With its open-plan office, filled with young professionals dressed in jeans and t-shirts pouring over computers and tablets, the new offices of Gameloft, a French game developer and publisher with a presence in more than 20 countries, has all the markings of a typical Silicon Valley tech space. Except that it happens to be some 3600 kilometres away from the north Californian tech hub, in New Orleans, a city known as the birthplace of jazz rather than a hotbed of blue-chip companies.
Gameloft is not the first software or IT company that has opted for a space that is closer to Bourbon Street than the Golden Gate Bridge in recent years. One of the first big tech names to make the move to Louisiana was Electronic Arts, a California-headquartered gaming company, which opened a test centre in Baton Rouge, the state's capital, in 2008. Now, the company, which is responsible for blockbuster games such as FIFA Football and The Sims, employs more than 500 people in Louisiana.
More recently, GE Capital, a financial services unit within US conglomerate General Electric, announced that it will create 300 jobs in its new IT centre located in New Orleans, US tech multinational IBM built a technology centre in Baton Rouge, which will create 800 jobs in the next four years and, in July 2014, Enquero, a software start-up from California, announced plans to establish an operation in Lafayette, a city in eastern Louisiana, where it plans to employ 350 people.
“It is clear that Louisiana is [establishing] tech momentum,” says Michael Hecht, president and CEO of Greater New Orleans Inc, the economic development agency for south-east Louisiana.
This represents a dramatic transformation from 2003, when a group of delegates from Baton Rouge visited Austin, Texas, an emerging star among tech clusters, to find out why the Texan capital's economy was thriving while its Louisianan counterpart was flailing.
In 1970, the two state capitals, just 700 kilometres apart, were of a similar size and economic productivity. But, in the 30 years following, Austin's economy grew and developed, while Baton Rouge, and indeed the rest of Louisiana, ground to an economic standstill.
“Our delegates were embarrassed by what they found [in Austin] and it really led to a big turn around,” says Steven Moret, secretary of Louisiana Economic Development (LED), an investment promotion entity for the state.
Mr Moret, who at the time was a management consultant with global consultancy McKinsey, was appointed as president and chief executive officer of regional economic development organisation Baton Rouge Area Chamber following the visit to Austin. He was charged with spearheading the region's efforts to boost its sluggish economic growth.
“It was clear that Austin had really taken charge of its future and, at least in part, it did so by focusing on technology,” he says.
But, before the transformation could fully take hold, Louisiana had to deal with the devastating consequences of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The toll of the hurricane, although tragic, eventually helped the state to turn over the new leaf, according to Mr Hecht of Greater New Orleans Inc. “Katrina was an inflection point in the state's reinvention. Effectively, it was like a heart attack to a morbidly obese person. It did not kill him, but forced change of his lifestyle," he says.
A big part of this transformation was a change in the state's leadership. Bobby Jindall, Louisiana's current governor, took office in 2008, and developed an aggressive strategy to pursue tech-related investments. “Historically, we had a very strong oil and gas economy but, back in 2008, we said that our number one priority was to make sure that IT entrepreneurs as well as established companies [from the software and IT sector] want to do business here,” says Mr Jindall.
The governor was not the first and will not be the last public official to try to turn his constituency into a tech cluster, so what helped Louisiana succeed where so many other locations have failed? Mr Jindall has little doubt that Louisiana's success was down to its incentives, more specifically a 35% tax credit on payroll for Louisiana-based labour and 25% of tax-credit-qualified expenses made in state for companies focusing on digital media and software development.
A further boost to the state's tech hub bid came in the form of FastStart, a workforce training and recruitment programme established shortly after Mr Jindall was elected to his post. FastStart was indicative of just how aggressive the state intended to be in attracting tech investments; Louisiana partially copied the name and structure, and even poached employees, from QuickStart, a workforce training programme which has been running in the state of Georgia since the 1960s.
Regional rivalry aside, FastStart is engaged in a range HR-related programmes, including alumni outreach and campus recruitment. It also provides customised training, says Jeff Lynn, the executive director of workforce development programmes with FastStart. No small matter, not only given the ever-growing demand for talent in IT-related fields, but also because the workforce in Louisiana, similar to in other states in the south of the US, is not necessarily renowned for its tech capabilities.
FastStart's efforts are already bearing fruit. Its assistance helped to seal the deal with Gameloft when the company was scouting locations for its new development studio, according to Mr Lynn. “One of Gameloft's biggest concerns was whether it would be able to find and attract the right kind of talent if it came to New Orleans. So we implemented recruiting tools that corresponded with their target [applicants]," he says.
Gameloft was targeting 'techie millennials', so FastStart created a website containing videos about the company, which also advertises the perks of living in New Orleans, and it was promoted through social media. The strategy worked. FastStart received 1700 applications for 150 vacancies, appeasing Gameloft's concerns about finding skilled employees when settling in the city.
Mathias Royer, Gameloft's New Orleans studio manager, says that while New Orleans, and Louisiana in general, is still some way from establishing itself as a tech cluster, incentives such as FastStart's HR assistance and tax credits help boost its appeal, and go some way to make up for the fact that the local tech scene still lacks some of the buzz of Austin or Silicon Valley.
He adds that there is also one more major benefit which makes Louisiana an attractive location for creative types and their employers. “Louisiana's unique cultural heritage brings a different flavour to our project. There is no end to cool bars around here, and we can literally see the Mardi Gras parade from the windows in our office. What is there not to like?”