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  • The Future is Now

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    MGM is on the fast track, becoming a brighter, better community for all.
    Montgomery is continually striving to enhance quality of life, expand economic progress and do both more sustainably and collaboratively. Today, the capital city is accelerating these efforts by harnessing the power of technology.
    We’ve all heard the talk of tech booms. We see companies in the tech sector occupying most of the top spots on lists of our country’s biggest and fastest-growing businesses. Doomsday naysayers warn that technology is taking over. All of these things make it sound like technology is an entity unto itself. But truly, technology is simply a tool. A powerful tool — one that opens doors, starts conversations, forges and fosters increased connection — but a tool nonetheless.
    The people most wisely using this tool are the real difference makers. In Montgomery, recent technology initiatives show how a growing group of people is harnessing technology to change the landscape in the capital city, making life better for residents and visitors while fueling a thriving economy.
    So how can we ensure this upward trend continues? A skilled, talented workforce is key; the right infrastructure is crucial. But open communication and a collaborative spirit shared by multiple stakeholders is the vital piece of the puzzle, and in Montgomery, we’ve got that down.
    Here, the City, County, Chamber, military, higher education institutions, the nonprofit sector and private companies are joining forces to build the necessary ecosystem that takes advantage of current technology to innovate even further, to solve existing problems and those of the future, and to drive and support strategic growth.
    MBJ is exploring who these leaders are, how these partnerships are playing out and how they impact several essential areas.
    In August, Montgomery hosted a Smart Cities Readiness Challenge Workshop, joining a select group of only four other cities across the globe that applied for and won support for the event. The grant was awarded by the Smart Cities Council, the preeminent organization examining the future of cities today, and the workshop brought municipal and private-sector leaders to the capital city to share ideas. The City was also provided free access to the Project Activator Tool, an online platform that lowers risks associated with new technology investments by offering guidelines, reviews and best practices.

    The event is only the latest in a string of smart city advancements improving the quality of life in Montgomery in the last several years, as Lou Ialacci, Director of Information Technology for the City of Montgomery, explained. “About four or five years ago, the City began to look at how we could become a ‘smart city’ and therefore increase our competitiveness in attracting people and businesses here,” he said. “We saw the goal as both a challenge and an opportunity.”
    The City has made major strides toward this end, and most of the “smart” efforts and programs now in place rely on technology. Today, in the City’s public services department, requests for street paving and repairs can be handled faster, and with the use of GIS maps and open data, any interested resident can see exactly how and when these requests and other public works projects are being handled. A program called Roadbotics uses artificial intelligence to examine and grade streets, ensuring the spots that need help the most, get it. “This allows us to get more consistent evaluations, and therefore, use resources more efficiently,” Ialacci said.
    A recently announced three-year agreement between the City and Rubicon Global includes equipping more than 60 City sanitation vehicles with the company’s SmartCity technology, which will help the department leverage data to improve performance, reduce costs and enhance residential and commercial sanitation service by managing routes, fleet maintenance and even collecting data by enabling trucks to note the location of potholes, overgrown grass and other problems that need to be addressed.
    In the context of city management, “smart” also means transparent. The open data portal on the City’s official website gives anyone and everyone access to information that shows city budgets and how tax dollars are spent, including city employee salaries.
    Public safety is benefitting from smart city advancements too, thanks to tech-driven programs currently being used by the Montgomery Police Department. One is STAR Watch, which can gather and use images from existing cameras mounted at schools, businesses and even private homes to track issues and respond quicker and with more accurate information than ever before. And STAR Watch runs on the MGMix internet exchange, one of the first pieces to be placed in the city’s tech puzzle and one that Ialacci touts as “integral.” “It is a great service to the area, and a big help to our businesses,” he said. “It has attracted more internet service providers, which has heated up competition and that has lowered costs immensely. We now have close to 30 members who are getting faster and cheaper internet connectivity.”
    While Ialacci and other City leaders are pleased with the progress, they promise what we’ve seen thus far is “only the tip of the iceberg.” “We want to do more of all of this, and there is already more in the pipeline, more to come,” Ialacci said.
