SIGUSR2

This is not the Freehackers Union…

I work at Meetup, but the opinions expressed in here are my own, and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Meetup.

Zed Shaw had a dream, and that dream failed, but I’m trying again and at least for now succeeding.

When the Freehackers Union post came out and it starting getting some attention, I was completely stoked. I couldn’t wait to move to NYC (I was moving anyway) and show off my hack[1] and gain acceptance into the group. Of course, by the time I actually got here, the F.U. had dissipated.

I have to be honest, I did think Zed was exaggerating quite a bit when he described his frustrations attending tech events, but as I started getting involved in the NYC tech scene, I too felt the same way.

But, Zed was right–NYC tech groups and events suck. OK, maybe that’s a bit harsh, because there are great ones out there[2], but even the ones I like suffer from business people, and even worse, horrible tech recruiters.

Tech events also suffer from too much company promotion and not enough about the actual tech. I can’t count how many times I’ve sat through a 15 minute sermon on Product X that lasted 25 minutes due to the inability of the organizer, whether due to politeness or interest, to keep to the scheduled time slot. Worse yet, the speaker gives a sales pitch, hoping to get the audience on board to purchase it, or in the case of it being some Company X’s “contribution to open source” to become contributors. It’s just not useful to me[3].

In fact, the best talks at any tech event I’ve ever been to are just 5 minutes (dubbed Lightning Talks). Five minutes isn’t a lot of time, but it is more than enough time to convince an audience that they should check something out, or show off something cool that they have built. It also happens to be the format that the F.U. used. Why? Because Zed is an intelligent guy–he too knows that 5 minutes is a perfect amount of time for a talk.

But why? It’s quite simple really. If the talk sucks, or doesn’t interest you, it is only 5 minutes of your life gone. However, if the talk is good or of interest to you, there is always time later to get together and discuss it further.

Hack and Tell

In August, I started NYC’s Hack and Tell, a show and tell for hackers. It’s an experiment, attempting to answer the question: “Can a relaxed Freehackers Union, with a few new rules actually work?” So far the answer has been “Hell yeah! It can totally thrive!” All 3 events have had great turn outs, with great projects being presented.

The rules are simple. You get 5 minutes[4]to show off whatever it is you are doing (hardware, library X, programming language, build tool, visualization, hack, whatever), and the audience gets 5 minutes to give you praise, tell you “you suck”[5], ask a question, or offer advice. The only other rules are “No Startup pitches”, “No Deckware” and keep your work at work–we want to see personal projects.

We also do not allow the resources of the group to be utilized for recruiting purposes. As a result, we see next to no recruiters[6], and I, on occasion, have received emails from members wanting to promote something, asking if it was OK to do so[7].

I’m not sure how long the quiet time will last, (or even how long I can successfully keep it running) but my hope is that strict enforcement of the core rules will keep it fun and a great addition to the NYC tech community.

This sounds wonderful, but what are the issues?

Aside from the aforementioned recruiter, we’ve had very few interruptions to the flow and development of an awesome group, but I do see some problems starting to show.

For one, the group’s membership, and attendance is starting to grow due to word of mouth and more exposure from local NYC mailing lists such as Gary’s Guide and Startup Digest.

This is both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing because we have a larger pool of developers to show off their projects. But, it is also a curse because not everyone that joins will become a presenter, whether due to lack of technical knowledge or lack of time outside of work to build things to show off. The curse actually can get worse of course, because there is not a clear reason for them (i.e. the non-contributors) to attend. What do these folks actually want to get from Hack and Tell?

It is quite possible that they’ll become members for recruiting reasons, or other reasons that I have not quite discovered yet, but if they are not building stuff in their free time, do they belong? I don’t know, but this question certainly on my mind, and it is certainly a worry.

Ultimately, I think that some pool of non-presenters is healthy, and I believe that the pool is ultimately contributing positively, at least in some cases. The group of non-presenters most likely has something else to contribute– maybe they are well connected and can be a megaphone to people in other cities, or even within NYC–which we certainly need, at least now, to attract more great projects to be presented. But, that can’t be true of the entire non-presenter pool. There has to be leechers. Again, I don’t have the answers.

I’m more than happy to hear anyone and everyone’s thought on the matter, share more of my experiences and help other people get a Hack and Tell started in their city, if they’d like. I’m certainly willing to setup another means of conversation as well if anyone is interested.

More discussion: Hacker News

Zed responds at FU NYC

  1. I didn’t actually have a hack to show off, but I figured I’d come up with something, and hoped it’d be enough value to get me in

  2. And many more that are good but not great. Of course, I haven’t been to all the events or groups in NYC, so this is just my personal experience.

  3. The product might actually be useful to me, but a 5 minute sales pitch with a link to more detail, it’s design, some use cases etc. would be more useful because the speaker probably isn’t answering my lower-level questions anyway, and it’s shorter so I’ll actually listen.

  4. This is strictly enforced, and we normally use a timer (source)–it’s a bit buggy but it works great most of the time) which claps at the end. This serves two purposes; it prompts the the audience to clap, and it means that no one has to be rude to stop the presenter.

  5. So far, this hasn’t happened.

  6. One company tried, and were pummeled with a wall of text explaining how stupid it is to target intelligent developers–the kind of people that’d almost certainly check the recruiting company’s website if they were interested.

  7. In most cases, the post was inappropriate, as it related to promotion of a startup, which of course is work related.

— 2010-10-12