Job Options Abound
Tech jobs are a growth industry in Oklahoma, and vocational schools, colleges and universities across the state stand ready to train future employees, who will likely be sought-after and well-paid.
What the career field could use is a public relations campaign among young people, says Brent Kisling, executive director of the Oklahoma Department of Commerce.
“We need to start in middle school and high school, encouraging students toward STEM careers,” he says.
The age-old fear of math and science classes is a factor in students steering away from information technology careers, Kisling says. And some students simply aren’t aware of the breadth and depth of tech jobs, says Bryan Warner, deputy principal chief of the Cherokee Nation.
“We want to make sure they know what opportunities are out there,” says Warner.
Oklahoma is host to about 2,200 tech companies, which provide functions such as software programming, data processing and storage, IT services and communications, and employ about 17,000 people.
Job titles include database architects and computer network architects, which pay an average wage of $50 an hour. Computer systems analysts earn an average of $38 an hour but often much more, says Kisling.
Computer network support specialists, security analysts, application developers, help desk workers, IT technicians, operations analysts and technical specialists are in demand at tech companies and many other workplaces.
Job titles might be standard at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation, but the people who hold them know they are essential to an important mission, says Brent Keck, chief information officer and associate vice president for the foundation.
“Nothing happens at OMRF that doesn’t go through IT,” says Keck. “Eventually it ends up in a document or spreadsheet and we have to take care of that.”
A variety of skills come into play as tech workers strive to get trained and stay in touch with innovation, says John Hale, Ph.D., a professor in the School of Cyber Studies at the University of Tulsa.
In the fight against cybercrime, for example, “it’s a combination of producing the people to build more secure software that doesn’t have vulnerabilities, and to write policies and do training so employees are more savvy,” he says. “So, it’s all those things. it is a broad skill set that you need.”
Cybersecurity begins with a deep technical foundation, “but what differentiates it is the human element,” says Hale. “You must try to read the minds of your fellow employees so they won’t do stupid stuff. You are training people, getting them to practice good cyber hygiene. It’s developing a culture.”
Keck says people who apply to his department should have a desire to wear a lot of hats, because all the employees fill more than one role.
“We want people who like to do something different every day and are really smart,” he says. “We have a lot of long-term employees. Our turnover is pretty low in IT.”
Knowing the Programming Languages
In the Cell Cycle and Cancer Biology Research Program at OMRF, the work is increasingly more about computerized data and less about test tubes.
“We still attract students who want to work primarily at the bench,” says Chris Sansam, Ph.D., an associate member of OMRF. “But more and more, we will attract students who think first about working on a computer.”
Sansam says that in his lab, “we need specialized software and high-performance computing to help us make sense of this data. For the most part, we use Python. We use Java some. Learning how to program in R is a valuable skill for scientists.”
Many OMRF scientists write their own programs, and share software back and forth with other research institutions.
“Speed is really the thing,” says Keck. “We don’t want to take days and days and days to do analysis, we would rather do that in minutes.”
If you have an interest in programming or working with computers, Sansam says, “there is a place for you in research.”
Technical training starts as early as high school in Oklahoma and continues on through vocational schools, four-year colleges, continuing education and employee training.
“We are big about trying to reach out in the community,” says Hale, who is chairperson and a professor in the Tandy School of Computer Science at TU. “We can do a lunch and learn, or a weeklong bootcamp.”
To break into the tech sector, “a great place to get started and get trained is at the career techs and two-year colleges,” says Hale. “Oklahoma State University-Okmulgee has a really strong program.”
Rogers College High School is a college-prep magnet school in Tulsa that offers a two-year cyber education program that TU professors helped develop.
“If the students come to TU, they will get six hours of college credit for the course,” says Hale.
The Oklahoma Small Business Development Center offers free training to business owners and entrepreneurs in e-commerce, technology commercialization, cybersecurity and how to compete on a level playing field for Department of Defense contracts.
A Growing Industry
Technology is a business necessity, and existing Oklahoma firms will continue to create computer-focused jobs. But the tech industry will also get a boost from the recruiting efforts of the Oklahoma Department of Commerce.
While there’s already a steady tech market, “we think there is still plenty of room to grow,” says Kisling.
He says the commerce department is projecting a 15% growth in tech jobs by 2030, mentioning that technology is one of eight industries targeted by economic development specialists.
Cherokee Nation’s expansion plans mean “the sky is the limit” when it comes to tech jobs, says Warner. The tribe plans to build a 127-bed hospital in Tahlequah, and is working toward adding resort casinos in Arkansas and Mississippi to the list of casinos it owns in Oklahoma.
“Surveillance and gaming go hand in hand,” he says. “That’s a huge technology piece.”
The nation employs more than 300 IT workers, and Warner expects that number to grow quickly to serve business interests as well as the needs of tribal citizens.
Many employees support electronic medical records for the tribe’s vast health system. Others create apps and video games to help teach the Cherokee language. And with 12,000 total jobs between tribal government and the business arm of the nation, internal IT operations are essential.
The World of Cybersecurity
Cybercrime is big business, and jobs are going begging in the cybersecurity industry, says Hale.
Nationwide, “there are an estimated 600,000 unfilled posted jobs right now,” he says. “We need all kinds of cybersecurity people.”
Cybercrime does not require a huge investment for a nation state to get involved.
“They just need some clever people,” says Hale. “There are people who discover the exploits, which is a piece of code that takes advantage of a weakness or a vulnerability on your computer. For somebody to take advantage of that weakness, they write another piece of code.”
Ransomware sent to the workplace is what appeals most to cyber criminals.
“Bad guys are more interested in work computers,” says Hale. “The real money is where business is transacted.”
Cyber criminals penetrate systems with malicious software and lock up data until the victim pays a ransom. They might also store and then threaten to release company data, which would compromise the internet security of employees and customers. Email attachments are a common ploy.
“They try to convince you to open a document or pdf with a malicious payload,” says Hale. “Your computer will try to load up that bad data. I try not to open attachments. I prefer to pick up the phone and ask somebody if they sent me an email.”
Employees should be suspicious of unsolicited emails, especially ones with bad grammar or spelling. And personal computers and other devices have increasingly been targeted, with more people working from home since the start of COVID-19.
“By definition, we are always going to be one step behind. Mostly, defense is a reactionary posture,” says Hale. “The good news is that there are so many existing problems we know about that we can deal with. We can close the gap and make the world a much safer place.”