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Creating Cyber Heroes

By Dawson Bell

Skilled trades offer cutting-edge technical careers in evolving industries

Like many of his classmates in computer science and engineering at the University of Michigan, Cam Herringshaw could have quickly become an ex-pat after graduation in May.

“In computer science, everybody just figures you’re headed out of state to California or New York because that’s where everything is,” said the 22-year-old Macomb County native.

But three months later, Herringshaw is still here, courtesy of a groundbreaking Detroit-based fellowship program called Hacker Fellows, where he sharpened his coding skills and got matched to a full-time job offer from Duo Security in Ann Arbor, an industry leader in cyber security and two-step authentication. The experience has confirmed for Herringshaw something that he had long suspected: California may be a big part of the tech world, but it’s not close to being everything. And Southeast Michigan is a very happening place right now.

“I don’t know how to describe it,” Herringshaw said of his experience over the last few months. “It’s been a wild ride. It’s fun, and it’s exciting. There’s a sense that everyone is on the same team.”

In fact, spend a few days talking to people about what is going on in the tech sector of Southeast Michigan’s economy, and you hear that word over and again: excitement. Excitement about the pace and nature of change. Excitement about the breadth of opportunity in manufacturing, health care and information technology. Excitement over the prospect that the region is close to achieving a critical mass of traditional industry, startups and entrepreneurs to establish the region long term as a global leader in innovation.

If only they can find enough Cam Herringshaws to do the work.

“There just aren’t enough people in the pipeline to fill the jobs that are already there,” said John Carr, director of information security at Quicken Loans.

The local market for IT talent is exploding, Carr said, in large part because virtually every enterprise in the region – from the automotive industry, to health care and financial services – is increasingly aware that developing technology and protecting the information contained in it is not just an ancillary activity, but a key driver of success. Even in the depths of the 2008-09 recession, unemployment among information security specialists remained below 3 percent, Carr said.

The key is finding and training those specialists, and for those already in the field to keep pace with what he calls “a dizzying pace of change” to keep up with ever-evolving threats. Last year witnessed a stunning number of data breaches, Carr said. That left executives in every industry anxious and asking themselves “Are we safe?” without “always knowing what safe meant,” he explained. For those with the aptitude, ability and passion to assuage that anxiety, the opportunities are boundless, Carr said, not to mention exciting.

Carr likened the moves and counter-moves made by information security specialists and their adversaries to a chess match, with each side “watching every step the other takes,” he said. Maybe that’s why Quicken attracts 1,000-plus interns from 200 colleges around the country with virtually no advertising. Michigan, Carr says, is becoming an “easier sell.”

Glenn Stevens, vice president of the Detroit Regional Chamber-led initiative MICHauto, agreed. Michigan has long been “the global epicenter” for advanced manufacturing, he said, but the state has more recently become the world’s leading source of innovation in all kinds of transportation technology as demand for smart- and connected-vehicles grows exponentially. Companies, and increasingly techies, “know that if you’re going to be in the middle of where this is happening, you need to be here,” Stevens said.

A striking example of that synergy can be found at Mcity, the recently launched 32-acre testing center at U-M for connected and automated vehicle technology. The technology being developed on their campus – a virtual city with streets, buildings and traffic signals – is expected to have a major impact on the future of transportation as urban density grows and the way people and goods move change, Stevens said.

The challenge of addressing that change is far more than an automotive industry challenge. That is why the consortium behind Mcity runs from university and government agencies, to domestic and foreign automakers, to Qualcomm, Verizon and Xerox.

“If you want to work in a high-tech growth industry or on a cool product that is connected to everything, this is where you want to be,” Stevens said.

Hacker Fellows, the program that attracted Herringshaw, is one of the ways that message is being spread. Bradley Hoos, a 37-year-old Michigan native and entrepreneur, spent 13 years away from the state after earning his MBA at the University of Chicago but returned to co-found Grand Circus, a tech training center in downtown Detroit, and Hacker Fellows. The primary emphasis of the latter is identifying tech grads who might otherwise overlook the opportunities available in metro Detroit, and provide them with the training and incentives – grads get a $20,000 salary supplement – to work in the area’s burgeoning tech sector.

Computer science grads, often burdened by debt and anxious to launch lucrative careers, find it “harder to apprehend the opportunity from startups,” Hoos said. Connecting them to companies – 45 are currently working with Hacker Fellows – that are doing interesting and exciting work is the mission of the program.

The second class of Hacker Fellows is being enlisted currently, and Hoos said they are likely to play a role in what he calls the “second wave” of Detroit-area tech expansion as more venture capital becomes available and the menu of local tech industries continues to expand.

“More than anything, we’ve reached a point where there is a critical density of entrepreneurs, which is really the magic sauce that allows Hacker Fellows to succeed,” Hoos said.

As grad Herringshaw said, it has been a wild ride, but it is looking more and more like a good one.