Geek, the new chic

Posted on Jun 25, 2019 :: Personalities
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Greg Levenhagen, a principal software engineer consultant at Skyline Technologies who also serves as a Microsoft regional director, has been giving back since his college days. For his efforts, Microsoft designated him an MVP, or Most Valuable Professional, an honor that recognizes “technology experts who passionately share their knowledge with the community.”

In his days as a college student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Levenhagen helped run user groups. Later, he was instrumental in launching THAT Conference, a “Summer Camp for Geeks” held each August at the Kalahari Resort in Wisconsin Dells. He continues that involvement as well as serving as a Microsoft TEALS volunteer for the Kimberly Area School District and a board member for the Appleton Youth Education Initiative, and helping run coding and hackathon events. He talked with Insight about the upcoming THAT Conference, running Aug. 5-8, and the importance of community involvement.

Insight: How did THAT Conference get its start?

Greg Levenhagen: After I moved back to the Fox Valley, I got involved with a couple of user groups here. I had gotten into speaking as well, rather than just running them, going around eventually throughout the country. (I got) to see what it’s like to speak at places as well as what I like and don’t like in terms of how events are run, specifically in the technology sector.

One of my friends who was working for Microsoft at the time, Clark Sell, had an idea for THAT Conference. It was kind of along the lines of saying, instead of having to fly out to California or Orlando or New York, we can get that kind of top-tier technical conference here in the Midwest. We have a lot of smart people here, and we can showcase them here, and companies don’t have to pay $2,000 for a ticket. Now we’re going into our ninth year, and it’s grown each year.

How did the conference end up incorporating a family track?

We were kind of a summer camp for geeks, so we always had planned it to be the week before school starts for the Upper Midwest. We started out with a few sessions here and there. The idea was that if technology professionals were to go to THAT Conference, their kids could go learn as well. This year, we’re going to have more than 30 specific sessions just for kids. We have a little over 100 for professionals, so it’s a significant portion. We get several hundred kids that come, all different ages. It’s our movement in helping STEM and education.

What makes THAT Conference unique?

Generally, a lot of conferences would, say, give 10 or 15 minutes between sessions. We make sure between every session there’s 30 minutes. We want to promote networking, because oftentimes, networking is the most value people say they get out of a conference. From an attendee side, we understand that it’s about networking, it’s about improving their soft skills and their technology. It’s a professional technology conference. The hardest thing on any project, I often say, at least in my world of technology, is communication.

The third (aspect) is the speakers. Sometimes speakers are put up high on a pedestal. They should be, obviously, thanked for what they do in helping drive discussion. (But) we don’t have a dedicated private speaker dinner just for the speakers. What we do is have a pig roast where everyone is involved. (Attendees) get to sit down next to, maybe, their idol in the technology space, and they can now have a real touchpoint with that. It helps break down those barriers.

How did you get involved in educational outreach?

I think that education can solve a lot of problems, and the more educated we can help each other be, we’re setting ourselves up for success. As I was going through a lot of my education, my classmates would say, “We fully expect you to be living out on the West Coast and working for a big-name company.” I don’t see a reason why I can’t stay here and do that, and I can play my part in making (Wisconsin) become a technology center.

I volunteer through the TEALS program at the high schools, and I’m helping as much as I can with the TitletownTech initiative. I want to see our youth get educated in STEM and then choose to either stay here or come back after college to help this area grow. (One) of the issues that I’d like to potentially highlight there is … we need volunteers for a year or two to come in and teach our teachers.

For a school that’s new to it, there has to be a teacher there because the professional is not teacher certified and liable. Sometimes there are two or three teachers, but then there’s an entire class, so (the professionals) teach the class and the teachers. (After) a year or two, those couple of teachers can then teach that class for the next 20 years because they’ve now learned it with the intention of teaching it.      

What are you seeing when it comes to recruiting young people?

Geek culture isn’t such a bad thing as it was in previous decades, which is a good thing. Reaching kids at a younger age, especially girls, can help them look at a career in STEM. I’m not so much in the camp that they have to go into STEM. I’m of the mindset that if they’re doing (any career), it’s going to be backed by computer science technologies, whether they like it or not. I look at it as kind of a fundamentals class, where they just need to understand some logic, and that way it’s not as scary or it helps with communication. What I would ultimately like to see is computer science be required in some way in a high school setting.