Building a strong foundation for Vermont's technology future

I went to a VTTA Lunch and Learn meeting last week focused on "Marketing Vermont as a technology state". I've had some time to reflect on this objective and wanted to talk about some of the frustrations I've felt in trying to address this very issue.

During the lunch session, David Parker of described how Vermont's greatest opportunity to grow our economy is through the technology sector. Vermont’s tourism revenue accounts for a small minority of its GDP, yet our state's marketing is disproportionately focused on tourism. In his presentation, Parker expressed that we need to get better at educating people in science and technology, finding startup capital, and retaining a young energetic workforce. Instead of proposing concrete actions though, he suggests "changing the rhetoric" by talking about what Vermont has to offer. While I agree with his message, unfortunately talk is cheap and ideas are free, and neither is worth shit unless you actually stand up and do something.

Unfortunately, getting the word out about these great jobs and companies is not enough to attract people to our state. One individual at the meeting went as far as suggesting that every ad in Vermont Life magazine should feature a cellphone or laptop. Are you kidding me? Vermont is a beautiful place, let's not change that. Can there not be a balance between technology and Vermont's simple beauty without the two interfering with the other?

One topic that was missing from the lunch discussion was the role that community plays in this endeavour. Yes, technology jobs and businesses are undeniably important, but community is what gives people a sense of belonging. Do artists and musicians live here because Vermont has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country? No, they live here because there is a community that supports them. The role of community in the technology sector is no different.

Community is an Investment, Not an Overnight Success

Many Americans prefer band-aids to solve problems and don't consider future repercussions of today's decisions. Why should we invest in renewable energy when we can solve our immediate energy needs with fossil fuels? Why should we pay higher taxes when corporations can sponsor our highways? Vermonters are different. We don't want billboards taking away from Vermont's beauty. We would rather pay $15 for a hamburger made from locally raised cows than $4 for a Big Mac. More importantly though, our small communities thrive because they're not looking for short term payoff. Community, like renewable energy, is a long term investment and not a band-aid.

I'm organizing a software developer conference this summer called the Burlington Ruby Conference. Last year was our first time hosting the event and it attracted 80 developers for a weekend of networking and education in Burlington. Only about 25% of the attendees were from Vermont. The rest were from Boston, Montreal, New York, and other parts of New England. We even had two guys from Denmark and one from Mississippi. We also had a small number of women attend, but this year we have been putting a lot of energy into increasing that number. We reached out to the female developer and speaker communities, published a diversity statement and code of conduct, and have teamed up with Girl Develop It to offer low cost training in conjunction with the conference. What other technology event in Vermont can make similar claims?

This year we've reached out to numerous Vermont companies soliciting sponsorship for the conference and have been met with the same response each time. "Sorry, not interested. We don't do Ruby, we do _____". Fill in the blank with Java, .Net, LOLCODE, whatever. That's great, but these companies are obviously missing the point. When was the last time there was a Java or .Net conference of this caliber in Vermont? This is an opportunity to support the very community that these companies are trying to hire from. Just because a developer writes Java code to pay the bills, doesn't necessarily mean he or she wants to do this in their free time. If you look at the speakers we had last year, it clearly wasn't all about Ruby. We had talks on building location based apps, database scaling, and multiple JavaScript talks from some of the most respected people in these fields.

Why have a Ruby conference then you ask? Simple. The Ruby community as a whole represents the type of community that we know will thrive in Vermont. The people are passionate, helpful, and strong advocates for diversity. Ruby developers also tend to be at the forefront of best practices. Combined, these characteristics lead to a vibrant, successful community. Just look at the number of other regional Ruby conferences that have sprung up in the last few years. Ruby may not be the cool language anymore, but the community is thriving. In my years of being a Ruby developer, I've never met someone who said they only use Ruby because it pays the bills.

This conference is going to happen whether we have local support or not. We are fortunate to live in a city where our costs to organize the event will be covered by ticket sales alone. We've also added a crowd-sourced fundraising effort called "Burlington Ruby Cats" that is not only raising money for the conference, but also for the Humane Society of Chittenden County. Having sponsors would allow us to do things above and beyond what a typical conference can offer such as scholarships for students and underrepresented groups like women and minorities. Equally as important though, having support from local sponsors shows that these companies actually care about our community. We are not organizing this conference to make money, infact we will be lucky if we break even given everything we want to do. We are hosting a lakeside BBQ and providing professional recordings of the talks free of charge. We are organizing the conference because we want to invest in our community. We want people to think about this conference when they think of Burlington, Vermont; thereby helping to achieve our goal of "Marketing Vermont as a technology state".

How can I get involved?

Don't get me wrong, the Vermont software community as it stands today is awesome. I participated in (and won) the 2nd annual Vermont Hackathon last October. This event was targeted toward Vermont developers and the amount of support that local businesses gave was incredible. This was a great success for our community, but we can't limit ourselves to a handful of these events a year, or only focus on the business side of Vermont's technology economy.

I also help organize a number of different software related user groups in the Burlington area. Our first group, the Burlington Web Application Group (BTVWAG) typically has 30-50 people at any given meetup, and our latest group, Burlington JS, filled all 35 of its slots in the first day it was announced. These groups are run by volunteers and represent exactly what our technology community is about.

People ask me after every meetup how they can get involved, but then I never hear back from them. Step up folks! Acknowledging that we have a problem is the first step, but taking action is the only way that things will change. There are a number of community members who get this and have devoted countless hours of their free time to building the community. Aside from the hackathon, Vermont Code Camp, Vermont Tech Jam, and BTVGig are other examples of events and initiatives led by passionate Vermonters who want to see our community grow. We also have folks like Jen Mincar at Office Squared who provide places for these groups to gather, free of charge.

Vermont has jobs and an incredible opportunity for growth through technology, so now is the time to start investing in our community, and investing in our future. Please reach out if you want to join us in building a strong foundation for Vermont's technology future.

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