Truth be told, there’s every chance that the Drone Racing League was thought up in somebody’s mom’s basement.
It was founded in 2015, according to a recent profile in the Washington Post, growing from a network of drone racing organizations that met in fields and parking lots, a 21st century version of hot rodding. Drone enthusiasts in these races use models capable of going 80 mph, navigated with virtual reality goggles.
The appeal caught on and soon ESPN2, that catch basin of sporting events that aren’t college football, began televising the races.
Now defense contractor Lockheed Martin, a top aerospace concern in Alabama, is sponsoring a competition with the Drone Racing League, offering a $2 million prize fund for software designers who can deliver a product that flies drones better than carbon-based life.
The software must use artificial intelligence and machine learning on the Nvidia Jetson platform and the drone must be able to operate without navigational preprogramming. In other words, it has to think for itself.
At Birmingham-based construction firm Brasfield & Gorrie, information technology staffers have developed a safety application that allows the firm’s safety team to manage safety walks and monitor deficiencies and report the data in a dashboard that helps leaders address trends across jobsites. Another mobile app developed in house, Connect, ties together multiple technology needs in the project lifecycle, including preconstruction, resource management, internal project dashboards and communication, says Rickey Whitworth, director of IT architecture at Brasfield & Gorrie.
While construction is hardly a new industry, its leaders — like Brasfield & Gorrie — are harnessing modern technology to improve their work. Across all industries, even those that would be considered traditional, such as construction, banking and utility services, information technology is a valued skill and IT pros are in high demand.
Essential to customer retention
In the financial services field, for instance, customers want increasingly advanced digital services — which means that financial institutions need tech employees who can make those services happen.
“To meet the needs of today’s customers, we are consistently working to be quicker to market with the types of new and innovative services people expect,” says Amala Duggirala, enterprise chief information officer at Regions Bank. “We must respond to, and anticipate, our customers’ needs. And we must constantly provide a positive customer experience. All of this is putting a greater emphasis on technological solutions. Technology gives banks a key competitive advantage; when it’s easier to bank with us, and when we offer the modern services that better meet your needs, that sets us apart.”
While highly qualified IT staffers help companies like Regions provide better services to customers, the solutions they provide can also help the organization operate more efficiently, like the IT pros at Brasfield & Gorrie. A robust technology department has become increasingly important for organizations in all industries to better serve their customers and perform their jobs more efficiently.
Adaptability is premium
Regions looks regularly for IT talent in three key areas: security engineers to protect customers’ information; front-end developers focused on designing features that thrive online, on mobile and everywhere, and enterprise data and architecture professionals who can focus on reusability and create technological solutions that can be applied enterprise wide. “I look for engineers who are focused on agile techniques, on test-driven development and on enterprise thinking,” Duggirala says. “And I always want security-first thinking.”
At Alabama Power and parent company Southern Company, recruiters frequently seek entry-level to seasoned technology professionals for positions such as project managers, IT security and cyber security analysts, IT field ops technicians, network engineers and application developers.
Brasfield & Gorrie has made significant investments in software developers over the past couple of years, and technical support positions remain the company’s primary hiring need. And as the company grows, it is currently working to expand its business intelligence team, Whitworth says. “Many of our other positions start out in technical support and then transition to other areas,” he says. “We are also hiring a lot of developers as direct hires, and network and systems engineers are also needed.”
While each type of business has specific IT needs, the technology field changes so quickly that sourcing professionals who have an ability to learn and adapt is often just as important as having specific skills. “The types of information technology professionals we look for are people who are advanced in digitalization technical skills,” Duggirala says. “The agility with which we need to respond to customer needs totally changes the landscape of traditional software development versus agile software development. That is, we need people with skill sets that are much more advanced, nimble and hands-on. We place a greater emphasis on mobile, Java and full-stack development skills. That is where the need is increasing.”
At Southern Company, which recently acquired AGL Resources, now Southern Company Gas, recruiters look for people who can help the company reach its goal to build the future energy, according to Bonnie Parker, technology business partner at Alabama Power. “We seek not only qualified and talented technology professionals, but those who also embrace and possess an innovative spirit to move our organization forward,” she says.
