I should have a preamble here, but my mind’s blank. I’ll jump right in.
Comparing Portland and Seattle
I’ve been ruminating over this since returning from Open Source Bridge. I felt odd the day after returning, and I quickly realized that my mood was… depressed! For the first time ever, I was in a funk about Seattle.
OSB was a rush of camaraderie, intelligence, and cutting-edge developers. Portland (in the tech realm) struck me as approachable, celebratory of cooperation, and tuned for geek individualism. My vexation, and the cause of my blues, was that Seattle isn’t as solid in those characteristics. I’m not claiming they don’t exist here, but that they are stronger and more evident in Portland. I’ve been thinking about why this is, and what if anything to do about it.
Admittedly, I have asymmetrical data points. I’m drawing on knowledge gained about the Portland locale over time, but at a distance. I’ve tried to compensate for my familiarity with Seattle, so that I can infer (or perhaps rediscover, or finally acknowledge) some fair conclusions.
The Seattle tech ecosystem is more business-focused and “corporate” than Portland’s. There are culturally-active technical individual contributors, to be sure, but the information streams bias along paths between a handful of “Seattle tech news” sources and a handful of companies. This is a generalization and not a rule — I’m describing the 80% point on the curve. Visualize two axes: Online organization and dissemination, and employment. On the first axis, we have nPost, Seattle 2.0, TechFlash, and a couple other sites, depending on how mainstream you like your information. On the second axis, we have four firms: Microsoft, Google, Amazon, and Boeing. When one of them sneezes, it dominates the local chatter; when one of them inhales, it sucks all the oxygen out of the room. (Over the metaphor cliff I go.) There are other large Seattle employers, but these are the Four Horsemen of the tech (predominantly computer tech) domain.
Compare this with Portland’s ecosystem. Portland’s tech aether appears more egalitarian, with a less constricted online information flow, and without three or four monster companies absorbing all the online interest. They do have Nike and Intel, but Nike and Intel don’t dominate the local press the way M/G/A/B do here. And the online information sources appear to be spread across a much wider range of commercial and non-commercial sites, such as Silicon Florist, Beer & Blog, Our PDX, and Strange Love Live.
As for open-source, the Seattle FOSS cultural scene is dead. If you think “dead” is too strong, let’s at least agree that it’s a far distant Nth place to M/G/A/B goings-ons. The weird thing is that FOSS is used at Google, Amazon, and Boeing, not to mention at tens (hundreds?) of local start-ups. Linux, Apache, Python, PHP, MySQL, PostgreSQL, open-source frameworks … all are used locally in abundance! And some (most?) have local user groups. But it’s as though techies working on or in open-source, and the local news flow, are abstracted out by the local corporate facade. An egregious example is how TechFlash completely ignored Open Source Bridge, but devoted – and still devotes – substantial (as in gobs, considerable, voluminous) energy to cover Microsoft marketing campaigns.
You could argue that Google and Amazon have relatively open technical access as large companies go, and so they emanate lots of useful info. I’d agree. But the issue is the local information ecosystem, not the companies themselves. Negative and positive feedback loops are at work here. For instance, Seattle 2.0 publishes something, TechFlash writes about it, then it’s mentioned on the nPost blog, and then it becomes the zeitgeist de jour. There’s nothing inherently wrong; these parties worked hard to develop a following, and more power to them. But it’s a local filtering attribute that needs avowal. On the flip side, someone irritated by a post in one of these sites won’t publicly comment. Or, they’ll do so only anonymously, which is better than nothing but lets it be easily dismissed as a snark. Nobody wants one of these sites to set their Bozo bit, because the local tech ecosystem has a small number of fault lines. In Portland, it would matter less, if at all.
Maybe it just comes down to environments with more freelancing vs. more full-time employment, which induces the establishment of communities independent of the employers. And having a more diversified work habitat vs. a small group of powerful economic news sinks. Maybe Seattle has been this way for years, but it’s me who’s mutated over time, and only now I’m noticing it because my interests have sufficiently changed.
