Portland High Tech Groups are Portland Software’s Own Worst Enemies

I had really hoped to be able to share the entire conversation with you, and fortunately I have gotten permission to do so!

I’m reposting Mark Lawler‘s original post to a LinkedIn forum with his permission below. Tomorrow, I’ll post my response. I welcome constructive comments and want to keep this an open forum for discussion.

But a warning: Some people have had a very emotional reaction to Mark’s words, including myself. I very much want to hear people’s thoughts and responses. However, please think for a moment before you post, and keep your comments to things that you would say to Mark were you to meet him in person.

He also wanted to provide some context for his comments:

I do ask that you be an honest broker in rehosting this under the following context (you can quote below):

  • Groups and individuals leading these groups honoring commitments; our word should really be our bond
  • That even though we have many wonderful diverse communities in PDX we do seem to sometimes dive down in to technical and business model “religious” wars
  • There are real stereotypes attributed to Portland and Portland’s high-tech scene that doesn’t do us any favors
  • Perhaps working collaboratively on an event or two a year and drawing press attention through a critical mass wouldn’t be a bad thing (there is some of this going on and it is a good thing)
  • There is real economic value in the bigger picture for all of us in this industry if we can do this to help promote the Silicon Forest

And here is Mark’s original post:

Portland High Tech Groups Are Portland Software’s Own Worst Enemies
By Mark Lawler

Portland has a very vibrant software community. It is one that is quite diverse and covers the entire technology spectrum and represents nearly every business model imaginable. With this diversity comes the desire for each of us to associate with various groups and communities that better represent our interests and sometimes our own ways of thinking. That said, Portland also has a cancer, and that illness manifests itself in how these groups just cannot seem to work together for the common good. The cause? Perhaps it is the strong desire for each of these groups to maintain its own individuality, autonomy, brand identity. Perhaps it is the entrepreneurial pull to forge one’s own ground and to be different from what is already out there. However, it is this bifurcation and standoffishness between the various high tech groups in Portland that is holding us back as we watch the Silicon Forest as a whole slowly decay.

I was just in a meeting last Thursday with Skip Newberry, the Economic Development Policy Advisor for the Office of the Mayor of Portland. With me were key members of some local high tech groups that put on local events to benefit their individual segments of the Portland high-tech community. Our pitch to the Mayor’s Office was simple: It is through all of us working together as a unified front that Portland will be able to combat some of its more silly, yet detrimental stereotypes regarding its software community and industry. That together we could combat the incorrect notions that developers in Portland suffer from “Portland Lazy” disease or that Portland doesn’t have a very rich pool of high-tech talent for companies to leverage. In a unified front four groups were working together to have a mega event in May where they were pooling interests and resources to help Portland in its quest to get itself and the Silicon Forest back on the national radar. We were asking the Mayor’s office if they would be willing to attend the event and use one of the sessions to highlight Portland’s Economic Development plan for the local software industry to the attendees that were interested in learning more about it and sharing their own thoughts while at the same time highlight how we are all working together. During this discussion we talked about Portland’s historic past of having various technical communities and groups working against each other and fighting various technical and business model “religious” wars and how this one event in May was very significant in showing that we could all work together.

You can only imagine my surprise when I learned the very next day that the board of directors for the one of the groups had met Thursday night, that same night that one of their board members had attended this meeting with the Mayor’s office with the rest of us, and decided to pull out of the event.

Now I’m not going to speculate as to why they decided to do it. We all have our reasons for changing our minds. However, I am going to comment on is how this action, just in the very nature of its timing and its impact, is exactly what is wrong with the Portland software community. I love Portland and Portland software. With the time that I spend as a volunteer I work every day to help promote and grow this industry. I pine over the return to the heyday of the Silicon Forest and work hard through the success of the companies I work for and the great products I deliver along with these volunteer efforts to claw our way back.

