Tag Archives: technology

Virtually Necessary

May 15, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Virtual reality has worked its way into daily life at some Omaha-area architecture/engineering firms.

Also known as VR, virtual reality is a computer-generated reality viewed through a headset that situates small video screens about an inch from each eye, yielding a three-dimensional effect. 

“You’re completely blocking out the real world and making the virtual world basically what you see,” says Nathan Novak, a systems administrator with Leo A Daly Co.

Novak says his firm mainly uses VR for client presentations. Previously, presentations were accomplished using drawings.

“Everything would be flat—two-dimensional—just lines everywhere,” Novak says. That method made it difficult for clients to visualize projects.

A few years ago, Leo A Daly began using a building information modeling (BIM) program called Revit to produce three-dimensional representations of drawings.

“Instead of just lines, you place walls, and then you can place textures on the walls,” Novak says. “So now you can actually see that there’s a wall here, and the wall is going to be blue. You can see that there’s a door here, and you can see what the door material is made out of.”

BIM programs such as Revit help perform “clash detection”—ferreting out design problems prior to construction. 

“Once construction starts, any sort of change is much more expensive,” Novak says.

Creating a VR environment from a Revit model requires an additional step.

Raj Prasad, chief technology officer for HDR, says his firm uses Revit and similar tools to build 3-D models, then takes that information into products such as Unity (a gaming engine), Unreal Engine, or HTML5.

“Some combination of those is what we use to take the model that’s generated from Revit to create the VR experience,” Prasad says.

In many industries, VR is a prototyping tool, and that’s also true in architecture and engineering.

“The way we say it is, ‘We’d like to have our clients experience the end results before actually building it,” Prasad says. 

He says VR is catching on rapidly. “We are pretty actively leveraging virtual reality on our projects, in different phases.” Among those projects are bridges, transit centers, and hospitals.

Novak says Leo A Daly has used virtual reality for pumphouse designs, water pumps, and piping, among other projects.

“As long as we can build it within Revit, we can bring it over into virtual reality,” he says. “And we’re trying to expand it out even further into some of the other applications outside of Revit.”

VR also can be used in the quality assurance [QA] process.

“Did we model everything properly? Is there something that’s a mistake that we have to come back and fix?” Novak says. “The QA can be toward the end, but really we QA as we go.”

Making it easy for customers to experience VR environments is another factor that firms consider.

“You don’t have to be in an office to have a virtual reality experience. There’s ways you can experience that in anybody’s office, and that’s really the philosophy that we’ve adopted,” Prasad says. “We want to make sure that, if a client desires it and wants it, we can take it to them versus having them always having to come to us.”

One option HDR has used is to provide clients with a Google Cardboard—a simple cardboard frame with lenses that can be used with a mobile phone to experience VR.  

“I’ll call that the lower-end VR experience,” Prasad says.

Raj Prasad

Among higher-end headsets are the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, both of which have been used by Omaha-area firms.

Though use of VR is growing, it has limitations.

“At this point, it doesn’t replace using your computer and Revit and that sort of thing to do our modeling,” Novak says. “I believe that’s something that will be coming in a few years, but it’s not possible yet.

He says that, although available headsets are high definition, their resolution isn’t enough to replace computer monitors.

“When you look through the headset at the display, most people are going to notice that you can actually see the individual pixels. That’s called the ‘screen-door effect,’” he says. The effect makes text  very difficult to read.

“I think we’re still a few years away from being able to switch from coming in, and sitting down at a desk, and looking at monitors all day to coming in, and putting on a headset, and going into VR, and doing your work,” Novak says. 

Does Novak think the use of VR will increase over time?

“Absolutely.”

What does Prasad see as the future of VR?  “The best way to answer that, is, think Star Trek or Star Wars.”

Prasad noted that when Star Trek appeared in the mid-1960s, its technology seemed far-fetched. 

“People were like, ‘This stuff is hundreds of years down the road.’ And here we are,” he says. “This is reality.”

Within the next five to 10 years, he foresees VR being used in all project phases, and as a way to keep workers safer by accomplishing some hazardous tasks virtually, such as bridge inspection.

“If I’m looking out 10 [years] and then beyond, I would say we’re going down the path of holographs and holograms,” Prasad says. “Imagine, if you will, that you take a VR experience and send it directly to a 3-D printer.”

Examples could include a bridge pylon or a wall in a water treatment plant.

“Once the client and the chief engineer approve it, that goes to a 3-D printer. Now you’re taking modular development that—kind of like a Lego, almost—you can pull it all together. And hallelujah, you’ve got a bridge or a water-treatment plant.”

“The future, as you can imagine, it’s awesome,” Prasad says. “It’s fun, it’s wickedly cool.”


Visit hdrinc.com and leoadaly.com for more information.

This article was printed in the June/July 2018 edition of B2B.

Nathan Novak

New Technology

December 8, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

When Dr. Manju Hapke finished medical school more than 40 years ago in India, the latest technology at her school was an X-ray machine.

Since then, the CHI Health Clinic physician completed residencies at New York Hospital Medical Center of Queens and the University of Nebraska College of Medicine.

