Country roads and high-tech careers
To understand West Virginia’s emerging tech industry, you have to understand the Mountain State itself, the heart of American coal country and a formidable player in Rust Belt manufacturing. A good starting point is 1997, when coal production peaked at around 182 million tons. Around this time, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the manufacturing industry, the state’s second largest, accounted for roughly 1-in-8 jobs. Due to an elaborate set of causes, coal and manufacturing jobs have declined ever since, dealing a heavy blow to the West Virginia economy.
Drew Formica, a native West Virginian, grew up when both industries thrived, but dreamed of a career in emerging technology. Formica, born and raised in the town of Bridgeport, thought his home could only offer him a blue-collar occupation and, regretfully, expected his dream to take him away from his home state.
Two decades later, Formica is immersed in cutting edge software engineering at Leidos, which employs highly skilled coders in high-wage jobs in its two Morgantown offices, which support roughly $200 million in programs. Formica’s team supports an impressive list of customers, including NASA and the U.S. Air Force. Morgantown is home to the company’s center of excellence in agile software development, and expects to add roughly 50 more workers in the next 18 months.
What changed? In short, diversification. West Virginia invested in infrastructure and advanced telecommunications in its north-central region, attracting employers that brought career opportunities for highly skilled workers. Meanwhile, universities in the region expanded science and engineering degree programs to lure technology-based companies. These investments, combined with expanding requirements to decentralize federal operations away from Washington, D.C., attracted government agencies in particular.
Today, Morgantown and the surrounding area has become a premier science and technology hub. It is home, for example, to the world’s largest cluster of firms in the biometric and identity security sector, as well as major arms of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), and NASA. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) set up its largest division in Clarksburg, roughly 40 miles south of Morgantown, where there are now more FBI employees than in the bureau’s Washington, D.C. headquarters. When the government expands its presence, contractors follow, which led to Leidos growing its footprint from ten employees in 2013 to roughly 200 today.
This region is the state’s academic, economic, and technological center, driven by an educated workforce grown at West Virginia University (WVU). WVU is part of the Leidos Strategic University Alliance program, and a case study for successful partnerships between industry and academia. The program, which seeks to drive innovation and develop the company’s workforce of the future, includes 15 leading universities in locations where Leidos seeks to attract the best and brightest talent.
Formica said he’s proud to be part of economic growth in his state. “Being able to work with the university to keep talent in West Virginia just makes me happy,” he said. “Making sure students in fields like computer science and engineering know they don’t need to leave the state to do high tech work. That was the mindset I had growing up. I always thought I would have to go somewhere else to find fun, innovative, fulfilling work, but that’s not the case.”
What does Formica’s story tell us about the state's rebuilding economy? How has Leidos had so much success in and around Morgantown? We spoke in March in a wide-ranging conversation around these issues.
Q: Why did you want to stay in West Virginia?
Formica: West Virginia is appealing for a lot of reasons, but especially quality of life. We’re embedded in a university town. Morgantown has a small town vibe, but the university also gives the town energy and life. It’s a great place to live. There’s natural beauty and diversity. You’re close to major metropolitan areas without dealing with heavy traffic and high costs of living.
Q: Leidos partners with 15 major U.S. colleges as part of its Strategic University Alliance program. What are some advantages of the partnership?
Formica: The partnership gives us a great platform to spread the word among WVU students that there are great tech companies in the area to work for. For Leidos, it’s an enormous recruiting opportunity, which is why we consider it a long-term business development strategy. But it’s also beneficial for the students, because we help enhance their preparedness and marketability, regardless of whether or not they are eventually hired by Leidos after graduation. From the university perspective, Leidos is a Fortune 500 partner that yields new professional opportunities for their best and brightest students.
Q: What are the advantages of doing business in Morgantown?
Formica: It’s a very welcoming business environment. The cost of conducting business is about 15% lower than the national average. There’s abundant access to skilled labor from well-recognized universities like WVU, Carnegie Mellon, Pitt, and Fairmont State. We don’t pay National Capital Region rates for software engineers, which helps us keep our bid prices low for government contracts, but it also means the quality is still there.
Q: How has the region attracted high tech employers?
Formica: Remote working is a huge reason. No one’s afraid of it anymore. Major companies like Leidos, while based in the Washington, D.C. area, have strong software development shops here in Morgantown. But the industry here still isn’t as big as I think it could or should be. Young skilled workers will stay in the state if they can find high-wage jobs. We want to help influence curriculum so that students from local universities have skills that are applicable to industry, which will allow us to continue to grow.
Q: What’s the culture like in your office?
Formica: It’s kind of like bringing Silicon Valley to Appalachia. We operate like a startup software company inside of a large corporation. Everyone on the team is excellent at what they do. We work hard every day on fun and innovative projects, but I don’t want my team in the office 16 hours a day. I want everyone to have a good work-life balance.
We have a charter to collaborate, which means everyone gets to work on a wide variety of projects. Our office is built from the ground up with agile methodology in mind. Our workspace is wide open, with state-of-the-art equipment, moveable walls, whiteboards, and collaboration spaces. We want everyone to speak up, from our interns to our most senior technologists. When people are at the whiteboard drawing up architectures, you’re encouraged to listen or contribute to the discussion. Even if you’re not on the project, we want everyone to be as collaborative as possible. We try to make sure everyone is heard and feels included.
Q: What makes your team so appealing for a new hire?
Formica: Part of what makes for an interesting and challenging work environment is that we don’t hire people to work on specific projects. We hire talent, and matrix it across different customers and programs. You can be working on a command and control program for the U.S. Air Force, and the next day you’re working on a commercial healthcare application that provides real-time updates and analytics for patients. The next day, you’re working on IT dashboards for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). You’re not going to get stuck on a project for five years. We’ll bring people in and out as their skillsets are needed. We’ve worked on NATO programs in missile defense. We worked on Stratcom programs for U.S. nuclear defense, as well as healthcare programs for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The variety of work keeps everyone on the team energized.
Q: If someone reading this is considering applying for an internship, what’s the one thing you want them to know?
Formica: While the job description might say intern, you’re really joining the team. When you get here, you’ll be working on production code. You don’t get a summer internship project. You’re working on code we need that will get delivered to the customer. You’re embedded in the team and treated like any other software engineer, regardless of title.
One of the things we do differently is to offer year-round internships. We look for 12-15 hours during the fall and spring semesters, and full-time hours in the summer. That gives folks a really good idea of what it would be like to work here after graduation. We try to find people late in their sophomore year. Assuming everything works out, which it does 99 percent of the time, we will make them an offer to become a software tech going into their senior year. Now you can start to accrue benefits and paid time off. And hopefully, when they graduate, they will be promoted to the role of software engineer full-time.