A Houston startup is making it easier to connect and manage the relationship between tech freelancers and businesses with software projects. Image via Pexels

With the gig economy continuing to grow — especially in light of the COVID-19-caused crisis and growing unemployment — a Houston startup has created a portal for companies to access technology-focused freelancers.

FreelancingTeams, co-founded by Raj Kal, allows companies to easily search and find tech professionals for projects — as well as manage that team throughout the work. On the other side of the table, the startup is allowing the country's growing population of freelancers a platform to get picked up for jobs.

"We are changing the way we look at team building," Kal says, noting that a huge percentage of freelancers struggle to find jobs with existing resources.

Not only does FreelancingTeams act as a marketplace for tech talent, but Kal says the platform allows for project management and payment processes. While there are other talent portals — like Fiverr and Upwork — this added capability sets the startups apart from its competition.

"People come in with an idea, and they can do it from start to finish," Kal says, explaining that users don't have to find separate tools to find their team, manage the project, and price and pay for the work.

FreelancingTeams is free for clients to list and staff their projects, and a 10 to 15 percent cut comes out of the freelancer side. However, there is an option for clients to upgrade to a paid subscription option for larger, more complex projects that require additional hands-on management resources from FreelancingTeams.

With its free option, FreelancingTeams has seen a lot of interest from startups looking to build there minimum viable product, or MVP.

"We are working with a lot of startups as a Station Houston partner," Kal says. "We are helping them get their MVP done, so that when they come to our platform, we can work with them to understand the requirements and connect them to their teams."

Betsy Furler, founder of For All Abilities, a Houston-based software company aims to help businesses support employees with ADHD, Dyslexia, learning differences, and Autism, recently used FreelancingTeams to staff her MVP development project. She says using the platform made it easy to manage and test the work the freelancers were doing.

"FreelancingTeams helped me build my MVP quickly and inexpensively," Furler says. "Their quote was much less expensive than the others [I received] and the work was fantastic. Because of the platform, I also spent more time thinking through what features were needed and how to prioritize them, rather than just giving a developer or project manager a list to complete."

Outside of affordably building tech for startups, the coronavirus has greatly affected the workforce with unemployment at a historic high. This has led to an increased interest in freelancing.

"A lot of people are unemployed and are looking for alternative options," Kal says. "Freelancing is a place where we are seeing large growth."

He says he's also observing an increased interest in freelancers from large companies and even retailers who need to upgrade their online presence.

"The COVID situation has brought more challenges to bigger businesses, and they are looking for cost-effective solutions as well," Kal says.

Kal is looking to grow FreelancingTeams, which might include fundraising in the future, he says. For now, the company has a low overhead and uses freelancers on its own site to develop its technology.

"The next step for us is to grow bigger in Houston and then around Texas," Kal says.

Daytum exists to train coding experts in oil and gas. Getty Images

Houston startup aims to arm the energy industry's workforce with coding skills

Coding camps

Nearly 2,000 miles separate the energy industry of Houston and Silicon Valley where startups have cropped up to help manage the thousands of data points collected on oil rigs each day. The different geographies have developed their own dialects: data scientists on the West Coast talk about how operations should be, according to their models, while the lingo of Third Coast engineers and technicians centers on oil-specific operations.

Last year, while working in natural resource investing from Houston, Kunal Rayakar realized he had heard from a number of students who could, uniquely, speak both. The reason: They knew coding languages, which meant they could analyze their own data and bridge that gap between the coasts. When Rayakar followed the trail of students to the University of Texas at Austin, he found two engineering professors, John Foster and Michael Pyrcz, who were teaching their students data skills as part of the curriculum. They started talking, and eventually Foster and Rayakar founded daytum — and soon after, Pyrcz joined, too.

"The intention is to give people more awareness of the data that comes through, so they can make faster decisions," Rayakar says.

An education program for workers in the energy industry, daytum hosts workshops and an online learning network for technicians and engineers to better understand the data they're working with. This, Rayakar says, helps them exercise more control over the work — especially for those whose preliminary training in the field was before data became indispensable to the job. The professors and Kunal host two– or five-day workshops, and just a few weeks ago, they held both introductory and intermediate courses at the University of Houston.

The professors teach Python, a common programming language. Although there's a learning curve to studying Python, it's not as confusing as some of the tools, like MATLAB, that engineers studied in their undergraduate educations. But students don't actually have to become Python experts at all — instead, they use Jupyter, an online digital notebook that can import Python packages, which are large and ready-made coding sequences.

