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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Innovative Houston urban farm scores national award for green work

to the moon

A Houston urban farm has earned national recognition for its innovative approach to water conservation. Moonflower Farms won the American Heart Association's Foodscape Innovation Excellence Award, which recognizes positive changes in the foodscape, a term for all of the places where food is produced, purchased, or consumed.

The Heart Association selected Moonflower's submission, titled "Sustainable Farming Through Water Conservation," from 26 entries. Dallas' Restorative Farms earns the Foodscape Innovation Consumer Choice Award.

"These two innovations demonstrate a way of producing food that promotes affordability and equitable access, and the American Heart Association is proud to recognize these efforts," AHA chief medical officer for prevention Eduardo Sanchez said in a release.

Located in a 20,000-square-foot greenhouse south of downtown, Moonflower operates what it describes as Houston's first vertical indoor farm. The method both reduces the amount of space needed to grow the farm's microgreens, lettuces, herbs and edible flowers and it eliminates the disruptions caused by adverse weather conditions, which allows the farm to produce year round.

Moonflower uses a closed-loop system for capturing rainwater to feed its crops. The water is treated and oxygenated so that it can be reused. Not having to pay for water from the City of Houston allows the farm to operate more economically and sell its produce at an affordable price to restaurants and individuals.

"Our hydroponic farm uses 90-percent less water than conventional farms," Moonflower founder and CEO Federico Marques said in a statement. "We provide year-round produce to residents in historically underserved communities and donate produce to local charitable food systems."

One of those charities is Houston non-profit Second Servings, which "rescues" food from restaurants and events and distributes it to food pantries and other resources.

"The donations we receive from Moonflower Farms are incredible," Second Servings founder and president Barbara Bronstein said. "Their hydroponically grown greens are so appreciated by the needy Houstonians we serve, who lack affordable, convenient access to fresh produce."

Recently, Moonflower introduced a SupaGreens subscription box that allows customers to purchase greens weekly, bimonthly, or monthly. The box is delivered directly to consumers.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston blockchain startup to collaborate to increase supply chain transparency

impact shopping

More than two-thirds of the country's consumers have been reported saying that a business's social reputation will influence their buying decisions. A Houston blockchain startup has teamed up with another company to increase transparency.

Topl and Denver-based TrackX, a software-as-a-service asset management and supply chain solution provider, have entered into a partnership aimed at combining technology to create a verifiable tracking and tracing solution to equip company supply chains with sustainability, transparency, and efficiency.

According to Topl CEO, Kim Raath, the FDA announced new requirements in September, and the new rule requires full traceability in several agri-food products.

"This new rule will force many agri-food brands to take a deep look across their supply chains and find a way to track and trace their products," says Raath in a press release. "Topl and TrackX's solution will be a great option for these companies having to comply with new regulations and compliance mandates. Further, our joint solution allows users to visualize their supply chain data, monitor suppliers, and easily report the progress of ESG initiatives to all stakeholders."

Kim Raath is the CEO of Topl. Photo courtesy of Topl

Together with Topl's purpose-built blockchain technology and TrackX's core enterprise asset management and supply chain optimization capabilities, companies can securely share verified event data to lower costs and increase transparency.

"Our clients have a unique opportunity to turn supply chain optimization into a competitive advantage," says Tim Harvie, TrackX CEO, in the release. "TrackX already automates supply chain execution and analytics for many leading brands and retailers.

"Tight integration with Topl's blockchain will now provide the 'proof' to all supply chain stakeholders that certain events have occurred," he continues. "In partnership with Topl, our enterprise customers will have the tracing, tracking, visibility and accountability they need to meet their digital supply chain and ESG initiatives."

Houston energy expert on how big data yields more reliable results

Guest column

Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of need tells us that at our core, humans crave safety and sustenance. When you turn on the light each morning while getting ready for work, or when you check your bank account and see your paycheck arrived on schedule, we expect every aspect of our daily lives to work.

In today's world, we often take these things for granted, until reliability is threatened. Our dependency is revealed in the frenzy over a potential toilet paper shortage and in the panic buying of gasoline in a hurricane. When things in society are consistent, economies thrive. However, when you introduce fear and uncertainty, things begin to spiral. It is in these times that the decisions we make can have the biggest impact on the world around us.

The link between impactful decisions and reliability has brought our society to a pivotal moment in history. We have created a society so reliable and developed that even during the coronavirus lockdown, the basic needs of Americans could be met with only 25 percent of our workforce actively working. By increasing productivity using machines and systems, we have been able to improve our overall quality of life, but not without a price. As a result of such high improvement, we as a society have come to not only expect, but demand, reliability at all times.

When dependability waivers and anxiety rises, those in key decision-making positions are faced with unprecedented situations. Due to distress and a lack of understanding of certain situations, those in decision making positions are often times forced to make decisions based on rapid response and emotion. Because of this, consistency and reliability suffer.

A prime example of an emotional response is the coronavirus shutdown that occurred earlier this year. As a response to the growing fear and panic over the virus, major portions of our economy were shut down; schools were closed; and citizens were confined to their homes.

What followed was the bankruptcy of thousands of businesses, an unprecedented wave of fear throughout society and a disruption to the consistency of our daily lives. We have yet to know what lasting impacts this decision will have on our future economy or livelihood, but we now understand that rapid decision making is often met with long-term consequences.

While there will continue to be disagreements on all sides regarding the handling of the shutdown, what is undisputable is that we as a society have gained an opportunity to learn. We now have the unique advantage of using data in ways that has never been used before in order to make consistently better decisions, allowing us the opportunity to perform at levels we have never thought possible.

Whether it be data advancements in sports (think Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics), or the progression of technology (continuous iPhone updates), we are able to study the improvements of data on society in order to make more reliable decisions. With more powerful data analytics and innovations in data sciences, we are able to positively impact the most vital components of our society in order to make decisions that will drive evolution and reliability.

As the world continues to progress, the decisions we are forced to make have become more complex. With each complicated decision comes the potential for lasting positive or negative impact on society. In shifting from emotional, rapid reactions towards more data and quantitative focused methods, we have the unique and unprecedented opportunity to make our world a more reliable, stable and creative place.

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Ryan Sitton is the founder of Pinnacle and the author of "Crucial Decisions."