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Justin Bigart used to hide from customers the fact that his high-tech company, Wisetail, was located in Montana. Today, Montana is a selling point.

“It was a bit of a liability” in his company’s first three or four years, Bigart said. “We would be thought of as ‘less than’ our peers in San Francisco — less smart, less capable, less fast.

“Now Bozeman is a critical part of our brand. We hold our annual user conference in Bozeman. Now it’s a competitive advantage.”

Though Wisetail competes with billion-dollar companies, it has grown since 2009 from zero to 27 employees and 100 clients. Bigart predicts by end of this year it will have 40 employees, earning higher-than-Montana-average wages.

Bigart’s company creates online training programs to help firms like the Cheesecake Factory, Jamba Juice and SoulCycle teach new line cooks, waiters and fitness trainers job skills and their company’s culture.

So how did being in Montana go from liability to advantage?

“Our secret sauce is the people and the feeling,” Bigart said. “We feel different, we look different — more like a craftsman approach than an engineer’s.” Instead of using a call center full of unhappy, underpaid workers to serve his business clients, Bigart decided that “the most important job here is customer service.” So Wisetail puts clients in touch with its Bozeman staff, he said, “someone who cares — maybe somebody they’d give a hug.”

Wisetail is just one example of Montana’s small but fast-growing high-tech industry. The company manifesto, posted on one wall, says: “As we win Montana wins.”

A new report by the University of Montana’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research backs that up. The study, prepared for the Montana High Tech Business Alliance, looked at the state’s high-tech industry to gauge its growth and its challenges.

It reported that:

n The alliance’s member firms doubled from 2014, its first year, to 2015, from 101 to 202 companies, with most concentrated around the university towns of Bozeman and Missoula, plus a smattering around the state.

n Leaders of those firms expect to create 940 new jobs in 2016, a 19 percent growth rate, that would be much stronger than the state’s overall economy.

n Jobs in Montana’s high-tech alliance companies pay an average of $56,800 — more than twice the median $39,372 for all Montana workers.

n Alliance members created $867 million in gross sales last year.

n Quality of life — recreation, beautiful landscapes and work-life balance — is still Montana’s big advantage.

When it comes to challenges, alliance members most often reported that their biggest impediment to growth is “attracting talent and hiring skilled technology workers.”

Once hiring skilled people was a problem for Wisetail, but not any more, Bigart said.

In Wisetail’s industrial-chic office — full of glass walls, rough wood, exposed ductwork, computers and lounging dogs, located near the Bozeman Public Library — Bigart pointed to two employees working together at a computer screen.

Both Josh Hill, a senior software developer, and Juniper Emnett, a junior developer, learned computer coding at code schools — short-term, intensive, bootcamp-style outfits that train people in months instead of years.

There’s nothing wrong with the computer science programs at Montana State University or the University of Montana, Bigart said, “but they don’t graduate a lot of people, the curriculum is not as modern as it could be. Code school has bridged the gap.”

Hill, 29, said he was in his second year at MSU’s computer science program when he enrolled at the App Academy in New York City.

The nine-week, 10-hour-a-day immersion in coding was “teaching stuff I was actually going to use,” Hill said. “The university seemed more theoretical.” Tuition cost $3,000 down plus 12 percent of his gross salary once he landed a job.

“I’d recommend it,” said Hill, who has worked for Wisetail two years. “I’m very happy. It’s fantastic.”

Emnett, 26, graduated from MSU with a double major in English literature and economics and was working for a backpack manufacturer, feeling dissatisfied, when she tried to learn coding on free online sites.

“I realized I could do it,” she said. A friend told her about the new Montana Code School starting in Missoula and she signed up for the 12-week course. Tuition was $6,000 (today it’s $8,000), but “it paid off,” she said.

“I’m real excited” about the future, Emnett said. “This has opened up a lot of opportunities. … It’s not a magic bullet, if you’re not willing to put in hard work…, but it is an amazing opportunity.”

Now the Montana Code School is expanding, offering its first 12-week class in Bozeman, starting in May. Kelly Nash, executive director, said Montana Code School is a nonprofit, housed under UM’s business incubator, MonTEC.

Though tuition of $8,000 costs more than a year’s in-state tuition at MSU, Nash said it’s half what code schools charge in places like California and Seattle.

Three months after leaving, she said, 90 percent of Montana Code School students have landed jobs. She said it trains people in “full stack” web development, which means everything from the “pretty stuff” computer users see to the back-end databases.

“We can take you from zero to 60 in 12 weeks,” Nash said. Students don’t have to have math skills, she said, but they do need lots of logic.

John Paxton, head of MSU’s computer science department, said his department is perhaps the fastest growing on campus, having jumped nearly 40 percent from 310 to 430 majors between fall semester 2014 and fall 2015.

More and more MSU grads are finding good careers in Montana, Paxton said. Twenty-five years ago, they had to leave the state.

Today, “we could graduate double the number and not fill all the good positions here now,” Paxton said.

“It’s amazing to see what’s going on with the high-tech industry in Montana,” Paxton said. “It’s accelerating.”

And not just happening in Bozeman, but Billings, Helena, Kalispell and Missoula, Paxton said. “It’s really exciting to see. It’s great for the state, good for the tax base and it’s clean industry.”

Paxton welcomed the Montana Code School as giving students another way to enter high-paying, in-demand careers, and as something that will benefit the entire industry.

The difference between a code school and four-year computer science degree, Paxton said, is that code schools are very focused on one part of the software industry.

“If you want broader understanding of the field, a four-year degree builds a foundation of knowledge, skills and abilities to go in depth, and critical-thinking skills,” he said, that will help “design the technologies of tomorrow.”

Bigart said his goals for the future of Wisetail are to remain an “indie-tech,” self-funded company, not beholden to outside investors, that’s sustainable for the long run and will eventually pay national wages.

“I’m very bullish about the tech industry in Bozeman and Missoula,” Bigart said. “It’s not ‘in the future.’ It’s happening now. The conditions we need are already here.”

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Gail Schontzler can be reached at 406-582-2633 or gails@dailychronicle.com.

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