Looking out across the San Francisco Bay. Photo by Jeremy Wagner-Kaiser

Editor’s Note: Why did Jeremy Wagner-Kaiser leave his cybersecurity job at ManTech in San Antonio and move to San Francisco where he now works for RepairPal? The answer is not a simple one, but the outcome – the loss of a talented programmer in the city’s under-nourished tech community to West Coast tech heaven — is an object lesson for anyone interested in long-term, sustainable  job creation and economic development in San Antonio.

One familiar conclusion: talented programmers can make more money working in the private sector versus the federal government at, say, the National Security Agency, which is expanding operations in San Antonio.

Another lesson: tech savvy workers flock to cities where they will find other tech savvy workers. The question for San Antonio: Are we doing everything possible to build that kind of community, or are we falling behind in the race to recruit and retain talented young professionals in the tech sector?

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before – it all began with tacos.

It was an evening in early January of 2012, and I’d been off the plane from Portland for less than an hour. TechStars Cloud was starting, and I was part of it. We were part of it. Luckily for us, Mi Tierra is always serving. A three-month whirlwind later, I was away again. Little did I know that I’d be back, to the city I remembered as late-night beers on the Riverwalk and brisket tacos in the morning.

In March of 2013, I took a job with a defense contractor. Once again, a flight from Portland to San Antonio, a place I confess I had never planned on living in again.

So, why San Antonio? Certainly, my then-employer isn’t centered there. HQ is in Virgina. No, I was in San Antonio because the 90th IOS is at Lackland.

The 24th Air Force, also known as the Cyber Command, is based at Lackland Annex. The mission protects the integrity of military computer systems worldwide against cyberattacks. (Photo: Courtesy U.S. Air Force)
The 24th Air Force, also known as the Cyber Command, is based at Lackland Annex. The mission protects the integrity of military computer systems worldwide against cyberattacks. (Photo: Courtesy U.S. Air Force)

That reason is important, because it cuts right to the heart of the subject matter. That is, the state of tech in general – and cybersecurity in particular – in San Antonio, and what can be done to grow it.

Right now, there are two main foci for cybersecurity work. One is San Francisco and the other is Washington D.C.

D.C., Arlington, Fairfax, Ft. Meade, and so on are the center of the defense contracting world. It is there that huge companies meet the every need and whim of military and intelligence agencies. It is only to be expected that cybersecurity will be huge there.

San Francisco is a beast of a different color. No, I don’t mean their (in)famous politics. I mean that in SF, cybersecurity is primarily a private sector affair springing forth from the larger technology industry. Products, rather than services, are generally the order of the day.

Both cities share several key factors. For one, both are bastions of higher education. The SF Bay has two of the world’s best computer science schools close enough to hate each other – Stanford and Berkeley. DC has the ability to attract talent from Columbia, Georgetown, MIT, and other nearby major universities. For building industry, a large talent pool is crucial, and both areas have it.

Cat cafes – another San Francisco amenity. Photo by Jeremy Wagner-Kaiser.
Cat cafes – another San Francisco amenity. Photo by Jeremy Wagner-Kaiser.

UTSA, by comparison, is an up-and-coming school with a long road ahead of it. I cannot comment on the curriculum, but by general reputation it does not measure up to the standard of UT Austin. Certainly UT Austin is considered an excellent computer science school, but we are all aware of the difficulty of getting people to move from Austin to San Antonio.

What San Antonio does have is a large pool of people accustomed to discipline and working for the federal government in general, and military or intelligence in particular. Some of them are very talented engineers. There is a big difference between the training enlisted personnel receive to become programmers and your typical bachelor’s of computer science, however. Seamless crossover should not be assumed.

Perhaps the strongest advantage San Antonio’s labor force has its that its many veterans are deeply familiar with the needs of military and intelligence customers. It is difficult to overstate the value of this. Were a significant number of those veterans to receive sufficient education, it could mean a talent pool of considerable size. Infrastructure-light industries such as technology tend to go where the talent is, and that place could be San Antonio.

Needless to say, a great many other cities have the same aspiration, but San Antonio’s unique labor pool is a significant advantage in the government contracting arena.

The road to becoming a private sector juggernaut is more complex and hinges in no small part on the ability of San Antonio to attract venture capital firms. Geekdom, and the Geekdom Fund, are an excellent start. However, until San Antonio startups begin making national news with major exits, this will remain a sticking point. There is money locally, but relatively few of those with it are willing to lose their investments the majority of the time.

Notes on a window, a common sight in break rooms at Geekdom's former headquarters downtown. Photo by Lily Casura.
Notes on a window, a common sight in break rooms at Geekdom’s former headquarters downtown. Photo by Lily Casura.

One of the drawbacks of government contracting merits special discussion and ties directly into why I left San Antonio. When the sequester came down, my director called me into his office. He explained, in a roundabout manner, that I should update my resume and begin job hunting. I managed to keep my job, but not all of my coworkers were so lucky. Looking at what I’d been doing and what I enjoyed, I decided it was time to move from software engineer to software engineering manager.

As I quickly discovered, there weren’t many software houses hiring in San Antonio. There were even fewer hiring at the level I was at and wanted to be at. So I left, seeking greener pastures and a large enough market to ensure I wouldn’t spend significant amounts of time unemployed.

It worked, but I still miss the tacos.

*Featured/top image: Looking out across the San Francisco Bay. Photo by  Jeremy Wagner-Kaiser.

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Jeremy Wagner-Kaiser

Jeremy Wagner-Kaiser escaped the frozen north of his birth and education to become a software engineer west of the Mississippi. He has worked in web advertising, cybersecurity, cloud computing, and e-commerce....