Standing On the Shoulders of Giants: Keeping Austin’s Future Bright, Part 2

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I’m celebrating my 23rd year in Austin, this year. Longer than most; not as long as many others.

But one of the benefits of having a couple of decades of experience in a place is that you gain a better appreciation for what shaped it.

Which is why I’ve found myself more frequently thinking about and using the phrase in the title of this post, recently.

I suppose a similarly considered title like “To Know Where You’re Going, It Helps to Understand Where You’ve Been” would have worked well too.

Either way, the point is that earning the 2017 rank of Number 1 among US cities to live and work, as Austin was dubbed recently by US News & World Report, doesn’t just happen overnight.

Austin wasn’t always the startup and tech-lifestyle-friendly nirvana that the rest of the US sees. In fact, Austin wasn’t always even Austin!

Most people don’t know that before becoming Austin, the town we know and love was named “Waterloo.” (Ah, you may be saying: *that’s* why there are so many things around here named Waterloo…Waterloo Records, Waterloo Icehouse, Waterloo Park, etc.)

But, a more important name for Austin to the tech community is “Technopolis.” That is the name for cities-like-Austin that were described in the seminal academic paper “Creating the Technopolis: High Technology Development in Austin.”

A key insight of that paper was the multi-part conceptual framework — the Technopolis Wheel — describing the process of high-technology development and economic growth that contribute to a city becoming what Austin is, today.

The wheel reflects the interaction of seven major segments in the institutional make-up of a technopolis: 
• the research university, 
• large technology companies, 
• small technology companies, 
• state government, 
• local government, 
• federal government, and 
• support groups.

Last among the authors of the “Creating” paper is someone on my short-list of first among the giants, on whose shoulders we stand, Dr. George Kozmetsky. He was a tireless ambassador promoting Austin’s future as a tech hub and UT-Austin’s central role in making that future come true.

I love the picture of George, at right, because it shows two other giants on my list: Admiral Bobby Inman (left) and Michael Dell (center).

Dell, it could be argued, is the first modern-era, Austin-born startup with an exit that created a generation of entrepreneurs, investors, and community leaders that have stayed to launch and build countless new ventures.

Admiral Inman has a special place on my giants list, due to his stewardship over the Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation, or MCC, as became known. You can read his story about how Austin was chosen in a highly competitive, national process to become the home for a major federal program intended to recapture and preserve the United States’ position as the leader in computing in my book Naturally Caffeinated.

Reflecting on Austin at the time the Technopolis paper was written and Austin now, I’d offer three personal observations that I hope readers will consider, if we want to keep this city great.

1 — Never sacrifice quality of life

Never sacrifice the slices represented in the “Local Government” segment — quality of life, infrastructure, and competitive rates — to the benefit of the other segments. Always insist on significant, meaningful compromise.

Personally, I consider quality of life among the most important, secret ingredients for the success of Austin. And your local government, via the City Council and City Manager’s offices, are the leaders entrusted with protecting and advancing this quality of life into the future. One word: Vote!

2 — Get involved in higher education

Get involved at UT-Austin or one of the other higher-ed institutions from the “University” segment in Austin, like St. Edwards University, Concordia, ACC, etc. You may have attended or graduated from another great school, but the success of Austin’s resident colleges and universities is deeply connected to the success of Austin as a place to live and work.

This connectedness and important role of the university, esp. UT-Austin, is a key topic of “Sustaining the Technopolis,” the 2013 sequel to the original paper. In addition to the institution itself, UT-Austin’s graduates are active entrepreneurs and investors in the Austin tech community. For example, about 10% of Capital Factory’s mentors — people like Don Craven, Mary Scott Nabers, and Josh Kerr — are UT-Austin graduates.

3 — Pay-it-forward

Pay-it-forward through Austin’s rich segment of “Support” groups. Austin has a strong welcoming personality, which comes directly from men and women who are willing to take a meeting and offer an invitation or an introduction to new arrivals.

Among my women giants, in this regard, is Carol Thompson, who had probably already met with and helped more people by the time I arrived in Austin 20 years ago than I will in my lifetime!

And yet, Carol has continued offering a kind-yet-direct word of advice or a friendly introduction to the next generation of newcomers, as you can learn for yourself in her “We Are Austin Tech” video.

So, when you see Carol, or Bobby, or Mary, or Michael, or any of the other Austin giants, say “Thank you.” And, better yet, ask them what you can do to help keep Austin’s future bright. I’m sure they’ll have an idea!

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