Milwaukee’s web development community thrives

Discussions about mobile technologies have become everyday conversations among business owners and executives. That, coupled with some regional initiatives that push for education, collaboration and advancements in the technology design and development community, could help put Milwaukee on the map next to cities such as Palo Alto, Calif., and Austin, Texas.

The growth of mobile tablets and smartphones has created a new cottage industry in Milwaukee and has spurred many technology-based companies to change their business models to take advantage of that growth.

“Ten years ago, I had to explain to people what I did for a living,” said Joe Regan, a principal at Milwaukee-based ModMobile LLC. “The technology landscape has changed. It’s not about just programming computers. When I started, people didn’t even have computers in their homes. Mobile has given people computers in their pocket. It’s exciting to be a part of.”

Milwaukee has long had several grassroots user groups where people from the programming community meet to discuss new technologies, Regan said.

“(The development community has) historically been a pretty strong community,” he said. “It’s just become more energized because of the interest in mobile technology and possible opportunities for collaboration.”

The Greater Milwaukee Committee’s latest initiative called MiKE (Innovation in Milwaukee) focuses on developing talent for innovation and economic development for the region. A big part of that is a focus on mobile, said Steve Glynn, executive director of Spreenkler Talent Labs, which has partnered with the GMC on the initiative.

Other partners include Art Milwaukee, BizStarts Milwaukee, Creative Alliance Milwaukee and the GMC Talent Dividend.

“Mobile is a part of everyday speak at any business,” Glynn said. “There are so many talented developers and programmers in the area. Our goal is to let (The MiKE initiative) formalize some of the tracks and discussions that are already happening in our community for the benefit of everyone.”

MiKE recently held a Mobile Application Development Event at The Shops of Grand Avenue in downtown Milwaukee.

Brennan Stehling, owner of SmallSharpTools LLC, a Milwaukee-based development company that focuses on mobile and web technologies, was instrumental in the formation of the first event.

“We are planning to do more events like this,” Stehling said. “It’s a more formalized way of getting people who are thought leaders in this mobile/development arena together to look at how things are changing and how as developers we can stay on top of everything.”

The goal of the event is to drive collaboration and teach each other, Stehling said. Professional and student developers are encouraged to come, he added.

The technology has moved too quickly for most educational institutions to adopt a formal curriculum for mobile application development.

“To no fault of their own, schools haven’t caught up yet with the technology,” Glynn said.

Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE) has had mobile application development as an elective for the past few years, and while leadership at the school has had discussions, it has not been implemented into the formal curriculum, said Ben Uphoff, assistant professor in the computer science department at MSOE.

“It’s a big focus area for us right now,” Uphoff said. “The skills are in high demand, and frankly, our students are very interested in it. We’ve had an elective for numerous years in mobile app development and we continue to grow those elective offerings.”

The school has free reign to adjust the elective course offerings as the technology changes, Uphoff said.

“We’ve had many discussions about implementing mobile technology into a wider swath of the curriculum, but when you make a change to the curriculum you are really committing to it long term, five years even,” he said. “The technology is so dynamic and moving so quickly, right now we feel it’s too risky until we know exactly how it’s going to shake out.”

Uphoff recognizes that mobile is going to be a part of the future, and demand for those skill sets is already quite evident, he said. The new curriculum at MSOE will most likely give students more room for elective courses so they could supplement their own education with mobile-based courses, Uphoff said.

Matt Friedel, president and owner of Milwaukee-based Jam-Mobile.com, is working closely with the University Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Continuing Education to implement coursework in the mobile space.

“The talent and the interest are here,” Friedel said. “It’s just a matter of getting some of the educational aspects out in front. That’s the first step in growing and adding to the business landscape of the region.”

The UWM School of Continuing Education doesn’t have the same system restrictions as a traditional four-year university, Friedel said. “It can be challenging and slow moving to add or change things in a four-year curriculum.”

Friedel has developed a syllabus for a course on mobile development that will be offered in the fall of 2012 in the UWM School of Information Studies, he said. He will also hold two classes at the UWM School of Continuing Education in February.

Uphoff plans to partner with the MiKE initiative on a few projects in the future, and the MiKE Initiative plans to form similar partnerships with other area colleges and universities.

“We recognize the talent here in Milwaukee,” Glynn said. “Our goal is to provide the vision that all these different user groups and student developers can work towards. It’s that vision that hasn’t always been there. The vision that lets us decide how we are going to encompass this grassroots design and technology talent of this region and create an economic driver for our region, because then we all benefit.”

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