Tight in-state talent pool
For some Alabama companies, filling open technology positions can be challenging. For some positions requiring specialized skill sets, there is a “small talent pool of individuals with skills needed for the available roles,” Parker says. “[And we have a] tight labor market; it can be difficult to find qualified technology professionals in Alabama.”
Of those who are qualified, many technology professionals look to startups or digital-only firms to launch or grow their careers, so it can be tricky for legacy companies to attract top talent. For years, Brasfield & Gorrie has relied on its robust internship program to source up-and-coming construction professionals, and recently, the firm has begun using IT internships to locate promising technology graduates, Whitworth says. Also, its in-house recruiting team sometimes relies on outside recruiters for highly technical positions.
Other successful strategies for recruiting talented technical professionals include getting involved in online tech forums and on college campuses. “We have to immerse ourselves in the environments where the best technology minds come together,” Duggirala says. “In addition to college programs, technology conferences and similar forums, there are also code-a-thons, where industry leaders — such as the best coders in a certain area — gather to be presented with complex challenges and then solve those challenges. It’s a place where the brightest technology minds can shine. It’s also a place where we can share with these experts what Regions is doing to evolve, innovate and meet the needs of not only today’s customers, but tomorrow’s customers as well. It puts us on their radar. And it shows how Regions is committed to technology and is providing a positive work environment for people whose skills can help us continue to differentiate ourselves among consumers.”
Alabama Power recruiters also attend conferences such as the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) and National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), Parker says. They are also active on LinkedIn and career sites, such as Indeed and DICE, and rely on referrals from current employees.
As technology permeates modern business and life, it has become increasingly important as a competitive advantage for most companies. And gaining that advantage depends on each company’s ability to recruit and retain cutting-edge IT professionals. For instance, for banks and other businesses that provide products similar to those of their competitors, “the differentiation really is how we provide those services and the ease with which we provide them,” Duggirala says. “When we make it highly intuitive, and when we understand the pulse of the customer, we can offer the types of strong digital products that give us a greater competitive edge. What we create, the speed with which we create it and our ability to understand the pulse of the next-generation customer are keys to standing out in the marketplace.”
Nancy Mann Jackson and Cary Norton are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Birmingham.
Birmingham’s reputation is heating up, with several national publications in recent months citing it as an address ripe for both tech and traditional advancement.
RealtySouth, which has been selling real estate in downtown Birmingham since 1955, recently doubled down on the area by locating a new office in the historic Denechaud House, at 2nd Avenue North and Richard Arrington Jr. Boulevard North, adjoining the Florentine Building.
A dozen or so agents will be operating out of the location, according to Managing Broker Greg Comer.
The Denechaud House, originally the Denechaud European Hotel and Restaurant, opened its doors in 1887 under the ownership of New Orleans hotelier E. F. Denechaud. His sons, Edward and Louis, operated it for two years but success was fleeting and they returned to New Orleans. The building, crowned with a striking cornice that sets off equally elaborate window casings, saw many uses after that, including as a grocery store, a sewing machine company and a paint supply store.
“It seemed appropriate to select an established location for an established market leader,” says RealtySouth CEO Richard Grimes.
Last year, BWX Technologies Inc., a $1.7 billion nuclear technology company headquartered in Lynchburg, Virginia, was awarded an $18.8 million contract by NASA to begin designs for a nuclear thermal propulsion reactor in support of a possible future manned mission to Mars. In June, the company opened a new facility in Huntsville’s Cummings Research Park to support the development of that technology.
BWXT has an impressive history dating back to the 1850s, when, as the Babcock & Wilcox Co., it patented the first water tube boiler. B&W went on to supply boilers for the Brush Electric Light Co. in Philadelphia in 1881, the first subway in New York City in 1902 and Teddy Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet in 1907. In 1953, when the U.S. Navy wanted to develop the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine, it naturally turned to Babcock & Wilcox to provide the technology.
Today, BWXT is responsible for manufacturing naval nuclear reactors for every aircraft carrier and submarine in the U.S. Navy’s fleet. In addition to its Naval Nuclear Propulsion division, BWXT develops nuclear reactors, nuclear fuel and power conversion systems in its five U.S. and six Canadian factories. BWXT joint ventures also provide management and operations at more than a dozen U.S. Department of Energy and two NASA facilities.
