When she set out to create a Slack workspace for the D.C.-area tech community in 2015, founder Jess Szmajda had no way of knowing the life-altering changes that March of 2020 would bring. But her intention at the time seemed made for last year: She sought to find a way to spawn connection without the need for in-person events.
Then as now, Szmajda said that it could be difficult for people to attend events, given how distributed the community in the DMV is.
“There’s a bunch of different groups of individuals who would otherwise not have an opportunity to interact effectively without something like this. So I decided, why not just create a Slack for the DC tech community?” Szmajda, a longtime leader in the region, told Technical.ly about her thinking in 2015.
Slack, a messaging platform designed for team communication with channels for specific topics, is a tool used by businesses and extracurricular groups alike in a host of industries. As the local platform’s trajectory shows, that includes tech. The DC Tech Slack was already popular among technologists in the region in the years prior to 2020. But when the world went virtual last year, it found new importance. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Slack has grown from about 7,000 people to 11,000 — gains which primarily occurred in March 2020, moderator Andrew Dunkman noted.
What was once a place for casual job-hunting, meetup organization and a light side of community friendships became one of the only threads of large-scale connection within the community.
But its history is far more storied (although not stored, as it’s on a free plan. We’ll get to that later). Szmajda created the DC Tech Slack in April 2015, and, after coordinating the deletion of a defunct server of the same name, began a journey of open mic shoutouts during meetups and networking sessions.
A lot of the work to generate engagement has been about finding patterns in the community, said Szmajda, now a general manager at Amazon Web Services, (she’s also a 2019 Technical.ly Award winner and one of our 2020 RealLIST Connectors). On top of establishing the workspace, she needed to create new channels and decide which would be the defaults people would be added to automatically upon joining. Her current favorite is the #tech-culture channel, where users chat about industry news related to company culture and workplace practices. like Apple’s return to work policy and work-from-home best practices.
“It’s just been a labor of love, honestly,” Szmajda said. “I like people. I like to share and [it’s mostly been telling people], ‘Hey, there’s this thing I’m doing. Do you want to get on here and talk to other people?'”
Community amid uncertainty
Although the workspace has been around for over half a decade, the pandemic year was astronomical for its growth. Today, the DC Tech Slack has anywhere from 900-1,000 active members weekly, DMing each other and clicking shared links, with about 300 posting regularly in the channels. Szmajda believes that’s up from around 700 pre-pandemic.
Dunkman, a software developer at U.S. digital services agency 18F (favorite channel: #TIL, short for Today I Learned), thinks the heavy growth in March of 2020 was due to the search for community and socialization after the move to remote work.
“What that story says is that people are looking for a place to feel close to each other,” Dunkman said. “Especially in a time when things are unusual, are changing, where do you start? That time of the pandemic, when it’s a little uncertain around how you have a sense of community, people are hungry for information.”
Fellow moderator Emilia Regan, a principal product designer at McLean, Virginia-based event tech company Cvent(favorite channel: “I’m going to reveal myself as a nerd, but the #tabletop_RPG,” aka roleplaying games), agreed.
"I surround myself with people who are like me and think like me and work in areas that I'm interested in, whereas with the DC Tech Slack group, I get the exposure to a much broader collection of experiences."
“People have been looking for ways to connect with the community, looking for ways to just kind of feel a part of something and I think that’s driven a lot of new people to the server,” said Regan.
Member Brian Cheung, a senior manager of software engineering at Leesburg, Virginia-based phishing protection company COFENSE, said that the Slack offers social connections with lower stakes than events, taking out the extra time and commitment that comes with travel. He said the DC Tech Slack has brought together many people from organizations and backgrounds that might not have crossed paths otherwise, from school district officials to Amazon employees, Capital One veterans and federal government workers. (No surprise here, his favorite channel is #tech-culture, on account of how much he’s learned and had his world opened up).
“I like the diversity of opinions and experiences and backgrounds,” Cheung said. “The circle of friends and associates that I keep on a more personal level suffers some selection bias. I surround myself with people who are like me and think like me and work in areas that I’m interested in, whereas with the DC Tech Slack group, I get the exposure to a much broader collection of experiences.”
The last year brought many big events for the Slack’s members to discuss, including unrest in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the tense presidential election. With such a large group, it became a way for many to check the temperature in the community regarding local policies, as well as keep up with tech-specific news like the Basecamp’s controversial workplace policies. Plus, it offered a space to keep up with general D.C. happenings, like the current cicada emergency (at the time of writing, the #random channel is currently discussing the fact that D.C. added parallel parking to it’s driver’s test).