Hapke has worked in Omaha as a family medicine physician for more than 20 years. During that time, the doctor has seen lots of technological changes, especially in the field of diagnostics.

“We used to solely rely on a physical exam,” Hapke says. “That’s how we made our diagnoses. Now we have such good diagnoses thanks to scans and other diagnostics.”

Dr. Paul Paulman, a professor with the UNMC Department of Family Medicine and a primary care physician, agrees that diagnostics have come a long way, especially in the last five years.

“The radiologists and other imaging professionals have really improved imaging technology,” Paulman says. “Ultrasound is becoming bedside now.”

That is good news, especially in pediatrics. One common use of ultrasound in pediatrics is for appendicitis, which affects 70,000 children in the United States annually.

While ultrasound is leading the way in imaging technology, faster, more compact CT scans and MRIs may not be far behind.

“Pictures are getting sharper, so they can hone in on areas [of the body],” Paulman says. “It’s an area that is constantly improving as computers get faster.”

Ultimately, Hapke is most excited to see what direction diagnostics will take in the future. “I think at some point what will happen is that a patient will walk into a room with equipment and when they walk out we will have all sorts of details about their organs and how they’re functioning. It will be like a diagnostic walkthrough.”

Until that day comes, Hapke has found a technological way to enhance her patients’ care while eliminating some time on data entry.

“I was one of the first physicians who launched the use of Google Glass in Omaha,” Hapke says.

Google Glass is an electronic device that connects to the internet. When it appeared on the scene in 2013, the tech community initially touted it as the next great advancement. The high price point and imbedded camera ultimately resulted in few people using the device, but in July 2017, Google’s parent company, Alphabet, announced that Google Glass 2.0 is coming—this time geared to specific professions, including medicine.

Around the same time as the first Google Glass arrived, regulations on electronic health records became stricter, causing doctors to spend more time on data entry and less time with patients. Hapke realized that by using Google Glass, she could look at her patients, not a computer screen, during a visit.

“There’s so much information the patient gives you with their expressions that you just don’t get through the words,” she says.

A child, especially, might mention having a “tummy ache,” but point at their lower right portion of the abdomen where the appendix resides.

Google Glass works in conjunction with a remote human scribe. The scribe can see and hear the doctor and patient. The doctor must verify and approve the notes that the scribe took during the visit; the notes do not become permanent until the doctor gives the OK.

The scribe can also deliver information to the doctor in real time during the patient visit.

“When you do it in real time, you get a lot more of the information down. When you depend on your memory, you will forget half of it. Google Glass enables me to get both information and cues from the patient,” she says.

According to Hapke, the other advantage is the patient can hear what she is telling the scribe. She asks the patient if he/she understands what’s being said, which helps encourage the patient to ask questions.

Hapke can also have her scribe look up information electronically in the patient’s chart. So if she wants to know the results of a particular test or procedure, the information is available immediately.

“It’s like I have an assistant with me all the time. Because we only have so much time to be with each patient, this helps me maximize my interactions. I can practice old-fashioned medicine with good bedside manner but at the same time have state-of-the-art results at my fingertips,” Hapke says.

She’s been using the technology for about two years and estimates it saves her about 20 hours a week.

Hapke finds keeping up with new procedures and technology easy, especially since she loves to read and admits to being fascinated with medicine.

“It’s not that hard to keep up in this day and age. I am more impressed with my forefathers and how they kept up with everything, and how they advanced medicine to where it is today,” she says. 

Visit chihealth.com for more information.

This article was originally printed in the Winter 2018 edition of Family Guide.

Giving Kids 
a ‘Tech-Up’

October 22, 2017 by
Photography by Sarah Lemke

It’s almost impossible these days to gain employment without some level of technical aptitude and proficiency.

Being able to apply that technical knowledge on-the-job will continue to be required of future high school graduates and subsequent workers to better compete in the 21st century.

And as the most “plugged-in” generation ever, students now and future are eager to learn and apply what they’ve learned in simulated and real-life situations every day.

“Whether they go to college or into a highly-skilled certificate program like manufacturing, transportation, or health care after high school, we want to make them as ready as possible to be successful,” says Ken Spellman, career education coordinator with Omaha Public Schools. “Technology is everywhere and involved with every job in some capacity. We want them prepared to step into any role with the skills and knowledge they need to be successful.”

Through the OPS Career Education program, Spellman, along with certified nursing assistant instructor Tiffanie Wright, engage students to think beyond the classroom into future opportunities no matter if a four-year college education is in their future.

Because skilled labor positions require as much, if not more, specialized technological expertise, training and experience do not end with high school graduation.

If anything, they are just beginning, and OPS wants to make sure its students are on the right track when they do don their caps and gowns and pick up their diplomas.

“Technology is constantly changing, and while CNA job training still tends to be heavily on the physical side (lifting, cleaning, etc.), as a prelude to a career in nursing or health care, being able to use the machines and software needed for patient care is equally, if not more, important,” Wright says.

“Six of the local colleges we work with require CNA certification as a stepping stone to get into nursing. CNAs and nurses are in incredibly high demand, so we want to make sure when our students graduate, they are prepared not only for their current roles but future opportunities.”

