the michigan geek manifesto and the reclaiming of arbcamp

An entrepreneurial hacker friend of mine named Dug Song is helping to put together an event called ArbCamp, which is scheduled to be held in Ann Arbor the evening of December 18. As I thought a good number of you might be interested, I’ve asked Dug to answer a few questions on the event itself, and the future of the Ann Arbor geek scene. What follows are my questions and his answers.

What’s ArbCamp?

DUG: ArbCamp is an unconference for Ann Arbor geeks of all stripes (tech, art, music, science, biz, etc.) – an informal but intense meeting where the schedule is built by its participants. Every attendee is expected to lead or actively participate in discussions, or otherwise contribute to the event in some way – there are no spectators. ArbCamp’s goal is to accelerate the process of community formation by quickly and meaningfully connecting people through their shared passions and diverse interests.

For tech geeks (esp. those from the Unix community), this is culturally familiar as the evolution of the ameoba-like “hallway track” into self-organized “Bird of a Feather” (BoF) sessions at traditional conferences, now formalized and branded as BarCamp events (just as “Work-In-Progress” (WIP) sessions became “lightning talks”, and now Pecha Kucha and O’Reilly Ignite events). This basic collaborative meeting format has been used by many groups decades before BarCamp, though – see “Open Space Technology” for some history.

Would someone who isn’t necessarily technically inclined, like myself, be welcome?

DUG: Absolutely! A central tenet of such events is that whoever shows up is exactly who should be there – and that the participants decide the sessions to be held, not the organizers. Even highly technical barcamps tend toward topics of broader community interest because of this.

I know last time someone attempted a “BarCamp-esque” event in Ann Arbor there was a lot of controversy due to the fact that, unlike other BarCamps being held around the United States, there was a somewhat set agenda, people were charged to participate, and people weren’t allowed to stay overnight. Did you think that criticism was legitimate? And, if so, how’s it been addressed this year?

DUG: The criticism seemed to be more around having a specific theme for the event (potentially alienating those who couldn’t connect with “publishing” as a topic), and the pricey admission for a high-profile keynote speaker imparting “expert” wisdom – elements of traditional conferences that unconferences were developed as a reaction to. I’ll defer to Andrew Turner on this one – he’s another friend that left Ann Arbor early this year after starting his company here (Mapufacture, recently acquired in August by FortiusOne):

Click here for Andrew’s take on ArbCamp07

We’ve addressed it this year by organizing the event with only 4 weeks’ notice. The less organized the event, the more inviting it can be for everyone to help shape it. I hope. Now, it’s just a race to get the word out, and motivate people in our community to get involved.

I know that you, having watched a lot of geek friends leave the area over the years, have kind of made it a personal mission to build an infrastructure here in southeast Michigan capable of sustaining geek culture. I think it’s incredible work you’ve been doing lately, and I wholeheartedly endorse it, but I worry that, in spite of the huge University presence, we might be too small of a metro area to keep good, young people working in technology. And here’s my question… Are there any models out there? Are there any cities of our size that have gotten the critical mass to become “geek sticky”? Austin has 740,000 people. Portland has 550,000 people. Madison has about 225,000. Ann Arbor has around 114,000. And Ypsilanti adds 22,000 more. Is possible given those numbers?

DUG: Yes! Look at the vibrant startup / geek scene Brad Feld catalyzed and cultivated over in Boulder, CO (another old hippie University town comparable to Ann Arbor in many ways). Boulder is now an exciting, bonafide destination for smart, entrepreneurial geeks:

Click here for proof

How did this happen? As David Cohen notes, “a UFO didn’t land in Boulder and drop off VCs,” and it’s not just the skiing. They built a geek/tech community through a lot of grassroots organizing, community-building, and direct mentorship:

More from David Cohen

This is the kind of fun environment that attracts and supports smart, entrepreneurial geeks. Case in point: recent UM grads Jeff Powers and Vikas Reddy started a company (Occipital) last year in Ann Arbor, moved it to Beaver Island, MI (!), then to New York City, and then finally landed in Boulder this summer after I pointed them to the phenomenal TechStars accelerator and community:

TechStars and Occipital covered in Venture Beat

Smart, entrepreneurial geeks can take their ideas and ultralight software startups anywhere they want. They can also raise money anywhere they want. They choose to go to Boulder for the geek culture and close-knit startup community. In their own words:

Ryan Cook
Vikas Reddy
Amy Gahran

From my experience in the open-source community, I know that you need a critical mass, but the sheer number of people isn’t the most important factor – it’s a matter of getting the right people involved, or in actively acculturating the people you have to the behaviors and attitudes that build a foundation for growth (reaching out, mentoring, never underestimating people, failing fast, etc.). Geeks are basically hardwired to learn from each other, but they can be horrible about taking responsibility for their own social lives (just ask my wife) – so we can’t just hope that connections here and there eventually form into the social fabric of a community. Hope is not a strategy. We have to make it happen, and catalyze the process through events and platforms that force geeks to meet, inspire, and connect with each other.

