Speaking of the Vancouver Tech Community...

by Todd

There’s a conversation on Branch today on a perennial local topic: how do we fix the Vancouver tech community. “Fix” isn’t specifically used in the post, but when this topic comes up there’s an undertone that what we have isn’t working.

It’s easy to get frustrated and lost in opinions, which moves us to grasp for single causes or solutions. The two I notice the most are to demand more from those in the community who have shown some leadership (though that is often confused with those who have notoriety for their work); and to build more things, that action will beget avenues to a thriving tech culture. Both explanations don’t work for me.

Leadership and activity are good things, but I think they’re indicators rather than causes. Does anything ever really have a single ingredient or cause? It’s tempting to buy into (just one click!), but belies a more subtle and complex reality. In other words, healthy communities are multi-faceted, and can’t be prescribed with or ascribed to single factors. When we try to put too much on those single factors, they fall down or become mutations of their original goodness.

Asking community notables to do more doesn’t work because it puts responsibility for keeping the community vibrant onto their shoulders alone. Not seeing the event you’d like to see? Too bad, because under this explanation, if gatekeepers haven’t endorsed it then nobody will follow. That assumption is self-defeat in a nutshell.

So try the second path: just build your thing and get it out there. That approach means everyone is just pitching their own thing, or listening to you talk about your thing only for a chance to talk about theirs. Or worse, seeing if your thing can benefit their thing, checking out as soon as they don’t think you can do something for them. The number of times I’ve seen the latter happen is depressing. People focused on building their thing as a means of engagement have such narrow focus that if you can’t solve their problem du jour, or introduce them to money or exposure, your words are just white noise.

We often look to the San Francisco scene as a model to envy and build from. My experience in that community was very positive: people supported each other without expecting something back other than good will, and I’ve often wondered why I didn’t see that as much here.

Sometimes I think it’s because Vancouver is too small, making opportunities and resources look zero-sum, meaning that if your thing does well then mine can’t. Other times I think Vancouver is an expensive place to live, and that giving up billable hours for socializing without an agenda isn’t worth the risk. Still other times I think we want to only invest our attention in what we think will work rather than just being curious, that we’re afraid to align with projects or people that are yet unproven. And still other times I wonder if just socializing around specializations creates islands that are good parties in themselves but drift apart over time.

Or maybe this is just the shape that Vancouver’s tech scene takes. We can be ok with that, but when the conversation keeps coming up about how to change it we have to be open to the idea that maybe something is missing. Community used to be thought of as people of different backgrounds and opinions finding enough common ground to make living in the same space tolerable. These days we see it more as people of like mind huddling to enjoy each others company while the rest of the world does its own thing. If something is missing, then we don’t need more of the same, we need more of the different.

That means no magic bullet, no perfect venue, no one brilliant organizer, and fewer niche themes. It means enjoying the good and being genuinely curious about what’s going on, not expecting that we’ll ever create a Golden Age of the Vancouver tech community. Because if we can do that and accept where we’re at now, in all our sometimes-great and sometimes-busted ways, we’ll have arrived.