Here’s a reflection from Selena Deckelmann, a crown jewel of the Portland FOSS ecosystem:
I think this is mostly true. Another thing is that our city is a city of freelancers, and people who work from home. We seek out socializing to a very large extent with other freelancers and people who work at home. When everyone works in a big building together, it changes their social interactions with people on the “outside”.
In Portland, a lot of us are “on the outside, together”. People have actively worked to make the social atmosphere better.
My friends in Seattle say that the FOSS culture there is non-existent. There are the Burning Man community, Microsofties, Amazon folks and Googlers like you mentioned. And… Not much else. So, tons of Seattle people come out for LinuxFest NW. I don’t know why they don’t like to gather in Seattle. It’s a lot of work to make fun tech cultural events, but I think it would be possible with the right mix of people.
Portland is incredibly collegial, but not very business oriented. I tend to think of it as an R&D lab where people are sharing, experimenting, and cooking up cool ideas whether they have business applications or not. It’s an extremely creative and artistic pursuit. And as such, revenue tends to be the last thing on most people’s minds.
Long story short, Portland folks tend to focus on realizing the idea with technology. and then maybe making a business out of it.
By contrast, Seattle has always struck me as a flavor of Silicon Valley: Come up with a good business idea and find a way to apply technology to bring it to reality. While this is a great way of building startup companies that are designed to drive revenue, it can hinder the development of the community itself, because there aren’t really any communal pursuits. There are business pursuits and competitive concerns.
I don’t think either way is right or wrong. Just different. And to be sure, those are pervading themes. There are incredibly business minded technology pursuits down here, just as I’m sure there are communal pursuits up there. It’s just that they’re not the pervading efforts.
“John, You Ignorant Slut“, or, YMMV
Hey. I’m not perfect, and I’m only one person. I’m evaluating Seattle and Portland within the context of my own background and values. I’ve tried to calibrate the data for my own biases, and think about the cities in a way that recognizes the bulk experience. But someone else might arrive at different conclusions. (But they’d be wrong, because I am all-knowing.) I’d love to hear other viewpoints on all of this.
Without my last Portland trip tipping the scales, I wouldn’t have thought more about Seattle and Portland, or written this. Evaluations within a system are impossible until you can reference an exterior system. If you’ve never investigated Portland, at least follow some of the Portland news sites and become familiar with their technical communities.
Get to the point dammit
I’m still thinking about what this means. I love living and working in Seattle. But what if, all things being equal, I’d more enjoy, and be more successful in, Portland? Of course all things aren’t equal — I’m here now. But if Portland would be more congruous to a lifestyle, that deserves consideration. Even if it leads to concluding that staying in Seattle is the best choice, the processing will still be worthwhile.
Could I affect the local environment for the better? I’m a sometimes attendee of SeaPIG and Seattle Plone Gathering, and a charter member of the Seattle Django Users’ group. (They don’t have official charter membership; I just made that up.) Should I contribute more energy to them? Or, try creating/formulating/supplying absent aspects in the Seattle tech culture? I’m not the conference/user group/event-organizing type, and changing an urban information ecosystem’s nature is a bit beyond me.
I’m talking to three start-ups at the moment. None of them are yet taxiing down the runway. In the meantime, I’m doing a lot of reading and networking.
I’ve become fairly active on Twitter. I enjoy it more than I thought I would. It is addicting.
Over time, my tweets have become more personal and relaxed, and more about everyday things, and politics. You can reasonably argue the definition of “friend,” but, I’ve made new friends through Twitter. Sure, these aren’t donate-a-kidney friends, but they’re good people who are fun to converse with. Maybe after meeting up for a dinner or drinks a couple times, I could get a kidney or two if I needed them. And I’m hearing about the day-to-day activities of some of my conventional buddies, which is delightful. As well as discovering new things about friends I’ve known for years.
Twitter is where I first learned about the passing of Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett, and Michael Jackson. And first heard of the Iranian election protests.
I use Nambu and Hootsuite, but I’m thinking about replacing Nambu with Tweetie. Nambu (the company) favors its iPhone app, and gives its Mac application short shrift. It took them forever and a day to fix Nambu’s flagrant crash and performance problems. I’m losing faith in their ability to quickly develop and improve the application, based on their performance to date.