It was 1984, and the Air Force was holding a conference in Montgomery to check out the latest advancements in commercial technology. Personal computers and networking devices were in their infancy, but the military was eager to find better ways to use them to help the nation.
About 600 people showed up, along with a few PC vendors. Air University said that first event was timed to make use of end-of-fiscal-year funds, and people brought along their unit credit cards to buy the latest tech on the spot.
Ken Heitkamp was a big part of that 1984 conference as technical director for the Standard Systems Group at Maxwell Air Force Base’s Gunter Annex.
Thirty five years later, Heitkamp could tell you some stories about it. But if you’re asking this week you may have to wait. Heitkamp now serves as an adviser for the Air Force Information Technology & Cyberpower conference, and he’s got a packed schedule.
More than 4,000 people are flooding into Montgomery to share the latest in artificial intelligence, commercial cloud platforms and more. Military personnel will hear from top executives at Google, RedHat and Symantec, and attend 150 breakout learning sessions over four days. Those lessons will be used to defend the nation in the air, online and in space.
“Today’s challenges and solutions are dramatically different,” Heitkamp said.
The host city is also dramatically different, and the goals of the Air Force continue to drive many of those changes.
The long-dormant downtown has seen a surge of growth and now is transforming into a “living lab” of free wi-fi, smart parking, street camera and more. Fiber now runs under the historic downtown streets, connecting the region’s busiest Internet exchange to Air Force innovation hub MGMWerx.
Like Heitkamp, MGMWerx has a full calendar this week, from putting on a coding sprint to staging breakout sessions at the conference. Serving Air University, the downtown Werx center has the same goals as AFITC — to find better tech solutions for the military — but its mission doesn’t end when the conference does.
For them, this is just a moment in time, one they can use to gain resources and traction for the year-round process.
“We’re going to be closely connected to what’s going on,” MGMWerx spokeswoman Joyce Vaughn said. “We’re taking advantage of all the people, and industry and tech leaders.”
Meanwhile, Montgomery continues to grow around them. Several new hotels have been built in the blocks around MGMWerx, as the industry tries to feed a growing need. The city’s lodging tax collections were up 11 percent through July, and that’s after they jumped nearly 18 percent last year.
“Many of the people attending have been to Montgomery, primarily Maxwell Air Force Base, in the past,” Heitkamp said. “Their comment every year is, ‘This city is really growing and changing for the better.’”
The conference is also helping it grow in more important ways.
Events like Innovate AFITC bring in local students to learn from IT professionals and military experts, while teaming alongside them. Local contractors and small business owners get jobs or other opportunities through connections made at the conference.
That’s helped keep the city’s focus on its tech scene and fed an urgency to expand the IT workforce here. Groups like TechMGM, which organizes Innovate AFITC, were started to make that happen.
Vaughn, a longtime Montgomery resident, joined MGMWerx two months ago and said she was immediately surprised by the scope of the tech scene here.
“I didn’t realize we had local resources,” she said. “There are startups here in Montgomery that can (help).”