“BWXT is the most prolific nuclear business, certainly, in the western world, if not the entire world,” says President and CEO Rex Geveden. “What distinguishes us from other companies, in addition to our nuclear history, is the fact that we possess certain licenses that enable us to handle the type of nuclear fuel that would be necessary for a space mission. In this particular case, that’s high-assay, low-enriched uranium, and we’re the only commercial company in the U.S. licensed to handle such material.”
He adds that should any of these missions require highly-enriched uranium, BWXT is also the only commercial entity authorized for its use as well. “Our licensing and material handling capabilities are unique, literally unique, and a very difficult credential to obtain.”
Opening the Huntsville facility is a bit of a homecoming for Geveden and BWXT Vice President of Advanced Technologies Jonathan Cirtain, who both spent the majority of their distinguished careers stationed at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. Geveden was with NASA for 17 years, 14 of them in Huntsville, and served as chief operating officer responsible for a $16 billion portfolio of work that included the agency’s technical operations of science, aeronautics, space operations and exploration, as well as overseeing NASA’s 10 field centers. Cirtain spent nine years at the Marshall Space Flight Center, where he led and contributed to numerous space missions and concluded his tenure as the manager of the Science Research Office.
Though they now operate out of BWXT’s Lynchburg headquarters, both men feel a strong connection to the Huntsville community, and when it came time to decide on a location for the headquarters of its latest project, Huntsville was their first choice.
“We were certainly drawn to the workforce,” says Geveden. “Huntsville has a huge number of educated, bright, capable people, and that was a real attraction to us.”
“So, the workforce is the number one reason; number two is access to facilities,” Cirtain is quick to add. “Huntsville is replete with facility access, either on the Redstone Arsenal or in its many research parks, and those facilities offer a lot of unique capabilities for advanced technology development, deployment and manufacturing.”
At the ribbon cutting in June, Geveden told reporters that BWXT’s role in Huntsville will focus on creating new markets in the area, not competition. “There are a number of highly-advanced, well-vested technology companies in northern Alabama, and we collaborate very well with those companies, without carving up their wedge of the economic pie,” Cirtain affirms. “There’s a really good synergy for us there.”
Under the leadership of Gene Goldman, BWXT’s director for NASA programs, the Huntsville facility will work on developing a nuclear thermal propulsion reactor that, as part of a rocket engine, will be used to propel spacecraft at a much faster rate than that provided by a traditional chemical propulsion system.
“Once developed, the nuclear thermal propulsion engine could dramatically reduce the amount of time it would take to get human astronauts from Earth’s orbit to Mars, from roughly eight months down to just five,” says Cirtain. “This design also permits mission abort scenarios, whereas there are no mission abort scenarios for other propulsion options. So we see nuclear thermal propulsion as an enabling technology for deep space exploration.”
To start, the BWXT team is focusing on the development of characteristic fuel elements that NASA would use for the nuclear thermal propulsion system, and testing those elements at the Marshall Space Flight Center.
“We just completed what we call the zero fuel element test, where we took a surrogate fuel element and demonstrated that the weld technology we would use for that element would stand up to the 2,200 K environment that fuel element would operate in,” explains Cirtain. “In simpler terms, that means we just demonstrated that our fuel and welding process can handle the intense temperatures it would see during a trip to Mars. That’s a pretty big deal. That’s technology that did not exist when nuclear thermal propulsion was first imagined in the late 1960s.”
It’s a technology that could be used in interplanetary spaceflight, including a mission to the Red Planet. In the meantime, it’s also a development that NASA and other agencies will look to for more near-term, in-space capabilities that aren’t directly related to Mars exploration. And that could mean growth for the Huntsville office in the next few years.
“As we understand better what NASA and the U.S. government’s aspirations are for demonstrating near-term success and technology maturation, we’ll begin making decisions about what our staffing plans look like,” says Cirtain. “Whether we’re talking about steam vessels for boiling water or pressure vessels for advanced energy conversion, it’s all about understanding how to manufacture high-consequence components. For over 160 years, BWXT has excelled at the development of manufacturing techniques for high-consequence systems,” says Cirtain. “And we still do it every day.”
Katherine MacGilvray and Dennis Keim are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Huntsville.
