Programming a Community

Programming a Community

[deck]Computer programmers and software developers in Portland have carved out a unique subculture all its own.[/deck]

Thursday night get-togethers at the Lucky Labrador involve everything from computer programming to knitting.

[cap]T[/cap]hursday nights are typically loud in Portland bars. Crowds and alcohol are a winning combination for a rowdy night. At the Lucky Labrador Brewery, however, you’ll find the back wall lined not with trendy bar-goers drinking pints on tap, but a row of laptops snaked with extension cords to every outlet. Thursday nights are a time when a many of Portland’s most computer-savvy find solace in solving technological problems with cohorts over shared laughs and a pitcher of beer.

Freelance developer Ben Hengst organizes these weekly meetings, calling them hackathons.

From left to right: Pieter van de Bruggen, Jacob Helwig, and Colin Anderson gather at the Lucky Labrador.

“Some people are freelancing, others bring their day job with them. Other people work on side projects,” Hengst says. “Some nights we don’t get anything done and work on games.”

Unlike his weekly Portland group, nationally organized hackathons are generally technology-themed conferences where people get together to work on a certain project over the course of several days, Hengst explains.

In comparison, Hengst’s hackathons encompass all types of computer work. Participants bring everything from their computer science homework to code written for a new website. Young people in their twenties and thirties typically come for help, while those in their fifties who are well-seasoned in their field come to finish work and impart advice.

Hengst falls squarely in the middle, with experience to his name and a strong curiosity. He sits at a thick wooden table donning a cable-knit beanie, full beard, and a laptop opened to scrolling computer language. A giant pitcher of beer sits in the center of the table, surrounded by three other laptops, making for a small hackathon this particular Thursday evening. Turnouts for Hengst’s hackathons vary—sometimes he works solo, while other times as many as thirty people can be collaborating on their computers.

“Since I work from home, this is my one regular time out of the house,” Hengst says.

Hengst’s workdays differ greatly from the Thursday evenings he spends at the Lucky Lab. By day Hengst works from home doing freelance software development and instructing an online course in Perl, a computing language. Hengst says working around likeminded folks during hackathons makes it easier to receive help and bounce ideas off one another.

“You’re not spending an hour asking Google how to solve this problem, and there’s beer, so that helps,” Hengst says, chuckling.

Despite the Lucky Lab’s relaxed atmosphere, the hackathons can be nerve-wracking for first-time attendees.

“It’s a little intimidating for those who have never programmed with other people in public before,” hackathon participant Selena Deckelmann says.

Deckelmann is no stranger to programming. She graduated with a computer science degree from the University of Oregon and has been working in Portland since 1999. In 2008 she co-founded Open Source Bridge (OSB), a conference revolving around the use of open source software, programs with licensing that provides users access to the source code of a program and allows them to modify it.

Creating software via open source is a collaborative and public process as opposed to proprietary software, which only allows the copyright holder access to the source code.

“It is a pretty tightly knit community at this point,” Deckelmann says. “We know each other very well, especially those on this open source project.”

Because Portland houses such a large assortment of cafes and bars, many tech groups choose to meet in these locations.

“We have such a great coffee and beer culture in Portland as well,” Deckelmann says. “So a lot of the people in the tech community also share a love for beer and coffee.”

PDX Tech Coffee exists for those who prefer to program in the morning while sipping a cup of joe, while Portland Perl Mongers is preferred by those who have an interest in Perl. If programmers don’t consider brewpubs an ideal work environment, they go to South East Portland Coders Night at the Side Door, a café providing a quieter atmosphere.

Deckelmann says Portlanders have worked hard to make the tech community social.

“You have to be very collaborative,” he says. “You have to accept their ideas.”

The tight-knit nature of Portland’s tech community is largely credited to Calagator.org, a website providing information on technology groups and events in the area.

“[Calagator] was such a community effort,” Audrey Eschright, Calagator’s founder, says. “It wouldn’t have happened if there weren’t dozens and dozens of people that didn’t want it in Portland.”

