Be sure to wear a flower in your hair
(This is a repost of my entry "Be sure to wear a flower in your hair" to the South African Tech Leader technology group blog. My next post, What is a geek?, has just been posted there, if you want to read it before a week or two from now when I'll repost it here.)
It’s really hard to summarise the experience of a first visit to San Francisco, assuming you’re at least somewhat a technology geek. San Francisco (and by that, one generally means the San Francisco Bay Area) is modern technology’s birthplace and still its hometown.
Xerox PARC (as in Palo Alto Research Centre) either created or popularised implementations of modern computing aspects such as the mouse, laser printers, Ethernet, GUI/WIMP interfaces, Object-Oriented Programming with the Smalltalk programming language, and the Integrated Development Environment. The Bay Area is home to the headquarters of technology giants such as Apple, Cisco, eBay, Google, Oracle, Sun Microsystems, and Yahoo!, as well as upstarts like Facebook, Mint.com, and SugarCRM. (And SynthaSite, of course.)
At times during my visit the technology industry seemed entirely pervasive — whether it was randomly walking past three people in the street arguing the merits of various memory allocation techniques (I kid you not) or hearing that one of your colleagues just moved into the apartment the CEO of a popular social media startup just moved out of. It is hard not to let your imagination loose with the idea of what can be achieved here, especially after seeing over 3000 developers, a large portion of them probably local to the area and most certainly at least as geeky as I am, at Google’s I/O conference. (I posted quite extensively about my Google I/O trip on my personal blog, if you want to check it out.)
If I sound a bit in love, it’s because I am. I challenge anyone in our industry to somehow not be a little in love with the vibe and pace and sense of belonging you will find in San Francisco. But this isn’t really about technology in San Francisco — it’s about it in South Africa.
Romance novels suggest that sometimes you need to discover (or be reminded of) what is out there to realise quite what you have, that while you find that there’s a lot of prettiness out there, you will also discover that there have been and always will be many and unassailable reasons for you being with the one you’re with.
I needed that a bit with South Africa. I’ve always wanted to be here for the long run, but it has been hard not to get worn down little by little over the past few years by the scarcity of interesting highly-skilled work and the similar scarcity of ambition in South African technology companies. Now, I have an updated and more accurate idea of what is out there, and while South Africa does fair poorly in some comparisons, there are other, more important, aspects to take into consideration. And those mean that leaving it to find some technology heaven elsewhere sounds like a bad swap.
And it’s not like you have to be in San Francisco to wear a flower in your hair — you can experience and help create your own slice of the San Franciscan vibe wherever you are. All it really takes is creating or finding a workplace you can be passionate about using technologies you’re passionate about with people who share that passion (am I saying “passion” enough?), and finding and building a community of similarly technology obsessed people who can help you, and who you can help, and to make you feel like you’re not alone (and who you can make dinner conversation with without resorting to the weather).
I lucked out on the first one — at SynthaSite I have an ambitious company that knows how to treat their employees well, great colleagues, and challenging work — and a pantry full of snacks, lunches materialising daily at my desk, games consoles, and 40-inch TVs. And there are at least a few similarly-enlightened workplaces around, and more can be created.
I already know a number of geeks who’d give a good argument on the merits of various memory allocation techniques. It takes work, but through efforts like GeekDinner and StarCamp, we come to know more, and different, people and benefit from that meeting as they introduce us to new perspectives and, hopefully, shake our preconceptions. And not only come to know people, but also come to know more about our trade through presentations and less formal conversations sparked by an interest that perhaps we didn’t know we had before others introduced the topic.
While it is easy to moan about the lacks we have here, it seems that by our attitudes and our actions we can create an ever-increasing slice of that seemingly far-away vibe. As we kick off planning for the next StarCamp in Cape Town, and a national web technology conference, I’m hoping we will find positive attitudes and actions in finding co-organisers, presenters, sponsors, and venues.