A new hope
By ANDREW MCGINN
Spenser Hardin once had the displeasure of being stuffed in a cubicle, that most ubiquitous of office configurations, whose design suggests, “We don’t trust that you won’t conspire against management if it weren’t for these walls, which is also why we had them covered in padded fabric, so you can’t devise a way to communicate with the coded knocks used by American prisoners of war in Hanoi.”
“But, we’re all family here, which is why your workspace is only semi-enclosed.”
A Simpson College major in computer information systems, Hardin gained enough from that internship to realize that’s not how she wanted to spend her adult working life.
“I told my mom that I could go there every day and I don’t know if anybody would know I existed. This is not where I want to work,” recalled Hardin, now 28 and a software developer at Pillar Technology in downtown Des Moines.
Nowhere at Pillar will you find a place to hide from your boss — in part because there really isn’t a boss, but mostly because the office is almost entirely open, which must lead to some pretty savage Nerf fights, if the Nerf guns collected on a table in the office are any indication.
“The whole setup feels like a home,” Hardin said. “It’s open, it’s collaborative.”
Thirsty? Help yourself to the company’s fully stocked fridge.
Better yet, pour yourself a pint — three varieties of Confluence, a beer brewed in Des Moines, are on tap, as is hard cider from Jefferson’s own Deal’s Orchard.
Even for Des Moines — a city being named with more regularity as one of the nation’s best cities for tech workers outside of San Francisco — Pillar’s approach to work is unique.
“It’s a different culture for Des Moines,” said Linc Kroeger, the guy who’s ostensibly in charge.
But the real proof that Pillar is in a class by itself is the company’s belief that it can replicate that culture in small-town rural Iowa.
Pillar, which develops software for a mind-boggling variety of needs, recently announced it will be opening an office in Jefferson, a first-of-its-kind gamble on rural Iowa for a high-tech company that will create as many as 30 jobs with starting salaries of $55,000 to $60,000.
After three years on the job, Kroeger has said, that salary could increase to as much as $75,000.
Established in 1996 and based in the booming university town of Columbus, Ohio, Pillar has an additional office — each site called a Forge — in Ann Arbor, Mich., home to the University of Michigan.
An office in Palo Alto, Calif., a West Coast “listening post” for the company, is located across the street from the flagship Apple Store.
“We’re calling Jefferson an experiment,” Kroeger, 49, explained. “No one’s really done what we’re doing.”
The experiment will see who wants to do the work of Silicon Valley in a place where the cost of living is a mere sliver of the actual Silicon Valley in California.
“We’re going to go after the expats of Iowa and people who are tired of big city living but love what they do,” Kroeger said. “So, we’ll find out.”
Pillar will hedge that bet with the creation of a talent pipeline running between a new regional career academy for area high schoolers in Jefferson along U.S. Highway 30 and its downtown office, to be located in the century-old former IOOF building on East State Street after a $1.7 million renovation.
Pillar could start settling into its new home as early as spring 2019.
“It feels like it’s going to happen in May,” Kroeger said.
Local voters April 3 green-lighted construction of the career academy at the site of a new high school with approval of the Greene County Community School District’s $21.48 million bond referendum.
The academy will be equipped and staffed by Iowa Central Community College, and will offer training at no charge to students in four strands of curriculum, including computer software.
The vote was also a referendum of sorts on Pillar’s possible future in Jefferson — announced shortly before the vote, the company’s move was contingent on passage of the bond.
“More than half the people who work in this Forge are from rural Iowa,” Kroeger said, referring to the company’s 67 Des Moines employees. “The intelligence is there. There’s just no opportunities or education. We’re solving both of those.”
Currently, Kroeger said, it takes months of additional training for even graduates of four-year colleges and universities to do the work Pillar is doing.
The career academy would enable the company to, in a sense, genetically engineer its own workforce. Those newly minted software developers would then enter the workforce free of debt.
The plan — which Pillar calls Future Ready Iowa — has the potential to reshape Jefferson’s destiny on a scale not seen since the arrival of the railroad a century and a half ago.
Kroeger visited 10 rural Iowa communities before choosing Jefferson.
“You could tell the community was hungry to do something,” he said of meeting with local leaders.
Pillar, he said, wanted to place a new Forge at least an hour from the Des Moines Forge, but not more than an hour and a half away. But, above all, it required a community college willing to embark on a partnership.
Had the bond failed, Jefferson would’ve been left without a community college presence.