    He also stressed the importance of win-win partnerships, pointing to the recent Smart Cities workshop as evidence. “One big reason we are able to do any of this are the great working relationships between the City, the County, the military, the Chamber and others,” he said. “The workshop event was an example. We called in the public to be a part of it and saw some strong ideas come out of it. We also announced some things, like adding Wi-Fi to community centers.”
    Downtown’s Smart City Living Lab on a nine-block corridor of Commerce Street is another strong example. Formed in January and spearheaded by the public-private Montgomery Smart City Community Alliance, it offers more proof of the power of such partnerships. “The City is working with Alabama Power, the Chamber and the County with the lab, and we’ve put in fiber-optic infrastructure, LED lighting in streetlamps for energy savings and safety,” Ialacci said. “The next step was smart parking with a new app that lets you pay for your parking meter with a swipe on your phone, no change needed anymore.” Another parking program will soon be tested at the lab too and will implement cameras to identify vacant spots for even easier parking.
    Augmented accountability leading to good resource stewardship, plus practices and methods that lead to improved safety and services — all of these things equal higher quality of life. And all of the pieces build on each other. Simply hosting the Smart Cities workshop means Montgomery is recognized as a leader in the smart city sector. That’s an image boost that adds to our area’s appeal when it comes to attracting potential tech-sector companies — and the jobs they bring — and expanding the needed high-tech workforce.
    According to Leslie Sanders, Alabama Power’s Vice President of the Southern Division, more jobs and top-dollar jobs for residents is one of the biggest gifts technology can give. “Montgomery is in constant motion forward. If one were to look in any direction downtown, there is evidence of growth and revitalization. Just two blocks toward the capitol exists the state’s first internet exchange, MGMix. MGMWERX is a technology hub helping to solve problems facing us in Montgomery and those from around the world. TechMGM is at the forefront of leading smart city offerings and the installation of fiber provides the state, city, military partners and businesses with the fast, reliable and secure service they require,” she said. “For residents, this means good, high-paying jobs are more likely to come to Montgomery.”
    It also means our schools and universities have access to cutting-edge technology, and every advancement plants seeds for the next one, sustaining a chain reaction of upward momentum. 
    “Montgomery is now a destination for innovators,” Sanders said. “I’ve spoken with many who want to come to Montgomery for the technology opportunities, but they want to make Montgomery home and become part of the fabric of our community too.”
    But an expanding use of and reliance on technology is not without risks. Keeping all of the newly accessible data safe can be a challenge. “The biggest thing we have to think about is the security of our networks, of our data and of people’s data,” Ialacci said. “While most of the data that both the City and County have is already public info, we have to be very careful with anything that is not. Private information must be safeguarded.”
    A few years ago, Montgomery County’s computer network was hit by a ransomware virus, proving that concerns about cyber attacks are not unfounded. “We worry about something like that every day, and we’ve put in multiple layers of the best safeguards,” Ialacci said. “But the reality is, the more all of us are using technology and the more data we put out there, the more the bad guys come out to try and take advantage of that.”
    Sanders stressed the need to keep the public informed so they can actually use and benefit from the new opportunities. “As the City, County and Chamber and individual businesses expand technology offerings, we need to be in a continual education mode for those who live and work in Montgomery,” she said. “We need for those in Montgomery to utilize the services, to be excited for the innovation and to realize how all of the ‘smart city’ offerings can help them in their daily lives. That excitement and utilization, however, will only grow as we openly discuss the importance and value of the offerings and expand their availability.”
    MGM’s recent technology and cyber developments are positively impacting and affecting tourism in multiple ways as Lora McClendon, Vice President, Strategic Initiatives & Federal Affairs, explained. “Initiatives like downtown Wi-Fi, smart parking, LED lighting and Montgomery Public Safety’s “STAR Watch” project are providing visitors with a seamless user experience, while ensuring that their visit is without incident,” she said. “In addition, strategic efforts to support and grow our technology sector are having an indirect but very real impact on our ability to grow our offerings downtown and beyond by creating new investors and partnerships with developers that will expand the retail and entertainment offerings in our major tourism districts and will undoubtedly serve as a force multiplier for other efforts.” But McClendon stressed the challenges that face the increased use of technology in our tourism efforts. “The deployment of any technology offering that serves an end user has two major challenges: 1) ensuring that the solution meets a real demand or need of the end user, and 2) ensuring that the service is reliable and works properly,” she said.
