IT jobs market booming in the Southwest

We look at the prospects for both hiring managers and job seekers in the first in a series of reports examining IT labor markets across the country.

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In Austin, city leaders have been promoting high-density development since the late 1990s, leading to projects in the downtown area and east of Interstate 35 (which runs north to south just east of downtown) and south of the Colorado River (which runs east to west just south of downtown), says Long.

In San Antonio high-density development has been underway along recent extensions of the River Walk, both north and south of the downtown tourist district, says Gomez. Weston, who is a real estate developer as well as head of Rackspace, says he is personally involved in such development.

Then there is the question of charm. Austin has been careful to promote a reputation for eccentricity, embodied in the phrase "Keep Austin Weird" (which was coined by a DJ and later trademarked by a T-shirt company).

Long cautions that the idea that Austin is "weird" is more easily understood in context: Being accepting of those who dress differently, embrace alternative lifestyles and pursue a Dada-esque arts scene doesn't make the city any weirder than a lot of others, and it probably pales in comparison with, say, New Orleans, he says. But when you consider the fact that Texas conservatism prevails beyond Austin's borders, the embrace of eccentricity — not to mention environmentalism — is an example of what Long calls "Austin exceptionalism."

"You can find beautiful landscapes in other cities, but there are people in Austin who believe they live in a perfect, exceptional oasis compared to the rest of Texas, and even the U.S.," Long says.

Music scene

Another major contributor to Austin's identity is the music industry. Music journalist, author and filmmaker Joe Nick Patoski says the music scene probably rivals the technology industry when it comes to attracting newcomers to Austin, which bills itself as the "live music capital of the world."

"There is a disproportionate number of live music venues — you can hit 10 clubs easily in a night. Austin musicians are considered artists and given respect, even if they're starving," he notes. "Austin is cool, and that's not a marketing tool, but a grass-roots spirit you cannot create — but from it have arisen profitable companies."

The PBS TV show Austin City Limits, which features music recorded live in Austin, has been on the air since 1976. The annual South By Southwest (SXSW) arts conference began as a music festival in 1987 and has since expanded to include film and interactive technology, according to Patoski.

Now that the tourists have discovered Austin's music venues, the hipsters are gravitating to the burgeoning local food scene; they'd rather stand in line outside a celebrity chef's hole-in-the-wall restaurant than wait to get into a dive club to see a band, Patoski says.

San Antonio, meanwhile, has shown less urgency about trying to establish a defining atmosphere. Or perhaps that lack of urgency is the defining atmosphere. "San Antonio is a third-gear city," says Gomez. "No one is in a hurry, whereas New York and London are in fifth gear. And the city is about relationships — people ask about your wife and kids. If you want transactional interactions, there are other cities for that."

Gomez adds that San Antonio's proximity to Mexico and its heavily Hispanic culture — Spanish is the predominant language in many parts of the city— makes it easy to attract Mexican startups.

"We look for geeks with a great bedside manner, and there are a disproportionate number in San Antonio," Weston says. "One reason, I think, is that we've long had a thriving hospitality industry and a big military sector. People here, through their family upbringing and experience, tend to be polite and helpful."

Meanwhile, Long notes that it remains to be seen how the area's quality of life, if not its "weirdness," can be maintained in the face of continued growth. Traffic congestion is an issue, compounded by heavy trucks carrying Mexican imports down Interstate 35. And affordable housing is becoming scarce in Austin because of gentrification and the construction of luxury homes, he notes.

Regardless, "Austin is the creative center between the coasts," says Patoski. "Young people continue to flock here."

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