Computer science department grows Austin economy

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UT computer scientists are reprogramming the Austin economy. 

This month the Austin Chamber of Commerce recognized Bruce Porter, chair of the UT Department of Computer Science, with the Economic Development Volunteer of the Year award. The chamber honored Porter for his work in growing the economy across the Austin region.

“Dr. Porter has been instrumental in continuing to build the high tech and innovation economy throughout Austin,” said Luke Sheffield, public relations manager for the Chamber, in an email. 

Porter helps recruit technology companies to come to Austin. He said that during his eight years as chair of the computer science department, the tech sector of central Texas experienced a surge. 

“I meet with a lot of the companies when they consider moving to Austin, and they grill me about what the education is like, where the students go (after graduation), and whether we have capacity to produce more graduates,” Porter said. “We’re a really big department, and we’re a strong department, and that is a major reason why the tech companies are coming here.”

Sheffield said that Porter and his team were instrumental in meeting with prospective companies such as Conde Nast Digital Innovation Center, LiveOps and others who consider Austin as a home for their businesses.

“In the 21st century, the future is owned by technology, and if a region, city or state is not doing everything they can to grow their tech sector, they’re going to be left hopelessly behind,” Porter said. “Everyone talks about trying to become the next Silicon Valley, and maybe someday we will become that. But there’s significant ways to go before then.”

Porter said he believes the award is really recognizing the role of UT’s whole computer science department in boosting Austin’s technology economy.  

“The (computer science) department as a whole produces a lot of local talent in students, who are trained with a really good education, and that’s what’s powering the local tech economy,” Porter said.

Computer science freshman Ann Yue said the computer science department encourages internships, particularly local ones. 

“(The department) places a pretty heavy emphasis on internships with local companies, and (has) recruitment posters in the building on an almost daily basis,” Yue said. “The local tech company is really fueled by the number of grads that come out of (the program).”

Porter said that just as important as having a strong university, is having a vibrant entrepreneurial community and venture capital for launching new companies. 

“We’re getting there, and I was delighted a few years ago when (former) President Barack Obama visited, because Austin is one of the few cities that has a chance to become a Silicon Valley,” Porter said.

In 2013, Obama visited Austin’s Capital Factory, where students from Longhorn Startup, an entrepreneur class led by Joshua Baer, pitched their company ideas to him. 

One of the groups that pitched to Obama were the founders of Lynx Laboratories, who developed a camera that could generate 3-D models. 

“Lynx Laboratories was so successful that (the students) have already sold their company for $300 million dollars,” Porter said. “Later, they got it down to a software-only implementation, that would run on something like a cellphone.” 

According to Porter, students like those who started up Lynx Laboratories are the biggest assets to expanding the local tech community.

Yue said that Austin is an appealing city for computer science majors.

“The cost of living is lower compared to California, and most of the major tech companies are starting to, or have already built offices in Austin, so there wouldn’t be a lack of choices,” she said.

According to Porter, it’s this cycle of mutual attraction between new companies and UT graduates that drives the growth in the local tech economy.

“Companies are looking for a talent pool, a place where they’ll be able to find and recruit computer science talents, and that includes finding a place where people in high demand will choose to live,” Porter said. “They’re also looking for places where that kind of talent is produced, and those people will choose perhaps to stay in that town. Austin wins on those kinds of dimensions—it’s a cool town, it’s where people want to live, and we’re producing a lot of these talents.”