In the First Orion headquarters in the downtown River Market, team members — mostly under the age of 40 — congregate in conference rooms, stare intently at monitors and screens and talk animatedly to each other as they work to solve the latest data challenge. In his small glass-front office, chairman and CEO Charles Morgan leans back in his chair with a natural, broad smile. His personal style — button-down shirt, khakis and running shoes — reflects the style of the bustling tech startup around him. He’s clearly in his element.
Behind him on his sparse desk are two computer monitors. One displays the notes for a speech he’s giving later on first principle thinking. He excitedly explains the concept.
“First principle thinking focuses on the essence of why you do something,” he says. “It’s the practice of actively questioning everything you think you know about a problem and then creating new solutions from scratch. It’s the type of leadership that Sam Walton exhibited, and Elon Musk relies on it today. It’s fundamental to entrepreneurial success.
“For example, we’ve been trying to figure out how to deliver a certain data set in real-time. We assumed that’s what our customers needed and wanted. My developers have been working like crazy to solve the problem. And finally I said, ‘Wait a minute, why are we assuming we have to deliver in real-time? Wouldn’t daily delivery be just as helpful?’”
Morgan spins his chair around to his second computer monitor.
“So, this is Microsoft Access, and I am starting to write some software. I have defined this solution, and I’ll create a prototype for it and run real data through it until I get accurate results. Then I’ll turn it over to the teams to really turn it into a system. So I’m still actively involved in solving current, real problems here, and it’s just fun.”
He says with a smile, “I always need a challenge, a problem to solve. When I see a result that I have been searching for pop out of the data, I get tingly! Is that strange?”
Closing the Gap
By now, most Arkansans know the story of Charles Morgan. A self-proclaimed “gadget geek from childhood,” he joined the company that would become Acxiom in 1972. For 35 years, he grew the company from 25 employees in Arkansas to more than 7,000 around the world. He stepped down as chairman and CEO in 2007.
In 2009, the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame inductee came out of retirement to helm tech startup First Orion, a software and technology firm that, according to its website, “empowers people to trust their phones again.” For the last 10 years, Morgan has worked hand-in-hand with founder Jeff Stalnaker and his leadership team to make First Orion profitable and successful.
In a recent interview to promote his new book, “Now What? The Biography of a (Finally) Successful Startup,” Morgan explained First Orion’s primary goal. “Essentially, what we provide is transparency and trust. When your phone rings, we make it possible for you to answer that call with the assurance that it’s legitimate and not someone dunning you or trying to hoodwink you into turning over your bank account. Or, we make it possible for you to know not to answer that call.”
Morgan refers to his role at First Orion as “a helluva challenge,” so one might assume he has his hands full. But his passion for the state of Arkansas and his love of all things data led him to say yes to Governor Asa Hutchinson’s invitation to co-chair a 2017 Blue Ribbon Commission to address business challenges in computing and data analytics and identify ways to build a pipeline of local talent to fill the tech jobs of today and tomorrow.
One of the main recommendations of the commission was the formation of a nonprofit dedicated to training and sustaining an information technology workforce. Thus, the Arkansas Center for Data Science (ACDS) was born, with a mission to do three things: address the challenges of recruiting top talent in data analytics and computing; raise industry awareness and understanding; and develop, engage and retain top homegrown talent in data analytics and computing.
Morgan recruited Bill Yoder, a former team member at Acxiom, to serve as executive director of ACDS in July 2018. According to Yoder, there’s an identified gap in the state between IT skills, employers with a demand for IT resources and the current supply of qualified, talented team members. And it’s a significant gap.
“We’ve been using the number of 10,000 jobs in Arkansas that are available, with no real pipeline for filling them,” Yoder says. “We want to create more supply to meet the Arkansas demand with Arkansans, because if Arkansas talent is not available, [the employers] are going to go someplace else. They have to have the skills to grow their companies.”