Similarly, the Westside School District empowers its students at all levels through its Center for Advanced Professional Studies, with its four strands funded by a Youth Career Connect Grant.

Using science, technology, engineering, and mathematics as a basis, the four strands include architecture, health science, emerging technology, and business solutions. 

Dawn Nizzi, director of Westside’s CAPS, says the program not only prepares students for future technology in the workplace, but also encourages them to think and connect beyond the actual software and devices that they have had in their lives since they were little.

“We want them to realize that technology isn’t a guy in a basement surrounded by computers and monitors; we want them to realize that technology connects people from all professions and walks of life,” she says. “We don’t silo our students. It’s important that they know how to work and communicate together.

“We want them to leave with vision, and the ability to think critically and collaboratively. Part of being a CAPS is to instill an entrepreneurial mindset—to think innovatively. It’s bigger than just the application.”

Last year, a group of Westside students went to St. Louis to experience and observe a Hackathon, where teams from various schools come together to solve technology problems.

Not only did it put their technological skills to the test, but it also stretched their leadership and critical thinking capabilities. Students decided they would like to host something similar among Omaha’s school districts in the future.

In the Millard Public Schools, students are taught technological competencies at very young ages —starting in the elementary school years—with each step building toward making them more accomplished and ready once they reach high school.

Using One-to-One deployment (in which every student gets a computer for their personal and school use) the Millard Educational Program helps students meet the college and career readiness skills of citizenship, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity to better compete in the 21st century. By using technology, teachers will transform the way students learn by augmenting, modifying, and redefining instruction.

Whatever these future students’ career paths may take as they mature and learn, they will be prepared to not only use technology as it evolves but also work together, whether locally or internationally, to advance that technology even further.

“It’s not so much about the tools as much as it is about seeing students learn through enhanced teaching so they are prepared for the future,” says Ken Kingston Ed.D., Millard School District executive director of technology “We set out on a plan more than four years ago as part of our strategic planning process to enhance teaching and learning. Part of that process is providing choices for teachers and students and making sure they think and act creatively and critically, and can work with one another.”

Bottom line for all school districts in Metro Omaha is that students are more prepared than ever for their future pursuits—no matter what career path they take.

“We’re not only preparing our students, but we’re also preparing our teachers so they can give students the best guidance and instruction,” says Curtis Case Ed.D. Millard Public Schools director of digital learning “Not all teaching is about technology. We leave it up to our teachers to use as much as they want in their instruction. But we make sure that they understand how to use technology to best prepare students to use it as well.”

This article was printed in the Fall 2017 edition of Family Guide.

(from left) Curtis Case, Ed.D, & Kent Kingston, Ed.D

Planting Tech Talent

October 10, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Nicole Shobanjo is an information technology student who could be forced to move away from Omaha after she earns her computer programming degree from Metropolitan Community College.

The 38-year-old—a stay-at-home mom who operates an in-house day care business when she’s not studying—says there is a lack of IT-based careers in the greater Omaha metro.

“I don’t want to have to [go to] school here and then leave,” she says. “I feel like the market is locked down.”

Shobanjo says Metro provides opportunities for IT students with assistance in securing internships and possible jobs after graduation. She also says they pair students with tutors, counselors, and advisers. With her busy schedule, she says those resources help—especially on days when landing her dream job in Omaha feels unlikely.

However, a future tech career for Shobanjo and other hopefuls in the Omaha area is looking brighter because of an initiative called Tech Talent Growth. The long-term plan, spearheaded by the Greater Omaha Chamber and AIM Institute, calls for the metro to have at least 20,000 tech workers by 2020. AIM is a nonprofit that dedicates resources to the metro’s local tech talent through career development and educational programs.

Tech Talent Growth wants to take 500 workers from non-IT jobs and plant them into the tech industry. They want to create a population shift, moving 1,250 people from cities outside of the Omaha metro and bringing them here. According to their statistics, 2,500 tech graduates also should flow into the metro population. Keeping them here is the real challenge, says Holly Benson, tech talent manager at the chamber and AIM.

In 2015, there were about 15,700 tech jobs in the Omaha metro. Organization officials say the addition of these 4,250 jobs during the next five years could boost the Omaha metro’s economy by $1 billion.

Benson says one of the major challenges to bringing that many skilled workers to Omaha will be making the city more appealing to big name tech companies and a future workforce. With the help of area colleges, businesses, and community leaders, she says it’s a realistic goal.

Benson, who moved from Northern California to Omaha, says the city is already making great progress in providing desirable quality-of-life offerings for up-and-coming tech talent.

“Part of this project is bringing visibility to Omaha,” Benson says of the city’s future as a tech hub. “There’s a lot of opportunities at people’s fingertips. They just don’t know where to look.”

She adds Omaha doesn’t feel “saturated,” like larger cities. At her previous job, Benson commuted hours each day to work at Google.

“I really enjoy a slower pace, owning a home, and having a 15-minute commute,” she says. “Everyone is really genuine and authentic here, which is different than some of the larger markets.”

