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Local tech meetups were once a recruiting bonanza. Can they be again?

Once a bedrock of the networking and recruiting that fueled homegrown tech economies, event culture slowly returns after a pandemic disruption.

Pizza? Check. Beer? Check. #DCtech? Check. (Technical.ly photo)

Written by Technically Media CEO Chris Wink, Technical.ly’s Culture Builder newsletter features tips on growing powerful teams and dynamic workplaces. Below is the latest edition we published. Sign up to get the next one.

It’s summer 2017, and we have run out of pizza.

We at Technical.ly are hosting an event at a gleaming new coworking space near the White House. This is the second year we’ve organized in DC what we call Super Meetup. Organizers of nearly 50 tech meetups agreed to invite their members to one big party.

The night’s goal is for attendees to learn about other recurring events that focus on specific coding languages, product development approaches and entrepreneurship. Members of DC Tech Meetup, the largest meetup in the region, as well as members of ACM Washington, Code for DC, DC Blockchain Users, DCFemTech, DC JavaScript, DC PyLadies and DC Women in Agile, among dozens of others were invited.

We had more than 800 RSVPs and expected only half to actually attend — a common show rate for a free event. But halfway through the night, nearly 1,000 people had come through. We needed more pizza.

It may sound silly now, more than five years and a pandemic later. But it’s hard to overstate how unexpectedly pervasive big city tech meetups became in the 2010s. These recurring gatherings share their name with a social network that blossomed in this era, too. But meetup culture predates Meetup.com, which was sold off in March 2020 by its brief-parent company WeWork.

Name nearly any passion, and most great cities have plenty of people who share it. Social media made it easier for those passionate people to find each other, and so meetups proliferated — from crocheting and comic books to pasta-making and pickleball. With all due respect for these and countless other hobbies, meetup culture grew out of tech culture.

Why exactly are there so many tech events?

“The origins are that creative people and tinkerers want to share,” Martin Snyder told me. Snyder is VP of Engineering for Pinnacle21, a 60-person, suburban Philadelphia company that provides software for life sciences firms in clinical trials. Snyder, like so many experienced technologists, is also a lifelong meetup organizer — including ones in Java and Scala. “They want to see what other people are doing to get new ideas, right, and get a little bit of inspiration.”

For a decade beginning in 1975, the Homebrew Computer Club was a regular gathering of early computer enthusiasts in northern California that famously inspired Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Other computer clubs popped up around the country. If early internet message boards presaged the power and terror of social media today, then these computer clubs shaped today’s tech meetup culture.

That culture: host regularly, exchange ideas, keep it informal and focus on quality relationships over size. Snyder’s Java meetup drew 75 to 100 attendees at its pre-pandemic peak, but most tech meetups are far smaller. They’re held in spare conference rooms, university labs or coworking spaces. They usually have pizza and/or beer. One organizer joked with me: “Tech meetups only get big when the business people get a hold of them.”

What impact do tech meetups really have?

Informal as many are, tech meetups serve at least three very real economic roles. For one, they accelerate the exchange of ideas, across companies and industries.

“There’s too much to learn on your own,” Snyder said of ever-changing technical best practices. “You need other people to kind of share the highlights.”

In the last 10-15 years, the second big economic role tech meetups played was recruiting hard-to-find experienced tech workers. Many companies misunderstood this opportunity, though, Synder said.

“Most people at your average tech meetup, well, they’re not recruitable,” Snyder said, referring to those who are happily employed where they are. “But they’re influential. They tell their friends where to work and who is building interesting technology.”

Heaven help the external recruiter who parachutes into a Django meetup to source candidates for a role. It’s the in-person version of a LinkedIn spam message, another organizer once told me. In contrast, savvier companies invest over time, by hosting or sponsoring events and encouraging their own employees to attend and engage.

As Snyder put it: “Influence is not a transactional thing.”

Put together the peer learning and relationship building, and you find that third way tech meetups have had impact: contributing to a vibrant “tech ecosystem,” in which many pieces help tech skills and companies grow. Cities are made more dynamic when a dozen developers pour out of a company office on any given Tuesday night.

What is the future of local tech meetups?

That’s why meetups are frequently an early building block of a city establishing a “tech community,” another favored phrase of local tech industry boosters. For example, Philadelphia’s first and longest-running meetup was PANMA, which started in 1996. It was a gathering point for many of that city’s first serious tech professionals who sought to stay there over a pilgrimage to Silicon Valley. It’s telling then that after almost 25 years, the group’s latest organizers retired the group during the pandemic, according to early member Reed Gustow.

A year of social distancing during the pandemic – and on-going hesitance to join big crowds and attend indoor events – shook decades of meetup culture. Organizers adjusted, but it wasn’t quite the same. By early 2021, Technical.ly asked: Where do technologists find community these days?

“Local meetups are coming back, and whether they’re hiring remotely or hiring for an office, companies should pay attention to them,” Snyder said. For organizers, “You have to be able to answer the question of why coming out to do this in person is better than just watching the video?”

Virtual events and meetings will stay with us after the pandemic, Synder said, and I think that’s a good thing. But we’re still a long way from replacing the joy and community that can come from an in-person meetup.

Fitting, then, that as my colleague Michaela Althouse reported last week, a wave of DC tech meetups are returning to in-person gatherings. On the Technical.ly Slack, I noticed Baltimore’s Javascript meetup CharmCityJS returned this month. But organizer Glen R. Goodwin said the energy is different, and the venue they once used has changed hands.

“Ultimately, yes, we want to return to in-person,” Goodwin said. “But it’s harder than just saying that we are going to do it.”

These returns are happening around the country. Many of them are modest: a dozen or two passionate people sharing their work and being inspired by others. But this is what hiring for senior technologists looks like, and that’s good for cities.

This restart of meetup culture reminds Snyder of his first ever tech meetup in the 1980s. His mother brought him to a Commodore64 event. As many as 100 enthusiasts traded insights and their love for technology. I wonder if they had enough pizza.

“It was important enough to me then,” Snyder said, “that I remember it today.”

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