Hey, Hackers need friends too!

Despite a plethora of events supporting “new media” types, and even such things as Geek Dinners, the UK eco-system around “hackers” (good programmers, in the true definition) – remains thin. Or so argues Ian Hogarth of Songkick in this guest post.

I believe the most critical thing we can do to improve the ecosystem for start-ups in the UK is to create more community around hackers.

We’ve found that having a community of other hackers around you can massively accelerate both your personal growth, and most importantly for start-ups – the speed at which you can improve your product.

I’m by no means an expert on either start-ups or hacking but I’ll tell you about the experience that convinced me of the value of a local community of hackers.

My background is in statistical machine learning, so when some friends and I wanted a website dedicated to live music, I had to learn some new skills – most critically how to make a website! I’d heard that Facebook had been built on PHP and I liked Facebook so I started teaching myself the basics of building a web app on the LAMP stack and hacking up a prototype. At that point we had a great break and got into Y Combinator (YC). With that we went from being a few friends trying to make something out of an East London flat to being surrounded by a group of 40 really exceptional hackers – 90% of whom had a strong background in web programming. It made an incredible difference. The first thing that became clear was that a web framework could really help to save time. Rails and Django seemed to be the most popular choices and after discussing it with other YC founders we decided to try rails. Immediately things started to move faster, in no small part due to the help and support that some of the other YC companies gave us when getting started with Ruby. The community around YC helped us to find our first hire who was already an experienced Ruby hacker so then we really started to speed up.

When I look back on the craziness of that Y Combinator summer one of the least expected benefits was the value of discussing our ideas with other hackers – on a regular basis. Every week YC would hold dinners for people where we’d show each other what they were working on. The benefits of doing that included the “damn they made a lot of progress, we need to step it up” feeling, the “wow, can you show me how you did that” reaction and most importantly advice on how to do things faster, better and cheaper. Hackers are some of the most generous people I know but even I was surprised to fire an email out asking for advice on efficient ways to set up AB testing and get some code sent back to me within the hour (props Paul).

When we moved back to London after the summer a really strange thing started to happen. We unconsciously became isolated from other hackers again. Although we discussed ideas amongst our team, critically we were missing the structure that those weekly dinners provided. Whenever we did meet other London based hackers (for example the incredibly talented dev teams at Dopplr,
and Socialistics) we’d get a ton of helpful suggestions and would be reminded again of the value of that discussion. Then we’d be head down again and not meet any other developers for weeks.

I believe that in the UK we aren’t missing great technical talent – we’re missing enough regular events for hackers to meet, in forums focused on hacking. In SF there are developer oriented meetups every night of the week, in New York there’s the mighty Tech Meetup but in the UK we need to do more to make sure those discussions happen.

We’ve tried to have a go at fixing that ourselves by organising monthly ‘Hacker Meetups’ in London. For the past 6 months around 30-60 hackers have come down to our office in East London to demo new technology they’ve built and then go out for some cheap food nearby. This month (on September 4th) we’re getting the guys from the Erlang training centre to come and tells us a bit more about the benefits of the language and have 4-5 quick demos from people hacking on anything from new programming languages to iPhone apps. When I see 50 enthusiastic people all absorbed in discussions about a new Javascript framework, or catch our CTO in the corner animatedly discussing ideas for scaling with another start-up it feels like those Tuesday nights at Y Combinator. It feels exciting that we can start to create that atmosphere every month in London and I’d love to see similar events happen more and more.

What do you think? Do you regularly meet up with other UK based hackers? How useful is that discussion to you? Would you host a Hacker Meetup in your city?