Tech Talent Growth poises to benefit local IT students such as Shobanjo, who’s already thought about moving to Dallas with her husband. Shobanjo says he has struggled to find tech work in Omaha.

It’s a simple formula—if Shobanjo can’t find IT work, her family will probably move. This is something Tech Talent Growth has acknowledged as an issue in the Omaha metro.

“There clearly is a gap in what the area is producing and the needs of the businesses,” Benson says. “I think the talent exists, but due to the demand, we need to [recruit] the tech talent.”

The group is addressing the issue with the mindset to “develop, attract, and retain talent” locally. Part of it is working with existing partners to help provide summer programs, after-school opportunities, and weekend opportunities for youths interested in technology careers. In fact, Shobanjo is one of those people, who discovered a passion for the tech field at a young age. It started with building parts of computers and customizing hardware.

“It has been in my heart since I was younger,” Shobanjo says.

Tech Talent Growth is teaming up with educational institutions, businesses, and the community to attract IT jobs with competitive salaries to ensure professional growth and attract new talent. Ideal progress would be increased enrollment in, and completion of, local university college programs. The organization wants to create a scholarship for future students and establish a one-stop online shop for youth tech opportunities. They also want to be inclusive to minorities, women, veterans, and low-income students.

Tech Talent Growth is working with K-12 schools, the University of Nebraska-Omaha, Omaha Code School, and Iowa Western Community College to inform students about local opportunities.

“It’s a community project,” Benson says. “What we’re seeing with the Silicon Prairie hat is that we’re not the first place people think of when it comes to tech.”

While keeping an emphasis on local occupations, Tech Talent Growth will help create a stronger identity in the Midwest with IT-related opportunities in Omaha.

“That’s why it’s incredibly important for us to be educating our youth at every age,” Benson emphasizes.

Visit omahachamber.org for more information.

This article published in the Fall 2017 edition of B2B.

Holly Benson

A Return to
 the Classics

September 25, 2017 by
Photography by Sarah Lemke

Keyboarding. Computer skills. Microsoft Office. These classes were required of elementary and middle school students 15-20 years ago. Now, there’s typing in elementary school?

Those courses signify just how rapidly digital technology changes, and consequently, how much digital tech impacts the economy and the education system preparing students for careers.

Current and future professionals face some unique challenges in the workforce because of these rapid changes. A recently published PEW Research Center article revealed that 87 percent of workers believe they’ll need further training and have to learn new job skills to keep up with the dynamic demands of technology. The article indicated that some of the most important assets professionals need include creativity, curiosity, and critical thinking.

Multiple schools—at least three in the last two years—have cropped up in Omaha that are able to address these concerns in a unique way. How do they prepare students for an economic landscape that has changed drastically in the last 30 years and shows no signs of slowing down? Not by being cutting edge, but by playing the long game—employing a classical model of education that’s roughly 2,500 years old.

Sara Breetzke, formerly a high school English teacher in Elkhorn, is now the head of school at Trinity Classical Academy, a collaborative, Christian, classical school beginning its second year this fall. Classical education, she explains, is “about teaching kids to enjoy learning and to know how to learn for themselves.”

Classical schooling is made up of three distinct stages of learning that mirror the development of a child. It’s known as the “trivium.” The grammar stage (first through fourth grades), when children are considered “information sponges,” involves memorizing facts and information; the logic stage (fifth through eighth grades), when kids are consumed with “why?”, involves organizing those learned facts in logical ways; the rhetoric stage (ninth through 12th grades), when adolescents want to express themselves, involves critical thinking and persuasion.

Brandon Harvey, newly-appointed headmaster of the two-year-old Chesterton Academy, highlights the importance of the “unity between the content and the method” for learning well. “The goal,” he says, “is that [students] encounter truth, goodness, and beauty.”

Another distinction is the focus on virtue as a fundamental feature of education. A primary goal of the classical education is to create, in Harvey’s terms, “[People] of virtue [who] strive to not just know the truth but to imitate goodness.”

Trinity Classical Academy and Chesterton Academy are Christian schools, though the classical education method began in ancient Greece and Rome and need not necessarily be Christian. Through a variety of sources, classical schooling immerses students at a very early age in great works—from Aristotle to Augustine, Charlotte Bronte to Dorothy Day, Frederick Douglass to Charles Darwin.

Breetzke succinctly summarizes the philosophy behind immersion: “You can’t be creative until you’ve seen people be creative.” While rewarding, this is an extended endeavor—a pilgrimage of learning.

Whereas prevailing models of education assume content should be engaging and fun for students now, and tends toward mass production by teaching to a test, classical schooling assumes content will be engaging and fun once students are good learners, and tends towards character development. So, says Breetzke, “You’re not going to see much standardized testing.”

When it comes to tests like the SAT and ACT, Harvey explains, “Classical schools don’t really focus on standardized tests, and in doing so they actually surpass most other schools [in test scores].” Student success is due in part because the curriculum for each course intentionally integrates with others. Subjects are not treated like cities on a map, unique yet connected. The facts of science relate to the events of history, which are linked to the literature of the time. This method creates curious, critical thinkers. Therefore, Harvey points out, “Classical education is not just for the intellectual elite.”

