Technology Alliance Group provides support, networking for tech companies
In Whatcom County, the game of tag has gone beyond the playground and into the adult world of business centered on technology.
The Technology Alliance Group, or TAG, has played an enormous role in the technology sector of Whatcom County since its inception eight years ago. While its acronym shares the same moniker as the childhood game, its rules are somewhat reversed. No one person is “it,” and in fact, many members of TAG are IT (information technology) professionals, and other members are certainly not dodging them — the group’s primary purpose is to create a network to support the technology industry.
The group began when the technology industry recognized no such network existed but one was sorely needed. In 1999, the Bellingham Whatcom Economic Development Council hosted Tele-Tech 2000, a meeting of technology-based companies in the area. TAG President Robin Halliday, who at the time was CEO of the Bellingham-based software company Rivetek, said most of the 22 attendees were surprised to find the amount of technology-based businesses in the area. The revelation led to the recognition of the need for a formal network between them.
“Lots of people have heard of the BIA or other associations and groups of individuals that have things in common,” said Curtis Dye, president and owner of Interconnect Systems and a founding member of TAG. “There wasn’t anything even remotely related that had to do with technology.”
And so TAG was born — a membership group with monthly meetings and other events to connect, advocate for and support the technology industry. TAG meetings became the recess in which technology businesses would play together.
“In the beginning it was almost a quasi-governmental agency,” Dye said. “There weren’t tools or processes for a group of businesses to give feedback to each other.”
That purpose still remains, and the network grows stronger as the organization matures. Part of that maturation has been in the addition of a full-time executive director, Anna Ehnmark, in January of this year. If anybody is “it” in TAG, it’s Ehnmark. Previously, TAG’s leadership was entirely volunteer and was performed in addition to the responsibilities of members’ own companies. Now Ehnmark provides those same volunteers with an additional level of support.
From recess to the classroom
Part of TAG’s mission is to help support technology businesses so they can become successful. That means making sure the educational system is teaching the necessary skills to potential future employees.
“If you’re in the technology business, your future depends on making certain you have access to talented and competent technology individuals,” said Tom Lenderman, IT director for the accounting firm Larson Gross and a TAG member.
TAG has made efforts to integrate the educational system into its organization. The group asked Dean of the College of Sciences and Technology at Western Washington University Arlan Norman to join the group’s board last year.
“There’s quite a lot of overlap in our interests,” said Norman, who, along with Halliday, also serves on the Washington Technology Center board.
Norman and TAG are working together on the idea of a Northwest Consortium for Technological Innovation and Development, which figures into the university’s plans for Bellingham’s waterfront redevelopment.
TAG also awards five scholarships each year to students going into technology degrees at Western, Whatcom Community College, Bellingham Technical College and Northwest Indian College.
At Bellingham Technical College, TAG helped develop a technology sales class, a course that Dye said is one of only a few of its kind available in the United States.
TAG’s educational efforts start before secondary education. The group has pioneered a pilot program at Whatcom Middle School called Math Masters, which takes 75 students who failed the math portion of the WASL and has them work with business leaders and computer software to improve their math skills.
The technology playground
While TAG members specialize in technology, nearly every business in town plays on the technology playground. Computers and electronics permeate nearly every aspect of most businesses, but that doesn’t mean all businesses are technology-based. Norman said one of TAG’s tasks has been to define what “technology” means.
“A lot of people tend to think technology is computers,” he said. “Well, that’s one thing.”
The technology playground goes beyond the obvious mouse and motherboard. At Western, the College of Technology and Science encompasses a wide array of disciplines from biochemistry to computer science. But other colleges at the university are starting to develop curriculums around technology, Norman said.
“Really, every department could be involved,” Norman said.
For example, Western’s Geography Department is redefining its curriculum around emerging Geographic Information Systems technology — nearly every graduate of the program will have a technological foundation.
The same holds true outside the academic realm.
TAG membership is currently at 36 companies and 25 individuals. But like many non-technology-based industries that rely on technology to be successful, technology-based companies have non-technological needs. Thus, TAG has a slew of associate members that include lawyers, bankers and other professionals that offer services to the technology industry.
TAG also recently added a membership category specifically for IT professionals working in businesses that are not technology based. Law and accounting firms, grocery stores and other non-technology-based businesses usually have that one guy or gal whose responsibility it is to keep networks, computers, phones and other systems up to par and working.
Part of TAG’s recent mission has been to catalog the technology industry in Whatcom County. The group has conducted a roll call to try to find all the area technology-based businesses. Ehnmark said TAG defined those businesses through the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) coding system from the U.S. Department of Labor. If a business had at least 7 percent of its workforce working in the technology field according to NAICS classification, then it is, pardon the expression, “tagged” as a technology-based business, as well as a potential member of TAG.
Although TAG has not officially released the results of the survey — which will come in the form of a database members will have access to — Ehnmark said it discovered 574 businesses in the area that fit into the technology category.
The survey did more than name those businesses. Ehnmark said it also categorized those businesses’ core competencies and needs. Dye said the database will help alleviate one of the local technology industry’s major challenges. He said many businesses that need some kind of technology support end up going to the Seattle area because they’re unaware that local companies offer the same service in Whatcom County. The monthly meetings also help establish those connections.
The monthly meetings are more than a social hour. TAG brings in speakers that might not otherwise come to the area, Lenderman said. And not all of those speakers are for the technology-savvy — Lenderman said a speaker in March presented on the challenges of project management.
“Whether you’re an IT director or software developer or owner, you need those kinds of skills,” he said.
In addition to its purpose as a networking agent and bolster of technology education, TAG also serves as a united voice for technology interests. While Dye said the intention of TAG is not to be political, it does serve in that role to some capacity.
Through alliances with other technology organizations, such as the Washington Software Association and the Technology Alliance, TAG is also able to negotiate and offer member businesses competitive rates on amenities such as health insurance.
“TAG speaks loudly for what it stands for,” Lenderman said.
By the numbers
7 percent of jobs in Whatcom County are technology-based (WTC). Whatcom County has the highest formation rate of technology jobs in the state, according to the WTC Index of Innovation 2006.
4 Whatcom County companies are listed on Inc. Magazine 5,000 fastest growing businesses in the nation. Three are technology-based: Toolhouse Design, Ryzex and Logos Bible Software.
Monthly meetings: Noon to 1:15 p.m. every third Friday at the DIS building at 1315 Cornwall Ave.
Free for members, $10 non-members
Next meeting: Oct. 19
Eric Leonhardt, Director of the Vehicle Research Institute at Western Washington University
Topic: A behind-the-scenes look at VRI
Web site: www.tagnw.org