ThinkChicago Brings City’s Tech Message and Leaders to Illinois CS Students
From his office in downtown Chicago, Steve Benni leads a team of technologists for JP Morgan Chase & Co. When it’s time to hire, he loves to compete with his colleagues in New York and Silicon Valley.
His edge? Chicago.
“You talk to people who work in New York, they live in Jersey City. You talk to people who live in Silicon Valley and they’re on the bus an hour and a half,” Benni, the financial firm’s executive director of global technology, said during the ThinkChicago Roadshow on Oct. 25. “I love competing against my peers in JP Morgan. We can beat them on all these metrics.”
Benni (BS CS ‘00) was part of a panel of tech executives and entrepreneurs who talked to students during the Roadshow stop at Illinois Computer Science.
The Roadshow holds events at college campuses around the state and beyond, working to spread the message of ThinkChicago – the public-private partnership that works to develop the city’s technology sector -- and encouraging students to explore the professional possibilities the city holds.
The Roadshow stop at Illinois CS offered students the chance to connect with representatives of a number of top Chicago-area companies and the opportunity to listen to a panel of tech leaders talk about the city and the resources it offers.
In Benni’s case, he told students that Chicago gives him both the career he wants with JP Morgan and the ability to live nearby with his family.
Like Benni, Chicago is both home and a professional advantage for Joe Jablonski.
Jablonski (BS EE ‘93) is the co-founder and CTO of Ocient, a data analytics startup, and a veteran of other area tech startups.
“We hire a ton of young engineers, and they all walk or bike to work,” he told students. “That is an amazing lifestyle.”
But Chicago provides advantages to the company beyond a nice way of life for employees, Jablonski said.
The past successes of Jablonski and his co-founders – including the $1.3 billion sale of Cleversafe, which two of them were part of -- meant they could have started Ocient anywhere, but chose Chicago, he said.
“There’s one overwhelming reason, and that’s because of the talent that’s in Chicago,” he said. “It’s worth working there and living there for that reason.”
And Ocient is making the most of the region’s talent. About 75 percent of the 21 employees and interns it hired last summer came from the University of Illinois.
Chicago also has a strong track record of founders who have chosen to remain in the city, and a pool of financing that makes more possible, Jablonski said.
“In 2004, me and some buddies started a poker game,” he said. “That group (included) the founders of Grubhub, the founders of Groupon, the founders of Cleversafe, and myself,” he said. “At Ocient we probably had 50 venture capitalists begging us to put money into Ocient. It really isn’t a problem.”
Much of the discussion also focused on hiring. Most of the members of the panel emphasized that they’re looking for people who are skilled technologists and data scientists, but also have broader aspirations.
“Are you a good cultural fit? Are you passionate? I don’t want somebody who chose engineering just because they wanted to make a lot of money,” said Miranda Kemp, who is director of AARP’s technology labs at the University of Illinois Research Park. She is also a University of Illinois MBA student.
Long Hei, who is director of Data Science for CCC Information Services in Chicago, said data science comes first when he hires, but “I’m looking for people who want to put on other hats, not just data science hats, but think about the users -- what do they want?”
“A good data scientist should be trilingual,” he added, able to dive into math, technology, and business.
Beth Ladd, who is analytics R&D manager and director of the Caterpillar Data Innovation Lab and CAT Digital Lab at the Research Park, looks for students with a similarly varied skill set.
“We want folks who are curious, love technology, who are interested in human-centered design,” she said.
But at Benni’s group, he said, a love of technology is key.
“What I’m looking for is somebody who really wants a career in technology, 10 years from now is still going to be doing something technical.”