    It’s no secret that Maxwell-Gunter AFB is a lynchpin of the capital city’s economy even without reaching beyond base gates. But now, military-business partnerships in the form of contractors serving the Air Force and Department of Defense are having additional impact, strengthening the business climate in Montgomery in new ways.
    The Business Enterprise Systems Product Innovation (BESPIN) team is a prime illustration. BESPIN is best described as a “software factory” and is part of the United States Air Force’s Business Enterprise Systems Directorate (BES), which is based at Gunter Annex. Yet BESPIN is located off base, a move that encourages enhanced collaboration with commercial industry to develop software in a more efficient way, as Charisse Stokes, Executive Director of TechMGM explained. “Currently, BESPIN is housed in the Chamber’s Small Business Resource Center. This is an excellent way to integrate into the community,” she said. “Opportunities like MGMWERX and BESPIN help to engage our tech community and bring new and innovative businesses into Montgomery all while launching additional small businesses.”
    Tanya Lambert, CEO of BESPIN, explained BESPIN’s core purpose. “BESPIN will lead a digital transformation that shifts BES’ compliance-driven culture into one built around the needs of users. In support of this goal, we will partner with multiple USAF divisions to help them deliver exceptional digital experiences,” she said. “We will also leverage the support of collaborative, community-focused industry partners who can bring modern digital delivery solutions, such as lean-agile software development and user-centered design, into the government space from a number of nationwide ‘talent hubs,’ with Montgomery serving as the base hub and additional satellite hubs across the nation.”
    In her position, Lambert is tasked with leading the Air Force into becoming a “next generation acquisition authority,” and to do this, she must ensure her team maintains continual exposure to the cutting-edge ideas and creativity derived from non-traditional and non-military sources. “Based upon the success of the initial Aviation Resource Management System Design Blitz, PEO [Program Executive Officer] BES has replicated a series of three-day design blitz sessions on various PEO BES programs to facilitate events to critically look at current acquisition practices and chart new paths and processes to revolutionize the way the Air Force acquires IT,” she said.
    This represents a plethora of prospects for existing businesses and entrepreneurs ready to expand and start up here, while also serving as strong enticement and incentive to draw new companies here, as Lambert further explained. “BESPIN is looking to recruit and retain software developers, coders, user-centered designers, platform operators to our team,” she said. “We are leveraging our organic military and civilians to fill these roles and expect to need more as we modernize heritage applications.”
    The opportunities are almost limitless, since according to Lambert, there are more than 140 of these heritage applications that need to be modernized, rationalized or business-process re-engineered. “We have more opportunities than people to improve our business systems,” she said. “As the BESPIN CEO, I want to team with our community to be THE employer that brings jobs that our college graduates and our current workforce strive to obtain. This community is ready for the challenge to become a game changer for the Air Force and the adoption of the Digital Air Force.”
    Fearless, a digital services and software company based in Baltimore, Maryland, is one of the businesses working with BESPIN on the shift Lambert outlined. The partnership will pair BES in-house developers with private sector developers and use an agile development methodology in an open and innovative environment. “It is modeled after other successful ‘software factories’ in the Air Force including Kessel Run that was launched in Boston,” said Delali Dzirasa, Fearless President and Founder. Fearless is currently at work on its Montgomery site, which Dzirasa said he hopes will be open on at least a small scale by the end of this year. His company is bringing other players to the city too, partner firms that will also support BESPIN.
    While BESPIN contracts are obviously the main reason Fearless is setting up shop in the capital city, the decision was made easier by the positives Dzirasa and his team have found here. “One of the reasons Montgomery really appealed to us was its similarities to Fearless’ hometown Baltimore,” he said. “We see a community with a burgeoning tech ecosystem that needs to be supported to grow, but there are already small businesses and entrepreneurs working hard to help their community thrive. The Air Force is an incredible partner for not only Montgomery but also Fearless. Bringing our team to Montgomery to learn more about the needs of the project and community has been a fantastic learning opportunity for all of us.”