Kroeger, who turns 50 later this month, admittedly isn’t sure what will happen to Jefferson once world-class technologists are turned loose on a community that presumably is more family friendly — read, older and more sparsely populated — than where they last lived.
“That’s the great discovery,” he said.
Jefferson’s population is down to levels not seen since before the start of World War II, while the median age is a good 14 years older than in Des Moines.
Will someone eventually open an organic food co-op on the Square? Will an enterprising individual step up to become Jefferson’s first Uber driver?
It’s not an overstatement to say that the nation is watching.
Pillar on April 4 hosted U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta at its Forge in Des Moines.
Kroeger was thrilled to be able to tell Acosta of Greene County’s successful bond vote and of Pillar’s plans in Jefferson. That plan — creating a parallel pathway to a good job, only with minimal to no debt — is in line with Acosta’s agenda, Kroeger said.
Brian Waller, president of the Technology Association of Iowa, isn’t aware of any other company in Iowa doing what Pillar is attempting in Jefferson.
Rural America is simultaneously the tech industry’s final frontier but also its Forbidden Zone, a no-man’s land that most are content to leave unexplored.
In Iowa, the tech industry now accounts for 8.8 percent of the state GDP ($10.7 billion annually), but the metro areas have been slow to share that wealth with their country cousins.
“No skilled talent exists to hire,” Waller said. “The cost, effort and time to do this is a big investment.”
Similarly, he added, there are no clients in rural Iowa.
“Companies invest where customers and skilled talent exists,” Waller said. “It requires an organization to do this that’s driven by more than just money. It will take four to five years to create a functioning business from scratch, which doesn’t make financial sense.”
Waller is right. It’s personal for Kroeger.
A product himself of small-town Iowa, the Independence native said that growing up in rural Iowa comes with an understanding that one must leave forever in order to enjoy a career.
The resulting “brain drain” only hastens a town’s death spiral.
Future Ready Iowa — which happens to share the name of a state initiative to increase the number of Iowans receiving education or training beyond high school — aims to rebuild rural communities and their economies, and to keep families together.
Kroeger, who originally left his hometown of Independence in the 1980s to serve in the Air Force, where he worked for five years in computer operations, stopped in Jefferson just before the recent bond vote to gauge the vibe of the community.
While dining at Breadeaux Pizza, he said he struck up a conversation with some high schoolers about the possibility of high-tech careers coming to town.
One girl, he said, was excited to be part of it.
“It’s very emotional for me,” Kroeger said. “To hear them talk about how different their future could be ...”
No, it won’t be cheap.
It could take as much as $4 million to get the IOOF building renovated and outfitted, according to Kroeger.
“That’s why companies aren’t doing this,” he said.
Ironically, Jefferson Telecom’s fiber-optic internet will be cheaper — about a third of the cost — than the same class of fiber connecting the Forge in Des Moines, Kroeger said, making for an unexpected surprise.
Chris Deal, the local resident who put Jefferson on Pillar’s radar, is acting as the volunteer developer on the project, and has pledged to forgo profit for the duration of Pillar’s long-term lease.
The building will be owned by a new LLC, Deal said, but a public-private partnership is in place to redevelop the building.
The Iowa Economic Development Authority brought $100,000 to the table April 5 when it awarded Jefferson a Community Catalyst Building Remediation grant to help rehab the 114-year-old double-storefront at 204-206 E. State St.
Nick Sorensen, city building inspector, said the city plans to commit $150,000 in tax increment financing (TIF) to renovate the building, once upon a time the meeting site of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows.
Others involved in the partnership, Deal said, include the Greene County Development Corp., Midland Power Cooperative and Blackbird Investments.
The latter, based in Des Moines, specializes in historic renovations, and recently turned the surviving portion of the downtown Des Moines Younkers into apartments and retail space following a 2014 fire. The old department store’s fabled Tea Room on the sixth floor has since been restored and turned into an events space.
As developer, Deal said he will be the one coordinating an application for historic tax credits.
Pillar opened its Des Moines Forge in April 2016, transforming a 1920s auto showroom on Locust Street into a hive of collaboration, complete with a commercial kitchen and its own events planner (the “Forge experience coordinator”) to accommodate the many guests who want to see firsthand this West Coast-style workspace in the middle of the heartland.
Visitors are greeted by a sign proclaiming, “Welcome to the power of no-constraints thinking.”
“We don’t know how many clients will actually visit Jefferson,” Kroeger confessed, noting the distance to a major airport.
