Telecom & Tech

Coding in 907

An open frontier for software developers

By Scott Rhode


arages were famously the birthplace of companies that dominate software development. Alaska has garages; therefore, nothing stands in the way of Alaska becoming the Silicon Slope. Nothing, that is, except that everywhere else has garages, too.

Undaunted, some Alaskans have grabbed at a slice of the silicon pie. MTA spun off its AlasConnect service as Ampersand, a tech solutions developer. Tech accelerator Launch Alaska is currently boosting startups like the Remora logistics app and Kartorium, an Anchorage company behind a 3D training tool. App shoppers can also find software tools for learning Alaska Native languages, designed and built in the state.

Among the diverse holdings of Alaska Native corporations, most have dipped a toe into the cyber pool. In particular, Koniag is positioning itself as a computer whiz, earlier this year adding Texas-based cloud services provider Stratum to its Open Systems Technologies subsidiary, with offices in Michigan, Minnesota, and London.

Anchorage is also the world headquarters of Tab King, a point-of-sale app for charitable gaming, yet the company’s development team is located entirely out of state. Programmers living in Anchorage have a choice: either apply their skills as IT managers, join a large corporation that needs in-house custom software, or ply their trade in the loose ecosystem of local developers.

“I, especially at this point, feel like it is a wide-open frontier… You may not be working for people in Alaska, but in terms of working remotely for a company, I think you could easily get a programmer job living in Alaska for somebody not in Alaska.”

Ariane Remien, Technical Lead, Resource Data, Inc.

Cutting Steak with a Butter Knife

Coders can make a good living in Alaska, even if the software they develop isn’t glamorous.

“I write business software; it’s not sexy,” Ariane Remien says with a laugh. As a technical lead at Resource Data, Inc. (RDI) in Anchorage, Remien works under a project manager to guide a team of developers. Most recently, she spent about two months updating a crash reporting tool for the Alaska Division of Motor Vehicles, whose mainframe RDI rebuilt about four years ago.

“If it has to do with information technology, we do it,” says Cory Smith, another technical lead at RDI. The company’s clients include the state government, oil companies, healthcare providers, and Alaska Native corporations. Teams might be asked to map oil pipelines or build a website or data warehouse. “Someone will come to us and say, ‘We need a system built that does X,’” Smith says.

To see software developers at work, they look like anyone else tapping the keyboard of a laptop or desktop computer. Instead of drafting memos (although that is part of the job, of course), they write instructions in languages such as C# (pronounced “C sharp”) and Python.

“I’m using SQL [“sequel”] for database queries, then I’m using Javascript for some things, and if I’m doing front-end work then I’m using HTML and CSS,” Remien explains. Sometimes she has ten tasks going simultaneously.

At RDI—which started in Anchorage and expanded to offices in Juneau, Boise, Portland, and Houston—software development is mostly done by teams of three to twelve people.

At Business Application Developers in Big Lake, it’s just one guy: Ken Farmer, who’s been working as a computer consultant for more than thirty years. He lists his titles as president, senior software developer, and janitor.

Even a lone wolf can join a team, though. Farmer is currently a subcontractor for ConocoPhillips, working with others on oil field automation. “I’m doing applications that use the data from the devices that are up on the Slope that control things like flares, pressure tanks, and all that other stuff,” Farmer says.

His specialty is custom programming, such as integrating spreadsheets.

“You get to be more creative with software development,” Farmer says. “You’re gonna run across places which require your imagination and creativity, trying to figure out the best way to resolve a problem.”

Step one is defining specifications, which can be tricky. Suppose, Farmer says, the client requests a butter knife. “And then you give the butter knife to the users, and the first thing they try and do with it is cut steak. And the second thing they try and do with it is eat peas—none of which were in the specs,” he says with a laugh. A developer must anticipate how the application will grow, designing with expansion in mind.

The hard part, according to Farmer, is connecting with clients. “It’s not a profession where you can actually advertise. You can’t really hit your target audience,” he says. “I’ve done some advertising, and it’s never resulted in much of the way of any work. It’s basically word of mouth.”

Bitwise Operators

Farmer has a reputation that helps him find work, being in the business as long as he has. He was in college when desktop computers were introduced in 1977. He took a computer class at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York because it seemed more interesting than a course in partial differential equations. He learned to program in COBOL and applied those skills at MarkAir and Alascom before going into business for himself.