Often, these are free and available to download on sites like Github. Daytum professors teach packages that are useful for analyzing and visualizing the data they work with in the field, and students leave having a usable workstation on their computers, ready to be installed and implemented in their work.

"People really enjoyed the courses," Rayakar says. "We were really happy."

But right now, daytum's main goal is to continue to grow its workshops — including introducing Austin bootcamps, to engage people in learning, and to empower oil industry technicians to navigate the industry's digital transition more smoothly.

"By building longer-term solutions and cultures, we can build better educations," Rayakar says.

New, alternative education pathways like technology boot camps bring more diversity to our tech talent pools, a critical component of fostering innovation that is still missing at most technology-focused companies. Getty Images

How tech boot camps can help solve the Houston innovation equation

Class project

It's been a little over a year since Houston lost out on the Amazon HQ2 bid and left the city pondering its approach to innovation. Houston is known for taking risks and bouncing back from adversity. We're known for growth and entrepreneurship. But are we still known for innovation? Are we positioned for growth as a creative class and digital skills city?

It's my belief that we need to invest in the professional skills of our local workforce and ensure we can attract companies that will help our city and Houstonians thrive. Amazon pointed us in the right direction. It highlighted our need of more professional upskilling programs and increased investment in the city's innovation infrastructure.

At Rice University, we listened, and launched fast-track, intensive tech training programs designed specifically for working adults to help solve these problems. We launched a pilot program in late 2018, a data analytics boot camp in partnership with a national workforce accelerator called Trilogy Education. It was met with such an enthusiastic response from students that we are expanding the initiative by adding programs in cybersecurity and other high demand fields later this year.

These tech boot camps are designed to augment Rice's other efforts to foster innovation in our community like a recent $100 million investment in a new innovation hub for all of Houston and an already ambitious innovation and technology ecosystem, highlighted by the Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, or LILIE, and the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship. Combined, we hope these efforts will help Houston to secure its position as a magnet for technology employers and workers alike.

By many standards, Houston's tech industry is booming. Digital middle-skill jobs — the kinds that provide a stepping stone between lower-paid non-tech roles and high-earning careers in tech — represent 42 percent of overall job postings in Houston. And these jobs are on the rise. Between 2017 and 2018, the number of Houston job postings requiring web development skills rose by 57 percent, earning the city 6th-place ranking among the top 10 U.S. cities for coding job growth.

With numbers like these, it's easy to grow complacent. But Houston is by no means immune to the widening digital skills gap that is holding back business growth nationwide. And unless we create programs to support upskilling and career mobility, even the people currently driving Houston's tech renaissance may struggle to keep their skills sets up to date.

These programs help us address Amazon's core area of critique: innovation. This is something Houston has historically been known for; in 1969 alone, we helped put the first astronaut on the moon and the first artificial heart in a patient. But like all important skills, innovation must be regularly nurtured, enhanced, and relearned.

New, alternative education pathways like technology boot camps bring more diversity to our tech talent pools, a critical component of fostering innovation that is still missing at most technology-focused companies. These employers are starting to look beyond traditional degrees for people who can simply prove they have the skills for the job. The relatively lower barrier to entry for a technology boot camp opens the door for candidates of all races, genders, and walks of life to bring their unique perspectives and insights to an industry sorely in need of more diversity.

As one of the country's most racially diverse metros, Houston reflects the nation's demographic future, and can make a unique contribution to the diversity of our workforce. We already rank among the top five best U.S. cities for women in tech (number four, to be exact). And if the demographics of Rice's earliest boot camp enrollees are any indication, a widespread rollout of these kinds of programs may be a part of Houston's ability to garner the number one spot in coming years. Among our boot camp students to date, 35 percent are white, 20 percent are Hispanic, 17 percent are African American, and 23 percent are Asian. Women made up 25 percent of our first class, a good start that we plan to improve.

Houston has the potential to become a nationwide leader in tech innovation. The problems we face in getting there are complicated, but like all equations, they can be solved with resilience and hard work.

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Robert Bruce is the dean of Rice University's Susanne M. Glasscock School of Continuing Studies.

Houston's job market has seen a growing demand for coders, as companies seek to bring coding in house. DigitalCrafts is stepping in to provide an educated workforce. Courtesy of DigitalCrafts

Houston coding class grows tenfold in 2 years to meet the job market needs

Back to school

When DigitalCrafts hosted its first coding boot camp in Houston, it opened with eight people. Two years later, the organization's next class will graduate 125 people as coders, ready to take on the challenges of the Bayou City's 21st century work environment.