So how does the classical model prepare students for a tech-heavy business world? By changing that very question. The goal isn’t to prepare students for a type of economy (technological or otherwise), but to create virtuous humans who know how to learn and can take responsibility for themselves and the world around them. Breetzke explains: “Career prep looks different. It’s not skills. It’s character…Skills are much more easily learned than character…We are giving kids resources and riches to draw on that can reinvigorate a tech-heavy business world.”

The wisdom instilled by the millennia-old trivium prepares students for the ever-changing digital-tech economy. Through it, students become people who can discern truth, imitate goodness, and enjoy beauty. While not the skills-based learning most people are used to, classical education instills qualities that a digital economy still needs.

This article was printed in the Fall 2017 edition of Family Guide.

Reach for the Stars

May 25, 2017 by

College has become increasingly expensive. A semester at the University of Nebraska at Omaha now costs more than $3,000, leaving many parents—and students—wondering how to increase their ROI on college expenditure.

One of the best ways is to go into a profession that relies on science, technology, education, or mathematical knowledge.

Young people with a bachelor’s degree and with three or fewer years of experience in their field earn less than $40,000, according to a study conducted last year by Forbes, but those in STEM occupations can earn much more. One of the highest paid STEM positions, a petroleum engineer, can earn more than $85,000 with only three years’ experience and a bachelor’s degree.

Unfortunately, those lucrative loan-repayment-worthy STEM professions are underrepresented by minority and women employees. Stereotypes persist, discouraging possible candidates based on the misconception that STEM fields of study are “hard” or “boring” or “unwelcoming.”

Neal Grandgenett, the Dr. George and Sally Haddix Community Chair of STEM Education at UNO, says it’s not hard to break those stereotypes. Engaging students in camps or extracurricular activities can be effective in establishing an interest in these fields.

“I think it’s critical that parents give kids the ability to get into some of these fun camps,” Grandgenett says. “There’s fun things like rocketry and robotics. They’d be better off doing that than getting kids into more traditional math camps.”

Part of the problem, Grandgenett says, is that the camp titles do not reflect experiences that are seen as great resume-builders. Parents who want to accelerate their students in their studies may actually benefit from allowing their student(s) to delve deeper into a subject.

“Parents may gravitate away from something like “The Science of Zombies,” because it doesn’t sound useful, but it might have practical applications,” Grandgenett says. “They might talk about disease transmission and how to prevent it. The title of the camp may not be reflective of how applicable to the STEM fields it really is.”

Even throughout the school year, Grandgenett says, there are a lot of ways that students can become interested in these fields. One way is to attend speaking engagements that are open to the public. Omaha Performing Arts, for example, showcases “National Geographic Live,” in which noted researchers, writers, and photographers spend an evening discussing their adventures. These guest speakers can make STEM subjects sound exciting.

As well as being fun, Connie O’Brien, director of the Aim for the Stars summer math and science camps at UNO, says making sure boys and girls are given an equal chance to succeed in these areas is essential.

O’Brien says, “In the last 10-15 years, we have caught on to the fact that we need to teach in ways that catch [girls’] brains. When we give kids a rocket to build, for example, boys will pull out one item, then another, then start putting the two pieces together. Girls take out all the pieces and make a picture in their minds, then assemble the project.”

Women make up 73 percent of all employees in the social and life sciences, such as psychology and biology, but make up less than 30 percent of employees in many of the physical sciences, such as engineering.

“I was expected to get a college degree in nursing or teaching,” O’Brien says. “That didn’t work for me.”

It didn’t work for Allison Sambol, either. Sambol is an environmental scientist at Felsburg Holt & Ullevig, and a prime example of using a college degree to dive into a STEM career.

“I am a geographer. I went to college and I took all general studies, and my geography course was my favorite,” Sambol says. “When I graduated, I was looking for jobs; I looked for anything that had consulting in the title.”

Eventually, Sambol realized that her work decisions affected many aspects of people’s lives, and she began to see the benefits to sticking with environmental science.

“On a day-to-day basis, I’m researching physical settings,” Sambol explains. “What’s around it? What type of things might affect building it? Does it contain contaminated soil or groundwater? Wetlands, do they need to be mitigated? Are there permits that needs to be maintained?”

Being in a STEM-based career, however, does not mean that she researches alone all day.

“Part of my job is in development,” Sambol says. “Working with my clients, developing relationships, and determining communities’ problems, and how people can solve those problems.”

The possibilities for a student who becomes interested in STEM subjects are limitless. Those working with computers, specifically, are much needed in Omaha and nationwide.

“The number of computer science positions is far outpacing the number of graduates we will have in those careers,” Grandgenett says. “One in five positions in computer science will not be filled due to not having the people with the skills.”

This article was printed in the Summer 2017 edition of Family Guide.

 

Big Omaha

May 24, 2017 by
Photography by Big Omaha

Rewind to May 8, 2009, and you will find a community of 400-plus graphic designers, entrepreneurs, creatives, developers, small business owners, and even a handful of investors seated in tidy rows at KANEKO in the Old Market. It was a first-of-its-kind conference for Omaha.

