“Spectacular.” “Transformative.” What kind of corporate facility elicits adjectives like these? In Baton Rouge, it’s the IBM Technology Center, which opened in May and is on schedule to employ 800 by 2017. Big Blue’s enterprise software development team has been in temporary space in Baton Rouge since 2013, when it selected Louisiana’s capital city as the base for this key business unit.
Central to securing the project was a unique partnership between IBM, Louisiana Economic Development, Louisiana State University (LSU) and other parties — a combination that benefits all involved and will resonate positively throughout the region, state and Gulf Coast. In the meantime, how is IBM enjoying its new digs?
“It’s spectacular — there is no other way to describe it,” says Christine Alford, General Manager, IBM Client Innovation Centers, North America. “The building is phenomenal. We’re right on the Mississippi with a great view. It’s a state-of-the-art building with lots of open space and fantastic conference and client-briefing facilities. Our employees are thrilled.”
Staffing the new center has been a snap, says Alford.
“We’ve been heavily recruiting graduates from computer science, math and engineering from within the state, and we are bringing in more experienced people from outside the state. The majority of those coming from outside have a tie to Louisiana — they previously lived here or have family here. There is a very strong sense of community and desire to come back home. People want to live and work here. It’s not a transient population, but one very committed to the community, which is so important to us as employers.”
The linchpin to IBM’s current and future success in Baton Rouge is its partnership with LSU, whereby IBM collaborates closely with the College of Engineering “to transform the computer science curriculum,” says Alford. “We’ve worked with them in bringing in the latest technology – and this is not just IBM technology. This is industry-agnostic technology, like cloud computing and analytics. Working with the faculty, we have helped to revamp the curriculum, providing any intellectual capital IBM has to improving it. This was a year-long project, and we went live in 2014.”
It’s not too soon to see results. Applicants to the computer science program increased 41 percent from 2012 to 2014, and the number of new freshmen increased 85 percent from 2012 to 2014. Why?
“A lot of students now see the opportunity to have a career once they graduate,” says Alford. “College of Engineering Dean Richard Koubek [now interim Executive Vice President and Provost] says a number of applicants into computer science are coming from other faculties as well as from out of state and other places. What makes this different is that we really worked closely together to find the best curriculum we can. This is not about being on an advisory board that talks once a month about what you’d like to do. It’s about spending the time to build something of tremendous value.”
What Baton Rouge Thinks
That value extends beyond the campus of LSU, though it is most apparent there at this stage.
“LSU welcomed IBM with open arms into a computer science curriculum-redesign process,” says Adam Knapp, President and CEO of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber. “The computer science program was already attractive to IBM when they came, but it will be much stronger now. They’ve spent an incredible amount of time as a company to help LSU re-envision the entire program. Not only is that important for IBM, it is important for everyone in the software development space in the entire state of Louisiana and perhaps even in the Gulf Coast. That is a huge commitment they made right out of the gate.”
A second area IBM already is engaged in is “building a cohesive set of partners around IT and computer science on the talent side,” says Knapp. “We have a technology sector committee that has been looking at workforce education programs, and they’ve been working alongside the East Baton Rouge Parish School System to put more of a focus on software and digital media in the STEM programs they have been building. They have also started initiatives, including a Women in Software working group, with an annual event since they got here, to encourage young women to think about software as a potential career path. Right away, they committed to hitting their hiring goals and building their presence in Baton Rouge, but also getting engaged in corollary areas of interest that are also good for the community.”
IBM’s contribution to Baton Rouge’s business climate extends even beyond that, says Knapp.
“They have brought a commitment to being active in talking with other companies about the potential of the software sector in Louisiana and the Baton Rouge market, and to being an ambassador to other software companies, talking about the strength of locating software development centers in Baton Rouge. That’s been a great intersect with our work. Nothing helps sell a product or area like a testimonial from a user. That’s exactly the case here. IBM’s presence in Baton Rouge has been nothing short of transformative.”
That sentiment works both ways. “The Baton Rouge area is very committed to making this a success,” says IBM’s Alford. “I have worked in a lot of different places around the world, and I have never seen a community so committed to improving their environment and enhancing their city. It is a tremendous partnership.”