"We work with local companies as part of our advising board," says Jason Ephraim, the Houston campus director. "And our students go to work for those companies when they complete our program. That kind of localization helps us understand what the Houston ecosystem needs in terms of workforce skills, and allows us to adapt our curriculum to meet their needs, which helps us ensure our graduates get placed."

DigitalCrafts began in Atlanta, co-founded by Max McChesney and Jake Hadden. The Houston outpost is only the second expansion for the company, a move Ephraim says is a deliberate; DigitalCrafts looks to make small, impactful changes as a company, better ensuring it meets the needs of both its students and the workforce they'll enter.

The company offers a project-based curriculum, where outside companies come into the classroom and describe the challenges they're facing. Students are then offered the opportunity to work in teams on digital solutions, providing an experiential learning environment that mirrors what they might find in their careers.

"In Atlanta, we work with companies like the Home Depot and Chick-Fil-A, but here in Houston, where energy is still dominant, we have companies come in and explain the tools they need to maximize their business," Ephraim says. "That means students are working on actual projects with an end result for a business, and it gives them exposure to area businesses."

That combination of providing a deep dive into coding and partnering with Houston companies helps DigitalCrafts graduates get an edge on the competition. The program itself is super hands on, and most of the students who come into it have taken at least one computer programming course, most likely Python or JavaScript, whether in the course of their college education or via a MOOC (massive open online course).

"For most of our students, that exposure wasn't enough and they want a deeper dive," says Ephraim.

DigitalCrafts offers both full- and part-time class options. The full-time program is 16 weeks and fully immersive. Students take courses every day, building on skills and training as full-stack developers. The part-time sessions unfold across 26 weeks, and students learn front- and back-end web development.

"Our goal has always been to help our students be ready for careers in all aspects of software and web development," says Ephraim. "The average student is 30, and looking to either make a career change to coding and development, or wants to enhance what he or she has already learned."

The vetting process for students is exacting, explains Ephraim. Each applicant is evaluated based not only on what he or she knows and is looking to learn, but also in terms of what his or her individual career goals are. DigitalCrafts looks to ensure that its programs will meet the needs of its students.

Ephraim says that given Houston's current job landscape, the need for coders is strong — and growing.

"Over the last two years, we're seeing companies who used to outsource this kind of development bringing it back in-house," he says. "That's created a really high demand for people who understand coding and programming and know how to solve problems. And it's not just happening at energy companies. It's happening in finance, in health care."

In short, the industries that play a huge role in keeping the Houston economy ticking.

In addition to offering its in-depth boot camps, DigitalCrafts also contracts with companies to train employees. The company will either offer basic classes or work with an organization to custom-create a curriculum based on individual needs. Ephraim says that his organization has had success in the Bayou City because it's made it a point to understand the local landscape, as well as look at the larger picture of what digital careers here look like.

"Houston isn't like Austin, where you have that almost stereotypical idea of people walking around with their laptops and working in coffee shops," Ephraim says. "The digital landscape here is different, and there are jobs here for those who know how to fill this need. Companies here want to hire Houstonians. We're here to help make sure they can."

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Houston ranks among fastest growing tech hubs amid the pandemic, report finds

When Americans think of tech hubs, Silicon Valley or even Austin may initially come to mind. However, Houston appears to be making a play for tech-hub status.

Citing data from career platform LinkedIn, the Axios news website reports that Houston has seen a healthy influx of tech workers since the start of the pandemic. In fact, Houston ranks second among 14 major U.S. labor markets for the number of relocating software and IT workers between March 2020 and February 2021 compared with the same period a year earlier.

Miami grabs the No. 1 spot for the gain in software and IT workers (up 15.4 percent) between the two periods, with Houston in second place (10.4 percent) and Dallas-Fort Worth in third place (8.6 percent), according to the LinkedIn data.

"Young engineers and recent college graduates see Miami, Houston, and Philadelphia — not San Francisco, New York, or Seattle — as the hot new places to jumpstart a technology or creative economy career," Axios notes.

At the bottom of the barrel sits the San Francisco Bay Area, which suffered a loss of 34.8 percent when comparing the arrival and departure of software and IT workers. Interestingly, Austin experienced a loss of 8 percent in this category.

The shift from traditional tech hub to emerging tech hub is likely to continue as employers and employees alike further embrace remote work. A survey commissioned in April by the nonprofit One America Works found 47% of tech workers had moved during the pandemic. In addition, 3 in 10 tech workers anticipate living somewhere different than they did during the pandemic.

The CompTIA tech trade group says the Houston metro area is home to 243,908 tech workers. The Houston area's tech workforce grew 12.3 percent from 2010 to 2019, according to the group.

