Photo courtesy of DocuMNtary

Minnesota tech needs storytellers

Documentary project wants to create awareness of Minnesota's tech community

By Brian Martucci
Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The smartphones we carry around in our pockets — and lose with alarming frequency — are more powerful than the room-sized supercomputers that once epitomized American technological might. Though modern supercomputers still fill mission-critical needs at major research universities and government labs, and the Internet wouldn’t exist in recognizable form without the massive data centers that comprise its backbone, there’s something quaint about the idea of rooms filled with huge, whirring compu-boxes.

Maybe that’s why Minnesota’s contributions to the early computing industry aren’t really celebrated, discussed, or even widely remembered. The PC revolution, played out in comparatively warmer, sunnier climes, was much more compelling, accessible, and easy to understand.

But as far back as the 1950s, Minnesota companies like St. Paul-based Engineering Research Associates and Minneapolis-based Cray Research built mainframes, computer storage, and experimental devices that pushed the boundaries of what was then possible. These companies’ achievements paved the way for what came next, even as the epicenter of U.S. computing innovation shifted south and west.

Minnesota Tech Needs Storytellers

Minnesota’s tech industry didn’t fade into oblivion. In fact, its growth is accelerating: Forbes recently named Minnesota the fastest growing state for tech jobs, much to outsiders’ (and probably most locals’) surprise. The problem: True to the state’s low-key culture, the voices telling the story of Minnesota’s tech resurgence aren’t particularly loud or boastful.   

Nick Roseth, vice president of technology delivery at SWAT Solutions, wants to turn up the volume a bit — without verging into boastfulness, of course. 

Roseth recently founded DocuMNtary, a “a project to build awareness of technology in Minnesota” and “help Minnesota become a top 5 tech community by retaining and attracting top technology talent,” according to DocuMNtary’s website. He’s collaborating with Eric Jenson, noted Minneapolis videographer and owner of Jenson Studios.

DocuMNtary currently exists as a short set of promotional clips featuring local techies discussing the unheralded vibrancy and talent base of Minnesota’s technology industry. 

In final form, it’ll consist of a 30-minute, documentary-style feature that “lays out all the problems and opportunities facing Minnesota’s technology sector,” says Roseth. Roseth plans to complement the core documentary with a host of “individual 5-10 minute stories from specific people, companies, industries, or other components of our ecosystem.” Those “other components” include everything from Minnesota’s renowned outdoor resources, vibrant music and art scene, progressive culinary landscape, and, yes, craft beer.

“The challenge is that there are just so many stories to tell,” says Roseth. 

Photo courtesy of DocuMNtary

Two Intertwined Goals

According to Roseth, DocuMNtary has two goals. The first: highlighting the state’s existing tech resources and activity, including a recent upsurge in venture capital interest, and convincing local students that diverse opportunities abound in STEM fields.

“We want to show that you don’t need a four-year comp sci degree to be successful in Minnesota’s technology industry,” says Roseth, who cites multiplying technology boot camps and high school immersion programs as potential entry points for students who don’t go the traditional route.

The second goal: convincing talented outsiders, and employers based elsewhere, to engage with Minnesota’s tech sector. More broadly, Roseth wants to convince people that Minnesota is special — that the state’s economic opportunities, culture, and overall quality are worth moving for.  

This second aspect “is partly born out of my own struggles,” says Roseth. “I’ve learned firsthand that it’s challenging to attract outside talent here…we might have a top 12 or 13 tech economy, but people think we’re flyover country.”

The state’s biggest employers understand that they’ll fill the bulk of their IT benches in-state — either with born-and-bred natives, or with transplanted research university grads. Same goes for small and midsize businesses; other things being equal, it’s easier to start and grow a business in place. But to say competitive, employers of all sizes need to ensure that they’re on their prospects’ collective radar, too.

“Minnesota’s employers need to be hunting and farming talent at the same time,” says Roseth.      

A Sustainable Revenue Model

Roseth is quick to point out that DocuMNtary is a “passion project” undertaken with the blessing of his employer. Building a sustainable, profitable enterprise is not his first priority. Producing a high-quality documentary is. 

That said, Roseth is savvy enough to know that DocuMNtary needs a sustainable revenue model, or at least a clear demonstration of value for potential partners, to have a real, lasting impact on local talent development and recruitment, not to mention outsiders’ perceptions of Minnesota and its business community. 

DocuMNtary is using the proceeds from a successful Kickstarter campaign — it raised $16,000, besting a $10,000 goal — as seed funding for initial production and promotion costs. But with a total project budget around $200,000, Roseth is pounding the pavement for additional funding. 

Roseth is confident DocuMNtary can raise enough through content partnerships with local-booster organizations — he spoke at the October 13 launch event for Make It. MSP, an ambitious regional talent attraction initiative spearheaded by Greater MSP, and calls DocuMNtary “one of the projects in [Make It. MSP’s] overall portfolio.” 

Another, perhaps additional, option is to partner with or seek sponsorships from local employers looking to produce promotional videos – though Roseth is wary of getting too cozy with any particular group or company. 

Should DocuMNtary prove successful, Roseth may “go horizontal” and tell the stories of other historically strong Minnesota industries, like healthcare, food production, and creative. While that’s likely a long way off, it could be great news for the state’s reputation — as long as there’s no bragging involved.