    Delali Dzirasa, President and CEO of Baltimore-based Fearless, explained how a technology and cyber focus can positively affect economic development and the overall business climate in a city. “In the tech industry, a third of all venture capital investment in the country in 2017 (approximately $25 billion) was concentrated in San Francisco, and venture capital generally flows to more densely populated, affluent areas of the country. For small businesses in less affluent cities and neighborhoods, a big impact can be made with a small investment. Technology and cyber-focused businesses offer communities well-paying jobs that careers are made of. Investment in the technology and cyber sector causes a ripple effect when it comes to economic development. Tech workers with good salaries are then able to spend more in their local community and help other businesses grow.”
    “We see a community with a burgeoning tech ecosystem that needs to be supported to grow, but there are already small businesses and entrepreneurs working hard to help their community thrive. Bringing our team to Montgomery to learn more about the needs of the project and community has been a fantastic learning opportunity for all of us.” - DELALI DZIRASA
    Feeding these “learning opportunities” and increased collaboration between multiple and diverse entities is a foundational element of all of MGM’s ongoing tech and cyber initiatives and activities. Events like innovateAFITC take big, bold steps toward this goal, inspiring increased private-public partnerships. This annual competition takes place during the Air Force Information and Technology Cyberpower (AFITC) Conference held in Montgomery each August and is being led by TechMGM.
    During the event, teams made up of private-public representatives and students compete to create solutions that address real-world problems. This year, teams paired PEO BES and HMMA to work on logistics issues; MPS and Air University to work on education; 26NOS, Cyber College and Auburn Cyber institute to develop cybersecurity solutions; and the City of Montgomery, Alabama Power and the 42nd Air Base Wing to overcome digital services and utilities challenges. Training workshops from Google, Amazon and Microsoft are also part of the event, as is an overall focus on the soft skills needed for employability in any industry.
    Stokes outlined why events like innovateAFITC are significant. “It is a great opportunity for students to work alongside IT professionals from the commercial and military IT sectors,” she said. “And commercial businesses are learning more about base operations and Department of Defense challenges. This is an excellent exchange of ideas between some of the community’s largest employers.”
    But the emphasis on a skilled workforce is not limited to a handful of events, as Stokes stressed. “We’ve put a huge focus on providing our youth and community as a whole a variety of opportunities to better educate and prepare them for higher-wage jobs,” she said.
    Initiatives like MGMWERX and BESPIN are finding their way into schools and universities to assist in building programs and enhancing STEM activities. Area students have more access to training, including a grant awarded to ASU and TechMGM that’s providing Apple SWIFT training to middle school and high school teachers and also bringing courses for college students to teach SWIFT coding that will develop a pipeline of software developers. Stokes also noted the importance of having the BEST Robotics competition in Montgomery this year. “It’s an opportunity to train future engineers and spread these nationwide programs so they have a greater presence in Montgomery and the region,” she said.
    Yet there is still plenty of untapped potential and work to be done, according to Boyd Stephens, founder of Netelysis LLC, who says there are many in the business community who still don’t completely understand how to take complete advantage of Montgomery’s full range of technological assets. But he is ready to show the way. “Essentially, the few of us who have a holistic understanding and view of the various parts and pieces are now obligated to lead out in the ‘trench work’ of educating the general citizenry, members of the business community and to a large degree, actual members of the regional tech community, on how all of the assets fit together,” he said.
    And on training the tech workforce for our future, Stephens offered some valuable insight, pointing to the specifics that make IT education unlike the preparation required for other careers. “There is no other career field where all of the secrets, details, know-how, etc. are so accessible to anyone on the planet. The actual source code/programming languages for the software on which the Facebooks, Googles, Twitters of the world depend on and operate on can be downloaded with a couple of mouse clicks,” he said. So, why the workforce shortage? Stephens elaborated. “Here is the catch: Perusing and discovering this content cannot be fully accomplished reviewing a Youtube video, reading a Facebook/ Twitter post and not even in a classroom with an instructor,” he said. “If one desires a quality and in-depth information technology education, what is most required is having the patience to sit your rear end at a desk for hours, working through the details by reading, comprehending, understanding and attempting to apply very abstract concepts to a work environment that very often cannot be physically touched nor seen.”
