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Bob Lokken

Talking about education reforms and PCs vs. Macs with a hall of famer

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Bob Lokken puts his money where his mouth is, and with so much to say, that's quite an investment. Lokken, a 1986 graduate of Montana State University, was one of the first 20 employees hired by Boise's Extended Systems, followed by his founding of ProClarity, a highly successful software firm specializing in database programs. ProClarity was acquired by Microsoft in 2006. Not one to get too comfortable in retirement, Lokken launched a second company, WhiteCloud Analytics in 2009.

Soon after Lokken walks into a room, it's not unusual for him to manage the flow of ideas and the pace of conversation. But even he was taken aback in April when fellow members of the Idaho Technology Council (which he helped found) told him that, despite his wishes, they intended to induct him into the organization's hall of fame.

When did you first get word of your honor?

The executive committee of the ITC met in April about the Hall of Fame event--it's the third year that we've done this--and Mark Solon [managing partner of Highway 12 Ventures] interrupted the discussion and said, "I think somebody should be on the top of that list and his name is Bob Lokken." I immediately said, "I think that's a bad idea. I'm young and not ready to retire."

Because you saw something like this as the equivalent of a gold watch?

Yeah, kind of a lifetime achievement award and I don't think I'm done yet. I actually retired once when I left Microsoft and I really sucked at retirement.

How old are you?

Fifty. At the ITC meeting in April, I dismissed myself from the room and said, "If you want to have that discussion about me going to the hall of fame, then I don't want to be here." I was informed after the meeting that I didn't have any choice in the matter.

Are you uncomfortable with such honors?

It's not my purpose in life to seek personal acknowledgement and accolades from largely what I have seen as team ventures. I think it's the nature of the media and awards in general to call out individuals for things that a lot of people have a big part in.

Can you appreciate that such an honor is an opportunity to help share the spotlight with your colleagues?

Yeah, I get that part. Which is why I didn't say no.

What is the current staff level of WhiteCloud Analytics?

We're three years old. We started with about five or six people. We went to 16, and now we're about 35.

Do you expect your employment level to be steady or to grow more?

It will be up next year, but we're in a pretty tight hiring area. It takes us a significant amount of time to find talent. We were just looking for an engineering test manager and it took us four to five months to fill that slot. But I expect our employment level at this time next year to be about 45 to 50.

What were your minimum expectations to fill a job like an engineering test manager?

Typically when we hire an engineer, we're looking for somebody with a minimum of a bachelor's degree in computer science or the equivalent work experience.

Can someone come right out of school with a diploma and fill that position?

Yes. We hire directly out of Boise State, but the problem is that they only graduate 22 a year and the industry is generating five times that many jobs here. We went to talk to the computer science professors about getting in front of their graduates, and they told us not to waste our time, they already had jobs. We said maybe we can talk to the juniors, and they said it's probably too late for them, too. And so we said, "OK, let's start buying pizza for the sophomores."

You were a very prominent advocate for technology in Idaho public school classrooms and the Students Come First initiatives.

About the only thing you can trust is that if you listen to either side of that debate, you'll probably have some trouble stumbling onto the truth. We need a structural reform in our education system in a big way. We tried to execute reforms at the very time that the economy in our state was way down, which was a particularly bitter pill for a lot of people in the education system. And we put collective bargaining and tenure issues in the same boat as the conversation about technology and performance. The remedy can't be to throw the baby out with the bathwater. If there's a problem with the reform, let's fix it. Let's keep moving forward. I think 10 years from now, we're going to look back at the discussion on whether high schoolers should have computing devices is a lot like when horse and buggy manufacturers were decrying the automobile in 1912.

Were your own kids products of public education?

Yes.

Were they behind the curve or about even when they graduated from high school?

I would say there were about even. They navigated the system and they're both Boise State alumni and have careers.

Is either of them in your business?

No. I don't think it's fair to the other people who I'm working with for me to say, "This person is here because they're family." It convolutes the whole thing. We're not running a lifestyle business.

When you're looking to hire someone, are you seeing a shortage of college graduates or a mismatch of graduates, their degrees and job opportunities?

The last research I saw of the U.S. baccalaureate systems was that we have something like 16 percent of graduates coming out with a degree in social sciences, 16 percent with degrees in history, 4 percent with engineering degrees, and 4 percent coming out with degrees in computer science. If you're going to have a degree in communications, you're probably going to be in a long line for a small number of jobs. If you have a degree in computer science, you're going to have people throwing job offers at you before you get out of school.

Do you expect us to catch up with that gap in the next 20 or maybe 30 years?

Most of the long-term estimates in the Idaho economy are that 60 to 63 percent of the jobs we're creating in the next 10 to 15 years require some kind of postsecondary degree, but Idaho is only at 32 percent of our 25- to 45-year-olds who have that level of education. Plus, we have a tremendous dropout rate in college.

Do you think that Idaho kids are pushed so fervently toward college but once they get there, they're ill prepared?

Idaho has a very high high-school graduation rate but we lead the country in postsecondary dropouts after freshman year. One could contend that we're not doing a very good job in preparing our kids for what postsecondary education considers being an adequate academic performance.

Do you believe we have the right men and women as lawmakers to push or pull us toward the appropriate solutions?

It's a mixed bag. I think any time you have a large structure with deep historical roots, getting that system to change is extremely difficult. Everybody on the outside says, "Change, change change," but when it comes down to the specifics, they say, "No, wait a minute."

Big question for a tech hall of famer: PC or Mac?

Personally, I still have my PC. Microsoft had a lot to do with my career.

But I've heard that a lot of ex-Microsoft employees use a Mac.

Yeah, that's true. A lot of our team members have Macs, and they're all ex-Microsoft guys, too.