Jonathan “J.J.” Childress, 28, has been Microsoft’s community engagement manager in El Paso for a little more than three weeks. He’s already met Brad Smith, the company’s president, and sat in on meetings with him.
Microsoft chose the El Paso native to represent the company in a new initiative called TechSpark. El Paso is one of six communities chosen for the program, which promises to bring investment from the Fortune 500 company. The others are Fargo, North Dakota; Cheyenne, Wyoming; the North Central Basin in Washington state; northeast Wisconsin; and southern Virginia.
Now it’s up to Childress to strategize with local leaders and devise a signature project that will serve the city for years to come. He’s met with representatives from the city, Fort Bliss, local businesses, nonprofits and the University of Texas at El Paso to get an idea of the local needs.
“In some ways, it’s overwhelming at times. But I am not the one to figure it all out,” Childress told El Paso Inc. “We as a community are the ones that have to figure it out. I think all of us are smarter than one of us. I have met some smart and engaging people.”
For now, he works out of his home and his business called Proper Printshop in Central El Paso, known for its El Paso-themed memorabilia and T-shirts. Childress graduated from Franklin High School in 2007, then earned a BBA at UTEP in 2010 and an MBA in 2012.
Last Monday, Childress accompanied Microsoft’s president around town during his quick trip to El Paso. Together, they met with Fort Bliss, the Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce and students at UTEP before Smith gave a speech on artificial intelligence at the university’s Undergraduate Learning Center.
That’s when Smith mentioned another TechSpark project called Titletown Tech, where Microsoft and the Green Bay Packers are teaming up to build a massive technology building. The goal is to boost economic expansion in the region through world-class digital innovations and expertise.
At Proper Printshop, Childress sat down with El Paso Inc. to talk about what’s next for TechSpark in his hometown, his first three weeks on the job and having a homemade Mexican dinner with Brad Smith.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter Aaron Montes at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 105. Twitter: @aaronmontes91.
Q: What is your mission for the next couple of months? Finding a team, doing research, reporting to Microsoft?
My role the next few months is listening and learning with the stakeholders in the region. It is taking an inventory of the organizations in El Paso and the programs they provide. The TechSpark mission is about engaging stakeholders and education providers to get computer science into their classrooms – or at least on their radar – if not for the 2018-2019 school year, then the next one.
Q: Does that mean you’ll have town halls or community meetings?
Part of my role, in the way I see it is, I am the community engagement manager. But before I can engage a community, I need to develop one.
It’s working at all levels from the top down. Also, some bottom-up, going to meet ups and town hall levels just to gauge interest and provide opportunities for students. Also, connecting software developers to other software developers in town.
Q: Tell us about Brad Smith’s visit to El Paso. What did you do before the speech?
Monday was a whirlwind. We had a meeting on Fort Bliss. Then straight from Fort Bliss we had a meeting with a few business leaders at educational institutions at the chamber of commerce. Then a student roundtable at UTEP before the speech, and a little reception. Then he did the speech on artificial intelligence and immediately jumped on a plane afterwards.
Q: What were some things you talked about? What would the TechSpark program do?
It’s really taking an inventory of the assets that the region has and the skillsets that employers are looking to bring into their organizations and finding the gaps. It’s about building an inventory that way, so we can find where the gap is and help fill that.
Can this program address issues like internet access? That’s one of the tenets of TechSpark. It’s rural broadband access. Although we are not rural, we have a couple of other issues. About 25 percent of El Paso County doesn’t have access to broadband. That’s a problem we are trying to tackle.
Is it a matter of building infrastructure? It could be. Is it a voucher program that Microsoft has utilized in other states? It might be. It might be a portfolio of solutions. But it’s something we are definitely evaluating.
Q: So you’re not ruling out building infrastructure?
There’s already fiber optics in El Paso. El Paso is a little different than some of the other markets because the infrastructure exists. It’s just not being utilized. Usually it’s for economic reasons. It’s a little bit of a different approach. We just have to see what the right fit is.
Q: When did you start having conversations with Microsoft?
I applied in October and after that, the first kind of random interview was in December. Then I was formally interviewed in February, just last month. It moved really quickly after that. My official start date was March 5, so really kind of baptism by fire here.
Q: What was the first thing they asked of you?
It was this visit with Brad Smith, which made for an interesting trip. I knew he was coming, but the details – like most people at a high executive level – those itineraries are going to change. We were finalizing things up until the day of the event.
Q: Is it a paid position?
Yes. I am a full-time employee of Microsoft.
Q: Can you disclose what you get paid?