I have just two questions… Why can’t we all just get along? Why can’t we all drop the inane focus on our individual charters, beliefs and the stubborn demands of individuality to try to work together for the common good of Portland Software and the growth of the industry in Oregon? I ask everybody in high tech sweep away the individual chips on our shoulders and to come together to rally for this common good. If we don’t work together we will go the way of the tanners, textile, shipbuilding, and forestry workers before us. I find that result both uninteresting and unacceptable…

You can contact Mark at: @mark_lawler; http://www.linkedin.com/in/marklawler)

This town needs…

There was a thread in a walled garden recently asking the question: “Why can’t we all just get along?” This was in response to a difficult parting of ways between organizations in Portland trying to run a couple events cooperatively.

Unfortunately, the thread was deleted, so even if you were to join the group at this point, the conversation is lost. Fortunately, I saved a copy and can quote from it in the future as needed!

The situation, as I saw it described, is that some people think of the grass-roots organized groups as obstinate. As unwilling, and possibly opposed, to compromise. The phrase “stubborn demands of individuality” was used to describe the problem the original poster brought up.

In any growing, functional organization or community, there will be conflict. What matters is how we handle that conflict.

I plan on re-posting my original comments here in my blog because I want the thoughts and conversations that were started inside a closed space to come out into the open.

There’s certainly an opportunity in Portland for the many lovely, energetic and productive volunteer groups to pool our talents and resources. Some of that energy has certainly been pooled to produce Open Source Bridge, for which I am enormously grateful.

So, the question in my mind is should we also be doing something else? And if so, what would that something else be?

And by something — I mean just about anything. I’ve never counted, but I’d guess based on the groups and events that I’ve attended that we have well over 1000 volunteers in our technology communities in Portland. Add in the larger professional organizations, and I’m sure we’ve got over 10,000 people in the Portland area (and Vancouver!) whose involvement we could count on.

Let’s hatch a plan.

There’s a push to look outward, and to speak outward. To get “press attention”, which to some, means success. I don’t agree.

We need a different vision. Our communities are ones of people who *do* things. (I’d even go so far to say we have a ‘do-ocracy‘.) We make things, we share them and then we make more things. Certainly there’s room in our communities for people who help us share what we’re doing. But we can’t talk about things we haven’t done.

Anything that enhances our community, must help us do things. Change must make collaboration easier, sharing better and involvement in our communities even more rewarding than it already is.

So, help me. What does success look like to you? What do you wish that you could get out of our technology groups, but don’t?

Server Sky presentation, with Personal Telco folks, tomorrow in PDX at 6:30pm

The following email just dropped into my inbox, and I had to share. Keith is a fixture in the Portland tech community – running Linux clinics (scroll down the page for info), volunteering at FreeGeek, attending user group meetings and occasionally presenting.

He’s got this crazy idea – provide computing services from orbit. It involves ultralight discs of silicon, solar sails and launching “stuff” into orbit from a really long rail line.. and, well, some other completely awesome ideas. Keith set up a wiki, and there are great volunteer opportunities sprinkled throughout it, like “Study and simulate the trajectory and recovery of a tumbling server-sat in detail.” Seriously.

If you’ve got some time tomorrow, you should go check it out, have a beer at Roots and mingle with the Personal Telco folks, who are amazing for creating a completely free, volunteer-driven wireless network throughout Portland.

Tomorrow’s meeting at Roots Organic Brewing will feature a talk by
Keith Lofstrom about ServerSky.

See you then!

Chris Chen

—– Added by keithl ———————————————–

Roots Organic Brewing: 1520 SE 7th 503-235-7668

For Pluggers that don’t know, The Personal Telco Project is a brave
band of wireless warriors, unwiring Portland one free hotspot at a
time. A great way to give back to the community, learn about wifi
and Linux and neat gizmos like the ALIX SBC, and hang out with the
Cool Kids. The monthly meeting is a great chance to “network” 🙂

Server Sky is a proposal for array computing and internet service
from orbit. We are building a team of technically savvy dreamers,
then will recruit local manufacturers (Solar World, Intel, Triquint,
etc.) to build it. If you can do radios, math, physics, coding, or
even drawing or gardening or salt-water coral aquariums (!) we can
use your help. http://server-sky.com

Someday, we will feed the PTP ground mesh from the multivendor
orbiting mesh, and no longer depend on ground monopoly backhaul.