The Des Moines Forge — the two-story Apperson-Iowa Motor Car Co. Building — is on the National Register of Historic Places, and was built in 1921, designed by Proudfoot, Bird and Rawson, the same firm that designed Greene County’s most treasured building: the courthouse.
Beam me up, Scotty
Nearly two dozen other companies have visited the Forge since its opening, Kroeger said, to see what they can learn from Pillar’s open office configuration.
There’s little in the way of hierarchy at the Forge, and an organizational chart is so last century.
The company’s software developers — termed “software artisans” — work mostly in small teams.
“We don’t care who they report to,” Kroeger said. “If they know what they’re supposed to do, why do you need a hierarchy?”
Office politics, they say, are nonexistent thanks to that culture.
“It gets rid of the ‘Us versus Them’ mentality that you can have with employees and management,” said Hardin, a software artisan from rural Indianola.
A recent job posting for a traveling software artisan based out of the Des Moines Forge boasted, among the perks, “hella frequent flyer miles and hotel points.”
Paternity leave is just as common as maternity leave. “You had a baby,” Pillar tells its applicants, “that’s kind of a big deal.”
The work they do is mostly kept on the down low.
“We don’t code and tell,” Kroeger is fond of saying.
Because they provide other companies with software, specifics are often few and far between.
Pillar has developed software for autonomous (that is, driverless) vehicles capable of identifying and avoiding objects and pedestrians, and stopping at stoplights.
Work in precision agriculture enables tractors to tell farmers the precise angle that seeds should be planted for an optimal yield.
Software created for emergency rooms can assess chest pain and immediately differentiate between indigestion or a heart attack, thus minimizing wrongful admissions.
A publicly traded utility with enormous databases of equipment information looked to Pillar for help, and within two weeks was given an app that allows their field workers to point a smartphone camera at a piece of equipment — the augmented reality app displays relevant data overlaid on the image.
Pillar has built its client base primarily through word of mouth, Kroeger said.
The company, which now employs more than 300 people at its four locations, adheres to a philosophy known as Agile, an approach to software development that thrives on rapid delivery and continual improvement.
Traditionally, it might take as long as 18 months to get new software to a client. But if Pillar is tasked with creating an app, the longest they go before delivering product is just three months.
“Being able to work with a lot of smart people brought me here,” said software artisan Kevin Knowles, 32, a 2009 graduate of Iowa State University in computer engineering who came home to Iowa from Austin, Texas.
Technology has progressed to the point where this kind of work is no longer exclusive to the coasts.
“Even though we live here doesn’t mean we can’t work for companies on the East and West coasts,” Kroeger explained.
Enter the Beam.
“Like, ‘Beam me up, Scotty,’ ” Kroeger said.
Each Forge has a $14,945 mobile “telepresence device” known as a Beam that has a penchant for taking off without warning and wheeling around the office with someone’s disembodied head on a video monitor.
The wheeled device enables a software artisan to wander around, say, the Palo Alto office without having to leave Iowa.
A Beam will be a must-have piece of office equipment in Jefferson.
“They’re probably going to work with companies outside of Iowa more than inside Iowa,” Kroeger said.
With the Beam, “They can still do all that cool tech and stay in Jefferson,” he added.
Fans of the nerdy sitcom “The Big Bang Theory” saw an earlier version of that technology back in 2010 when a prototype of the Beam inspired the “Shelbot” — Sheldon Cooper’s Mobile Virtual Presence Device.
On this day, Kroeger demonstrated the device by “beaming” into Ann Arbor. From his laptop more than 550 miles away, Kroeger wheeled around the Forge there effortlessly.
“Hey Linc,” a co-worker said nonchalantly as he passed by, just another Wednesday morning at Pillar.
One thing that will be noticeably absent at a Forge in Jefferson will be the beer taps. (Sorry.)
“That’s something you won’t see in Jefferson,” Kroeger said. “You don’t want to have flowing beer taps when there are so many 18, 19 or 20 year olds around.”
Seemingly every part of the Forge has a name.
The Hub is a central gathering area where employees hang out. The Launch Pad is the Forge’s first floor.
And the main meeting area is The Crucible, a nod to the vessel that collects molten metal in a real forge.
Elsewhere, employees help themselves to a fridge fully stocked with soft drinks and a pantry loaded with snacks.
You can’t help but wonder what kind of inspiring, forward-thinking name they attached to that one.
“It’s just called a kitchen,” Kroeger said.