Many of these people knew of this event through casual conversations—mostly on Twitter—about a little-known conference coming to town called “Big Omaha.” It was the brainchild and second-born of friends Jeff Slobotski and Dusty Davidson (the previous year’s Silicon Prairie News being their firstborn). The two recognized a movement and a simmering energy surrounding the local tech community. It was a cadre of women and men who decided start-up and tech success could happen not on the West Coast but in their own backyards.

The inaugural Big Omaha sold out 10 days prior to the conference. The energy it created has sustained these past eight years. The result? Omaha is now a destination for start-ups seeking new ideas, new energy, and even new money in the form of investors.

“Big Omaha provides inspiration for people to start something,” explains Brian Lee of AIM, a not-for-profit organization that promotes technology to empower people, enhance organizations, and create brilliant communities. Lee serves as managing director of Big Omaha and Silicon Prairie News.

Two years ago, Big Omaha and Silicon Prairie News were acquired by AIM. Although the ownership structure has changed, the Big Omaha experience remains true to what Slobotski and Davidson created with the first conference in 2009.

“Big Omaha has had a huge impact on our community,” Lee says. “It is part of a larger movement in the past eight years that started with Big Omaha.”

Now the conference welcomes a sold-out audience of 700 attendees with guest speakers in a range of tech- and entrepreneurial-based industries who have crisscrossed the globe. When the speakers take the stage, the majority are candid about their successes and their failures, which they are encouraged to share in engaging, meaningful, transparent, and memorable ways.

“We ask our speakers to address overcoming challenges, which helps our audience find inspiration,” Lee says. “In the Midwest, we appreciate authenticity. Hearing those struggles helps a lot.”

Part of the splash of Big Omaha’s first conference in 2009 was its clever cow branding, developed by Omaha-based Oxide Design Co. The cow visuals have remained, although design duties changed hands in 2015 from Oxide to Grain & Mortar.

Now that Big Omaha is owned and operated by AIM, its goal is to cover costs through sponsorships and ticket sales, Lee says.

The conference continues to be a hot event. Tickets that cost as much as $599 are scooped up annually by local, national, and even international attendees.

Big Omaha could move to a larger venue, selling more tickets and earning more revenue. But Lee says from his vantage point, the Big Omaha culture isn’t about a bottom line.

“Our goal is not to outgrow KANEKO. We want to preserve the charm and the experience (of Big Omaha) for as long as we can.”

Part of this charm is the togetherness. Everyone who attends Big Omaha hears the same speakers in the same order. Speakers are encouraged to remain the entire two days of the conference, immersing themselves in the experience and networking with Big Omaha ticket-holders. (The pre-party and post-party have become a popular part of the two-day conference.)

Graphic design, architecture, tech innovation, and entrepreneurship ideas abound here. UNL architecture students provided an art installation in 2016, and a guest speaker in 2015 and 2017 was fashion entrepreneur Mona Bijoor, a favorite among the fashion designers and fashionistas
in attendance.

The conference’s first row is filled with familiar faces each year. One of them is Megan Hunt of Omaha, who has attended every single Big Omaha since 2009.

“I remember the incredible momentum that had built up in the Midwest startup community for this event,” Hunt recalls. “The desire we all had for a space to come together, share the work we were doing, and learn from the superstars in our field was palpable. The way that Dusty and Jeff harnessed that energy and built Omaha’s reputation as a hub of entrepreneurship is nothing short of legendary.”

Hunt has owned a web-based bridal design company, a co-working space, and, most recently, a web-based clothing retailer known as Hello Holiday that also boasts a very visual storefront in the heart of Dundee.

“I love going to Big Omaha because, for me, running a business is not just dollars and cents and strategy around growth,” Hunt adds. “It takes a lot of creativity and ingenuity. Big Omaha is my favorite conference because they do understand this so well, emphasizing how interdisciplinary business and technology can be, and welcoming artists, musicians, designers, and writers—people who may normally be in the minority at
other conferences.”

Big Omaha 2017

Big Omaha returned to KANEKO for the ninth consecutive year May 18 and 19. Below is the lineup of speakers.

Joe Ariel, co-founder and CEO of Goldbely

Mona Bijoor, managing partner at King Circle Capital and founder of JOOR

Christina Brodbeck, founding partner at Rivet Ventures

Daniel Burka, design partner at GV, formerly Google Ventures

Shirley Chung, chef and owner at Steamers Co.

Baldwin Cunningham, vice president of strategy at Brit + Co., co-founder of Partnered

Diana Goodwin, founder and CEO of AquaMobile

Alex Klein, co-founder and CEO of Kano Computing

Brandon Levy, co-founder and CEO of Stitch Labs

Mitch Lowe, co-founder of Netflix, CEO of MoviePass

Margenette Moore-Roberts, global head of inclusive diversity at Yahoo

Nish Nadaraja, former Yelp brand director, partner at Rich Kid Cool

Brian Neider, a partner at Lead Edge Capital

Vanessa Torrivilla, co-founder and creative director of Goldbely

Shandra Woworuntu, founder of Mentari

Matt Zeiler, founder and CEO of Clarifai

Visit bigomaha.co for more information.