OWA, the new 520-acre resort in Foley, has opened its admission-free dining, shopping and entertainment district called Downtown OWA, and among its newest stores is a treasure trove of exotic scents and spices.
The Spice & Tea Exchange is a specialty retail store with an extensive selection of spices from around the world, according to Greg Rawls, OWA’s director of business development.
“The Spice & Tea Exchange is an experience-based store,” says co-owner Anna Heim. Customers can open jars to catch the scent and watch the firm’s experts create hand-mixed blends.
The shop has more than 140 spices, more than 85 hand-mixed seasoning blends, 17 naturally-flavored sugars, 25 salts from around the world and more than 45 exotic teas. The Spice & Tea Exchange also offers recipes and accessories to complement the spice and tea selections.
Peter and Tammy Heim, and their daughters, Anna and Jensen, also have Spice and Tea Exchanges in New Orleans and Galveston.
It took three weeks to rescue 12 Thai schoolboys from a flooded cave in Chiang Rai province last June. As the world watched and waited, we learned that caves are a beautiful if misunderstood environment.
Caves dot Alabama’s landscape and are a fragile environment. For that reason a new partnership has formed between the National Speleological Society and Land Trust of North Alabama. The two groups hope to ensure protection of numerous caves and the fragile life that inhabits them on nature preserves owned and managed by the Land Trust.
The partnership will speed management plans for caves located on more than 7,000 acres of North Alabama land preserved by the Land Trust and opens up more partnership opportunities for further conservation projects. Among LTNA assets are several caves considered significant from an exploration, conservation or educational standpoint.
Land Trust of North Alabama works to preserve natural lands, water resources and wildlife habitat in 10 counties of North Alabama, one of the nation’s fastest growing areas. It helps oversee more than 70 miles of free public trails on seven public nature preserves, including Monte Sano Nature Preserve, just two miles from Huntsville City Hall.
The NSS, which owns 15 cave and nature preserves across the United States, pledges to bring its considerable expertise for protecting these delicate underground ecosystems to LTNA properties.
The two groups will share the latest cave management practices, cave protection and management plans and details of potential acquisitions. They will also work on a permitting system for accessing caves on land trust properties. A “leave no trace” approach will be part of the plan.
“The caves and karst features of our area are fascinating — but often fragile — environments. This partnership with the NSS creates new opportunities to collaborate on stewardship efforts and provide the community with educational programs that highlight the unique geology of North Alabama,” says Marie Bostick, LTNA executive director.
Source: SEC filings. Note: Under the Relation column, “BO” indicates Beneficial Owner. Under the “Transaction (Trans.) Type” column, “B” indicates a direct, open-market purchase, “S” indicates a direct, open-market sale, “OE” indicates a purchase through exercise of an option and “AS” indicates an automatic sale. Under the “Owner Type” column, “I” indicates an indirect sale, while “D” indicates a direct sale. RSU indicates restricted stock units.
As at most groundbreakings, a bevy of officials turned over ceremonial shovels full of dirt. But at the September groundbreaking for Flight Works Alabama, eyes turned to the heavens as well as the ground.
Mobile school kids had a chance to don virtual reality headsets and check out the displays that will welcome visitors to Airbus facilities at Mobile Aeroplex.
Dubbed an aviation experience center, Flight Works will offer interactive exhibits to lure young people and adults to aviation careers.
Nine educational partners — Auburn University, Bishop State Community College, Coastal Alabama Community College, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Troy University, Tuskegee University, University of South Alabama, University of Alabama and University of West Alabama — will provide courses for new and experienced aviation workers.
“Success for Airbus, and any company, means we can’t just look at what we’re doing now; we need to look at what we need later — whether it be next year, next decade, or the next five decades,” said Jeff Knittel, Airbus Americas chairman and CEO. “What Airbus and other companies in our industry need to be successful in the future is a skilled, knowledgeable workforce that is ready for that future. Flight Works will help us create that workforce in a fun, creative way.”
Flight Works sponsors to date are Airbus Foundation, Alabama Power Foundation, Conde Systems, Mobile County Commission, Mott MacDonald, Hoar Program Management, Johnson Controls, Mech-Net, Pratt & Whitney, Safran and Snap-On.