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Boulder's tech workers cope with historic flood

Widespread use of cloud data centers helps tech firms keep running, letting workers worry first about floods, not about business

September 13, 2013 07:07 AM ET

Computerworld - On Thursday afternoon, Chris Moody was the last person inside the downtown Boulder, Col. offices of Gnip, a social media data provider. Normally there are 70 people working in the office, but now Moody, Gnip's CEO, was set to turn off the lights and leave.

Boulder city officials had sent out an emergency request asking businesses to shut down operations in response to heavy rains that are producing widespread flooding.

Many roads were closed, limiting traffic flow. "They really want people off the road so emergency vehicles can move about," said Moody. "We're a big part of the downtown community and we wanted to certainly support the emergency effort."

Boulder flooding
Torrential rains pushed many streams around Boulder, Colo. out of their banks, flooding businesses and private home. (Image Dave DuPont.)

Only about a third of Gnip's employees came into work Thursday, heeding Moody's earlier message to tend first to their personal safety and family needs. Some employees are dealing with flooding, others face commuting problems with road closures, he said.

Gnip's downtown Boulder office wasn't flooded, even though it is a block away from a creek, but workers were setting up floodgates as a precautionary measure. The city's decision to ask businesses to close was a sign "that the worst might still be in front of us," said Moody.

Record Colorado rains and flash floods this week have swept away buildings and roads. But the floods can't wash away is Boulder's reputation as one of nation's best places for start-up companies.

Boulder was recently ranked first in nation for its "high-tech startup density," by the Kauffman Foundation. The ranking is based on a ratio of total startups and total population. What that ranking means, simply, is that there are a lot of startups in Boulder.

Despite the storm, Boulder businesses don't appear to be facing the same kind of widespread problems that the New York region suffered with Hurricane Sandy a year ago. Tech firms said that while some employees lost Internet access at their homes, there was no region-wide outage.

Despite storm-related problems and closed offices, it was business as usual for tech firms.

Gnip's operations, which it says involve delivering media analytics to over 90% of the Fortune 500, ran normally. Many Boulder firms rely on cloud providers, with operations far from the hazard areas, instead of running their own data centers.

On Thursday afternoon, Dave DuPont, CEO of TeamSnap, was in a hardware store picking up a sump pump hose as he detailed, in a cell phone interview, the impact of the flooding. TeamSnap, an online service for organizing sports teams, has nearly six million users.

DuPont needed a hose for his flooded home basement. TeamSnap's downtown office in Boulder is on the second floor and is dry, but he can't say the same for that office building's first floor and garage.

Basement flooding
Numerous companies and private homes in and around Boulder dealt with flooding yesterday, including TeamSnap CEO Dave DuPont, who took this picture of his basement.

But the business was fine. "We don't have any capital equipment anywhere," said DuPont, The company relies on cloud providers for data services. TeamSnap also has employees located around the country who can help keep operations going, he said.

"We're uniquely position to be able to handle this thing quite well," said DuPont. "That's the way it is for most companies that do what we do," he said of other Internet-based firms.

But physically getting to the office is another thing. "I would need a boat to commute today," said DuPont.

DuPont told employees to work from home if they could, but to "make sure they took care of themselves and their families and friends first."

Both Moody and DuPont praised the culture in Boulder, and said people network and communicate. Moody illustrated it through an anecdote. He was contacted by an engineer interested in moving to Boulder, and he put him in touch with various firms and what soon became three solid days of meetings for the engineer.

Drawing good talent to Boulder helps everyone, said Moody.

Boulder wasn't always a software development center, said Jud Valeski, CTO of Gnip.

Valeski has spent most of his life Boulder, and he wanted to work in software, his passion. But in the 1990s, Boulder area tech opportunities were mostly though hardware storage vendors. In 1995 he relocated to Silicon Valley to work at Netscape. But he moved back to Boulder in 1999 and has seen the software development community rise in the years since.

Valeski said Boulder's cost of living, compared to Silicon Valley or New York, is relatively affordable, and it offers a great lifestyle.

One advantage that Boulder has is a highly educated population, thanks to University of Colorado, and research facilities, such as the National Center for Atmospheric Research. In the mid-2000 period, Google, Microsoft created offices there, and venture capital funding arrived as well.

All of this has given the area a dense, technical knowledge base, and people who tend to stay "because of the quality of life," said Valeski.

Boulder flooding
Tow crews work to assist stranded cars after heavy rains caused flooding in Boulder, Colo. on Thursday. Flash flooding killed at least three people and forced hundreds to flee to higher ground as rising water caused buildings to collapse and stranded cars. (Image: Reuters/Mark Leffingwell)

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at Twitter@DCgov, or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed Thibodeau RSS. His email address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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