The Rapid Expansion of Florida’s Tech Scene

36 hours at Florida International University’s 1st Hackathon

by Matthieu McClintock

Florida has never been known as a hub for techies; especially when compared to Silicon Valley, Austin, or New York — many associate Florida with sunny beaches, retirees, and Disney but the reality — minus the sunny beaches — couldn’t be further from the truth. The seeds were planted for Florida to become a major tech hub several decades ago and it appears now that those seeds have sprouted, seemingly overnight. It started with IBM opening a major facility in Boca Raton and the opening of several facilities in Central Florida by defense contractors such as Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, and Lockheed Martin in the 1970s. Talented software and hardware engineers, as well as industrial and graphic designers flocked to the state with their families to make up the rank and file of these large corporations. Then they had children.

With the rapid development of South and Central Florida in the past three decades and the introduction of the Internet in the 1990’s came the ultimate perfect storm, the precipice for what would ignite the fire of tech in Florida. In the past ten years Computer Science departments have begun popping up at almost every major university in Florida and more recently, graduates of these schools have gone on to prominence in their field. Eduardo Saverin, co-founder of Facebook, first incorporated Facebook in Boca Raton, Florida before the company was reincorporated in Delaware for tax purposes.

Recently tech education has become all the rage and its two leading competitors, Treehouse and CodeSchool, operate within miles of each other in Orlando, Florida. It’s no coincidence that more and more tech startups are popping up all over Florida, it’s simply evolution. This past weekend I went with Solodev’s Senior Software Engineer Ross Williams to a Hackathon at Florida International University known as MangoHacks. What I witnessed was mind boggling as hackathon teams from universities all over Florida emerged at the FIU campus in Miami to go toe to toe with each other over a 36 hour period to compete at an event sponsored by Google, IBM, Dell, Intel, the Miami Beach VCA and more.

These hackers came from all over the state to compete and do so on a frequent basis as FIU’s MangoHacks was the first hackathon in the university’s history and many of the major universities in Florida have only recently begun to compete in hackathons and form incubator programs to promote tech startups founded by their students and alumni. Almost 300 hackers showed up for the event with 36 teams and web, mobile and hardware hacks submitted, judged by the University, Google, IBM, State Farm, as well as the Miami Beach VCA in conjunction with Solodev.

The talent I witnessed in these gifted college kids was impressive to say the least. I’ve been in the Central Florida tech scene for six years and went to hackathons and participated in incubator programs at my alma mater, the University of Central Florida, but never have I seen something quite like this. Six years is a lifetime in the tech world and these kids were so knowledgeable, talented, disciplined, skilled, and passionate about their respective fields and projects and then it hit me — Florida is next. First it was Silicon Valley, then Austin, Texas, then New York, and now — Florida.

When speaking with the head of the event for FIU I asked what the impetus for the growing tech scene in Miami was to which he responded, “There are a lot of issues in Florida, especially Miami, that required the intervention of technologies that were badly needed.” further citing transportation as Miami’s biggest issue and tech as its potential savior. “With less cars on the road, we can make the city a place people will want to move to (as opposed to from).” referring to Uber and Lift as the ground breakers in solving the transportation and infrastructure issues many American cities face.

Among the winners of the Hackathon were an open sourced API for facial recognition software, a city wide umbrella rental service via kiosk, and a mirror that could display data from your iOS device that answered to Siri commands using a voice recognition API. The reason for our appearance at the hackathon was the Miami Beach Visitor and Convention Authority’s award-winning Mobile App which Solodev built for the MBVCA along with an API to enable hackers to use data about events and businesses in Miami Beach to build web and mobile applications with. With all of the real time, geolocated data of every event and venue in Miami Beach (or any other city) at the tip of an engineer’s fingers, the possibilities are limitless.

One programmer had built a travel app for New York City and decided to use the Miami Beach API to build a travel app for Miami. Another hacking team wanted to integrate chat and social media with the power of the API while others wanted to narrow down the data the API exposes to build niche apps focused on nightclubs, restaurants, or categorized events. Although the judging process was difficult with half a dozen teams working tirelessly for 36 hours straight to build an app using the API, the award for “Best Use” ultimately went to a team of hackers who built a mobile app called “I’m in Miami Beach” who were able to drill down into the data of the API more than any other team or hacker, leading to them winning “Best Use of the Miami Beach API.”

What I observed at the Hackathon was that yes — these hackers were competitive and driven — but it wasn’t about the prizes Google, IBM, State Farm, and the Miami Beach VCA were handing out to winners — they wanted to build things that would move civilization forward. One team built an application to diagnose depression using algorithms sifting through your social media posts while another built a metal brace that could calculate distance and adjust in real time, allowing the wearer to climb stairs, walk, or run while still wearing a brace on their leg.

So what was the takeaway from all of this? Excitement. Florida is now on the map and Silicon Valley has clearly taken notice as Computer Science Departments, Tech Startups, Hackathons and their respective teams are sprouting up throughout the state. The excitement is for what these college students will go on to do after graduation — likely innovate and disrupt industries with software and hardware products that will move the world forward. From the perspective of Solodev, who almost exclusively hires talent straight out of college, I was excited and a bit shocked at how much talent there is right in our backyards. At Solodev, we look forward to recruiting the next generation of talented hackers from across the state as well as the startups they’ll ultimately found bringing Florida even closer to the forefront of the technological revolution.

Here at Solodev in Orlando, Florida, we’d like to thank Florida International University, the student organizers of Mango Hacks, as well as event sponsors like the Miami Beach VCA, IBM, Google, Major League Hacks (powered by Dell and Intel), State Farm and Lansight Consulting for helping foster the growth of the tech scene in Florida.

About Solodev

Solodev is a software company that aims to help enterprises, agencies, and developers build better websites through our recently launched Knowledge Center, a consistent resource for code and best practices to help you build better websites.

Learn more about the best ways to improve your website’s ability to inform, educate, and/or entertain by visiting or subscribing to The Solodev Knowledge Center.