Computers came at Smith and Remien sideways. Smith was a civil engineer when he started building websites for friends. In pursuit of excellent ski slopes, he moved to Alaska, where he happened to know the founder of RDI.

Remien studied physics and astronomy, which involved some programming. She taught computers to kids in West Africa and Chicago. There, she started maintaining a website, which led to a career in IT management.

“Unlike mechanical engineering, where I can’t do that in my house for fun, if I’ve got a computer, I program a website on my own for minimal cost with open-source technology,” Remien says. “It’s something you can actually do and learn on your own.”

However, she acknowledges that self-taught programmers like Smith and herself are not the norm, at least at RDI. Most of her colleagues have computer science degrees, she figures. Smith notes that a fair number of programmers come from UAA and UAF, yet the company also hires from around the country.

Farmer has kept his skills current, but he still gets by on old-school know-how. “I can program circles around those kids,” he says with a laugh. “I can’t be in all branches of development, you know, because there’s so many different languages, so many different environments that I have to narrow it down. I’ve concentrated on doing database client-server applications, pushed away from web-type stuff. Leave that to the younger kids.”

He hasn’t written any games; Farmer is satisfied solving clients’ problems. That’s the part of the job that keeps him interested. “A younger person, they hear the problem and the next thing you know, they’re writing code. I sit back for a while and think the problem over, sketch a few things out, and give it some time to sink in, do a little bit more design work before I start writing any code,” Farmer says. “I end up writing a lot less code—and running into a lot less walls that way.”

Although she’s a younger person, Remien agrees that programmers do more than simply program. At RDI, they’re called programmer/analysts. “Even programmers at the junior level, you get a request, that request might not make sense. You may need to ask more questions. You might need to go back to your tech lead or project manager or the client directly,” she says. “There’s definitely an aspect of critical thinking and asking questions that is an important part of being a programmer; I don’t know any programmers who are just ‘code monkeys.’”

“Even within the profession of being a computer programmer, it surprises me that there’s a lot more of that going on here than even I know about, and certainly more than people outside of the community know about.”

Cory Smith, Technical Lead, Resource Data, Inc.

Digital Nomads

While none of Alaska’s software companies are exactly household names, coders have plenty of job opportunities without leaving the state. In addition to subcontracting for any industry that uses computers (i.e., all of them), out-of-state firms are also happy to hire Alaskans in Alaska.

Farmer, for instance, has worked for clients in Europe, and he sees remote work becoming more accepted these days. “Now we have a thing called the ‘digital nomad,’ people who are doing this type of programming but don’t actually have a permanent base,” he says.

Some of those nomads might have nomaded to Alaska—for the skiing, like Smith—while on the payroll of a major software company. “For instance, I know people who have worked at Resource Data who are living in Anchorage but working for Microsoft or some of these other big players in the tech industry,” Smith says. The society-wide shift to remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated this, he adds.

Remien agrees. “If you are willing to work in your house and not see other people—which a lot of people seem to be, especially programmers these days—I do think the sky is really the limit with remote work,” she says. The most cutting-edge software development in Alaska, she believes, is by independent programmers.

Those remote-work opportunities can make it hard for RDI to recruit top talent. “Now you can go get a job working for a Silicon Valley company, making a ton of money by Alaska standards, as a programmer—but it makes it hard to have a community that way,” Remien says.

Smith says he enjoys an office environment, and his skills have grown from interaction with peers. Others seem to do better on their own. “Plenty of people that I work with do their day job and then go home and do open-source coding or game development or whatever at night,” he says.

Alaska has a software development industry, but it’s hidden and scattered.

“Even within the profession of being a computer programmer,” Smith says, “it surprises me that there’s a lot more of that going on here than even I know about, and certainly more than people outside of the community know about.”

Remien sees room for the homegrown industry to consolidate and expand. “I, especially at this point, feel like it is a wide-open frontier,” she says. “You may not be working for people in Alaska, but in terms of working remotely for a company, I think you could easily get a programmer job living in Alaska for somebody not in Alaska.”

“We are starting to see more of a shift,” Smith adds, “and I think we will continue to see more software developers in Alaska, whether they’re working for local firms or for outside firms. I think it certainly will make it easier for people, like I did, to move here for non-career reasons but still have the career they want to have.”

To meet another app developer, choose this article.

To see an example of a common programming error, choose this article.