Will Miami Ever Gain Respectability as a High Tech Hub?

Living in South Florida one often hears the saying: “Washington DC is the capital of the United States, but Miami is the capital of The Americas.” While in …

Miami skyline, photo by Loren Moss.

Living in South Florida one often hears the saying: “Washington DC is the capital of the United States, but Miami is the capital of The Americas.” While in many aspects that statement may contain some truth – Miami is home to many consulates, immigrant entrepreneurs, and internationally focused television studios, bankers and lawyers – it is not known as a home for corporate headquarters outside of the cruise industry, or as a hotbed of large scale technological innovation.

Even for industries that Miami is famous for like fashion, the heavy hitting brands that drive professional employment at a corporate level are in places like San Francisco, California (Banana Republic, The Gap, Old Navy), or Columbus, Ohio (Victoria’s Secret, Limited, Abercrombie & Fitch).

Minimal Tech Presence

The modern Miami-Dade municipality is full of skyscrapers and sports an expansive, impressive skyline. When I finally moved to Miami, and worked for an Asian BPO firm, I was sure that with regards to business prospects, there would be plenty of low-hanging fruit locally. I soon realized that the vast majority of those buildings are hotels and condominiums. There are a few corporate headquarters such as Carnival Cruise Lines, Brightstar, and Burger King, but most of the signs hanging on the buildings in the corporate office parks across from Miami International Airport simply indicate regional sales offices for companies headquartered in distant states.

The decision makers are elsewhere. According to state statistics, information workers make up only 1.7% of Dade County’s workforce, and sadly, absolutely zero Miami companies make Deloitte’s Technology Fast 500 list of high-tech innovators. In recent years many local civic boosters have been asking why that is, and what needs to be done to change it. Attempting to dub the area’s high-tech efforts “Silicon Beach,” they apparently missed the memo that this title already refers to West Los Angeles. This lack of organization may be emblematic of the challenges that Miami faces when trying to develop a significant high tech sector.

Although most outsiders are unaware that Miami Beach and Miami are actually two separate cities separated by Biscayne Bay, it bears mentioning that new Miami Beach mayor admitted that establishing his city as a technology destination was “The dumbest idea in the world.”

“Miami’s business climate—as well as its governmental climate, sometimes I wonder if they’re one and the same—has a reputation for being fiercely political, for being about ‘who you know’ rather than what you know,” says Cade Bryant, a senior software engineer, programmer, and mathematician. “Probably all cities are like this to an extent, but Miami has a reputation for taking it to another level, and the phrase ‘third world country’ is often heard (fairly or not) in discussing South Florida’s business and political environment.” Tales of corruption in Dade County from both politicians and law enforcement do not help in attracting civic-minded talent.

Educational Shortcomings

A significant problem that Miami faces is its dismal public education. Though there are a few exceptional public schools, and some heroic teachers, the sorry state of Miami’s public education system is visible both in statistics and on the street. This is a severe problem that Miami needs to permanently fix before it will be taken seriously as any kind of technology or information heavy hitter.

Federal statistics from 2010 reveal that an appalling 40% of Miami residents over 25 did not complete high school, over twice the national and state averages. In every measure, Miami’s education levels lags behind national statistics. You simply can’t expect to excel in intellectual property without any intellectuals!

When it comes to tertiary education, Miami has some respectable institutions such as the University of Miami and Florida International University. These are both well regarded but they are not famous for advanced technology research and development. “Florida’s educational institutions (tech-wise) aren’t yet on the same level as Stanford, MIT, and others, says Bryant. “This might change however, with the development of the new Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience in Jupiter. However, lifestyle factors and South Florida culture’s comparative lack of intellectual curiosity may slow things down. I believe the hope lies with our collective children – yes, I know that sounds cliché! Importing talent will probably be necessary for a while, but the more we can do to get school-age kids interested in science, the better.

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“When most people think about tech, they think of Silicon Valley. And, the fact is, the aggregate level of talent and intellect in the valley is quite a bit greater than here, and it will take a long time for us to catch up,” Bryant added. “Friends and former coworkers who’ve lived and worked there unanimously tell me that expectations are higher and the overall culture is much more innovative and informed … As universities in Central and South America evolve and improve, and as the talent pool from these countries enlarges, we’ll see more new graduates move up here to spearhead innovation. We will eventually catch up, but it won’t happen overnight. Eventually the tech field will become such that it doesn’t matter where you are at geographically.”

In Defense of Miami

Miami does have some success stories. Last year I interviewed Andres Moreno about his Miami company Open English. He and his wife started the company back in Venezuela and now it has grown from $700 of capital in his pocket to an estimated valuation of over $300 million dollars.

A few years ago I interviewed Rokk3r Labs and toured their Miami Beach offices. When they heard the comments of the new Miami Beach mayor, they invited him to tour their offices –actually a stone’s throw from the mayor’s municipal offices, and see what kinds of tech innovation was taking place right under his nose.

I don’t want to sound like I am down on Miami, because I am not. There are some people trying really, really hard to grow the high-tech sector here, and they have nothing but my adoration. I am merely pointing out the challenges and obstacles that need to be overcome, and I am willing to participate in civic society to help overcome them. I want to see Miami’s education increase, corruption decrease, and opportunity continue to grow for Miami natives and immigrants. Immigrants from different countries like my grandfather, or from different states, like myself.

There are lots of talented programmers, visionaries and entrepreneurs in Miami, but as Jefferson Graham said in USA Today, “What Miami has yet to produce is a big success story.” It is time for Miami to take the necessary steps to live up to the hype that it is so famous for.

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