Julia Kanouse is the CEO of the Illinois Technology Association, the leading voice for Chicago’s tech community. We recently sat down with Julia to learn what ITA does for the region, ITA member companies, and individuals who are looking for employment within the Chicago tech industry.
How does the Illinois Technology Association serve the needs of tech companies in the state?
ITA functions as a business services organization, providing our members with access to the local tech economy, resources to attract and retain top talent, and visibility for their brand. Our goal is to connect and strengthen the local tech community – to drive the kind of investment, talent, and innovation that will make people talk about Chicago (and Illinois as a whole) as a leading tech ecosystem.
What’s the purpose of ITA’s Talent Advisory Board, and how does it provide value for ITA member companies?
Our Talent Advisory Board brings together Chicago’s leading talent acquisition experts to collaborate about how to attract and retain top talent in Illinois. The board serves as a resource to our members – providing counsel, advice, a sounding board, etc. whenever they need it. The Talent Advisory Board also collaborates with ITA staff to identify initiatives that will help position Chicago as a premier destination for technology talent.
What is the state of the tech market in Chicago right now as compared to other cities, states, or regions?
The tech market in Chicago is growing significantly. While there is no question that California remains the leader in the venture capital market with more than 50% of all investment dollars going into the state, Chicago is outpacing all “Tier 2” regions. Other than Silicon Valley, Chicago has had more unicorn exits in the last five years than any other area of the U.S. including New York City, Los Angeles, and Boston.
There are a few things that set Chicago and the Midwest apart from other regions. One key reason is that it costs less to do business in the Midwest than other regions; it’s 21% more expensive in Boston, 25% more expensive in New York, and 42% more in San Francisco. As a result, we see that Midwest-based companies are a better value for investors. Our partners at Hyde Park Angels did an evaluation of how much capital it takes to maintain a 10% ownership in a company from Series C in the Midwest region versus Silicon Valley and Tier 2 regions like the Pacific Northwest, Boston, Los Angeles, and New York. They found that in the Midwest, maintaining that ownership requires around $2.27 million, which is the lowest of all the other regions I mentioned. In fact, in Silicon Valley that same purchase requires $4.98 million, or 2.2x more than in the Midwest.
If a tech company owner/executive were to say to you, “I’m hesitant about being part of a collaborative tech community, because I don’t like the idea of partnering with the same companies with whom I’m battling for the same tech talent,” how might you respond?
As we have worked with our member companies, what we have found is that there is a firm belief that “rising tides lifts all boats.” In general, we find that by working together to increase the total size of the pie, everyone benefits. When there are more candidates attracted to the region in general, there are more candidates for each individual company to choose from. By working together and showcasing the diversity and depth of tech companies in the region, we have a better chance of bringing talented individuals to Chicago because they see it as a place where they can have a long career and not just a singular stop at one company.
For a company who is trying to attract the strong talent, what suggestions would you have regarding the level of salary they should offer for a particular position?
While salary and benefits certainly matter, we simply encourage our members to be competitive. We publish an annual salary survey that helps them know and understand what the low, average, and high salary are by job title and level. This year, we are adding additional benchmarking criteria to the survey around healthcare and other benefits like 401(k)s. As long as a company knows they are competitive in the marketplace, small differences in salary won’t matter much. At that point, what becomes more important is culture and type of work. Many candidates have the luxury of weighing the “softer” benefits of the job to ensure a good fit for their work style and long-term career development. Paysa is also a good place to start your research to understand your market value.
What types of soft skills are tech companies looking for in job applicants these days?
I think it varies depending on the culture of the organization, but generally I think they are looking for individuals with an entrepreneurial spirit and a sense of innovation. Most tech companies are founded or driven by those principals and are looking for individuals that can carry that through to their own individual projects and initiatives.
For job seekers in the tech industry, what would be the advantages of working for a startup instead of a company that is transitioning from a small to medium-sized company (and vice-versa)?
In a smaller organization, it is more likely that individuals will need to function as a “jack of all trades” within their area of expertise. For a software engineer, that might mean that he or she is doing front end and back end development and also handling quality assurance or configuring environments. For a marketer, it could mean that he or she is writing content, managing social media, and developing integrated campaigns. Over time as a company grows, it is able to add staff and increase activity, which in many cases means that team members can begin to specialize. For example, the engineer starts to focus on just DevOps, while the marketer dedicates himself or herself full-time to content development.
In terms of which is better, it depends on the individual and often depends on the stage of their career. Some would prefer to function in an environment where they get to do a little bit of everything; others are looking to gain deep expertise in one area.
What will be the major challenges for tech companies in Illinois (and the U.S.) in the years to come?
Attraction of talent will remain a challenge for our members in the foreseeable future – in particular, the attraction of a diverse set of candidates. Many tech companies throughout the U.S. are working to diversify their employee base; adding more women and people of color is a key priority. In Illinois, we will also have to continue to work hard to attract investment dollars. Because we are sometimes viewed as “fly-over” country, we have to do a better job of telling the success story of our region and ensuring we build a robust community that is focused on growing the local tech economy.
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