South Seattle just saw its first "Virtual Reality (VR) Pop-Up" last Sunday. It was a collaborative effort between City of Seattle Office of Economic Development, Washington Technology Industry Association (WTIA), University of Washington CoMotion Labs, and Office of Film + Music to whet the palate for what's to come.
When it comes to established tech-topias, Seattle is a hub that’s quickly staking its claim to fame. Big-name tech players, such as Google & Facebook from neighboring Silicon Valley and Alibaba from across the pond, are already planting roots here in Seattle alongside Microsoft and Amazon to bid for the attention of the area's tech-literate. In an industry where two of its biggest challenges are building a diverse workforce and finding tech talent, choosing to host the inaugural pop-up in South Seattle served its purpose. Broadening access to emerging technology for not only established techies within the tech bubble in Seattle but also potential techies on the outskirts of it is part of the overarching strategy to mold diversity into the evolving identity of the city’s growing tech industry.
Here at this Virtual Reality Pop-Up, children and adults crowd the demo tables where, among others, HTC Vive and Oculus Rift provide the medium to transport imaginations to an all-immersive, encapsulating virtual world. We also venture to the Mixed Reality setup where Microsoft’s HoloLens powers the fight against the aliens crawling out of the demo booth’s walls. Unlike viewing within VR, which would transport you to a completely new world — perhaps the alien’s — the crawlies coming through MR are invading through the very walls in your room.
There are reactions of delight, and when you begin to see how children are the ones teaching their parents how to be adept at tech, you begin to understand how forward-moving children are. It seems that, almost instantaneously, the horizons are broadened for the imaginations of these attendees — men, women and children alike — a diverse audience represented in gender, age, and culture.
Because the virtual reality industry is still in the discovery phase, establishing a framework for inclusiveness today and embedding it into the makeup of the VR industry of tomorrow has the potential to decrease the barriers of entry for underrepresented demographics in not only the VR industry but more widely in tech. This is the idea behind celebrating the city's inaugural VR Pop-Up in a non-traditionally technical part of town — to spark the interest in residents and, perhaps further down the road, potential within tech. The Pop-Ups are a piece of the wider strategy to partner with leaders of the community to invest into building up the local ecosystem and local talent.
If you shop for locally-grown foods, perhaps at a farmers market, you’re investing your resources into the community and potentially helping boost a more diverse ecosystem. You might be getting not only organic produce but also organic vendors. Washington Technology Industry Association is approaching tech-building in a similar manner, because according to them, the state of Washington is the number one importer of tech talent. This industry isn’t slowing down its spread within Seattle anytime soon, and as more jobs within the industry proliferate, so too should local industry talent.
photo courtesy of Apprenti
One solution the WTIA is presenting is a program of theirs: Apprenti, which is a fast-track for going from zero to hired in the tech world, curbing industry hiring biases along the way. Planning to place 600 apprentices in tech roles with Apprenti's hiring partners over the span of the next 4 years, it’s part of an investment strategy in growing tech talent right here in Seattle, all-the-while cultivating diversity in tech. While well-represented demographics within the industry today may find the barrier is higher for their entry into the program, at the end of the day, acceptance falls solely on how compelling the applicant's reasoning is for why he or she would benefit the program and tech industry as a whole.
It all starts with registering and taking an online assessment that tests critical thinking, math, and emotional intelligence — you need not only be able to speak logic but you also need to be able to speak human. Apprenti’s pilot cohort, having been hired as apprentices by local tech companies, is first undergoing comprehensive skills training geared towards the role they’re apprenticing for, from Software Development to Project Management. After completion of up to 6 months of skills training, each apprentice begins their on-the-job learning. Skills training expenses are completely covered, and as an apprentice, you’ll be paid 60% of what you'll be earning as a full-time employee should they hire you on after the year’s apprenticeship concludes.
8,000 new tech jobs are created each year in Washington alone and the culture of the industry is systemically-rooted. The effects of the Apprenti program will be a drop in the ocean today, but it's the potential waves that are borne from this drop that we're focusing on for effecting impact tomorrow.
At Sunday’s Pop-Up event, there was a trending consensus that Virtual Reality will be a great story-telling platform in the years to come. Still nascent in terms of its commercial presence, there is limitless potential in discovering how we can begin using it to broach bigger challenges. It’s representative of tech as a whole. We are in the phase of uncovering questions and molding the story of technology as it develops. As communities begin joining to leverage the resource of collective influence, like in the case of WTIA’s Apprenti program, the story begins to broaden to include the voices of not just one but that of everyone.