And such events aren’t hard. Regular social mixers over coffee, breakfast, lunch, or drinks? Informal geek show-n-tell presentation nights? We just need people to step up and organize things – students included. Do we really need outside people to help introduce us to each other? Or to hold a night at the bar? Here’s a brilliant Boulder geek event (and startup company) centered around Geeks Who Drink

Regardless of whether we can create a self-sustaining technology community on the order of those seen in entrepreneurial hotbeds, I agree that it’s necessary to improve the infrastructure that we have. We might not be able to keep everyone who graduates, but we can certainly better than we’ve been doing. What, in your opinion, needs to happen? Do we need more early stage venture money? Do we need more social events, so that geeks can find mates?

DUG: We need more innovation, starting at the University level. The Media Union was supposed to be our answer to the MIT Media Lab, or UT Austin’s ACTLab, but somehow devolved into a glorified 24/7 library and computer lab. We need to promote hacker culture here – UT Austin even offers classes on this – to teach young geeks how to innovate (failing fast, rapid iteration, testing reality, etc.). I am indebted to Peter Honeyman and the good folks at UM’s beleaguered island of hacker culture, CITI, for sheltering me after my first startup experience (Anzen) to prepare me for my second (Arbor Networks). Open-source student groups like MESH used to produce excellent hackers, but I don’t hear of many campus groups innovating and mentoring each other like this anymore. I mostly hear of top-down, bureaucratic bounty programs for undergrad projects that are good while they last, but fizzle out after a term.

For young hackers, the University offers some support, but little guidance. And almost no connection to the wider tech community in the area, leaving students little choice but to leave UM’s nest to find their flock elsewhere.

In terms of infrastructure and environment, a big problem we face is the lack of anchor employers. When you do a startup in the Bay Area, you do so knowing you can fallback on Yahoo, Google, Cisco, etc. – and with non-competes illegal in California, there’s almost no reason not to try (in fact, with standardized acquisition strategies at companies like Cisco, I know folks who have serially spun out companies to sell back to the mothership, successfully). But I believe this could be overcome if there were simply enough startups going in the area, and enough innovation to keep driving it. Access to seed capital certainly helps – but while there’s some money here, the risk profile and focus of local investors often doesn’t align with tech entrepreneurs who can simply find funding elsewhere.

Another environmental issue is our lack of enabling spaces. Geek watering holes. Hackerspaces. For example – in 2006, Paul Boehm (aka enki, or for security folks, the notorious typo from Team TESO) started a hackerspace called Metalab in downtown Vienna, Austria – not exactly a hotbed of geeks and new technology development. But such enabling spaces attract people who want to spend their free time actually making things (see Brooklyn’s NYC Resistor, Philly’s Hacktory, etc.) – and sometime those things end up being companies. Last year, Paul joined an angel group to spin up an accelerator based on Paul Graham’s famous YCombinator model, and called it YEurope, which has now spun out Soup.io and Mjam, among other projects, out of their little geek space.

When local geeks want to hang out to hack on software, where do they go? Coffeeshops and breweries. Hardware hackers and makers? To private machine shops, garages, basements. Is this really the best we can do? There is a huge town / gown divide between geeks here – you rarely see students at local user group meetings, and you rarely see non-students at events on campus. I believe this is partially an issue of space – where do you hold an event that attracts both? I’d love to figure this one out.

In terms of culture, we need to celebrate the successful startups we’ve had in town, and mentor many more. We need to get out of the mindset that a little seed money and business training will fix everything. These things are certainly necessary, but not sufficient. We need to foster the kind of explosive innovation that emerges from the chaos of a real geek community, to celebrate the people who actually invent and make things. If we don’t figure out how to support and value technical innovation, it will continue to leave.

This is the mission of A2geeks – and we invite everyone with a vested interest in keeping smart geeks here to join us.

Any other words for the readers of MM.com?

DUG: You should really try the gizzards at Mary’s Fabulous Chicken and Fish over on Packard. I swear, it is a near-religious experience.