I’ve given versions of this presentation before. This is somewhat
improved, and I will be presenting it next week at the A.I. Meetup
in the Bay area, Lawrence Berkeley Labs, the Hackers Conference,
and a few other venues.


What’s changed? Portland as an example of increasing women’s participation.

Code from @christiekoehler's presentation. #cns

At Code-n-Splode last night, we first heard Christie Koehler give a great talk on CodeIgniter, the one PHP web framework endorsed by Rasmus Lerdorf, original author of PHP. She went over the pros/cons, details of how you go about installing and then using CodeIgniter, and then showed a very detailed example from her recent work. I hope she posts the slides soon – they were great. (If you want to see our tweets – per Gabrielle’s suggestion, we’re tagging with #cns now.)

After the talk (nearly 9pm!) we all went over to the Green Dragon for our #afterhours chat. Audrey led off by explaining the recent controversy she’d written about, and the Ruby/Rails community response to her posts.

Some of the things she shared I was shocked by – specifically some very personal attacks in comments that she’d decided to save (in Skitch), but remove from her posts. Her standard was: “is this something that would cause my mom to stop reading.” And, if the comment met that standard, she archived and removed it.

I learned about threads in the local ruby community about the topic of women’s participation, and some very positive comments on Hacker News and Digg, and _why’s posts that seem to be expanding perceptions and opening people’s minds to ways that may ultimately be more inclusive of women and minorities.

All told, we had 15 people at the meeting, 13 of which were women. Our first Code-n-Splode meetings started with about five people. Our largest meeting (thanks to the clever, rocket-building Sarah Sharp) had somewhere around 30 people.

Among the many things that the Code-n-Splode crew discussed last night was “what made portland different”. And I thought I’d let you in on our secret.

We ask women to participate.

When we have code sprints for Calagator, Open Source Bridge or we have the Agile development meetups dedicated to coding – there are always women there. From what I understand, having women show up regularly to code sprints is unusual in other cities.

When I am responsible for these meetups, I contact the people that I want to attend directly – and I ask them to come. This is a mix of women and men (I no longer have to explicitly think about inviting women, because so many are already in the community). But when I was first asking people, I *did* have to contact women who were just dipping a toe into the community — to convince them that yes, joining us would be fun, educational and sometimes good for their careers.

When I first started attending user groups regularly about nine years ago, I often was the only woman. Now, it is extremely rare for me to be the only one. Particularly in groups that span multiple technologies (Web Innovators, Open Source Bridge, Extreme/Agile developers, Functional programming, and BarCampPortland come to mind) or are largely social opportunities for geeks to mix (Lunch 2.0, Beer and Blog). More geeky women (and women that I don’t already know) seem to attend these types of events.

I don’t think there is a single magic formula for transforming your city’s geek scene. But I think it is worth asking questions of the Portland tech community leaders, finding out how our groups work and trying out our techniques in your home town.

Learning to think, session II

I attended a free session on “how to think” given by Hideshi Hamaguchi (his twitter feed) last Friday night. Not only did I manage to turn what was essentially a design geek user group meeting into a “date night” with my husband, but I left the meeting with the delicious feeling you get when you’ve learned something really useful.

The session was focused on designers and design thinking. I found it applied even to my work – programming and database design, much of which I’ll claim is creative. I took many, many pages of notes – sketching out replicas of Hideshi’s carefully drawn diagrams. One lesson that stuck with me over the weekend is captured in the diagram that starts this blog post.

It’s a behavior-over-time graph, describing the transition from strategy to execution, with the line showing the growth in what you know about the problem you’re trying to solve. Briefly, strategy is defined as the combination of decisions that are needed to make a decision right now. Execution is what you do after you’ve made your decision. The vertical line shows the point at which you might decide to start thinking, or synthesizing information you’ve gathered. In the graph, that thinking line is pretty far along in the “what you know” curve. The length of time up until thinking begins is a missed opportunity — business-wise and creatively.

