Hackfort: Patching the Disconnect 

Hackfort aims to bring creatives and techies together

President Barack Obama dropped a lot of names when he spoke to more than 6,000 people at Boise State University in January. He mentioned the university's football team, university President Dr. Bob Kustra and Boise Mayor Dave Bieter, who flew with Obama on Air Force One.

Then the president mentioned something less well-known: Hackfort.

"Every year, you sponsor Hackfort," Obama said. "For those of you who are not aware, [it is] a tech festival that brings the community together to share knowledge and new skills with one another."

When Obama said "every year," what he meant was "last year." The inaugural Hackfort in 2014 was a three-day technology conference packed with speakers, panelists, seminars and workshops in conjunction with Treefort Music Fest. When Obama said "for those of you who are not aware," he was referring to most people: Only 200 tickets were sold to last year's Hackfort.

Now that the commander-in-chief has thrown a little love at Hackfort, organizer Angelo Papapavlos expects more than 200 attendees to gather for Hackfort 2, Thursday, March 26-Saturday, March 28, at The Owyhee. Tickets for all three days cost $20.

Papapavlos calls Hackfort 2 a "beefed up" version of the event, which will look at the intersections of technology, civic life, creative arts and education. He said the festival is designed for three types of people.

"No. 1, people who have no affiliation with technology whatsoever—creatives," Papapavlos said. "No. 2, people who use technology in their day-to-day and work lives, but they aren't working at a software company, they aren't directly connected to it. And No. 3, those really hard-core techies that speak in code."

Hackfort 2 will showcase what it calls "7 Minute" sessions: short introductions to tech startups like Boise-based Greenspeed Research, which "engineered a record-breaking, world's fastest vegetable-powered car; FestEvo, an app to help people navigate music festivals around the country; and a demonstration on 3-D printing from Rapid Prototype.

Along with "open hack" time, open mics, a "secret screening" and breakout sessions, Hackfort will also launch Hackathon.

With Hackathon, organizers are working with the city of Boise to create a competition in which participants have access to the city's open data, such as public art, city services and public trails. Participants will use that data to create an app. It's a component of the festival that Boise Director of Economic Development Nic Miller is particularly excited for.

"This is our first test in this area," he said. "We'd like to make that data publicly available and see what the creatives and tech minds can come up with as a result."

The winning app will be featured by the city and, along with tickets to next year's Treefort, its creators will receive a private legal consultation with Perkins Coie, LLC.

Miller said the president's Hackfort shout-out highlighted how the festival brings the tech and creative arts communities together by showing how "Boise is gathering a critical mass in those areas which are obviously in high demand throughout the world." In his remarks at Boise State, President Obama called Boise "one of our top cities for tech startups."

"We see a lot of budding things happening," Papapavlos said. "We see the foundations, but we see a disconnect between these creative people and established companies. We don't see them collaborating, expanding their ideas and growing."

In an effort to make those connections, Hackfort is partnering with the Idaho Department of Labor to showcase tech jobs in the state. That's particularly important because—despite Obama's praise—Boise isn't perceived as the most tech-driven city in the Northwest. Apart from Micron and HP, many tech-minded people have picked places like Salt Lake City, Seattle and Portland, Ore., over Boise. According to Idaho TechConnect Executive Officer Rick Ritter, the lack of opportunity and low pay relative to bigger cities has kept some of the brightest minds in technology from choosing the City of Trees.

"A lot of people who looked at Boise said, 'I can come out here and do a software job for Albertsons, but what if that job doesn't work out? Do I have to pack up and leave?'" Ritter said.

That has started to change in the past few years, Ritter added. According to the Department of Labor, there are more than 1,200 open tech positions in the state right now. There is another barrier preventing growth in Idaho's tech sector, though: Wages are still much lower than competing cities.

"There's a 40 percent pay differential between the average [tech job salary] in Portland, Seattle and Salt Lake, and Boise," Ritter said. "The response we get from the companies here is, 'The cost of living is lower than those places, but it's not that much lower.' It's a 20 percent differential [in cost of living], yet the pay is 40 percent lower. That's a deterrent for the really high-quality people."

Papapavlos said after he graduates from Boise State with a degree in marketing and web design, Boise won't be his first step.

"Honestly, I've already been looking elsewhere," he said. He explained that he recently applied for a job in Seattle with booking.com, where he could start at $75,000 per year. He said similar jobs in Boise start around $50,000.

Boise City Hall is taking steps to correct that: the city recently helped launch Trailhead, a nonprofit devoted to fostering tech startups.

"We're focused on turning ideas into businesses," Miller said. "As we're coming out of the recession, we want to see more startups in Boise, because we know that they're the backbone of our economy. [They are] the job creators."

Miller said Hackfort puts Boise on the map, especially when the president mentions it.

"We have some really big players like Micron and HP, but if you look at some of the companies that have been most involved in Hackfort—like White Cloud [Analytics], MetaGeek, Balihoo—these are up-and-coming technology companies that will be the backbone of Boise's tech industry for the next 30 years."

Papapavlos said getting people to attend Hackfort has been tricky. He said it's hardest to get those creative types and "hardcore techies."

"The extreme techies, they're really interested, but they need to see the value. They need to see if it's going to be worth their time," he said. "And the creatives are hard to get in the door because they're like, 'I don't do tech.'"

Hackfort organizers went so far as to lure in attendees by offering applications for free tickets, lodging and food to up to 40 people from outside of Boise. Papapavlos said only around 15 people actually took advantage of the free package.

"We were looking for folks who are working in the tech field outside of Idaho, working with software or loaded with big ideas," Papapavlos said. "But we didn't get enough applicants—or the right applicants."

Papapavlos' biggest hope for Hackfort this year is that it will help young adults like himself plot out a technology-related career path—preferably in Boise.

"Personally, I'm looking for a more urban experience, which I think Boise has the potential to be," Papapavlos said. "I want to stay in Boise because I love the culture, the in-between of big and small city, the nature. But I want that urban experience and I want to get paid. That's why I'm involved in Hackfort."

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