Montgomery Business Journal

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MBJ Boyd Stephens

Boyd Stephens Plays Vital Role in Shaping Tech Talent and Start Up Success in The River Region 

November/December 2016
By David Zaslawsky  
Photography by Robert Fouts

From his particular style of dress – he’s the only one at the networking event in a sweater vest and blue jeans – to his data oriented approach to business training, Boyd Stephens stands out in the entrepreneurial crowd in Montgomery. Despite Stephens’ unconventional style, Mayor Todd Strange knew that what he had to say about the city’s tech sector and start-up scene was important, even if Strange didn’t even necessarily understand it himself.

Stephens, the founder of the network engineering company Netelysis, is a bonafide tech talent and startup expert. After years of running a highly technical business of his own that placed him in the heart of start-up havens like Austin, Texas, Silicon Valley and Portland, Oregon, Stephens garnered not only time tested methods of business development, but a deep knowledge of how the River Region’s tech talent and entrepreneur populations stacked up against other areas that have become known as tech hubs. His conclusion: The raw materials are abundant in Montgomery. A community to connect them is the key to opening a new world of growth and opportunity.

Stephens is the first to say that establishing the local high-tech community was not a one-person job. After delivering a TEDx Talk about the untapped tech potential of Central Alabama, a local millennial entrepreneur, Adam Warnke, reached out to Stephens to try and activate the community through social media. The result of this effort was the RevolutionMGM movement. This series of unaffiliated, casual meetups drew crowds of 80-100 creative professionals, software developers, and interested residents. Attendees brainstormed and socialized around the opportunity to tap into the deep pool of talent that Montgomery offers to create the quality of life elements that this population seeks in a city, such as job opportunities, creative outlets, and social entrepreneurship.

RevolutionMGM events attracted the attention of some in Stephens’ network in other cities. Soon a connection was made between James Weddle, one of the early developers of coworking and accelerator programs in Austin, Texas, and Warnke. The two partnered to create Advancing Innovation with Regional Resources or AIRR, which operates out of three renovated properties in Cottage Hill in downtown Montgomery. This innovative enterprise now offers a centrally located tech hub where startups can live and work as well as access business training and mentor programs.

Stephens and others have spent the past two years laying the foundation for the local tech community, and that meant training, community building, and creating awareness – bringing the local talent together. Now that the revolution has matured somewhat, the next steps are building multiple bridges. There is plenty of local tech talent, Stephens said, but many are not entrepreneurs.

“Overwhelmingly, most of our tech talent is risk averse; having to be the founder and CEO is too daunting,” Stephens said, “but they would love to work for such a startup.” He estimates, based on his data, that around 90 percent would rather work for someone else than start their own company.

There are others who would like to start a business and “are ready to start up companies, but 90 percent of them haven’t tapped the talent to pull it off,” he said. “Efforts are going forward” to bring those groups together, Stephens said. One of the obstacles, according to Stephens, is that the tech talent is contained in verticals “that are not conducive professionally for you to be innovative outside of that system,” he said. “You don’t get promoted being outside the established system that exists within the military or federal/state governments,” he said.

Tech talent is abundant at Maxwell Air Force Base and Gunter Annex, from the Air Force and Department of Defense to the private sector. Add to that colleges and universities such as Alabama State University, Auburn University at Montgomery, Auburn University, Faulkner University, Huntingdon College, Troy University and Tuskegee University.

That’s a lot of brain power, but the entities are not on the same page, Stephens said. “What you have to do is build these bridges and work towards empowering people,” he said.

“We’re at a point now – my small team and I – where we go straight to the talent. At the end of the day I just want to convince the talent that this is extremely cool and doable. Once you do that – and we have had some really good traction in this space – it’s just fascinating when things bubble up.”

His small team is working to provide a key element of startup training that is not easy to teach in traditional university settings: how to fail fast and to iterate in the face of failure, Stephens said. “Business and entrepreneurship is all about embracing that failure,” he said. He talked about “becoming intimate with the failure that’s required to grow, while not having to be given permission before you execute. That’s a biggie here.”

Fully empowering people is vital. “I don’t need to be looking for someone from high up to tell me what to do,” Stephens said. “People in the tech community need to realize that they are the community and that’s empowering,” Stephens said.

Tech people “are a finicky bunch,” Stephens said. He said that they are “very intolerant of not delivering on a commitment, so with them, you have to always under-promise and over-deliver.” They do not want to be controlled and they want a voice “in whatever it is that you’re trying to do.” They cannot be told to follow a leader. “You can’t demand respect,” he said. “You have to command it through your efforts.”

There’s also no magic formula for workspace. As long as the working space is well integrated, the tech community “can meet in a shack and the shack would be Mecca,” he said. “Space is only important because of the community.”

It takes time to empower people and build from the bottom up, Stephens said. He said that you don’t see a lot of activity in the initial stages, but that the casual observer will notice more in the coming year. The tech community will be working on some civic-oriented projects after becoming a certified Code for America Brigade, which Stephens described as a “Peace Corps for IT professionals.”

Stephens is often called a tech guru, which he said is a compliment, but he prefers to call himself a steward. “I see myself as a steward – more steward than guru because I don’t have all the answers. I am committed to developing the community that can find the answers together, though.”

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