ACDS is addressing this gap in a number of ways. The first is by serving as a catalyst to bring K-12 education and higher education together to discuss how students in Arkansas are trained and prepared for careers in data science.
“We focus on four areas: capability, capacity, enrollment and attrition,” Yoder explains. “Capability, when students graduate from a two-year or four-year college, do they have the skills employers need? Capacity, are we graduating enough students to fill the jobs we have open in the state? Enrollment, are there enough students in K-12 who are fired up about these careers and taking classes to qualify to get into data science programs? Attrition, when they graduate, are they staying in Arkansas and working for Arkansas companies?”
Recently ACDS hosted a workshop for higher education leadership focused on collaboration and sharing. The vision is to have the 46 colleges and universities work together to develop a standard set of curriculum in data science that leverages qualified faculty around the state and distance learning technology.
“Statewide, we have some outstanding data science programs and excellent faculty,” Yoder says. “We want to build on those pockets of excellence to create a four-year or two-year degree that’s accessible from any campus in the state. If I’m living in Arkadelphia, I can enroll at Henderson State and attend data science courses with a professor who’s physically located in Conway, Fayetteville, Magnolia or Searcy. It seems like an impossible task, but I think Arkansas is really small enough, agile enough and talented enough to make this happen.”
Where the Rubber Meets the Road
The most tangible way ACDS is addressing the need for qualified IT talent in Arkansas is through the Registered Apprenticeship Program. The apprenticeship model is one Morgan used informally at Acxiom to grow his own talent pool, and he’s extremely passionate about it.
“While [the center’s] broad charter is to address economic development in the areas of data and information technology, we wanted to show tangible results in an area of greatest need — recruitment and training,” he says. “That’s where the apprenticeship program comes in.”
The Registered Apprenticeship Program at ACDS is essentially a bridge between employers in need of skilled job candidates and the candidates themselves. The program provides employers with a larger pool of potential candidates, many non-traditional, that they can hire, develop and retain. The program is registered with the state and federal Department of Labor.
ACDS works with employers to develop curriculum specific to their needs. For example, if an employer needs Java developers, ACDS will contract with a provider to train new hires in that particular skill. The program benefits participants greatly, as they “earn and learn” at the same time. It’s a win-win.
First Orion’s Technical Apprentice Program began in June 2018. To date, the company has trained 26 apprentices over six different programs. Morgan firmly believes in the program, and his eyes light up when he talks about it.
“Every tech company’s culture and work environment is different,” he says. “Young people who are coming out of school these days don’t have any idea about how we work and how our problems are defined here. They have no idea about our security protocols or how we do our computing …
“You just can’t learn that in school. That’s why we have apprentices. We want to develop our own experts. Our apprentices spend 10 weeks in intense training that would normally take years for a new employee to learn.”
There isn’t a cookie-cutter mold for a First Orion apprentice. Some have strong math and science backgrounds, while many come to the program with degrees in social sciences. Some have previous work experience, but the majority are recent college graduates. The apprentices are full-time employees who receive a paycheck. However, they spend most days in a classroom, learning every aspect of the company and their role within it.
ACDS has had 1,500 applications for apprentice positions since August 2019. It’s filled 50 positions and hopes to fill up to 500 more statewide before the end of the year. For Morgan, this grow-your-own talent model is the answer to the gap between education and the workforce in Arkansas. It’s the way Arkansas will fill those 10,000 jobs in information technology over the next few years.
“The problem of why Arkansas is where it is ... that’s an interesting and difficult challenge,” Morgan says. “I built a global business here, and I know that you can do it, but there are barriers that are stopping us from being able to be more successful.
“[ACDS] can get us where we need to go, but we can’t lose sight of the fact that this is also about the kids,” he continues. “Kids graduating from our high schools don’t think they can find a good job in Arkansas. But they can. Do you know what our apprentices are making? From $60,000 to $70,000 while they are in an apprenticeship program. And they’re worth every penny because we’re giving them the tools and knowledge they need to be successful. They’re our future. And investing in the future is exciting.”