Consultants typically like to gather information – maybe asking lots of boiler-plate questions of the client before embarking on the “thinking” phase of consultation. Hideshi suggested that instead of allowing information gathering to delay thought, we should all just immediately start thinking.

He gave the example of FedEx, and what a person who was about to talk to FedEx would know without asking any questions of the company: guaranteed delivery times and hub-spoke architecture for their delivery system. Nothing is earth-shattering about those observations. They are simply things that you already know, and can use.

And here’s an observation I really thought about afterward: the length of time before you start to think is determined by your fears. The fear can be of the unknown, not having enough information, looking stupid or any number of other fears that we all have in a new situation. Taking a moment to reflect on what you already know might be the best strategy for eliminating that fear, and moving on to the useful, creative thought a client may be paying you for.

Much of the rest of the session was an exploration of a few ideas Hideshi had encountered in the last few weeks – creating a Museum of Design in Portland, and couple presentations he had made to help a famous blogger judge a Standford University “innovative ideas” competition. Both were fun thought exercises, with the added bonus of seeing Hideshi’s creative output.

I’m very much looking forward to the next session.

meme: Current state of me

Audrey started a meme that I liked – so here’s my answers:

  • Did I earn a living? Yes, I did. I’ve never been happier with my work, who I work with and who I work for. I surprised myself a little with a job change that has me working at home, and co-working at various places in Portland. I find myself jumping out of bed every morning, excited to start my work day, and attending amazing geek events 2-3 times a week. (shameful Portland tech scene junkie confession!)
  • Was I able to incubate new ideas? Well, I was certainly *exposed* to tons of creative, exciting ideas, and felt energized to participate and organize in ways that I did not in 2007. As far as generating my own ideas, I think I was in the same boat as Audrey — spending a ton of time *doing*, but not as much time reflecting on experiences. The one exception to that was my vacation last August in Mexico. I took nearly three weeks to unwind from work, and I spent that time learning a little Spanish, and taking photographs that I was very proud of. Looking out to next year, I can’t wait to see what happens, and feel like I won’t be able to avoid an explosion of creativity.
  • Did I grow in ways that I wanted? YES. OMG. I had an incredible year, personally and professionally. I organized two PostgreSQL conferences – one in Maryland! – and helped get new user group leaders started with groups in at least five new locations. I’ve seen several long-time community members step up, join boards and become more active in the core community building work I championed. I met Tom Lane. I stood by as close friends, inspired by a growing community, started their own projects. I was inspired over and over again by the humor, grace and intelligence of the people who make PostgreSQL happen. I contributed code, presented nearly a dozen talks and traveled.

So, 2009 will be a lot about co-chairing Open Source Bridge, with a big helping of PostgreSQL community work, primarily speaking about the filesystem performance testing we’re doing here in Portland, and hopefully a bit more about user groups. I’m looking forward to a great work year, with a company that continues to be successful in a difficult time, and with coworkers that make me laugh every day.

I’m looking to Portland to inspire me: with cool ideas, exciting companies and a vibrant tech scene.

Your turn!

Open Source Bridge

wordle rocks

There’s going to be a new conference in Portland next July.

We’re calling it Open Source Bridge.

Our goal is this:

Create a completely volunteer-run, community conference to connect developers working with open source.

Let me explain with a little background:

My first tech conference was LISA in San Diego in 1997. I ran into Linus Torvalds in the hallway with my friend Steve, and we were both star-struck. I was still a student at the time, and loved every minute I spent rubbing elbows with people that were the pop-stars of the UNIXy world.

Since then, I attended LISA a few more times, OSCON, countless user group meetings for Perl, PostgreSQL. The last two years have been filled with local unconferences (BarCampPortland and WhereCampPDX to name just two) and travel to incredible community conferences like PgCon, LUG Radio Live, SCALE, Northwest Linux Fest, the Linux Plumbers Conference and last weekend’s Mentor Summit. And while on the board of the Legion of Tech, I’ve met and connected with more people than I ever thought I could know in Portland.