Q: After you talk with stakeholders and others in the community, what’s next? Do you have to write a report?
That will be compiled, but what it really aims and works towards is a signature project for El Paso, similar to the Titletown Tech that was mentioned during Brad’s speech – a lasting transformative project. The biggest thing is to create an environment and culture within El Paso that is receptive to digital transformation.
You can’t have people move from a 20th-century economy to a 21st-century economy unless some of these other precursors are in place. That’s what we are trying to do.
How can we move beyond literacy and move to creation so they’re writing and creating the next application?
Q: For El Paso, one issue has been keeping the talent that can do that.
That’s the thing. If a student can’t connect tangibly with what computer science entails in the importance of a STEM career, then you don’t have the employees in 10 years to 15 years to be able to keep El Paso’s economy competitive.
Q: What is El Paso’s unique challenge compared to the other TechSpark communities?
We’re a binational city that has the potential to really be a key global city. We have been affected by manufacturing going overseas – Levis, Farah. When Asarco shut down, we lost manufacturing jobs. For industries that are in place – logistics, for example – what do self-driving trucks mean to the trucking companies in El Paso?
With the Internet of Things, connected devices and sensors will go along with the packages those trucks are delivering. If we can’t provide those offerings, it’s hard for El Paso businesses to remain competitive.
I think one of the biggest issues companies face is making a digital transformation. You can bring in firms, you can bring in consultants that give you a plan and you implement it.
Once that’s completed, now you have to maintain that digital transformation for years to come. That’s part of the issue with the new economy. It’s how quickly industries are changing because of technology. You need to have a workforce that’s adaptable and can operate within that technological environment.
Q: What was your first encounter with Brad Smith?
I had dinner with him the night before his speech. It was a great experience. Very accessible, very knowledgeable, but very down to earth.
Q: Did you meet up with him?
Carol Ann Browne is from El Paso and is Microsoft’s director of executive communications. We had lunch at her dad’s house, he still lives here. I was assured they normally don’t do this, but I was happy they made an exception for a home-cooked meal.
Q: What struck you about Smith?
There are a couple of things he said, but it was more what he did. He’s very curious. If there’s a book, he’d pick it up. He was very interested in learning about El Paso and the region. There was a pamphlet on the Trinity Site and he was super interested. I just observed how he interacted with things here.
Q: What’s it like being in this role?
In some ways, it’s overwhelming at times. But I am not the one to figure it all out. We as a community are the ones that have to figure it out. I think all of us are smarter than one of us. I have met some smart and engaging people. I will continue to do so.
Q: How did you find out about the position with the TechSpark program?
One of my friends saw it posted online and emailed it to me. It seemed kind of up my wheelhouse and I applied. It was in October and I didn’t hear anything, it was lost in the ether. Luckily, I got a call back.
Q: What stood out to you in the application?
It really emphasized having an entrepreneurial spirit. Even in the finance world, as an advisor, you have to develop your clientele. Although they provide a little bit of resources, you have to build your own book of business. Starting and scaling and growing my other business was also really engaging and fun.
Q: What would you like to see this program change or improve?
The ultimate outcome – I would love for El Paso to be a city whose homegrown talent doesn’t have to leave, where we have high-paying technology jobs, where El Paso is a center of innovation, globally. We have really interesting opportunities because we are binational, so international ideas come into consideration.
Q: It sounds like some of your conversations will cross the international bridges.
I would hope so. We are really a connected city in a lot of ways. The floating population that goes back and forth every day has people with ideas.
Q: What was your first business after graduating?
I got into finance in a pretty random way. I was doing ballet at the time. One of the girls I would carpool with, her dad was a stockbroker and he traded a security that had a thin market, meaning there was only a handful of people trading it. This was just right after 2008.
At the same time, I had started screen-printing out of the dorms at UTEP while going to school. So that financial internship turned into a full-time position and I kept the screen-printing business on the side while pursuing my master’s.
Q: Was Proper Printshop your only business? Do you have other ventures?
I am civically engaged in terms of being on a few boards with nonprofits, but this is my only business. I am on the Regional Renewable Energy Advisory Council, or REACT, which advises City Council. I am also involved with the Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce as co-chair of Breakthrough Leaders, and I serve on the Borderplex Alliance’s Entrepreneurship Task Force.
Q: It’s been a busy three weeks. What does it all mean to you?
My life definitely got busier. But in some ways it got more meaningful, in the sense of always striving to make an impact within my community. But now, you have the resources of a company like Microsoft to help make a deeper and broader impact. I am grateful for the opportunity to do that.