Rising stars in Missoula’s tech scene include bartenders, concrete workers

Titut Yokelson, who first entered college as an exchange student from Bali in 1977 and went on with a career in biotechnology, graduated from a Cognizant-ATG program at the University of Montana last month and will start with the company this week. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

The rising stars of Missoula’s tech scene aren’t coming from the Silicon Valley or the Seattle waterfront, but from the city’s concrete crews, its downtown bars and other nontraditional sectors.

When Cognizant-ATG graduated its latest class at the University of Montana last week, it brought 28 students into its workforce, each trained in the company’s technology and business practices.

The student body represented a range of demographics, and it included Titut Yokelson, who first entered college as an exchange student from Bali in 1977.

“I didn’t grow up in the technology industry,” Yokelson said. “But I was thinking, if I could put this together with my background and my knowledge, then it will take me deep into the future.”

As a young exchange student 40 years ago, Yokelson attended UC Berkeley before transferring to the University of Montana and eventually Yale, where she earned an advanced degree in physics and biochemistry.

That earned her a job in Golden, Colorado with a bio-tech firm. When her husband moved to Missoula to take a job as a professor, she followed and eventually co-founded Nutritional Laboratories International.

A second career in a growing tech company with Missoula roots wasn’t exactly in the cards until Yokelson discovered the All-In-Missoula program – a partnership between Cognizant-ATG and UM.

“At first it didn’t make sense because I’m not a technology person,” she said. “But the opportunity was amazing and it was very difficult for me – the training. But I did it, and I think with my knowledge, I’m going to be in the middle of this shift that’s taking us to the future.”

Montana companies across a range of sectors have expressed growing difficulties in finding skilled workers, and in the tech industry, that challenge may be double. The state’s unemployment rate of 3.7 percent – lower in Missoula at around 3 percent – may also exacerbate the challenge.

The older labor force is retiring and there aren’t enough troops in the younger generation to fill their shoes. Many of today’s jobs also require new skills, something the AIM program looks to solve. It could be a model moving forward.

“This program was conceptualized last year,” said Amar Juluri, associate vice president of integration with Cognizant-ATG and one of the AIM program’s leaders in Missoula. “We were trying to find creative ways of addressing the labor challenge. It’s critical for us to tap into these skills that are available to us as a technology company.”

It’s that eye on the future that inspired Yokelson to buckle down and complete the course, however challenging it was. With a doctorate in pharmaceutical science, she stands out among her new peers.

She may also stand out in the company when she goes to work on July 8.

“This is the beginning of everything, and I can’t just watch it happen,” said Yokelson. “Everyone in my class is younger, but I don’t mind. I have a lot of experience and I want to be in the middle of this shift.”

Cap Gutierreze also emerged with the company’s latest class of employees. Like Yokelson, he entered the AIM program from a nontraditional starting point.

That included five years at the GAP as store manager – 10 years with company in all – and he served as a foreman for a local concrete company.

“Over the winter, a good friend of mine who has worked at ATG for six years now told me about the opportunity with the AIM program,” Gutierreze said. “I went to the first club meeting they have every Friday. I fell in love with that culture and felt I needed to do whatever I could to be part of the program.”

While Gutierreze, 34, brought strengths in sales and consulting to the program, coding was a challenge. “They weren’t kidding when they said it’s like learning a new language,” he said, adding that the program’s teamwork and collaboration helped him through.

The opportunity to work for a global company with good pay was an enticing reward.

“In my years of living here, I’ve never seen an opportunity like this before with a paid training program with the potential for a salaried position at the end of it and room to grow with an amazing company,” he said.

“Every other job in this town is seasonal construction work or retail, and 10 years with a company and you’re barely making ends meet. What really caught my eye was the culture and the people in the program.”

Austin Horner shared similar thoughts on Cognizant’s growth and the opportunities within the company.

“I was working at a grocery store, but that was just a temp job until I found an actual job,” said Horner. “Before that, I was working around Montana Code School as a teacher’s assistant, trying to look for an actual job. Now I start on July 8. The hope is to stay in Missoula, though I know there are opportunities elsewhere.”