(Photo by Flickr user Ted Eytan, used under a Creative Commons license)
The boundaries of what is technology are always being tested. That’s how what is new becomes what is old. The very same logic is stretching how self-forming tech communities see themselves across the country.
For Matt Bailey, the civil servant by day and celebrated civic hacker by night, that looks like exploring how his merry band of Code for DC technologists might collaborate with the experimental Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. For Shana Glenzer, a marketer at SocialRadar and meetup organizer fast becoming one of D.C.’s leading startup community voices, that means hosting themed DC Tech Meetups across a range of industries and attracting representatives from an ever expanding array of sectors.
“D.C. is exploring and, really, just understanding what technology can even mean,” said Max Harper, the young founding director of Impact Hub DC, a soft-launched outpost of the global brand of coworking spaces for the social enterprise. He, like Glenzer, Bailey and a handful of others, were at OpenGovHub, the civic tech and nonprofit incubator near McPherson Square downtown, Tuesday morning for the first Technical.ly DC stakeholder meeting, an informal and curated discussion among various community leaders who self-identify as part of #dctech.
Can D.C.'s tech scene keep a cohesive identity? Should it?
“There certainly is a level of awareness that wasn’t even there a year ago and certainly not before that,” said Frank LaVigne, the Microsoft evangelist who faithfully produces daily one-minute videos wrapping tech community news.
It’s part of this natural progression that any community, tech or otherwise, appears to go through. First a few like-minded people come together around an issue they care about. They attract, meet and build relationships with others, and the community grows. Soon, it grows enough that there are traditions and culture and events and leaders. Then it becomes successful and popular enough that there are sub-communities.
“Can you keep a cohesive identity? asked Harper. “Do you event want to?”
Because though the largely District and near District-based flourishing of tech startups and civic hacking and creative class resurgence gets ample attention, many of the jobs and the wealth in D.C. IT are tied to quiet government contractors and established enterprise firms that have made places in northern Virginia, like Reston, and Montgomery County, familiar business centers, as Glenzer put it.
The leaders of those companies don’t have much to gain by traipsing around local meetups or incubators, unless they’re recruiting, said data scientist Harlan Harris, or potentially seeking an acquisition. That’s not a problem but it does create interesting power dynamics with a class of local technologists who have taken on a tinge of civic pride. Think of the varied motivations when a corporate recruiter meets someone like Shannon Turner, who has helped train more than 1,000 D.C.-area women in various technical skills but sees it as much about empowerment as work training.
“They think, ‘Isn’t that community cute?,'” said Heidi Silver, a veteran of D.C.-area enterprise tech firms. “These kinds of large, established tech firms think this early-stage community will just pass away when it stops being fashionable.”
So will it?
Glenzer, ever sporting a startup T-shirt under a smart blazer, defended the “hype machine” of network TV shows and stories of quirky office culture for its ability to expose more people to tech and entrepreneurship. A tech community is built on self-identification. Not every person or company in a given place will or should lavish attention on “the community,” but they can benefit from the sense of identity that comes with it, something that is very powerful for welcoming new people and ideas and goals.
Bailey, the Code for DC brigade captain who now sports a bushy beard and balances cutting sarcasm with a deeply thoughtful progressiveness, said lasting work comes with the appropriate alignment of goals.
Consider this example Bailey shared: Surely Code for DC has one of the better reputations among the dozens of other Code for America volunteer affinity groups that have become fashionable in recent years. Civic tech is popular, and the group has some 1,200 members on Meetup, a healthy number by any standard. Yet a funny thing has happened recently. Setting aside the bluster of ever-expanding growth and sky-high engagement, Bailey said that the core number of active members in the group has stopped growing with any real speed. Bailey isn’t worrying about this.
“Maybe we just hit the right number of people to effectively do what we’re trying to do,” he said of doing things like championing transparency and efficiency in local government, exposing the use of open data as an oversight tool for journalists and using software to better understand the place they call home. Making D.C. better, “that’s the only metric that matters.”
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