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Cheers to retirement, Robert! 🥂 After eight incredible years, our Executive Director and co-founder, Robert Montague, is stepping down.

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“As you prepare to transition out of your role as executive director, what would be the one piece of advice you’d tell your 2015 self to cherish most about your time leading Tech901?”

Robert Montague, Tech901’s ED & co-founder (along with CFO/COO Steve Denegri), paused before answering, looking beyond the walls of Crosstown Concourse. Eight years is a lifetime for many non-profits. His eyes welled with memories. He smiled.

“You know, we tend to focus on the program, delivery, timelines, resources, and everything you do to run the organization,” Montague said. “I’d go back and tell myself that the richest element of this job is the relationships with the team, but even more so, the graduates.”

Under Robert’s leadership, Tech901 has graduated over 1400 students and filled jobs at 200+ organizations with an average annual starting pay of $44,000. Tech901 alums also reflect the people of Memphis as a whole.

CompTIA’s 2022 State of the Tech Workforce report shows that out of the top 51 tech markets in the US, Memphis has the highest percentage of African-Americans in the tech industry in the country. Equally, Memphis has the country’s highest rate of women in tech. Both are reflected in Tech901’s annual demographics. 2022’s student body was 70% persons of color and 38% women (76% people of color and 30% women so far in 2023).

But Robert’s impact can hardly be captured by metrics. Measure it instead by talking to people— people who know the first person they were likely to see when walking through Tech901’s open doors was Robert, working at their community table rather than a private desk.

Community Table“When I sit at our (community) table, I get to build bridges with people from different backgrounds and see them blossom and hear their excitement and appreciation for the path forward,” Montague said. “Then, I get to watch them succeed in their careers. It is the richest thing I could ask for and has made every effort (leading Tech901) worthwhile.”

Service and community comprise the bedrock of Tech901, something incoming Executive Director, Aaron Lamey, is thrilled to continue.

When talking with me about the transition, Aaron wore a tie-clip with a portrait of St. John Baptiste de la Salle, the 16th founder of Brothers of the Christian Schools (now Christian Brothers). He wears it often, a reminder of his “why.”

“St. John’s primary motivation was to bring quality education to those his society had designated not worthy of such a privilege: the poor,” Lamey said. “Having spent over 15 years as a student of or employee of LaSallian institutions, these core values have become inseparable from my own.”

Lamey continued, “Tech901 is, at its core, a LaSallian mission— with its commitment to affordable costs and building relationships. Those pillars, above all, are why I am so passionate about it.”

A servant’s mindset has fueled every internal and external decision for Tech901 since the idea took root during Robert’s tenure at Binghamton Development Corp., which he also co-founded.

Seeing a need for Wi-Fi access in the neighborhood, Robert partnered with Grizzlies majority owner Robert Pera, and future Tech901 instructor, Blair Perry to develop an after-school tech club at Memphis Collegiate. Through that program, students and BDC staff conducted multiple Wi-Fi around the Binghampton neighborhood, providing free internet access to the community while empowering students with professional skills that could grow into careers. 

“The students loved it,” Montague said. “So, Blair and I began exploring ways to expand it.”

Their research found that many major corporations were moving IT jobs out of Memphis due to a need for a trained workforce— a dwindling force due to a systemic mix of economic, educational, and racial issues coupled with rising post-high school education costs.

Soil from one neighborhood could not fill Memphis’ tech talent sinkhole. The solution had to tap into and serve the whole city.

“We realized we had to look at this issue from a Memphis community perspective, not just a neighborhood perspective,” Montague said. “Tech901 launched out of that realization.”

Robert Montague and Aaron LameyMontague continued, “We connected with people like Steve Bargiacchi at Pro-Tech and Rob Carter at FedEx. Through these connections, we quickly realized that Memphis is unique. Because of how many corporate headquarters are here, the amount of help-desk, hardware, IT security, and medical tech jobs available is staggering.”

Tech901 started small, beginning with their IT Foundations course. While initially exclusively focused on recent high school graduates, local corporations had yet to trust the organization’s training. 

After expanding the applicant pool to adults of all ages, Tech901 built its reputation organically.

“We had to shift the perspective of those hiring that our trainees are not charity hires,” Montague said. “While their path may be non-traditional, completing our program takes hard work, and they had to attain the same A+ certification as everyone else. We didn’t have to worry about that for long, though.”

As Tech901 grads started securing jobs, word of their high-quality performance spread quickly.

“Soon, you saw employers ready to hire from our next graduating class, often coming to us with a job description in hand,” Montague said.

As more alums excelled in their roles, enrollments were on the rise. In 2017, Tech901 moved into the newly opened Crosstown Concourse and expanded its class offerings. But to meet demand, they had to call for more instructors.

On a late-night scroll, Aaron Lamey — then Director of Networking at Christian Brothers University — felt compelled to apply, drawn to Tech901’s mission of filling in the gaps in Memphis’ IT community.

“When I joined, Tech901 had recently jumped from 100 students a year on average to 300,” Lamey said. “There was a period where I had the same group of students through each of my classes over 9 months, which was incredible.”

Lamey continued, “I got to see their growth and play a key role in equipping them for their career pursuits, which made my work beyond fulfilling.”

By the end of 2019, Aaron felt called to do more. He started his own company, MemFi Networks while working as an adjunct instructor for Tech901. But rather than hire outside of Memphis, he drew talent exclusively from Tech901 alums.

