By Daisy Fuentes
Lead Organizer for Women Techmakers Modesto

Attracted by the Central Valley’s growing high-tech workforce, innovative companies such as Tyler Technologies, Oportun and Varsity Technologies have moved jobs to Modesto in recent years.
Nautilus Technologies’ $100 million data barge will be opening this month at the Port of Stockton as well. Bay Area-based companies, out of available tech talent and affordable housing for their workforce, are increasingly building relationships with potential partners in the Central Valley.

Without an adequate tech talent base, however, the Central Valley will lose its appeal for high-paying Bay Area companies. The best paying jobs of the future all require tech skills, so building large-scale, low-barrier tech education capabilities is critical to ensure our continued prosperity. Agriculture and manufacturing jobs have been irreversibly declining as a share of overall U.S. employment for many decades. Today, agriculture-related jobs and manufacturing jobs make up only 12% and 8% of all domestic jobs respectively. Innovation hubs, cities with large pools of tech talent, are now and will continue to be the primary drivers of high-wage job growth domestically for years and years to come. While 60% of IT-related jobs have been outsourced overseas, many of the highest value software development projects continue to be more effectively completed with highly collaborative U.S.-based teams driving an ever-increasing demand for U.S.-based tech talent.

The U.S. population is increasingly diverse. Specifically, our customers are more diverse than they have ever been in the history of this country. Building out a more diverse workforce is now critical for businesses looking to grow and serve their customers better. Although technology, such as machine learning and data analytics, increasingly provides key competitive advantages in nearly every industry, including healthcare, transportation and manufacturing, as well as food production and processing, many groups and regions are being left behind. Black and Latino workers make up less than 5% of highly paid tech employees at leading Silicon Valley companies. Agriculture-based regions such as the Central Valley have especially been bypassed by the lucrative tech economy.

Over the last several years, a coalition of tech-minded companies and organizations in Stockton and Modesto have been working diligently to help the region’s workers and companies better compete in the ever-expanding tech economy.

Women Techmakers is one such group. A non-profit initiative founded by Google, the Modesto chapter provides visibility, community and resources for women in technology, and for those considering technology as a career path. Through its networking effort, it educates, encourages and demonstrates the important role women can command in promoting technology throughout the Valley. Women Techmakers partners with local tech organizations Bay Valley Tech, Datapath and others to increase tech diversity. Women Techmakers has given women the opportunity to tell their stories and share their knowledge. They have created community, opportunities, mentorship and above all, a safe space to advance their experience and ideas.

From this group arose the first International Women’s Day event bringing together a diverse group of influential leaders in tech. This event was organized by both Women Techmakers and Dr. Lenita Williamson, President and CEO of ProcedureCard. Sustain the Valley (sustainthevalley.org), a COVID-19 resource site that has grown into much more than just that, helps the Central Valley find resources for job placement, affordable internet and even first-responder and healthcare worker discounts. This site also focuses on supporting local businesses in the Central Valley. Sustain the Valley was created by Lourdes Lopez, Zoraida Martinez and Daisy Mayorga, all of whom met through the Women Techmakers space.

Google Developers’ Group Modesto, formed in 2013, is another organization geared toward educating and uplifting workers into the technology realm. Jim Hutson, a local software developer and a capable team of volunteers organized GDG’s first local “Dev Fest” last year, which attracted about 50 local technologists from all types of businesses, and attendees listened to speakers who were fostering technology in our region. This group brings together software developers with all skill levels for community-led technical learning and a shared passion for Google technologies.

Valley Hackathon is one of the largest annual tech events in the Modesto/Stockton area. The programming contest is sponsored by many local companies and draws more than 200 (legal) “hackers” eager to showcase their software talent to win thousands in prizes. Organizers of the Valley Hackathon also support high school and junior high tech events in the region.

Bay Valley Tech’s Free Code Academy is training hundreds of new computer programmers across the Central Valley and SF East Bay, helping underrepresented groups successfully gain entry into tech careers. Led by tech entrepreneur, Phillip Lan, Bay Valley Tech (www.bayvalleytech.com) has quickly become the region’s largest digital workforce initiative. Bay Valley Tech students are securing high-tech job offers from leading local companies such as E&J Gallo, Novo Technologies and Tyler Technologies.

ValleyWorx Tech Co-Working Space accelerates growth of the local tech ecosystem by facilitating expansion of Bay Area tech companies to the Central Valley, as well as helping local tech entrepreneurs grow faster and smarter. If you are a startup entrepreneur, freelance consultant or established company, ValleyWorx’s business community and flexible office space options will be a tremendous asset to help your company grow.

Software Meet-Ups are now held frequently throughout the Stockton/Modesto area to help developers learn new skills, network with employers and other professionals in the industry. These meetings have covered topics such as JavaScript, React, Angular, Python, Virtual Reality and even include Code Challenges and Gaming Nights.

Public education is doing their part as well. Modesto Junior College is ramping up to meet the ever-increasing demand for workers in computer science, information systems, database administration, network administration and web development. Their computer science department now trains 200 students per year and its instructors frequently collaborate with the local tech community. MJC students field competitive teams at the Valley Hackathon contests every year and have secured internships and then jobs through connections at ValleyWorx. The Stanislaus County Office of Education as well as innovative schools in Modesto, Turlock, Patterson and Ripon are increasing focus on software coding.

Unlike many software professionals, I did not study programming in high school and college. But like many of you, I had aspirations to grow beyond where I started. My path to a tech career was a non-traditional route that is actually becoming more common. In 2007, I secured a position as a General Wine Worker and Machine Operator at E&J Gallo, the world’s largest winery. Seeing an opportunity to transition into more challenging work and a higher salary, I decided to learn about software development. To be honest, it wasn’t always a smooth journey. I can tell you that every aspiring software developer needs lots of determination and a willingness to sacrifice many nights and weekends. And some tech concepts are harder to learn than others, especially if you are going it alone. Fortunately, you are not alone here in the Central Valley. Our tech community is tight-knit and always willing to help. Technology mentors like Jim Hutson were a tremendous help during my studies and attending the many software meet-ups allowed me to build new skills and connect with fellow Women Techmakers Amy Pezzoni (computer science teacher at Enochs High School) and Dr. Lenita Williamson (orthopedic surgeon and tech entrepreneur). Last year, I was offered a position as a programmer analyst on Gallo’s technology team.

Despite all of the progress in building our local tech community, we should not assume that Bay Area employers will continue to consider the Central Valley in their expansion plans. We will only be attractive so long as we have a large, growing skilled labor pool. Many cities such as Austin, have successfully siphoned thousands of tech jobs out of California. And many more are building their tech ecosystems to outcompete Stockton, Modesto and the surrounding region. If we want to fully participate in the tech economy, this is a crucial time to expand our tech coalition, pool our resources and push our current tech initiatives forward.