Tech Bloc
Tech Bloc took to South by Southwest's annual job fair to recruit talent to San Antonio. Credit: Courtesy / Tech Bloc

South by Southwest Conference & Festivals’ Interactive portion wound down Tuesday in Austin, and for the third consecutive year San Antonio tech leaders said they made strides in countering the perception that a tech worker can’t make a career in the city 80 miles down Interstate 35.

Tech Bloc co-founder and CEO David Heard said that his local tech sector advocacy organization’s booth at the SXSW Job Market aimed to drive home the message that San Antonio will have a prominent place in the future tech economy.

Choose San Antonio led recruiting efforts last year and in 2016, Heard said, but as that organization evaluates a new strategy for promoting San Antonio, the City approached Tech Bloc about partnering to make San Antonio’s pitch at the job fair.

Tech Bloc collected information from about 400 prospective job candidates for between 50 and 100 employers in the local tech space, Heard said.

While most SXSW badge holders attend conference sessions and other exclusive events, anyone with an SXSW guest pass, which is free to obtain, can go to the job fair.

Heard said most of the job seekers he met live in Austin, Dallas, and other nearby locales.

Although most had a positive response to San Antonio, Heard said, the city still suffers from the perception that it is not a serious tech community.

He said San Antonio’s self-deprecating catchphrase, “Keep San Antonio Lame,” encapsulates the image problem the city faces. The city is still seen as more accommodating to a suburban lifestyle than one that a young professional might prefer, he said.

“You don’t change the brand – or the perceived brand of a city – overnight,” Heard said. “You chip away at it like a giant boulder over and over, day after day.”

Many in the tech sector gravitate to places like Austin because of the lifestyle choices afforded them. The median age of employees in the software development profession and other similar careers was 40.9 in 2017, just over a year younger than the median U.S. worker, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

A lifelong San Antonian who heads Bexar County Economic Development, David Marquez said the changes that have taken place in the city over the past several years have made it more attractive for younger people and those with more disposable income, such as tech professionals.

“There is obviously and very clearly a distinctive set of cultural scenes that are attractive to young people,” Marquez said. “We’re not fully built out yet, but the trend [in San Antonio] is in the right direction.”

He said with more food and entertainment offerings, such as at the Pearl, bolstered by a live-work-play density that millennials tend to prefer, the area’s quality-of-life advances make it easier to attract and retain tech talent.

And rather than view San Antonio and Austin as rivals competing for tech workers and entrepreneurs, Marquez prefers to view the relationship between the two cities as complementary bookends in an emerging megalopolis along I-35.

“This corridor has so much more potential if we think of ourselves as two ends of the barbell, and each plays their own distinct role,” he said. “Clearly – as is true with the music scene and certain elements of the tech scene – it’s getting so expensive to live [in Austin] because they have achieved some high-end goals that they set out for themselves.

“Full credit – they did it in a remarkable and a thoughtful way. We have a different strategy; our strategy is more diversification.”

Indeed, although Austin is flush with thriving tech startups and mature companies, some city leaders, such as Councilwoman Delia Garza there have clamored for the middle-skill jobs San Antonio has been afforded with major employers such as Toyota.

Observing that its recent prosperity had made living in Austin less affordable and access to opportunities inequitable, the city in 2017 updated its economic development policy to focus on serving lower-income workers.

The median home price in Austin was $367,000 in February, according to the Austin Board of Realtors. That’s nearly double the median price from February 2010, according to the Realtors’ board. The rising cost of living – along with Austin’s increasing appeal to out-of-towners – has pushed many longer-term residents to the area’s periphery in such cities as Buda, Hutto, and Cedar Park.

Bexar County Economic Development, which Marquez said has contributed $70,000 since 2016 to the area’s tech-sector promotion efforts, aims to put its residents first when it comes to economic development decisions.

“[Our programs] will not come at the expense of people who live here today,” he said. “In almost anything we do, there’s an element of making sure the residents of Bexar County can participate.”

Tech Bloc was one of 31 exhibitors at the SXSW Job Market. Among other cities represented were Atlanta; Lafayette, Louisiana; and Lincoln, Nebraska.

Heard said the Tech Bloc booth at the job market was not “high-dollar” but featured a clean design with the tagline “Real and Ready.”

He said among the messages he and fellow Tech Bloc exhibitors conveyed at the event is that San Antonio is a great place for building a startup with clustering in the cybersecurity and cloud computing spaces.

Having a presence at SXSW is not a magic bullet, Heard said, but part of a broader push to market its growing tech economy.

He recalled one visitor to Tech Bloc’s exhibit as saying he couldn’t be paid enough to move to San Antonio. Heard said the stereotypes about the city that may have given young professionals pause in the past are fewer and far between, however.

“After years of small incremental steps, all of a sudden within the last five or seven years there’s been some really explosive stuff breaking out,” he said.

JJ Velasquez was a columnist, former editor and reporter at the San Antonio Report.