TAI marks 25 years supporting Iowa technology companies

President Brian Waller speaks on association’s past, present and future

When the Technology Association of Iowa was founded in 1997, the U.S. was nearing the peak of the dot-com bubble and a burgeoning industry of software development and information technology was emerging in Iowa.

The state agency then called the Department of Economic Development founded Software and Information Technology of Iowa to strategize how to harness the growing number of software development companies cropping up in the state and spur the industry’s growth.

Now known as TAI, President Brian Waller said the organization has grown with its members, adapting its strategy and programming to what they need.

Around the 2008 recession, the focus was on entrepreneurship and encouraging IT professionals looking to start businesses with programs like pitch competitions.

Iowa’s technology companies have also redefined their label over the last 25 years as their technology operations have become integral to overall business strategy and advancement.

“If you were a technology executive 25 years ago, you weren’t really embedded in the business side of the business. … Now you’re seeing CIOs, CTOs, chief security officers that are literally right next to the CEO making business decisions and driving the business through technology,” Waller said.

As Waller often says, “every company is a technology company” now, from Wells Blue Bunny and Kum & Go to Sukup Manufacturing and John Deere.

To address the technology needs of these businesses that span industry and size, TAI focuses on three main areas: workforce access and development, advocacy at the state Legislature, and making Iowa a place current and new technology professionals want to live and work.

On creating a welcoming state, Waller said Iowa’s variety of technology companies can help attract a matching variety of workers.

“We have the density that you can work on great technology solutions, whether that’s precision agriculture with John Deere, whether that’s solving fintech solutions with Principal Financial or a startup company.”

Waller is the third president of TAI and in his eight years has overseen the addition of diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives like the Catalysts series and Catalysts Live event and a DEI resource guide for human resources professionals.

Other programs include the Iowa Technology Summit, the TAI Apprenticeship Program and most recently the development and launch of the Iowa Technology Leadership Institute, which helps midcareer professionals prepare to take on executive-level roles.

Below, he shares about TAI’s current work and the path forward for it and Iowa’s technology companies.

This Q&A has been condensed and edited for clarity

With the increasing presence of technology in business, how can companies and the state as a whole create a culture that supports technology advancement?
I think every organization should adopt the philosophy that they’re a technology company. I think Iowa companies need to keep an eye on emerging technologies around you, whether that’s artificial intelligence, machine learning, cybersecurity, whatever technologies that are going to impact your business in a very major way. But the last thing that the state of Iowa can do is continue to connect us to make sure we have the best internet connection and high-speed internet in the Midwest. With emerging technologies — you’ve seen 5G come on board here the last couple of weeks — that’s a game changer in the way we can communicate with each other globally. So companies can invest in the psychological thinking of your organization as a technology company, but also the state of Iowa can provide the infrastructure so we can compete globally, and that family farm in rural northern Iowa or southern Iowa can compete just as well as you can in downtown Des Moines.

At the Business Record Legislative Forecast event in January you said Iowa’s connectivity strategy should consider emerging technologies like satellite and cellular infrastructure as well as broadband. Why does TAI think this strategy is important?
The first thing is we want to communicate to the state Legislature that when you make a technology investment like Iowa did last year, we know as technology buyers at a high level that technology investments need to be enhanced, maintained, you need to continue that investment because technology moves so fast, you can’t really future proof an investment. That’s why we specifically moved our language to say we want to support the proliferation of broadband throughout the whole state, we changed the term broadband to connectivity. And we did that because, again, we need to make sure funds are available. Sure, broadband is a key piece of pipes in the ground, but we need to be open to funding someday for cellular or satellite, or other emerging technologies that can connect that final acre. We just want to, again, push people to think big and think to the future, because that’s how our membership thinks.

It’s often said that the pandemic made many businesses catch up on technology advancements. What did this look like for IT businesses in particular?
I can’t tell you how proud I am to represent information technology professionals in Iowa because when the pandemic hit, who was the one that connected all of us? It was information technology professionals within these companies. If I were to give myself advice, March 1, 2020, it would be that things are never going back to the way they were, so do not force against reality, go swim with the current of the river. You look at telemedicine and how people are comfortable now communicating with a health care provider, because they don’t feel safe to go into an office. They have to create that system to have that communication. But not only have that communication, you have to secure that network so that patient and that provider can talk privately on that secure line.

You think about the way we’re making payments and moving money around, and not using as much cash. Grocery store shopping and Aisles Online, students accessing education — at the end of the day, that is made possible by information technology professionals and information systems. So you look back 25 years ago to now and say, we are the glue in business now, we are the industry that is helping us survive and thrive in this new era.

What do you think will be the long-term effects of the pandemic on companies as it relates to technology?
The pandemic perhaps helped companies accelerate into the future to be more of a player. I use Hy-Vee and Aisles Online as an example. Aisles Online was something they didn’t think would actually be utilized five to 10 years into the future when they started developing it. Then the pandemic hits. You think if you are a restaurant, or even a retail shop, a mom and pop shop, you’re now selling your products through e-commerce, you’re helping connect your customers in a way that they don’t have to come into your store. So perhaps in some ways, it’s helped people broaden their business horizons. You think about workforce recruitment. You’d have to recruit someone physically to your company site. Now you can recruit somebody from anywhere to work for your company, and so I think it’s made businesses in Iowa perhaps a little more nimble, and a little more ready for the future to compete in the economy.

How do you view TAI’s role in the broader community?
I think our role in the community, honestly, is really to push Iowa companies, Iowa lawmakers, Iowa’s residents to think big, to think about the future, think about digital transformation and what that means to your company. I think we want to be influencing the Iowa of the future; that is attractive to a technology workforce. We want Iowa to be a destination for technology companies and workers, and so we want to continue to make sure that Iowa companies are not going at it alone in this super fast changing world of digital transformation. TAI is here to help connect companies and influence people to think big and make sure that Iowa is not only a part of the future, but leading in the future when it comes to technology solutions and technology companies and organizations.

How did diversity, equity and inclusion become part of TAI’s efforts?
One of the things in my job interview was to put a very high importance on being one of the most inclusive organizations in the state. When I came in, there were three pillars; I added this to it to be the fourth pillar. Everything we do, we’re going to look through that lens, to programming, to participation to everything, we’re going to look through that lens. Sometimes we fall short, and sometimes I’m really proud of the work we’ve done. But ultimately, if I look at it, that’s something I’m really proud of that we put a focus on, and hopefully that’s been influential to other companies to make that a priority as well.

What are the main short-term and long-term challenges facing Iowa’s technology companies?
Short-term challenge is workforce. Long-term challenge is workforce. But I will propose the long-term challenge right now is there’s a borderless war for talent. If people can live and work anywhere, the borderless war for talent in the long term is a challenge and threatening because Iowa IT employees are being recruited and getting paid double their salary to not leave Iowa but work for companies on the coasts. If you’re a company and an employee comes to you and says, ‘“Hey, I got offered double to go work for Google and I still can live in West Des Moines, I can still take my kids to school,” how can you compete with that? The long-term challenge is, what are the implications of that borderless war for talent where our residents may be living here but working for other companies? Our members don’t need that, they need a workforce. They’ll obviously do the same thing, but ultimately we need to convince Iowans that this technology industry is special, and I don’t know how that’s going to play out when those kinds of salary increases are enticing Iowa IT workers.