Big Omaha participants try virtual reality goggles at a previous year’s event.

This article was printed in the Summer 2017 edition of B2B.

Where Do You Work? Everywhere!

May 18, 2017 by

People share documents, manage projects, offer advice, and develop relationships without sitting across from each other in the office.

The mobile workforce in the U.S. has grown from 96.2 million in 2015 to a projected 105 million by 2020, accounting for nearly 75 percent of the U.S. labor force, according to a new report from IDC, a global market intelligence firm. It’s not just millennials delivering these increases, it’s the growing number of independent contractors working alone or with other free agents. No longer just in offices, we work at home, client offices, and a variety of other places.

Employees are experiencing a much greater choice of location and work-life balance. These factors have reshaped our job as it’s always been. Work now happens at the office, home, almost anywhere!

We are choosing places with engaging, welcoming environments—accessible, convenient spots where people come together. For those really on the move, airports, train stations, planes, and trains offer the means to connect.

Many of us compensate for physical isolation by connecting with others via social media, chat rooms, and forums, while connecting to our work colleagues via the internet. Feeling connected to others is why offices, or places like coffee shops and libraries, draw us in. The past decade has seen this café environment evolve from a place to meet a friend into a vital workplace fueled by caffeine and having its own social life. Technology enabled this phenomenon for laptops and cell phones. Now it’s even better supported by cloud computing, smart phones, and applications encouraging social networking and productivity.

These locales support individual work activities, but have the added benefit of not obligating us to interact with others as in an office. Society has adjusted. Lighting and ergonomics have improved. Still not the best for private meetings because they lack security and privacy, there’s hardly a coffee shop where you won’t find someone working every hour it is open. Even basic work needs like electrical plugs and open tables remain in demand.

The next step, co-working space, is designed to be used either on a lease or drop-in basis. Individual contractors, either would-be entrepreneurs or commute-avoiding employees, embrace these facilities as a structured workspace to deliver more emotional, social, and physical support than is found at home or in cafés.

Co-working centers today are more recognized as places where work happens.

Doug Schuring is the director of sales administration at All Makes Office Equipment Co.

This column was printed in the Summer 2017 edition of B2B.

Pacific Life

April 13, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The site of Omaha’s old Knights of Aksarben complex—acres of once-busy thoroughbred horse racing and concert space turned albatross—has blossomed anew as the live-work-play destination spot known as Aksarben Village.

The booming mixed-use development is home to popular eateries, a movie theater, health club, and two colleges. This is part of why Pacific Life Insurance Company moved its regional business operations office from downtown to a new five-story building there in late 2015. The company’s Omaha office has grown from 250 to 450 workers since the blue-gray motif structure’s 2014 groundbreaking.

The gleaming, glass-fronted Holland Basham Architects design offers many creature comforts and inhabits prime real estate at 6750 Mercy Road.

The new digs provide a branded presence after a low-key profile at downtown’s Landmark Center.

Angela Greisen, Pacific Life assistant vice president for human resources, says, “We couldn’t have our name on the previous building in any big, visible way. We’d been in Omaha 12-plus years and people still didn’t know we were here.” That’s changed, she says, as events “bring thousands of people to the village and our new building with our big branding and signage is right there in the middle of everything.”

“That’s been huge for us. It’s also given us higher applicant flow because people now know we’re here and here to stay and we’re growing.”

Where many employees had to use off-site parking downtown, they now have an 850-stall covered garage. A heated, enclosed skybridge connects the building to the garage.

Greisen was part of a project team drawn from each Pacific Life business unit that polled employees about their likes and dislikes.

“The three most important things employees said they wanted were parking, amenities, and a nearby location with easy access,” she says.

Aksarben was the clear site choice. Pacific Life partnered with Magnum Development on the $33 million new build. The company occupies the second through fifth floors. Eateries and shops fill the ground floor.

“Staff response has been great,” Greisen says. “They love the parking, the amenities, the bright, airy feel of the building with the wide-open layout, natural lighting, and clean, modern finishes. Though we added only about 10,000 square feet, it’s organized much more efficiently.”

Each floor plan incorporates cutting-edge work spaces to enhance communication, team-building, workflow, and group projects via huddle spaces, conference rooms, and commons areas. She says, “Staff can seamlessly interface in real time with colleagues at other locations through videoconferencing, teleconferencing, and webinar technology.”

There’s a Wall Street trading-room floor look to the third floor internal wholesaling area. Flat-screen panels stream motivational performance messages and live market conditions to the sales desk floor.

In multiple areas, adjustable, stand-up work stations are available. Employees can indulge their freshly brewed beverage cravings at several Keurig stations.

The in-house Park View Cafe is a grab-your-own, pay-with-your-phone Company Kitchen model. The spacious room converts into a meeting-reception space with audio-video connectivity. A covered balcony offers a panoramic overlook of Stinson Park.

Though not green certified, the structure integrates many conservation features, including energy efficient windows, LED lighting, HVAC that is programmed to shut off when areas are unoccupied, low water usage restroom fixtures, and motion-sensor lighting.