“I wanted to bridge the gap many of my students at Tech901 faced: the lack of entry-level positions that did not require experience,” Lamey said. “A+ certification tests are hard, and those who commit to mastering them want to change their career. Tech901 was and is full of people primed to burst into this field.”8-7-2023- Tech901-3

When the world stopped in March 2020, MemFi and Tech901 instantly became critical resources corporations leaned on to keep Memphis’ IT industry afloat.

With life migrating to a digital realm en masse, Tech901 and MemFi were ready to meet the talent wave head-on.

“How we handled the pandemic is one of the three or four things I’m proudest of in my time here, and I had little to do with it,” Montague said. “Fortunately, we originally built Tech901 with cloud-based processes, and over a single weekend, we went from an entirely in-person organization to a completely online program.”

Montague continued, “We were able to do socially distanced, one-on-one sessions at our office for students who didn’t have equipment at home. It was remarkable how seamless it was, and it all speaks to the quality of our team.”

Simultaneously, Aaron and his team of Tech901 grads at MemFi Networks were building reliable online networks for Memphis schools — something that our schools had never had.

 “Kids of all ages needed laptops, meaning school networks needed massive improvements,” Lamey said. “Content filtering, asset tracking, signing away liability, etc., suddenly became issues. Instead of issues being housed in one location, you had thousands.”

MemFi created an online ticket system for schools (and businesses) they partnered with. Remotely resolving issues became an invaluable tool for MemFi clients and the Memphis school system at large.

The pandemic eventually waned, and people returned to a newer normal. And as things resettled, Robert took stock of his priorities.

“I believe our work to be more important than any individual here, especially me,” Montague said. “When we founded Tech901, I had a timeline in mind for when I would begin the next phase of my life. I’ve been talking with Steve and the rest of the board for two years about (retiring), and I believe now, with a period of crisis past us, it’s time.”

Montague continued, “I've been working full-time in a corporate and now nonprofit career since the 1980s. It's time to use that experience to support younger leaders. And my father was incredibly involved in my kids’ lives. So, I want to be that involved in my grandkids' lives.”

In his place, Robert, Steve Denegri, and the rest of Tech901’s board felt Aaron was the right choice to become the next Executive Director, given his experience leading a start-up of his own and ever-growing heart for service.

“It was a no-brainer,” Montague said. “Since we got to know each other in 2017, I feel Aaron has the deepest technology knowledge of our team. Building his own company with our graduates and empowering them to keep elevating makes him uniquely equipped to lead Tech901’s next decade-plus.”

The tech industry remains on an exponential growth trajectory. With new niches expanding into micro-industries at an absurd pace (VR and AI, for example), the sector aches for talent.

According to a 2022 Pearson study, over 4.3 million jobs nationwide could be left unfilled by 2030 due to aggressive tech growth and a lack of quality training at a national level. Aaron sees Tech901’s value to Memphis and the country to rise in turn with the industry.

“We recognize that there are a few key skills that every IT role needs, which is why we incorporate soft-skills training into our courses,” Lamey said. “I learned first-hand what is most valuable to hiring companies in my time at MemFi. This perspective will help me keep our curriculum focused on the most essential elements.”

But keeping pace with an industry that hums at such breakneck speeds strains even the best organizations. Why can we expect Tech901 to remain a city leader in IT training?

Aaron believes it boils down to infrastructure.

8-7-2023- Tech901-9“The word infrastructure is near and dear to my heart,” Lamey said. “Most businesses are hybrid, meaning in-person and cloud-based roles are in demand. At Tech901, our organization can run entirely in the cloud, as seen during the pandemic, or in person. Our students reap the benefits of our experience and graduate prepared for both ends of the IT spectrum.”

The moment couldn’t be more opportune for those interested in IT, with Ford’s BlueOval City — the largest and most advanced production complex in the company’s history — set to bring over 6000 new jobs to Memphis and West Tennessee by the time production starts in 2025, according to the company’s official press release

Robert believes the tech talent pool that Tech901 continues to fill is a reason Ford trusts Memphians to populate such a vast and vital facility.

“The demand for Memphis IT professionals is not going to let up,” Montague said. “Especially with the opening of Ford's BlueOval City. Whether they hire directly from Memphis’ talent pool or they outsource, and we have to backfill them, our graduates will not have to worry about being in demand.”

Aaron seconds this, adding that a company like Ford investing in Memphis is what Tech901 has been preparing for and envisioning for the past eight years.

“Whether it be software development, infrastructure planning, data analytics, or business operations, all of those areas are covered in our courses and will continue to build up this workforce,” Lamey said. “Our graduates, as well as the blossoming tech community outside us, will be relied upon by the multiple organizations built around the BlueOval City plan.”

Lamey continued, “We are super excited because what’s happening now is exactly why we're here. We serve and equip our community so that when organizations make decisions about our city, they know there is a workforce there for them to tap into, which pours resources back into our community. This community needs and deserves this level of investment and trust.”

While Robert stepping down is a bittersweet moment, his legacy, the future of Tech901, its staff, students, and graduates are in good hands. 

“If I didn’t think Tech901 was how I could best serve Memphis with my skills, I wouldn’t have wanted the job,” Lamey said. “It’s a dynamic field, and we’re (Tech901) growing and learning daily from our students as much as they’re learning from us. So if you’re ready to jump into an IT job right now, we’ll help you get there.”

 

To learn more about the remaining 2023 classes, click here.

Tech901’s 2024 class offerings will be announced in October.

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