Written by The Business Journal Staff
Irma Olguin Jr., Co-founder and co-CEO
What you do: I’ve taken over the operations side of the company in my transition to co-CEO including Geekwise Academy, Shift3 Technologies, and the administrative and operations teams at Bitwise. My co-CEO, Jake Soberal, is focusing on the finance and real estate divisions of the business.
My overarching responsibility is mainly mission fidelity and strategy. Are we accomplishing what we say we are? How do we do that? What’s standing in the way?
Education: I grew up in Caruthers and attended K-12 there. I moved to Ohio when I was 17 to attend the University of Toledo where I received a bachelor’s degree in computer science and computer engineering, along with a minor in business.
Age: 36, and kind of stoked about it
Family: I’m the middle child in a family of three siblings and two parents. A bunch of good kids, all very funny, and all smarter than I am by a lot.
How did you get involved in technology, Irma?
College was not part of my original life-vision. When I ended up going to college, which was a big surprise to everyone, I chose my major by picking the shiniest building in the college catalog. That building was the college of engineering. My first day of orientation was the first day I learned to use email. This is not advice, by the way, just happenstance. Or serendipity, depending on how you look at it.
Nonetheless, technology has always been a means to an end. If making things work is the goal, then fixing and building systems to make things work is simply good practice. Programming, and engineering in general, to build those systems are just tools. Technology didn’t come naturally but I wanted to make it work for me, so as I do most things, I brute-forced my way through it. I’m inelegant in comparison to my peers who’ve been building and fixing things since childhood, but I’m ok with that. It’s worked for me.
How did you go from just working as a technologist to being a founder and leader of several companies and organizations, Irma?
It goes back to that fixer mindset. You see the hole and the solution and think, “I can bridge that gap. I can make that fix.”
It started out really small. People didn’t believe that talented technologists doing interesting work in Fresno existed. I knew in my bones that was incorrect. I thought the fix was relatively easy. I know those people. I am those people. What would entice me to come out of the shadows and show off my tech skills in front of my city? That became 59DaysOfCode.
That launched into other initiatives or problems for which there were solutions. Between the fixer mindset and complete lack of fear of failure, you just start trying stuff.
What was your inspiration for starting each company or organization, Irma? Explain the evolution from 59DaysOfCode to Bitwise.
59DaysOfCode was created to bring people out of mom’s basement, enticing them with actual reasons to spend time on ideas. In a programmer’s life you’re always divided between your own work and paid work. 59DaysOfCode was an incentive for people to spend that time. More talent, ideas, and culture came out of it than I could have anticipated.
We started with a small goal and realized it was going to get much bigger. Those people were very proud of their work but found no community to rally around, and no location to spend their time nerding out. There was no place for the nerds to gather — that became Hashtag.
We, my cofounder Brad Gleason and I, started Edit LLC because there were real data problems specifically in agriculture that could be solved if we got the right brains in the room. A couple of technologists and a domain expert with a real problem that technology could solve? Right up my alley. We worked day and night out of Hashtag.
From there, I got to take the things I knew, zoom out, and really look at them from a city level. When you throw smart people into the same room, like at Hashtag, you never know what you’re going to get. We saw businesses start there over and over again, just like Edit did, and then we saw companies outgrow the space and need a slightly more formal space…again, just like Edit did.
Edit was a mirror of the problems you’d hear about in other companies: talent needs or companies talking about their space needs or interesting things they were doing that no one knew about. There was no one to champion these problems. These were shared burdens but it seemed like no one recognized them as shared — everyone felt they were on their own.
I had a chance to look at things from a city level. Fresno was doing a good job being scrappy, but we as a whole, as an industry, were not doing a lot to help. I shared my frustrations with my IP attorney, Jake Soberal, over a Redbull and gin and tonic at Tower Sports Club. He’d had a similar angst. It was a pivotal conversation.
He and I wanted to take a bigger bite of the effort that went into building an industry. For completely different reasons, we each wanted to build a place where technology companies came together and could help each other grow. By providing that space they needed, by introducing faster and inexpensive technology education, and by trumpeting the successes of these people doing incredible things in a city that wanted to hear them. That became Bitwise Industries.
The fact that I get to sit in this chair and be that trumpet is not the point. The point was that someone needed to sit in the chair.
Irma, what is it like to juggle responsibilities at so many different companies (Bitwise, </> Edit LLC, Hashtag LLC, 59 days of Code)?
