In-ride entertainment

'Cash cab' rideshare tech company expands services to Houston and Austin

Houston and Austin rideshare riders might soon walk away with some earnings — or at least some entertainment. Photo via playoctopus.com

Your next Lyft or Uber ride might win you some money. An interactive advertising and entertainment platform that works in rideshares has announced it will expand to the Houston and Austin markets — just in time for SXSW.

Maryland-based Play Octopus has already received thousands of applications from rideshare drivers wanting the device in their vehicles, according to a press release. And expanding to Houston was an obvious move.

"As the leading rideshare advertising company in the country, expanding into Texas' ride-sharing scene is a necessary first step as we expand outside of the Northeast. Austin and Houston are both tech-driven cities that rely on rideshare for convenient transportation," says Cherian Thomas, the co-founder and CEO of Play Octopus. "Digital video consumption and rideshare are both at all-time highs, and for brands, Octopus provides the ability to reach millions of rideshare passengers on a monthly basis."

The company has recently seen success from partnerships with the likes of Disney, Red Bull, Tiffany & Co., Sprint, National Geographic, and Weight Watchers in major Northeastern cities. Houston and Austin are just the start of Octopus' 2019 growth plans.

The way it works is the company provides free tablets to qualified drivers. Tablets come with a monthly data plan, a mount, the cables required, and up to $100 a month — not to mention the perks — like tips and ratings — that come with providing riders a new option for ride entertainment. On the other side of the table, advertisers have access to millions of monthly riders and can use branding and geo-targeting ads.

The company launched the platform on the East Coast about a year ago and is already in over 7,000 vehicles generating almost 10 million engagements a month. Currently, Octopus is in New York; Boston; Philadelphia; Washington, D.C.; Baltimore; and Richmond, Virginia.

"Our national expansion is being fueled by our brand and agency partners, and further solidifies the Octopus platform as a key component to media plans," says Dillon Tedesco, the chief revenue officer of Play Octopus. "As we surpass the 10,000,000 monthly engagement milestone and introduce exciting new ways to interact with our tablets, we're looking forward to providing our clients with a deeper impact in more cities across the country."

Coding camps continue to grow and expand in Houston. The most recent comes from the University of Texas. Getty Images

As Houston's innovation ecosystem grows, the need for tech talent grows too. It's why the University of Texas and workforce accelerator Trilogy Education decided to bring a series of coding boot camps designed to teach Houstonians the skills they need to excel in the fast-paced world of the tech economy to town.

"Too many working adults lack the skills to succeed in the digital economy," says Liliya Spinazzola, the senior director for professional education and strategic initiatives at the Texas Extended Campus of The University of Texas at Austin. "And that means that employers are lacking a talent pool."

The Houston Coding Boot Camp aims to change all that. The 24-week sessions teach web development and coding skills, allowing adults to take classes even as they're working. That kind of flexibility helps them increase their knowledge as they continue to build career paths.

Houston's seen a good amount of growth when it comes to new coding camps. Digital Crafts, for instance, grew from an inaugural class of eight students to 125 people in just two years. Women Who Code saw a need for female coders in Houston to have a network, and now the city has a newly launched chapter.

Student success
So far, 260 students have completed the programs, going on to work at companies such as JP Morgan, IBM, and Deloitte.

One of those is Rebecca Gemeinhardt, now a full stack developer at Shell. She graduated with her bachelor's in graphic arts from the Kansas City Art Institute in 2017, and found that she missed being in a classroom. When she started the boot camp, she was immediately drawn to the challenge the subject matter offered, as well as the flexible schedule.

"The boot camp was just as formidable as the curriculum promised but extremely fulfilling," she says. "Going into boot camp, I didn't tell anyone I was doing it — what if I struggled and couldn't get through it? I kept it a secret until I found the confidence to identify as a developer."

Once she completed the program, she was hired at Shell.

"My life had changed so much in just six months but definitely for the better," Gemeinhardt says. "By focusing on the ability to adopt new technologies, [the coding boot camp instructors] left us with the invaluable skill of being adaptable and fast-learning full stack developers. This has helped me immensely at my current position as we are always incorporating new languages to our architecture depending on individual project needs."

Filling the need
Spinazzola says the camps deliberately try to create environments that foster the level of problem solving and exploration Gemeinhardt describes. The program partners with employers to discover what skills are most needed, and tailors the curriculum to dovetail with them. She says the skills most in demand right now are coding, cyber security, IT project management, and digital marketing.

"We also look at job description data here in Texas to see what skills are listed," she says. "And while students are in the program, we have a robust network that engages with them upfront, talking to them about what jobs are out there. And we host career fairs where they can show off their portfolios and discuss their skills set with potential employers."

Spinazzola says that students come from all walks of life and employment backgrounds, and that 26 percent of the participants are women. With 25 students per boot camp session, the small classes make for deep instruction. UT offers between three and fours sessions in Houston each year. She says that she finds participants are looking to either break into the tech sector, learn new skills or re-train to be able to advance their careers. The average age of students is somewhere in the low-30s, she says.

"We had a student who owned a cooking school and wanted to start a new career," she says. "[Rebecca] trained as a graphic artist and wanted to be a developer. One student shut down his medical practice and says that he wanted to learn coding so that he could go work for a pharmaceutical company. To me, that's the beauty of this program. These skills are in demand, and our students are able to take what they already know and enhance their abilities to be able to take on new career paths."