In Zitácuaro, Mexico, Bright Minds Who See a Different Path to Satisfaction in IT

Famous for its avocados and history of social and political dissent, Zitácuaro has no interest in becoming the next Monterrey or Guadalajara. And it is this resistance to replicating larger city success that is keeping its brightest minds here.

Zitácuaro

Zitácuaro, Mexico is not a place where you would expect IT recruiters to be digging for talent. The city of 185,000 is a world away from the elite cities of Mexico, tucked in a quiet corner of Michoacán state and operating at a pace that is relaxed and hospitable – in an ‘old-school’ kind of way.

Famous for its avocados and history of social and political dissent, Zitácuaro has no interest in becoming the next Monterrey or Guadalajara. The city’s quiet streets and the fact that it is a full two hours away from the nearest metropolitan area (Mexico City), you would naturally assume that young people – especially those in technology – would be looking for any opportunity to get out of town. That assumption, as it turns out, is flat-out wrong.

“Living here means you don’t have to live your life in traffic. I can make a very decent salary here and be allowed to live a good life,” says 26-year-old Jorge Romero, Master Data Management Development Team lead at Punto Singular, a Mexico-based software services firm with a distinctly mission-driven approach to developing young tech pros from rural parts of Mexico. We met Jorge and his colleagues two weeks ago, during a special Nearshore Americas fact-finding visit to Zitácuaro, arranged by Punto Singular, Mexico IT and Q2S Point, a Mexico-based software services provider.

Collaborators Who Code

Jorge, who like all members of the Punto team is called a ‘collaborator’, has worked at Punto Singular for nearly two years. He originally entered the organization through a program called “MNQOBI Academies”, an offshoot of Punto that is specifically designed to bridge the gap between the college experience and the hard-driving environment of global IT. Over 100 professionals have passed through the academies in the last four years, and during that time the program has expanded to include operations in Felipe Carrillo Puerto and Chetumal, both of which are cities located in Quintana Roo state, which shares a border with Belize.

“We want to make a difference socially and economically,” says Ixchel Conrique, one of the five principles at Punto Singular, whose official title is Brand Warrior and Necessary Evil. “We want to create social mobility.” The model of training and development includes providing modest financial support to the newest trainees and, after several months typically, the collaborator is placed into a real-world and often demanding scenario and then begins to earn a full-time programmer salary.

It is tempting to label the model an exercise in ‘Impact Sourcing,’ and in a classic sense the program fits in that category. There is a strong thread of social inclusion running through the development process, yet it is also clear that the leaders of the academies expect programmers to be on par with professional counterparts in any other part of the world. In other words, seeking to secure business and partnerships based on the fact that the programmers are economically or educationally disadvantaged is not a major part of the message. In terms of earning a salary, Conrique says that, “One of our core values is to ensure the collaborators earn a competitive salary that is equivalent to the cost-adjusted compensation in the bigger cities.”

Landing in the real-world of software, of course, includes demanding deadlines, hard-driving clients and generally high expectations for service quality. All of those characteristics are present in this delivery center, and adapting to the needs of US clients is something many of the collaborators spoke of as a key challenge.

Dividing Line

There is a major lifestyle gap between the friendly and supportive world of Punto Singular, and the back-breaking realities of life in rural Michoacán where many of the young professionals come from. Families from those areas almost always depend on income earned from working the fields, which in addition to growing avocados typically includes harvesting corn, sorghum, strawberries, peaches, wheat, limes, sugar cane and mangos. Agricultural work is also seen as a safe bet compared to the bewildering notion of using computers to earn a living.

“My whole family has not gone beyond high school. They are very unfamiliar with the field of technology and what it can lead to,” says Gerardo Rodríguez, who first joined a beta launch of the academies in 2014, only to return three years later as a collaborator at Punto Singular.  “But now my family is seeing the rewards of studying. They are seeing the benefits.”

Gerardo is a graduate of the Technological Institute of Zitácuaro, the sort of institution that would be on par with a community college in the United States. Despite being tech-focused and offering a full four years of coursework, it is estimated that less than 20% of graduates obtain jobs in technology. Significant hurdles get in the way: some graduates do not have the economic means to move to a bigger city; others have English skills that are insufficient for global IT, and still others receive little to no family support around the pursuit of a tech career.