Greisen says employees appreciate Aksarben Village’s warm welcome and plethora of things to do. Proximity is a big plus, too, as Pacific Life is an employer partner of the University of Nebraska at Omaha, whose south campus is in the village. As an employer partner, company representatives promote their job opportunites and participate in career fairs; staffers also speak to classes and conduct mock interviews when asked. Greisen hopes this partnership will grow.

“We expect an increase because we have a partnership with UNO, and now we are literally on the edge of their campus,” she says. “It’s very convenient. Increased visibility.  It gives us even more opportunities to partner with the university.”

This visibility, along with the popular amenities, could mean an increase in sought-after employees at Pacific Life in the near future.  And that can help secure Pacific Life’s future.

Visit  aksarbenvillage.com for more information.

This article was printed in the Spring 2017 edition of B2B.

Uber and Lyft

March 26, 2017 by
Illustration by Matt Wieczorek

With the post-millennial rise of ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft, a generation weaned on digital technology could suddenly tap a smartphone app, summon a private car driven by the owner, and pay for the fare electronically. Easy peasy.

Uber and Lyft can thank their younger demographics for pushing revenue into the billions of dollars.

But guess what? Both transportation companies have figured out that profitable fruit doesn’t only come from young trees. The push to make ride-hailing easier for retired Americans looms on the horizon, and that horizon can’t come into focus soon enough.

“Transportation has always been one of our greatest challenges,” says Erin Endress, director of sales and marketing at Remington Heights, a retirement community in Omaha. “We have vans, but getting residents to and from medical appointments takes priority, which it should. That leaves little opportunity for trips just for fun. We could definitely use a transportation alternative, as long as it’s safe.”

And for those who still live at home but whose eyesight or reflexes may not be the best?

“Personally, I think Uber and Lyft are going to make a huge difference for folks as they stop driving or don’t drive as much, or as far, on their own,”  says Cynthia Brammeier, administrator of the Nebraska State Unit on Aging. “I’m looking forward to getting to that point. It’s awesome!” she exclaims, having personally experienced the buzz surrounding Uber while visiting another state.

Nebraska came late to the party, approving Uber and Lyft operations in July 2015, which may explain a lack of awareness among Omahans in general.

The necessity of a smartphone to summon a ride excludes many seniors from ride-hailing apps. According to the Pew Research Center, 70 percent of those 65 and older don’t own a smartphone, instead preferring cheaper, old-fashioned flip phones with limited data capabilities.

One segment of the senior population did benefit immediately from having the transportation alternatives in Omaha: drivers.

“I’ve been with Lyft for over a year. It’s my only job now, “ says Dave*, 68, who prefers to remain anonymous. Working about four hours a night, the Dundee resident brings home “between $400 and $500 a week working the entertainment district and trips to the airport. But that’s not counting my car payment, gas, and insurance.”

The insurance question explains why Dave doesn’t want to be identified. Both Uber and Lyft have up to $1 million in liability coverage. But if a driver gets into an accident on the way to pick up a passenger, how much his or her personal insurance carrier will pay out becomes murky, since the driver uses the car for profit.

The advantages of ride-hailing services, previously called ridesharing, seem pretty clear.

“We’re half the cost of a cab,” Dave says. “We pick up passengers within five to 10 minutes. The cars are newer, clean, and have to be four-door. No cash exchanges hands, unless the passenger tips me in cash.”

The advantages for Dave include setting his own work schedule, meeting “wonderful people,” and showing off his hometown to visitors. “I love Omaha and I consider myself an ambassador for this city,” he says. “Nearly all my passengers say how friendly we are here.”

But why would someone in their 80s summon a stranger to their home to pick them up?

“[The companies] check us out pretty good,” Dave assures. Both Uber and Lyft conduct extensive background, criminal, and DMV checks. Lyft sent an employee to inspect Dave’s Toyota. “Believe me, we’re safe.”

The opportunity for seniors without smartphones to utilize Uber or Lyft as passengers depends greatly on a “no app required” platform. One such service recently appeared on a list of transportation options compiled by the Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging.

“It’s called GoGoGrandparent,” says Taylor Armstrong of the ENOA. “We’re told you don’t have to use a smartphone. People just call a number.”

The brainchild of a California man whose grandmother couldn’t tool around San Diego anymore, GoGoGrandparent uses a toll-free hotline to connect seniors with an operator, who then summons an Uber car for them.

“We’re not recommending this service over all the other transportation options ENOA offers,” cautions Jeff Reinhardt of the public affairs division. “We haven’t gotten any feedback yet on GoGoGrandparent.”

Lyft’s contribution to creating easier access involves senior-friendly Jitterbug cell phones and smartphones. When paired with a 24/7 health care provider, a registered user simply dials “0” on the Jitterbug phone and books a ride through the operator. This pilot program has yet to find its way to Omaha.

“We’re going to be top-heavy in seniors in the next 10 to 20 years,” Endress says. “There’s a huge need for entrepreneurs who want to make a difference in someone’s life.”

As evidenced by the rapidly changing technology that grants the gift of mobility, the difference-makers have arrived.

Visit uber.com, lyft.com, and

gogograndparent.com for more information.

* Dave is not the driver’s real name.

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of 60 Plus.