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Omaha Magazine

Y2K to 2020: Technology Companies Find Security in Silicon Prairie

Oct 01, 2021 03:20PM ● By Kara Schweiss
James foxall of Tigerpaw Software in green shirt

Photo by Bill Sitzmann    

 Technologically, 2001 seems much further away than 20 years ago. A Y2K global shutdown was prevented only a year before, ushering in a new focus on computer security. Most people accessed the internet using dial-up service through a landline, which more than 90% of households had at the time. New technologies at the turn of the millennium included camera phones, USB flash drives, and wireless capability via Bluetooth. Businesses that used computers invested in bulky desktop setups. And several Omaha technology companies were emerging. 

When former Air Force and Union Pacific computer systems engineer Dave Foxall founded Tigerpaw Software as Information Management Consultants, his son James was a teenager who helped with the business part-time. 

“My dad had enough of corporate life, so he decided to start out on his own. He started as a computer consultant, which was pretty novel in 1984. He did a lot of custom programming for people and added staff, and he ended up having a number of different products in a number of different industries,” said James, who became Tigerpaw’s president and CEO in 2010. “What really changed for us is that my dad’s friend Don Leath, who owned Executone Telephone here in Omaha at the time, needed a system to manage his company—all his inventory in particular, all the phone systems he was selling and the parts he was ordering. So my dad set out with his small team to build a solution for that, and that product ended up becoming the kernel for everything we do today.” 

Tigerpaw today is a commercial software company that builds total business automation software for technology providers. The 1990 name change reflected the founder’s affinity for tigers and the species’ solidarity and tenacity. 

“One of our core values is ‘always evolving.’ It’s not about change; the word ‘change’ scares people and it’s not always good,” Foxall said. “It’s not change for change’s sake, but it is evolution. You have to be able to learn new things and do things different.”

Jelecos President and CEO Leon Thomas, who co-founded his company in 2000, also believes the ability to adapt is a major factor in the success of tech companies of any size, both locally and globally. 

“It’s evolved considerably. We started as an application company largely focused on building ecommerce websites for organizations. I was an independent contractor and ended up starting the business with a partner, and we’ve over time evolved as the technology and market has driven us,” he said. 

It’s become easier in recent years to explain what the company does today now that the term “cloud computing” has become more familiar to the average consumer, Thomas added. From Page 25

“I normally say, ‘Jelecos is a technology consulting and services firm that helps businesses use cloud computing,’” he said. “We always tell people that we’re not doing the same things we were doing five years ago and we probably won’t be doing the same things in five years that we’re doing now, largely because the way you add value changes as technology evolves.”

The Greater Omaha Chamber believes the local tech sector has fared well over the past two decades, according to President and CEO David Brown, who came to Omaha in 2003. 

“It’s grown tremendously in the last 20 years,” Brown said. “Now that everything has a computer attached to it, it has broadened substantially…It’s improved our productivity and it’s clearly improved our quality of life. I think places like Omaha that have a pretty redundant and substantial tech infrastructure that’s been put in the ground over the decades has contributed to that; there are places that don’t have what we have. It has made it easier for companies in all of those different tech spaces to start up or to grow or to acquire others, and to really be as productive and cutting-edge as they need to be.” 

The value of strong technology became especially evident to individual citizens and businesses alike in the last year and a half, Brown added. “The ability to function during the COVID challenge was dependent on tech.” 

Tech sector and company growth has brought both challenges and triumphs over the years, Foxall said. 

“I think my dad and his small team really adapted well to the Y2K challenge. It gave the company an opportunity to generate a bit of revenue, taking care of all the Y2K issues and navigating that whole labyrinth and not letting it sink us. We’ve also had a couple of points in time where we’ve had to change technology,” he said. “It’s really hard when you have to abandon a technology that you’re deeply rooted in or you have to adopt a new technology that’s a little bit unknown.” 

Nevertheless, the Tigerpaw team has always found a way to keep up. 

“We’ve been able to navigate our product, if not on necessarily the most current technology, but we’ve been able to migrate the different pieces and components and back end over time to stay relevant and make sure we’re not obsoleted,” Foxall said. “In the world of Windows software, if you’re not careful you can find yourself a Windows update away from everything [being] broken. So we’re really proud of navigating the technological landscape.”

Thomas said the goals and measures of success for the Jelecos team have been revised somewhat as the business matured. 

“In the early days it was an accomplishment to be listed on Inc. Magazine’s fastest growing private companies list. We were on that list several years,” he said. “More recently, [it was] making a significant pivot to focus exclusively on public cloud computing. In the last five years, that’s been a pretty significant shift for us.”