 

Another graduate of the tech institute, Paola Alcantar, has seen her stress levels plummet by moving back to Zitacauro and leaving behind a job in Mexico City where she was doing inversion testing for a financial services firm. “When I worked in Mexico City, I didn’t have a schedule. I was often working until after midnight in the office,” says Paola, now 24-years-old. “At Punto Singular I have a schedule, 7am to 5pm. This schedule is good. The environment in the office is very relaxed and very cool. My colleagues are very nice. I have an excellent friendship with them,” says Paola who notes that she is determined to improve her English, since she is working constantly with US clients.

Paola, like so many of the other collaborators we spoke to, emphasized that the environment at the academies is deeply supportive and encouraging. Newcomers are made to feel welcomed. Those who struggle with technical challenges are not afraid to ask for help.

A critical part of the success formula for the academy model is to have a sustained flow of software projects, where the collaborators can be put to work. During our visit we learned of relationships and projects connected to a global energy giant, a major US car rental agency and a well-known youth-focused retailer. Projects are most often delivered through partners, such as QS2 Point, AVIO Consulting, and global “data craftsmanship” vendor, VIQTOR DAVIS, principally based in the US, the UK and the Netherlands.

Jaime Castillo, operations manager at QS2 Point, stresses that finding qualified software engineers has become a serious challenge for the Nearshore services industry.

Therefore, a key reason his firm partners with Punto Singular and the academy is to confront this challenge head-on. “We understand that our company and our clients need software engineers with experience and excellent engineering practices, but on the other hand, we need to “invest” in helping programmers to become good software engineers,” Castillo says. He adds that there is a dual purpose behind his firm’s partnership with the academies: “We really like to help students to have the best and good first experience working with us, and help them in a social way because we are helping also the community.”

Currently, QS2 Point has 11 programmers employed through Punto Singular, most of whom have come through the academies.

Recruiters Zero In

The fact that recruiters are chasing after programmers at Punto Singular is a testament to the quality of training and development provided to the young professionals. Gerardo completed his Amazon AWS certification a few months ago. At that time, his client encouraged him to post details of his cloud integration experiences, and also point to work he’s done in DevOps and Java. “A few months after I made updates to my Linkedin, I started getting calls from recruiters. Some were offers from the US and others came to me – like Softtek in Mexico – offering $50,000 pesos a month for a salary (equivalent to $725 US),” says Gerardo, who continues to believe it will be in his best interest to remain in Zitácuaro.

Another member of the team, Mauricio Ruiz, gets calls ‘almost every day’ from recruiters in the United States and Mexico. Those recruiters may be impressed by his savviness with DevOps and AWS, but what is really awe-inspiring is the path he has taken from Mexico to the United States and then back to Michoacán, during the last 15 years. “I touched my first computer when I was 17,” says Mauricio, who grew up in a town about two hours from Zitácuaro and moved with his family as a teenager to the United States where he graduated from high school and obtained his permanent residency.

Facing the prospect of sky-high costs to attend college in the US, Maurico looked back at opportunities in Mexico and elected to go live with his aunt in Morelia, Mexico and, with financial help from his brothers, entered and then later graduated from technical college. “I never thought I’d make it this far, especially being able to work with US clients. I learn from them every day. I’m very grateful.”

Mauricio too is content to stay in Zitácuaro. “Happiness does not have a price. I’m really, happy here. I can walk to work, and I don’t have the struggles of the big cities.” One of his friends works for Apple in California, laboring long days, typically 7am to midnight. “I don’t want that life,” says Maurico with a big smile.

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Gerardo Rodríguez
Age: 27 years old
Tech specialization: AWS SysOps, Administrator, AWS Solutions Architect
Hometown: Zitácuaro, Michoacán
Years at Punto Singular: 1 year, 8 months

Jorge Romero
Age: 26 years old
Tech specialization: Java, SQL, MDM (Semarchy, EBX5)
Hometown: Zitácuaro, Michoacán
Years at Punto Singular: 1 year, 10 months

Mauricio Ruiz
Age: 30 years old
Tech specialization: AWS, CI/CD y DevOps
Hometown: La Mora, Jungapeo, Michoacan
Years at Punto Singular: 1 year, 4 months. March 2018

Paola Alcantar
Age: 24 years old
Tech specialization: DevOps
Hometown: Zitácuaro, Michoacán
Years at Punto Singular: 5 months

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