    Gaining the “educational patience” that Stephens insists is necessary hinges on starting early and reaching out to and adequately preparing kids at the beginning of their school journey. “If one seeks the mastery of one or more of the information technology crafts, there is no way around the development of this type of educational patience where one spends hours practicing, testing, reviewing and practicing their craft some more,” he said. It sounds daunting, but he also promises that the rewards are real. “In this field, learning new and more interesting things never, ever stops,” Stephens said.
    In March 2019, it was announced that Montgomery would host a BEST (Boosting Engineering, Science and Technology) Robotics competition. The event, hosted by Alabama State University, initiates robotics programs at no cost in middle and high schools by pitting teams of students against each other at the local, regional and then the national level. Lee Sumner, a contractor at Gunter and head of the Montgomery events planning committee for BEST, has been coaching BEST teams in the area since 2005, but previously, the closest local competition was Auburn.
    He explained why having the competition here is so exciting for schools and students, but also for the community at large. “BEST encourages creative thinking, problem solving and goal-directed learning, and it is, without a doubt, positively affecting the entire area because a number of students are being introduced to these areas and experiences that they simply would not have otherwise,” he said. “I know that this experience solidifies some students’ interest in STEM careers.”
    In late October, 24 teams (the maximum allowed), competed to design and build robots ready to complete a specific task. The teams were all provided the same challenge and same materials, and they all had six weeks to prepare. And the entire program and event was free; thanks to corporate sponsorships, neither the schools nor students had to pay a dime to participate.
    All teams received a requirements document that outlined what their robot needed to accomplish and were given their materials kit (a consumables kit with things like plywood, nuts and bolts, wire, etc. and a returnable kit with motors, batteries, etc. that is given back to BEST when the event is over) on September 5. Then they started brainstorming. “They had to do a field test in early October, and that’s kinda fun because they all embark on a little industrial espionage, watching each other to see what is working and what isn’t and then going back with ideas to refine their robot,” Sumner said.
    At the competition a few weeks later, the teams went head-to-head throughout the day, narrowing down the list until four finalists emerged for the championship. The winning teams from Eastwood/Cornerstone Christian Schools, Wetumpka High School, Holtville Middle/High School, Trinity Christian School and Macon County Career Technical Center will advance to the regional BEST competition in Auburn.
    Sumner believes that events like BEST can make be a huge change agent in a student’s life. “It’s a very comprehensive experience that’s great for all STEM subjects, as well as other skills they learned in the writing and presenting of their presentations, but even more than that, it shows some kids that maybe college is not for them,” he said. “Maybe they can go straight into a tech program working for a business, like one of our sponsors, Industrial Automation. It’s giving students the opportunity to interact with folks in the tech/cyber industry right here, and that’s valuable.”

    And Sumner hopes that having BEST here is just the beginning of increased technology offerings for area students. “With all of the new emphasis on tech, the creation of TechMGM and all the partnerships, this is definitely the direction Montgomery needs to go,” he said. “I’d love to see a place that gives more of it, especially for our students. I’d love to see a place that gives students access to the higher-end tech tools that most schools can’t afford.”
    “BEST encourages creative thinking, problem solving and goal-directed learning, and it is, without a doubt, positively affecting the entire area because a number of students are being introduced to these areas and experiences that they simply would not have otherwise,” he said. “I know that this experience solidifies some students’ interest in STEM careers.” - LEE SUMNER
    Trenholm State Community College is doing its part to provide the courses and curriculum that students need to pursue careers in IT and the cyber sector, and in several cases, offering them for free. Danny Perry, Interim Dean of Workforce Development and Career and Technical Education and EMS Program Director, shared how and why.
    Why up your offerings in terms of tech classes? We saw a huge need for tech training here, so we partnered with Troy University and TechMGM to write a grant last year to provide training for cyber security. We were awarded the Cyber Innovation Academy grant, and it allows us to provide training to pretty much anyone. The grant covers 100 percent of costs, so students basically get training valued at about $1,500 for free. They do pay a $75 registration fee, and that helps us ensure they have a commitment to the class. We provide the books and software they need as well as a voucher to cover costs of the certification tests they take at the end.
    What do students learn through the Cyber Innovation Academy? Security+ and Cisco Certified Network Administrator. To work in any IT department at Maxwell or Gunter, you’ve got to have one or both of these certifications.