I love conferences. And I love Portland. Maybe you can guess what’s coming next.

During an intense brainstorming session at Side Project To Startup, a group of concerned Portlanders drew together a plan for a new conference. We packed a tiny room, and had a heated discussion about what we wanted, what Portland needed, and how we might do it. By the end of the session, Audrey Eschright and I agreed to co-chair. And with the support of Portland’s incredible tech community, we knew we could make it happen.

We called a few people, and I invited everyone over to talk about what to do next. We were: Audrey, Reid Beels, Professor Bart Massey, Rick Turoczy, Jake Kuramoto, Dawn Foster, Kelly Guimont, Adam Duvander.

We looked at the giant pieces of paper we’d scribbled notes on a few weeks before, and ate dinner together on a warm fall evening. And we decided to have a Town Hall.

town hall meeting, Oct 30, 2008, 7.30pm, Cubespace

Since then, we’ve been joined by Ward Cunningham (AboutUs), Irene Schwarting (Companies By Design), Harvey Mathews (SAO) and Clay Neal (City of Portland).

But enough with the history lesson!

Open Source Bridge will bring together the diverse tech communities of the greater Portland area and showcase our unique and thriving open source environment.

Open Source Bridge
will have curated, discussion-focused conference sessions, mini-conferences for critical topics and will include unconference sessions.

We will show how well Portland does open source and share our best practices for development, community and connectedness with the rest of the world.

Lots of ideas are buzzing around in our heads, and we’d love to talk about them with you! If you’d like to contribute to the effort, stop by the town hall event October 30, 2008 at Cubespace. We’ll have another meeting November 6th, and it will be announced on Calagator.

At the town hall, you’ll have a chance to meet the members of the core organizing committee, and pick up a responsibility or two. We’ll be breaking off into teams for each of the major areas requiring organization, and distributing the work across many people. We will create a mailing list after this first meeting for those who just want to hear about what we’re up to, or participate in some other way.

Thanks for your interest, and we hope to see you tomorrow night!

October is a month of many conferences


I just blogged about WhereCampPDX, and am enjoying a few days of quiet before heading out to Google for the Summer of Code Mentor’s summit this coming weekend.

I was so busy I didn’t have much time to blog about the PostgreSQL Conference West. It was great to see everyone, and I came away more sure than ever that PostgreSQL has the best developer and user community. We had so much fun, and I really enjoyed seeing the creative ways people are using PostgreSQL – for business (Proprietary to PostgreSQL), education (Visual Planner) and as a hobby (PL/LOLCODE).

WhereCampPDX was amazing! I had a couple fantastic conversations with Webb Sprague, a regular PostGIS presenter for PDXPUG and Portland PostgreSQL conferences. He’s interested in getting people together to talk about anthropology and tech, and how to better meet the needs of the people who will actually end up using disaster management software in a crisis. Look for a fabulous event from him this spring!

As far as GSOC, I’m hoping to take a lead role in this next year with Josh Berkus‘ help. He’s managed Summer of Code for at least two years, and has worked hard to match mentors and students, and we’ve ended up with several excellent contributions.

My plan for PostgreSQL is to start early on recruitment and project proposals, so that we have an excellent turnout next year. So, if you know of a project you want worked on, or know of students who would be good candidates – let’s get in touch now and start recruiting!

User Groups redux

lousy cup!
actually, i love this cup. thanks, eric! 🙂

It’s a bit late for an “announcement”, but Gabrielle and I are re-presenting the User Groups talk to the Portland Linux Users Group tonight. We’re all about audience participation, and so we’re going to focus on helping PLUG pick a few topics and presenters for upcoming meetings. And whatever else they want to talk about 🙂

Meeting starts at 7pm and here’s where:

Fariborz Maseeh College of Engineering & Computer Science Building
Room FAB 86-01 (This is in the basement.)
The building is on SW 4th across from SW College Street.
See location H-10 on map at http://pdxLinux.org/campus_map.jpg

Beer afterward at Jax!

Jax Bar And Restaurant
826 SW 2nd Avenue