Calagator was started in January of 2008. At first it featured a bare-bones interface with the basic function of posting an event. Feature upon feature was added until the site was completed by the following summer. Thanks to Calagator, Hengst gets a good turnout Thursday nights at the Lucky Labrador.

Beer, chips and salsa are all necessities for Thursday night Hack-a-thon meetings at the Lucky Labrador.

“Portland would be a very different place if it wasn’t for Calagator,” Hengst says.

The website’s popularity has broadened the tech community and made it easier for others to find colleagues working on the same projects and to learn about upcoming events.

Eschright says Calagator’s popularity “is a sign that everyone who worked on it at the start was right about what everybody needed.”

Calagator’s success has inspired Eschright and other developers to help non-tech communities in Portland connect with one another.

“Portland has been unique to grow the kind of community that we have,” Eschright says. “We’ve started to reach out to see if we can reach out to the art community and political activists groups.”

Eschright says Portland fosters an environment encouraging collaboration, sharing, and do-it-yourself—often abbreviated DIY—culture.

“People share what they know,” Eschright says. “This idea about sharing your knowledge—it comes from Portland.Portland is the kind of culture where [sharing] is just the activity that makes sense.”

According to Eschright, not all tech communities on the West Coast share this culture.

“People who decide to specifically live in Portland … are interested in it because they came here to be a part of that [community],” Eschright says. “If they wanted a big paycheck, they would move to the Bay Area.”

Jeffrey Slabaugh has come to the same conclusion. Slabaugh grew up in Carmel, California, and attended Claremont Mckenna College. After graduating in 1993, he moved to the Bay Area and worked as a software developer. Dissatisfied with the work environment, he moved to Portland in 2005

“[There’s] a little more room for growth [in Portland],” Slaubaugh says. “It isn’t quite the same shark-infested waters as the Bay Area..”

At first Slabaugh enjoyed the fast-paced and dogged mentality of his peers while living in the Bay Area. After more than a decade, however, the high-pressure environment lost its luster.

“The Bay Area is a wonderful place if you’re interested in taking advantage of what it has to offer,” Slabaugh says. “[Eventually] you realize it’s a very expensive place to live with a lot of self-interested people, and it is very crowded.”

Slabaugh explains that meeting new faces in the technology field and spending time with co-workers off the clock makes work more enjoyable.

“I think there’s a huge awareness of work-life balance in this town,” Slabaugh says. “Work is not the end-all, be-all. Portland has a better grip on that balance.”

Each city’s tech community varies depending on the personality of the city itself. Portland isn’t a fit for everyone, but with seemingly as many different tech groups as people, it isn’t hard to find a place to fit in. Eschright says it took time to find her niche, but after seeking out others in the technology field, she was able to find a group focused on Ruby, an open source programming language.

“A lot of times people think I am weird and I’m totally an outlier,” Eschright says. “[That’s] totally within the range of normal [in the tech community], but if you don’t start talking to other programmers, you would never know that.”

Eschright’s participation in the Portland tech community has compelled her to be proactive in initiating projects and providing resources for others to use, like she has done with Calagator.

“Encourage your own part of the community to be welcoming,” Eschright says.  “That’s why community organizing is so important to me. I wanted there to be a community where I’d be welcome, and if it meant so much to me then I should get involved and help build it.”

Portland’s emphasis on collaboration and sharing among the tech community has distinguished itself from other cities and carved a genre all-its-own some call the “Silicon Forest.” However, unlike in the Bay Area, Hengst says you won’t be seeing people meeting in suits and ties.

“Here were just a bunch of ragtag kids,” Hengst says.

The tech community may characterize itself as ragtag, but the success of Deckelmann’s Open Source Bridge Conference and Eschright’s Calagator are proof its members have perseverance to see their vision through and aren’t afraid to commit time off the clock.

“I think that the biggest thing that people find about Portland is that the tech scene here is so inclusive and social,” Hengst says.

The combination of collaboration and informality has made for a unique tech community existing nowhere else. No matter the software or programming language, there is a group for it in Portland.