Also, if you don’t completely hate youth and fun, come show your support for the Ann Arbor Skatepark as we discuss the MOI and Fund Agreement with City Council to be voted on: Monday, December 1st, 7:00 PM, on the 2nd Floor of City Hall, in the Council Chambers.

I don’t want to take us too far off subject here, but it occurs to me that the State of Michigan has probably spent tens of thousands of dollars to study the so-called “brain drain,” and advertise to the college students of Michigan as to why they should stay here after graduation, but have probably had less impact than Dug, who’s just this one guy that’s tired of seeing all of his hacker friends leave. No offense to the Michigan Economic Development Agency, but I suspect that Dug, in his spare time, does more to advance high-tech entrepreneurism in this State than any dozen of their people… OK, enough of patting Dug on the back… I just want to wrap this post up by saying that we need more people in our community who, instead of heading off to the coasts, decide to stay here and try to make something work. It’s certainly not easy… I’d liken it to growing crops on the moon… But just think how amazing we’ll all feel when that first carrot top pops out from beneath the powdery, grey ground.

And, just in case you didn’t know, I do hate both youth and fun.

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9 Comments

  1. Posted November 20, 2008 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

    Just a quick factual correction here: the successful ArbCamp event last year at WCC was not about ‘publishing,’ it was about ‘social media.’ The controversy was, as you noted, about having a ‘headliner’ and sponsors – but not the topic.

    There were a group of us who were considering organizing another similar event at WCC for this past October with the broad topic of publishing, but decided to postpone that idea.

    Since we postponed, Dug decided to organize an event under the same moniker. I’m sure it’s going to be a great event and encourage everyone reading this to attend. I just thought it was worth a moment to correct the record on what went before.

  2. Posted November 20, 2008 at 9:11 pm | Permalink

    That’s what I’m talking about! Go go go and make it happen. You can do it.

  3. mark
    Posted November 20, 2008 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the correction, Laura. I’d be curious to know more about the publishing event if/when it comes together.

  4. applejack
    Posted November 20, 2008 at 11:09 pm | Permalink

    With regards to Dug’s comment about needing a space for geeks to work in I think that my co-op workshop idea would be great for the hardware geeks at least. Not that I’ve done anything to move the idea forward. Just throwing it out there.

  5. Posted November 21, 2008 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the catch, Laura, and sorry I goofed. ArbCamp07 was an excellent event, and our last-minute barcamp turned into ArbCamp08 not after we got the logo from Brian and Ross, but after discussion with Tozier on ArbCamp’s original goals.

    Applejack, the GO-Tech guys have a co-op space you might be interested in called the A2 Mech Shop on the west side of Ann Arbor where they’re holding their meetings – some now on video.

    Mark, I’m already embarrassed enough to be bitching and moaning like this in public (although I’ll talk anyone’s ear off about this in private). Your MEDC slag is totally unfair… we need action and results, not more blathering by me or anyone else. I do agree, though, that we need to foment a broad grassroots effort to effect change, something recently echoed by McKinsey:

    McKinsey’s forthcoming publication What Matters is a collection of short essays by leading thinkers, scholars, and CEOs on big topics: climate change, globalization, healthcare, sustainability, the credit crisis, innovation, and more. In one of these, author and designer John Thackara writes, “If you want to find solutions that make a difference, the best place to look may be the community center down the street.”

    We agree that innovation is often best when it comes from small, widely distributed experiments…

    So let’s get to some experimenting. It won’t all work, but we need to try…

  6. Robert
    Posted November 21, 2008 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    I might go to this thing just because I have no idea what any of you are talking about.

  7. Paw
    Posted December 1, 2008 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    Edward Vielmetti has more on ArbCamp:

    http://vielmetti.typepad.com/vacuum/2008/11/arbcamp-planning-nonsummary-lunch-kai-garden-nov-21-2008.html

  8. Posted January 8, 2009 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    I’ll need to start following your blog. Dug’s efforts are much needed for A2’s tech culture. Our startup is finding the Boulder tech community to be a positive, helpful environment. U of M’s talent level and economic incentives make a huge case for Ann Arbor. Does need some more tech employer strongholds. Google should do more than just AdSense out of AA…

  9. mark
    Posted January 8, 2009 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for stopping by, Jeff. At some point, if you’re up for it, maybe I could ask you a few questions for the site. I’d like to get the perspective of someone who started a company here, and then took it elsewhere. And, if you’d ever like to bring Occipital back to the area, let me know. I can help you find some great space here in Ypsi.

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