"Houston has been a center for world-changing innovations in energy, life sciences and aerospace for over a century. With science and engineering breakthroughs ingrained in the fabric of Houston's economy, the region has become a thriving hub of digital technology talent and companies thanks to our access to customers and expertise," says a report released in March by the Greater Houston Partnership.

One employer taking advantage of that talent is Bill.com. In 2019, the digital payments company opened a Houston outpost — the company's first office outside Silicon Valley.

"Though the city's technology industry is still developing, it offers a breath of fresh air compared to overcrowded late-stage tech markets like Austin and Denver. Ultimately, the breadth and depth of Houston's talent pool and the neighboring educational pipelines made it an ideal location for a second home," Vinay Pai, senior vice president of engineering at Palo Alto, California-based Bill.com and a Rice University graduate, wrote in April 2020 on LinkedIn.

Energy giant makes Houston sole headquarters in massive move

HQ move

Power player NRG Energy is laser focused on Houston. The Bayou City will be the energy giant's new sole headquarters; the company will no longer split between Houston and Princeton, New Jersey.

The move to a single headquarters simplifies business operations, as a large number of the company's employees and customers reside in Texas, the company noted in a press release and report.

The company, having recently acquired Direct Energy, will maintain regional offices in the markets that it serves and "evaluate real estate needs and consolidate as appropriate," the report adds.

Mayor Sylvester Turner welcomed the news in a statement, relaying that he and his team have had "substantive conversations" with NRG president and CEO Mauricio Gutierrez. "I believe the decision is confirmation that Houston is a smart city for business," said Turner.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott also chimed in, adding in part:

With this move, NRG joins 50 other Fortune 500 companies headquartered in Texas, including 22 in the Houston area alone. America's leading businesses continue to invest in Texas — and grow jobs in Texas — because of our welcoming business climate, low taxes, reasonable regulations, and our young, growing, and skilled workforce.
I thank NRG Energy for designating Texas — the energy capital of the world — as their corporate headquarters, and I look forward to our continued partnership as we ensure a more prosperous future for all who call the Lone Star State home.

Turner noted that more than a year ago, the City of Houston committed to purchasing 100 percent renewable energy through a renewed partnership with NRG Energy as the City's retail electric provider. "The plan is helping us build a more sustainable future, save over $9 million on our electric bill, and reduce emissions," he said.

NRG Energy boasts some 3,000 employees in Houston alone. In its report, the company reported a net loss of $83 million due the impact of Winter Storm Uri.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — tech, health care, and more — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.


Emily Cisek, founder of The Postage

The Postage — a Houston-based company that's streamlining afterlife planning — has rolled out a new app. Photo courtesy of The Postage

Emily Cisek had a mission when she founded The Postage. She wanted to make afterlife planning simpler — and she's taken one giant step toward that goal with the company's new app.

"What we wanted to do [with the app] is make it so easy to plan your life and the end of your life using one click — as easy as it was for posting and commenting on social media," explains Cisek. "People are so used to reflecting on those behaviors and clicking one button to add a picture ... we wanted to make it that simple."

Though The Postage's website had mobile functionality, the app includes the ability to record and upload content. Whether snapping a picture of their insurance policy or recording a video to share with loved ones, The Postage app allows users to capture photos and videos directly within the app. Click here to read more.

Kevin Coker, CEO of Proxima Clinical Research

Kevin Coker, CEO of Proxima Clinical Research, say his company transform from uncertainty to almost uncontrollable growth in just 12 months. He shares what happened on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy of Proxima

After a huge dip in business due to the pandemic, a Houston company focused on supporting innovative life science companies saw 12 months of unprecedented growth. Kevin Coker, CEO of Proxima Clinical Research, says that's not only a good sign for the future of his business — but also of the future of Houston's life science sector.

"We're a good barometer for what's happening not only locally but across the country," Coker says. "As Proxima has grown, it's really show how the Houston life science market is growing."

Coker shares more about Proxima's growth and Houston's potential of being a major life science hub on the episode. Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Sylvia Kampshoff, founder of Kanthaka

Sylvia Kampshoff has launched Kanthaka's first crowdfunding campaign. Photo courtesy of Kanthaka

Sylvia Kampshoff has lofty goals for her company Kanthaka, a platform for connecting users to personal trainers across over a dozen cities. With the launch of a new $1 million crowdfunding raise, Kampshoff is one step closer to growing her business according to these goals.

"Our vision is to become Amazon for health & fitness and the go-to provider to live a longer, happier and healthier life," Kampshoff says. "We couldn't be more excited about this journey." Click here to read more.