Becoming an Amazon Web Services Advanced Tier Consulting Partner is another meaningful accomplishment for a company of Jelecos’ size, around 30 employees, Thomas added. “And more recently, we went through a recapitalization and took on a growth investment from a private equity firm in Denver.” 

Foxall cited several recent accomplishments
for Tigerpaw. 

“From a business perspective there have been a couple of big ones in the last three or four years. We’ve adopted Traction; it’s technically an entrepreneurial operating system, but it’s a framework for how to run a company,” he said. “Another thing we did about three years ago is that we moved all of our customers to subscription,” he said. “We managed to get all of our clients off of their perpetual licensing.” 

The transition to second-generation leadership has been another big achievement, said Foxall, who worked his way through the ranks in various departments at Tigerpaw and earned several college degrees along the way to prepare for the top position. 

“It was not easy for us. My dad and I will both tell you there’s a lot of things we would do differently if we had hindsight, but we’re pretty proud of the fact that we navigated those waters,” he said. “I have managed to take the company in a new direction, which was what he wanted me to do.” 

Thomas said he sees multiple reasons for Jelecos’ success in the competitive and continuously changing tech sector. 

“I think a lot of technology companies focus on the tech…but the ultimate goal is to help customers improve processes and increase revenue and decrease risk and increase profitability—all the business drivers that are ultimately what they’re paying you to accomplish. We focus on business outcomes and adding value, and less on specific types of technology. We have the business acumen to be able to relate to what the customer’s needs are and to understand their business before we make specific recommendations,” he said. “The other thing, without question, that’s a factor is our people. We’ve been able to build some deep domain expertise and we’ve been able to retain very high-quality people for long periods of time, which is a very difficult thing to do in the technology world.” 

Looking ahead, the biggest challenge for the tech sector is that the demand for talent continues to exceed the availability, Brown said. “If we can be even more aggressive about building our own talent, we won’t be as dependent on trying to attract new talent from the outside.” 

A chamber collaborative for tech startups has focused on creating a supportive local ecosystem. 

“I think that’s paid huge dividends, literally a couple of hundred companies have started up in the last 10 or 15 years in the tech space. Our goal was to see 50 a year get created as we evolved this incubator process and accelerator process forward,” Brown explained. “We have a goal of 10,000 more tech workers in this market by the end of 2024. Those goals started in 2019, so we have really only a few years left to try to figure out a way to continue to add more and more tech workers, because we’ve seen the tech market growing here substantially.”

The business community and the education sector are working together to find solutions, Foxall said. But there are still some deficits in creating turnkey programs that prepare workers for the local market. 

“There’s a misconception from a lot of people that you need a four-year degree level of education,” he said. “And understanding the languages they need and training people for those languages, I just don’t feel like we’ve gotten there yet…We have a lot of great jobs, and we need to figure out how to close that gap. We need talent.”

“[Educational institutions] have done a good job of soliciting input, and a good job, in my opinion, of recognizing that there is a talent shortage in STEM in general in the Midwest,” Thomas said. “They could do a better job of making sure the core technologies they’re incorporating into their curriculum is relevant, because it changes so fast, and curriculum is generally slow to turn. Oftentimes, we’ll see new grads that haven’t been exposed to some of the more innovative concepts.” 

The positive is that, as new tech-forward initiatives are implemented, and more tech companies come to the area, more graduates stay or return to the state.

“I think we’re starting to turn the corner on ‘brain drain,’ if you look at the numbers from 2011 to 2015 and then look at the numbers from 2015 to 2019,” Brown said. “It isn’t where we want it to be, but we’re now on the plus side on virtually every category, with the exception of 18- to 24-year-olds—and that, frankly, is mostly kids going away to college. So the question is, how do we get them back here after they go through that college cycle? So far, at least, the ’15 to ’19 numbers show that we’ve been able to do that. But we need to do a lot better job of it.” 

Brown, Thomas, and Foxall named partners like the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Peter Kiewit Institute, University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Raikes School, AIM Institute, Metropolitan Community College, Nebraska Tech Collaborative, and local school districts as instrumental in ensuring future career pathways and talent pools. Amazing things are ahead for the next 20 years, Brown said.  

“I think we’re going to continue to see growth in the tech space. Every time I see new products or services I kind of shake my head and wonder how they came up with that one,” Brown said. “I think we will see a larger percentage of our employment dictated by startups, particularly tech startups, in the future, so I think it’s important that we stay involved in that market.”

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