It feels very natural to bounce between things. I have astoundingly good people working at each of those places. I rely on them implicitly. If I didn’t have that backbone of support, it would be a total impossibility and I’d probably have a meltdown. Luckily, they’re more than up for the challenge, so when you think about me and my juggle, you really ought to be thinking of them and how to encourage them.
What are your goals as one of Fresno’s tech leaders, Irma?
My goals are twofold. One is to do good things with what I’ve been blessed with, and that’s hard to articulate because I don’t always know what that looks like in the future. Second, in terms of directing that ambition, I want to help create a city that people are excited to live in. Neither have anything to do with technology, you’ll notice.
Technology is one of the fastest-growing industries, if not the fastest, how are Bitwise and other companies you’re involved in working to meet the demand for more tech-savvy professionals?
Geekwise Academy and 59DaysOfCode are focused on technology education, which, in the long term, creates the workforce and in the short term, a technology-centric middle class. Importantly, it’s access to the industry for people from every walk of life. Getting access to the rural and marginalized communities, the formerly incarcerated, the long term unemployed. The way to do that is through low-cost education. That’s where we push all our chips to the middle.
We have to obliterate the way it’s done in other cities. We can’t do it the way San Francisco or New York does it. We’ll end up with the same problem they have which is a monochromatic, uniform workforce that’s so high in demand that an entirely new problem is created and companies can’t afford to hire the talent they need.
If we created a program that took three months and cost $25,000 to attend, we’d eliminate 80 percent of the population from even the possibility of starting in the industry. Instead, we have dozens of stories of folks that scraped together $500 or $750, which led to their first job and then to their first $45,000 job in 12 months. In the next two-to-six years, they’ll start climbing into the next bracket. That creates disposable income. That buys sandwiches. It’s the strategy for the fabric of our city.
Irma, how do you see the technology industry growing and changing, specifically in Fresno?
We’ve started creating an army of software developers, specifically web application developers. But, there are still so many facets of the industry that we could dive into — platform software development to hardware development to robotics, machine learning, microprocessor design, inventions. We will touch on them all, if we continue down this path.
Tell us a little bit about Bitwise’s plan to foster greater technological education. Most recently, Bitwise has teamed up with Fresno Pacific to offer a new degree in tech, but there are also plans for a larger campus/tech hub on the horizon, how does Bitwise plan to execute this vision?
We intend to create the pinball machine of tech education, where there is representation of each of the different kinds of education, where Fresno Pacific, West Hills Community College, Fresno City College, Fresno State, Fresno Ideaworks are all represented.
We want to create a place where someone can enter into something and crash into their next opportunity. When you think of the big picture, that’s more true to life than the popular rhetoric where you’re supposed to get a degree and then get a job having to do with that degree until you retire. In reality, the vast majority of us start down a path and change direction for any number of reasons, bounce away and crash into the next opportunity. With tech education specifically, people might start down a path and two to three years into it, they realize it’s not for them. Maybe what they really needed were technical skills or maybe what they really wanted was to become an engineer or an entrepreneur. Geekwise isn’t about creating software engineers, but Fresno Pacific is. Geekwise doesn’t focus on entrepreneurship, but Fresno State does. Those options should be on the table. We want to create that space where it’s okay to change directions. That’s what we think will serve the technologists, the students best.
Importantly, we don’t think it should be limited to just education — how to school, how to job, how to life — these are not separate things. They’re related things. Learning, working, life-ing — that’s the pinball machine we’re after.
What was the best advice you ever received and who did it come from?
“Make a decision and make it work,” which came from my mom. Never has anything served me so well as that one sentence.
Who or what has been the biggest influence on your career?
I don’t think you can grow up the way I did and have the life that I have now without feeling like you have something to give back. I feel a definite responsibility and desire to make good on those gifts. All of my professional and personal dealings are based on that.
What are your roots in the Central Valley, Irma?
I was born in Fresno and raised in Caruthers. I didn’t leave that area until I was 17. My favorite smell in the world is burning raisin trays. That’s home.
What was your first job, Irma? Describe something you learned from that first job.
One of my first jobs was as a customer service manager at Circuit City. You learn how to not react when people are way upset and throw VCRs at your head. That actually happened, by the way. Guy wanted four VCRs and we had one. I reacted fast enough for the VCR to miss. In times like those, you really learn how to sit still for a minute and figure out a proportional response. Notably, I did not throw anything back at him.
What do you like to do in your spare time, Irma?
Read. Drink tea. Hang out with my dog. My life is uncomplicated, if you can believe it. It looks hectic on the surface, but it’s not as ludicrous as people might think.