a citizen group hoping to attract high-tech companies to Clovis.

He said farmers are increasingly relying upon technology, citing cotton farmers who use aerial infrared photos to determine which parts of cotton fields don't germinate seeds as efficiently as others. With the help of Global Positioning System technology, a tractor can automatically drop more seeds in those areas.

While such technology may be too expensive for a single farmer, a local company selling it to multiple farmers makes it more affordable and practical, he said.

In the long term, that will create jobs and boost the local economy, he said, adding, "There's a tremendous future for that here in the Central Valley."