Walk down any street in Salt Lake City and the chances are that, in sharp contrast to the pancake-flat city centre, you’ll see picturesque mountains on the horizon. This is the great outdoors where America comes to play, with skiing, hiking, fishing, mountain biking and more on offer. Pluralsight, headquartered just 20 minutes’ drive away in Farmington, is one of many Utah tech companies that come together under the Silicon Slopes banner, which sets out to prove the state is as serious about business as leisure.

Silicon Slopes is both an informal name for the local cluster of information technology, software development, and hardware manufacturing and research firms, as well as a non-profit organisation empowering Utah’s tech community to share knowledge and resources to make entrepreneurship and opportunity open and accessible to all.

In this spirit of sharing, Pluralsight announced products and partnerships at its second annual conference that aim to close the global skills gap and offer a unique way for learners to assess their current skill levels in software technology essential to their roles.

The company has evolved from providing classroom teaching to offering a bespoke, Netflix-like, video-on-demand career-development service driven by AI.

Co-founder and CEO Aaron Skonnard says: “We sit at the centre of two mega-trends: every company today is striving to be more of a tech company – Jamie Dimon is famous as having said JP Morgan is a bank disguised as a tech company. The second is there’s this massive technology skills gap globally, which works against the first trend. We see ourselves as at the nexus of those two trends, and our goal as a company is to provide a digital learning platform along with personalised learning experiences.”

Personalised tech training

The company started with classroom-based IT training but soon recognised it was limited by using traditional, physical teaching techniques and that it had to use technology to change both the way it taught technology and the way people learn it.

“We’ve disrupted our own original business model and now we’re a digital learning platform where the world is our classroom,” explains Skonnard.

To get the necessary breadth and depth of expertise, Pluralsight created an author network model, recruiting experts in each individual technology area and revenue sharing with them in a way that allows them to monetise on the platform. Today the company boasts over 1,400 authors from over 90 different countries, some of whom Skonnard describes as rock stars of their technology area; its top author made over $2m in author fees last year.

From the candidates’ standpoint, the learning experience is personalised from the start. They are asked what they want to learn and their homepage is tailored for them, adapting to their need and interests.

“Then we ask them to start inventorying their skills through Skill IQ,” says Skonnard. “IQ stands for Iris Quotient, and Iris is the name of the data science behind our platform. That gives people their benchmark for a particular skill like JavaScript. Once we have a Skill IQ we know how that individual benchmarks against the rest of the professionals with that same skill; novice, proficient or expert. Then we tailor that learning experience for them based on where they’re at and where they want to go.”

Pluralsight’s interactive courses and projects complement the IQ product family by enabling learners to test their knowledge through real-world projects and offer a dashboard for businesses to measure their application of knowledge, rather than just the number of hours spent learning.

A new capability launched at the conference, Role IQ, takes that one step further. At no cost, candidates can select the job they want and create a learning path towards their chosen career. It also offers CTOs, CIOs, the technology leaders the ability to manage and upskill their technology talent.

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“People usually pay a lot of money to go to a vendor and get a certification paper to prove their skill level,” says Skonnard. “People in Africa or India could never have access to that. By making Role IQ free to individuals, it’s going to level the playing field and increase accessibility to learners around the world.”

Giving back to the community

This sentiment is connected to Pluralsight One, a social enterprise the company launched last year that aims to increase access to technology skill development and promote inclusion across the globe. After working with 40 organisations across 16 countries to learn what product offering would best serve them, Pluralsight is making its courses available to non-profits, NGOs and educators all over the globe in a highly discounted way.

“One of the other big things I’m excited about is the $1.5m grant we’re giving to Code.org [an organisation and website that aims to encourage school students to learn computer science]and the partnership we’re launching with them,” says Skonnard.

“The funding is going to stimulate more progress and more participation by girls and underrepresented minorities across the US and the globe. We’re also partnering with them around their AP Computer Science programme [a high school course that offers college credit]. Students who complete the course will be granted a Pluralsight subscription to start acquiring the professional skills they need to join the workforce, so people who can’t afford to go to university still have a career path.”

Such is Pluralsight’s dedication to giving back, the company has appointed Lindsey Kneuven as head of social impact.

“It’s important to combine corporate strategy with social responsibility,” she says. “The evolution is exciting and Pluralsight is leading the way. Millennials align personal passion with purpose and personal goals can be part of a broader global responsibility.

Speaking of why companies should adopt a similar approach, Kneuven says: “Philanthropic work is evolving at the same pace as technology. We need to develop an understanding of history, what we’ve learnt and how we can apply it. There are gigantic global challenges that require a shared competitive approach. Think about and assess your resources. Take a holistic view of what you are and where your sweet spot lies.”

Pluralsight senior vice president of Europe, Middle East, India and Africa (EMEIA) Sean Farrington adds: “I was attracted to working for a company whose technology has a genuinely meaningful impact. I believe there should be an element of social responsibility in what organisations do.

Farrington adds: “Digital transformation is taking off through the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). Every organisation needs to centre itself on technology and the people/technology interface. We have to create an atmosphere within organisations to close that skills gap and shorten the innovation cycle, and Pluralsight can help.”

Mountains and Mormons: the surprising reasons behind the success of Silicon Slopes

Pluralsight, Domo, InsideSales and Qualtrics were the four tech unicorns behind the Silicon Slopes non-profit organisation, and Skonnard is a founding board member.

“It aims to cultivate the Utah technology ecosystem by lifting the Utah brand in a way that will allow us to attract more talent,” he says. “Every year we hold the Silicon Slopes tech summit. The first year we had 5,000 people show up; this year we had 15,000.”

Salt Lake City is famously the headquarters of the Church of Latter Day Saints (LDS, or the Mormon Church), which plays a surprising role in the state’s success.

“We have an incredible melting pot of people who speak different languages with Mormon missionaries who have gone into other countries and lived there for a few years,” says Skonnard. “A lot of other people have moved to Utah because of their connection with the LDS faith, which has brought a level of diversity into the state. Also, a lot of those missionaries have been out in the world selling religion, one of the hardest things there is to sell, so you have talented salespeople with language skill.”

Domo, a company that specialises in real-time business intelligence tools and data visualisation, is another Silicon Slopes founder member.

“We’re in the third phase of tech in Utah,” says Domo VP of Communications Julie Kehoe. “The first generation was Novell, WordPerfect; traditional offline legacy applications. The second was Internet 1.0, Overstock.com, Ancestry.com and [Domo predecessor] Omniture.

“When the third phase launched, the entire ecosystem you needed to run an internet company was here. We had the talent, the state is business-friendly – if you’re an entrepreneur it’s a great place to grow a business – and we live in a beautiful place with world-class skiing, incredible wildlife, lakes, and people. On weekends we always feel like we’re on vacation.”

Head of global insights at Experience management company Qualtrics Mike Maughan adds: “There’s a tendency in the US to think you have to be in Silicon Valley and that’s just not true; no one area has the exclusive on smart people. We’re outside the hype of Silicon Valley and that allows organisations to focus on their customers and build a great, sustainable business and not get caught up in all of the hoopla that happens when everyone’s in this echo chamber. That distance gives us the focus to be very customer-orientated and to build businesses that are meant to last rather than businesses that are meant to be sold.”