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April 29, 2014
Tech CEOs’ dilemma: Stay local or go west
Posted by KMontgomery

Tech CEOs’ dilemma: Stay local or go west

Tony Catalfano has 150 high-paying tech jobs that need filling through the end of next year.

He thought he knew where to base them: Silicon Valley. It’s 2,400 miles away from the Sandy Springs headquarters of WorldPay US, the payments processing company he leads, but it’s also in the heart of the nation’s tech talent pool.

Then other local business people and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed pushed him hard to stay local. Catalfano said they convinced him metro Atlanta has more technology talent and momentum than he realized.

He’s decided to put the jobs and a new innovation center in metro Atlanta, preferably in the city. He said he might also move some or all of his 600-person headquarters staff to whatever local spot he lands on, and he’s working on getting incentives for the new jobs created.

Keeping and adding high-paying tech jobs in Georgia is a crucial part of state and local efforts to rejuvenate the economy. Virtually every company, regardless of the industry, needs workers with technology expertise.

Catalfano’s stick-with-Georgia decision highlights the difficult bets local executives are making about where they can land talent in increasingly competitive tech fields.

“I hope I’m right, ” Catalfano told a reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I’m investing tens of millions of dollars this year and next year. I better be right.”

The new positions will pay about $75,000 a year, though some will be above $100,000, he said.

The area’s tech workforce is growing. Over the last decade, an additional 19,100 people are now employed just in the area of computer system design and related services. That’s a 60 percent increase. But the area still loses some opportunities.

Earlier this month, a Home Depot executive said the Atlanta-based retailing giant had opened technology centers in California and Texas because it couldn’t find enough software developers locally.

“At the end of the day, we don’t have the talent pool in Georgia,” Eric Schelling, Home Depot’s director of talent acquisition, said during a gathering of officials considering new career initiatives.

Getting more people who are trained for top tech jobs will make the area more attractive for relocating tech companies, said Roger Tutterow, a Mercer University economist in Atlanta. That’s important, he said, because “these are fast-growth sectors of the economy. These are well compensated jobs.”

Area technology executives say acquiring top talent may be their biggest challenge. But some also say the issue seems to be even greater in other parts of the nation.

Braxton Jarratt, chief executive and co-founder of Duluth-based Clearleap, said his business has added 50 employees in the last six months and will add that many more locally over the next six. Salaries of the new jobs will average about $100,000, he said.

“We have been able to source most of our talent from the region or close by, which is exciting because a lot of our competition is in Silicon Valley or New York and some of the more well-known software development regions.”

Jarratt said potential investors had been skeptical about the chance of metro Atlanta offering top software talent for the company, which powers technology that allows HBO, Time Warner Cable and others to deliver programming to devices via the Internet.

“Many encouraged us to move to the West Coast when they offered funding,” said Jarratt, who moved from California 14 years ago in a job transfer. “I love proving people wrong.”

WorldPay’s case shows local officials can gain ground just by selling metro Atlanta as a vibrant tech hub — even to local executives.

Catalfano said the company’s new venture is important to its growth. It will involve developing software that integrates the payment systems of its small business customers with other parts of the businesses’ technology and data.

But after deciding to start the unit in California, Catalfano heard from local attorney Robert Green and West Richards, an organizer of a new transaction industry trade group here. They pushed him to look harder locally. He met with Atlanta’s mayor and other area executives. He liked the mayor’s push to recruit more investment dollars for technology companies.

“There is momentum here,” Catalfano said. “It increases my confidence that we are not the only people trying to do this.”

He said he believes there is strong technology talent in Georgia and a pool of young workers coming out of local universities, though he hopes for more alignment between higher education programs and area businesses.

There are other advantages for WorldPay to keep the new jobs local.

“There is some convenience where we can drive down the street,” Catalfano said, “versus fly across the country.”

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