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Infosys' Auker aims to put Hartford on tech-talent map

HBJ Photo | Sean Teehan Jeff Auker has a doctorate in philosophy, but he's been able to leverage his liberal-arts background into a technology-focused career. He's looking for local college grads who can do the same as he tries to hire hundreds more people for tech giant Infosys' Hartford hub.

Jeff Auker's hometown is Akron, Ohio, a city he readily acknowledges Lebron James put on the map.

“Literally!” Auker said. “I've got a pair of Lebron shoes that have a map of Akron on them.”

But having lived in Connecticut for the past 16 years, and last year taking a job leading tech giant Infosys' emerging technology and innovation hub in Hartford, he thinks his company will be a major player in elevating Hartford to a position of prominence for tech talent.

Having already hired more than 300 of the 1,000 employees Infosys committed to adding in Hartford by 2023, the company is ahead of the game, Auker said. Gov. Ned Lamont's recent proclamation that the company will double its commitment to Connecticut might have jumped the gun. Auker said no such agreement has been made.

Even still, Auker sees a strong likelihood for continued growth of the company's presence here.

For pessimists — or self-described realists — the idea of Hartford seeing the kind of tech-driven renaissance envisioned by Infosys and its biggest cheerleaders strains credulity. Then again, Auker points out that he, a philosophy Ph.D. who went on to success in the tech world, is an unlikely story, too.

Even that degree was a departure from his initial plan when he earned his bachelor's degree from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1991.

“I was on my way to law school at UCLA, I woke up one day, I'd been teaching, I'd been counseling, I'd been taking a lot of philosophy classes … and I just fell in love with teaching,” Auker said. “My father wasn't too happy about it, but I said law school's not the path, I'm going to apply to grad schools in philosophy.”

He got into Brown University in Providence, where he eventually earned his Ph.D. in 2000. While in graduate school during the mid-1990s, he worked jobs tending bar and eventually opening restaurants, taking the novel approach of using the internet to promote them.

Logical choice

Auker said the job market in academia was far from ideal when he earned his doctorate, so finding a teaching job was a long shot. That's when a friend of his in San Francisco flagged a job posting at SelectQuote, a life insurance company looking to use the internet to galvanize its sales operation that mostly depended on cold-calls.

Quickly, he found a way to use his degree.

“I did a lot of formal logic (in philosophy), and the computational thinking that's embedded in that is very similar to html … ” and other computer-coding language, Auker said. “I could follow the language of the developers and the data folks from that computational logic side. I found myself a niche sitting right between marketing sales and the IT folks.”

Realizing San Francisco was a prohibitively expensive place to raise a family, Auker moved to Hartford with his wife for a position at The Hartford, which in the early- to mid-2000s was experiencing increasing pressure to compete with auto insurance companies GEICO and Progressive and their digital-first growth.

After a collective 16 years at The Hartford and PwC, Auker last year took the job of leading Infosys' innovation hub in Hartford, where much of his focus is on job creation, he said. That effort will lean heavily on Connecticut's higher-education scene as he plans to fill half of the Infosys hub jobs with recent graduates in a state Auker sees as having an oversupply of grads and an undersupply of IT jobs.

Auker said the breadth and depth of higher education in Connecticut is one of the primary reasons Infosys came to Hartford.

“We like the idea of digital natives,” he said. “We really want to train them in ways that are up-to-the-second of the needs of our clients.”

So far, that has manifested itself in a partnership with Trinity College, launched in February as the “Business Analysis for Digital Transformation.” The partnership predates Auker's employment with Infosys, but tracks with his label-jumping career: It trains liberal-arts students in basic business analysis.

In time, Infosys also plans to expand internship offerings and look into partnerships with K-12 school districts, Auker said, noting the earlier students connect with the company and see Hartford as a prime place to live and find a job in the tech field, the better from his perspective.

For now, Auker says, Infosys is in a good spot in Hartford. It has more than 35 local clients — including, he said, most of the Fortune 500 companies in the state — and is recruiting people from out of state. In fact, 60 percent of its current Hartford employees weren't Connecticut residents.

With more new housing becoming available in Hartford this year, Auker thinks he'll be able to fill the 1,000 jobs Infosys promised, and beyond.

“Our clients love the proximity, they love that we're hiring locally, they love that we're supporting the whole ecosystem by creating and partnering with colleges to create new talent here,” Auker said. “We're going to grow rapidly.”

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