Meet startGNV Board Member Jon Church of Microsoft

From the service industry to Microsoft, this local software developer has a unique Gainesville story to tell.

Meet startGNV Board Member Jon Church of Microsoft

This talented self-taught software developer shares the secrets to his success from his early years in the service industry to how he broke into the tech scene with the help of his community network, and what he loves about living in Gainesville.

Tell us about yourself and how you eventually came to the startup and tech community.

I’m a self-taught Software Developer without a college degree. I first followed some friends up to Gainesville in 2012, and quickly found myself living here. My background is in the service industry, cooking, scrubbing, and sweating on my feet 8 hours a day. In 2016 I was able to change careers, thanks in part to the STEM Ready grant from the state of Florida that paid for me to attend Gainesville Dev Academy and provided a paid internship at Paracosm. I also owe a debt to Aleks, Aidan, and the rest of the kind folks at Feathr for taking a chance on hiring a fresh-faced contractor. Feathr was the first company to pay me for work as a software developer, which helped me launch a career as a freelancer.

But my Gainesville startup story starts in (I think it was) 2014, when another company took a chance on me. Grooveshark hired me as one of their private chefs, after Josh Greenberg took a liking to the vegan/vegetarian dishes of mine he was introduced to through a mutual friend. I didn't last long in the role, to be honest. Startup private chef is a rough gig that you can ask me about when you catch me out downtown (which you will). Being a part of Grooveshark opened my eyes to startups and gave me a positive reputation with folks in our tech scene. Turns out, people like it when you cook them free food on a regular basis!

Between Feathr, Gainesville Dev Academy, Paracosm, affordable Gainesville rent, and many helpful people in our local tech scene, I was able to find enough opportunities and courage to exit the service industry for good in 2016.

Jon at The Knot rock gym in Gainesville

Where do you work and what do you love about the company?

I started working for Microsoft as a Software Engineer in January of 2022, and now hope that my connections in the industry can be useful to others here in Gainesville. My path likely could have been shorter if I’d taken a traditional route, but without all the twists and turns I don’t think I’d be able to appreciate my current position.

I intentionally sought out a large company after feeling like I had hit a plateau in my career. I really enjoy working directly with clients on small projects, but I just wasn’t growing in the ways I wanted anymore. I love that there are endless opportunities at Microsoft and I’m surrounded by talented people. That’s some typical corporate speak, but it really is true. Microsoft has very well-defined progression paths and you can take as much responsibility and opportunities to advance as you can stomach. There’s never ending interesting work with interesting people. But at the end of the day, the work life balance is world class and I’ve never felt external pressure to work late or participate in “crunch time."

How did you find out about startGNV and how long you’ve been on the board?

Aidan Augustin, the President of Feathr, reached out to me about running for a seat on the board. I joined the board at the beginning of 2022. Things picked up quickly though, as I began to help organize BarCamp 2022 which was put on by StartGNV. Thanks again Aidan for another leg up!

What do you love about the Gainesville innovation ecosystem?

I really appreciate that we have a wide variety of companies and founders here. Sure, they do tend to cluster around the Bio/Medical and Ad Tech industries, but the University of Florida really does help bring in people from all kinds of backgrounds. I love seeing the “dorm room startup” type of companies, and meeting founders who are at the very beginning of their journeys. I think Gainesville is a safe place for folks to experiment and try different things, in large part because living here isn’t as expensive as a Boston or Silicon Valley, but also because the University brings together people from different industries and backgrounds. You really never know who you’ll meet here, or what industries founders will chase.

At Crybaby's bar, downtown Gainesville

What are the best things about living and working in Gainesville?

For me, it’s the people. I find people in Gainesville to be approachable and down to earth. The magic of living in Gainesville is that you can still have a fulfilling career here, but you aren’t surrounded by people who all have the exact same story as you.

When I work from a coffee shop in Gainesville, I hear conversations from medical professionals, scientists, lawyers, service industry folks, landscapers, gym owners, real estate agents, PhD students, the guy who collects the city’s compost (hi Beaten Path Compost!). I’ve learned so much about other industries by chatting up folks around town talking about things I have never heard of.

Contrast that with being in San Francisco, almost everyone at the coffee shop is giving a status update in their standup about whatever React and Typescript issue they’re having this week. It’s boring. The day I get bored of meeting people in Gainesville will be the day I leave.

In Chiang Mai Thailand with the best sweets vendor ever

What do you hope to see in the ecosystem for the future?

My pet issue is getting service industry workers into the tech scene. It’s not for everyone, and not everyone needs to become technical or pursue software development. However, any company would benefit from hiring folks who are self-starters, problem-solvers, customer-obsessed, and who know how to work well with others. I believe the service industry is perfect for acquiring these skills, in fact you need to acquire some of them on the job if you want to survive in the service industry.

For those who want more, who want a decent salary with benefits, who want to be treated with respect, who want a career that scales with their ambition, I believe there is a place in the tech industry for them. Starting locally is a great way to get your foot in the door, and I’m still trying to figure out how to best help people do that. Joining the board of startGNV was one step towards helping realize my goals of getting service industry people into tech companies. I am more connected to our tech scene as a result and get to learn about what our local companies need from a staffing point of view.

Any suggestions for someone who’d like to get involved in the innovation scene here?

Show up to things and talk to people. Our tech scene is still pretty small, all things considered. The upside of that is we are all very interconnected. If you show up in person to networking events or meetups and tell people you’re trying to find a way into the industry, you’ll be surprised by how many folks will have someone for you to contact or meet with.

Gainesville suffers from brain drain, with so many of our talented students leaving every year. Our local companies really are looking for quality people. If you’re a quality person, find someone to get in front of and hopefully convince them to take a chance on you, like someone did for me.

Others can only help you so much, though. If you want to get into tech here you do need to show up and find ways to learn and grow. But if you’re reading this, you’re likely that person already. So keep trying to meet folks, don’t get discouraged, and with some luck the right opportunity will pop up.