    What has the response been? Our goal was to train 150 folks. To date, we’ve trained 188, and we’ve now asked for an extension because we feel like with the remaining funds (we did it cheaper than we thought), we can train an additional 60 to 75 folks. And there is still a lot of interest in them; we’ve had a huge response from the military, state government IT departments as well as private industry.
    Are there other interesting offerings at the college right now too? Yes. There were three colleges in the state contacted by Apple, and we were one. They asked us to start teaching students their coding tech called Apple SWIFT. Students can take the three classes needed, go home and build an app and start selling it on iTunes. This is available to anyone as a stand-alone course; you don’t have to be enrolled at Trenholm.
    In your opinion, are the recent tech and cyber initiatives being implemented by the city and its partners (the Chamber, military, private businesses, etc.) taking us in the right direction? If so, why and how?
    The recent tech and cyber initiatives are taking us in the right direction. First, the diverse field of cyber pros in Montgomery is a great testament to the field. Thanks to youth initiatives spearheaded by organizations like the Chamber, SBDC, TechMGM, AFCEA and ASU instilling youth with the importance of STEM subjects, the future is bright. Finally, the willingness of small businesses to learn how to protect their information confidentiality, integrity and availability of their data and information is a great step forward. - Anwar Shahid, Founder and CEO /Propelled Technologies
    By investing in MGMix Internet Exchange, Montgomery lays a great foundation for the future. As a technology community, we understand the need to evolve our infrastructure to better serve the needs of both business and individuals. In the past, communities invested in physical roads and bridges to create the infrastructure needed to live, work and play more easily. Now, we must devote a high priority to the “cyber roads and bridges” that allow us to quickly connect, share and transact. - Bill Youngblood, COO / BWS
    Collaboration between the city and its partners (the Chamber, military, private biz, etc.) is the key to moving in the right direction for tech and cyber initiatives. These type initiatives and think tanks provide industry leaders an opportunity to share their intellectual capital and knowledge to produce innovation, smart cities, and opportunities to implement artificial intelligence (AI). - Wanda Jones, CEO & Managing Director, CDA Consulting, Inc.
    The interconnectedness of our world provides a great opportunity for improving business practices and making informed decisions. Accessing current and accurate data, however, requires the right infrastructure and people who know how to deliver appropriate services. And even more importantly, people who understand the vulnerabilities of applications and systems so that they can protect the data that you value most. Montgomery is making headway in the tech industry with the Montgomery internet Exchange that provides the foundation for offering these services. The city has also moved to create TechMGM, which links local industry, education and government to bring new capabilities and ensure we have the local resources to support cybersecurity and deliver solutions and services for everyone in Montgomery and the state. - Chuck Evanhoe, President of Evanhoe & Associates and Aware Innovations
    Technology is about helping us live more productive lives. Ever heard that saying that you should work smarter, not harder? This is what the tech and cyber initiatives are all about in Montgomery. Technology is helping our lives every day. The parking upgrades that are coming from ParkMobile will help make paying for parking more convenient. No longer will you have to hope you remembered to put some change in your vehicle. This is just one of the many ways that technology can serve to help make our daily lives just a little bit better. I’m happy about all the technology upgrades that are happening around Montgomery. I believe they will help boost our business community, which will also help boost our economy and help us grow to the city’s potential that I know is there. - Jason Cullins, President & CEO, Innovations Technology Group, Inc.
    “ITS is excited about the focus on tech and fiber in Montgomery and the opportunities it will present to the city and region. We believe the focus will allow even further inclusive development for technologies like expanding unlicensed 5G for a generic group of service providers accelerating a wireless umbrella for the city and even the region. This will expand the opportunities for businesses and individuals in the city. Ultra high-speed connectivity is the backbone for all future economic development.” - Quincy Minor, President and COO, ITS
    “I believe Montgomery is taking a very positive direction with emphasis on both cybersecurity and technology. Technology is very much a part of our daily lives, and Montgomery is making this technology work to our benefit with upgrades such as the parking using the ParkMobile app. And by investing in the MGMix Internet Exchange, Montgomery is creating an even greater foundation for our future, constantly growing and evolving its technology infrastructure.” - Roger Blackmon, President, Computer and Data Network Services
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