User Tajh Taylor (favorite channels: #apple and #tech-culture) compared the posts he sees daily from DC Tech Slack regulars to checking in with a neighbor every day. He added that the frequent water cooler talk about things like weather events and local news, in a way, replaces the feeling of going into the office.
But it’s also a place to unpack some more difficult moments. For Taylor, a particular DC Tech Slack memory is the discussions during the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol.
“On that day, Slack was better and more useful than Twitter and the regular news media for understanding what was happening as best we could on the day it happened, and for being able to talk about it with others in a way I couldn’t with work colleagues, or even at home,” Taylor said.
Free and cleared
The ever-changing, newsy topics discussed in some of the more popular channels also lean into an interesting aspect of the chat: The DC Tech Slack exists on a free model, so none of the conversations are saved. With a high number of users, that means conversations don’t tend to stick around more than a few days or weeks.
That’s unlikely to change in the near future. With the amount of people on the Slack, a paid plan would cost a few thousand dollars monthly. Plus, Szmajda added that there’s a certain beauty to having a giant forum where your word goes away.
"This community exists to be a discussion platform to know what's going on in the community and to talk about what's happening now."
“This community doesn’t exist to have a long-standing archive,” Szmajda said. “This community exists to be a discussion platform to know what’s going on in the community and to talk about what’s happening now and I think that, frankly, having messages expire really does fit that model.”
But while they recognize the potential double-edged sword of saving messages they might not want to remember, some participants actually wish the DC Tech Slack was on a paid model.
“On one hand, I think it’s better for not holding on to grudges or for worrying about someone digging up something embarrassing you said years ago, but it also means forgetting some genuinely impactful conversations,” said user Nadya Primak. “Generally speaking, I think my best conversations were in [direct messages] where I really connected with someone and had an in-depth personal chat.”
“There’s a lot of really good content that I yearn to page through and look for, especially in the #ruby and #managing and some of the more evergreen channels,” Cheung added.
Outside of chats about what’s going on in and out of the tech world, the Slack also has some tangible assets for people working in the community. For one, it can be an advice hub. When they run into a coding or other tech problem they don’t know how to solve, many turn to the Slack to pick the the community’s brain.
“Sometimes you may be the only person solving a kind of problem in your organization, but you’re certainly not the only person that is solving this kind of problem in the D.C. area,” said Dunkman. “And the Slack gives you a great place to have a sounding board.”
Fellow moderator Robbie Holmes, a product development VP at Arlington, Virginia-based software company Pluribus Digital and longtime community organizer who can most likely be found in the #meetups-and-events channel, also noted the value of community expertise.
“Working in isolation, it’s great to be able to just say, ‘Hey I’m having a problem, does anybody have a minute?’ and getting somebody to jump on a Zoom with you or or just share a code bin.” Holmes said.
The advice and connections can lead to one of the biggest assets of the Slack: job hunting. Of the 400 channels in the D.C. Tech Slack, #jobs and #hiring discussions are within the top 10 when it comes to most members (it’s worth pointing out that people are added to the jobs channel automatically upon joining, but Slack does give you the option to leave). Both are places for employers to find talent by posting ads, and people on the hunt to find opportunities outside of job boards, while others can make connections for later down the line. Cheung, for one, actually met a mentor and future VP of product at his company in one of the channels.
"Sometimes you may be the only person solving a kind of problem in your organization, but you're certainly not the only person that is solving this kind of problem in the D.C. area, and the Slack gives you a great place to have a sounding board "
Regan added that she believes a lot of the growth over the past year came from people facing economic challenges and needing new job opportunities.
“The part that really interests me most is its resources,” Regan said. “…When people do have civic needs within the community, they can really seek out job postings and hiring tools.”
With more vaccinations and reopening, we might be reaching the point of returning to regular meetups and in-person work. But Szmajda doesn’t think the DC Tech Slack’s popularity is going anywhere. She said that connections are valuable, pandemic or not, and though she doesn’t have plans to get a paid plan for the channel or have any new member goals in mind, she hopes it can continue to drive community in the area.
As long as it’s serving community, she thinks it will continue to grow, although she’s keeping her hands off for the most part.
“It’s like, I have a six-year-old and I love to support his growth and do what I can, but I’m not growing him, you know? That’s kind of the way I look at [the Slack],” Szmajda said. “It’s like, I’ve got another seven-year-old and, it’s doing great and I’m proud of it and I’m happy for it and I’m trying to support it as best I can.”-30-