A Little Historical Perspective on Portland Tech

I was fortunate enough to catch Bram Pitoyo‘s live broadcast of the Portland Web Innovators meeting. While I enjoyed watching Rick Turoczy give an effective ‘State of the Portland Tech Union Address‘ I couldn’t help but think back to another point in Portland’s Tech History.

Back in 1995, Portland was abuzz with the Internet. Since the web was relatively new (think Web 1.0, or maybe 0.95b1), the excitement over it and opportunities created by it connected people from traditional Portland tech, software engineering universe, and non-tech entrepreneurs who saw the opportunity to use the new technology to fuel business.

It was out of this unique mix that the Portland Internet community was born. In this space a few factions existed: The SAO (The Software Association of Oregon), which existed prior to the web, consisted mainly of hardcore technologists and engineers;  Netogether, run by Lenny Charnoff, it existed as a local business networking and discussion forum designed to bridge the gap between the technology and the local businesses who could benefit from it.; Internet Professionals Northwest (aka Internet Entrepreneurs Association) which flourished under the leadership of Mike Pritchard and provided a mixing point between technologists and entrepreneurs.

The sheer excitement back then over the technology fueled conferences, lectures, talks, networking meetings, venture capital presentations and even the occasional beer & schmooze (this was before the age of blogging).

Watching the discussion after Rick Turoczy‘s presentation at the Portland Web Innovators meeting I had absolute flashbacks to exact same discussions that bounded around the networking groups in 1995.

Since I truly believe that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” I believe it’s important to share some of the conclusions which came out of hours and hours of discussions, often heated debates and candid comments from reporters about the tech scene from Web 1.0.

One of the major conclusions reached back in Portland Web 1.0 was that the community itself, no matter how strong, dynamic and enjoyable isn’t relevant outside of Portland. Back in 1995-1998 some extremely dynamic things happened in the Portland Tech space and very little of it ever got exposure outside of the group itself.

I was good friends back then, with a reporter for the Oregonian who I often inundated with press releases and local tech story ideas. One day I called her to voice my frustrations over just how few things were actually getting covered in the paper. She told me that the tech events and stories needed to connect to a larger story, be part of the big picture. So we did just that. In September of 1995 we got a group of Oregon businessmen to all fly down with the reporter to Northern California to the Internet World conference. At the conference we did a round-table with the reporter to talk about the impact of the Internet on all business in Portland and that article landed on the front page of the Oregonian.

One of the core realizations was that to truly thrive the Portland Tech Community needed to extend beyond itself, connect to the universe outside of tech and create relevancy beyond the four walls of the group.  Unfortunately those goals were never really achieved and the tech networking groups ultimately suffered from infighting, break off groups and just plain fatigue.

Watching the video of the Portland Web Innovators meeting and hearing people talk about ensuring a barrier of entry to the Portland Tech community and building a Geek Lodge I couldn’t help but feel that the Portland Tech train is on the very same tracks as it was back with Portland Web 1.0.  Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoy the amazing universe of community that happens on Twitter in Portland, I make it a point to attend each Ignite Portland and Wordcamp Portland was one of my favorite business related functions I did in 2008. But I think it’s too easy to get lost in the excitement of the Portland Tech Community.

The brutal truth is that 2009 is going to be an extremely rough year for many people in the community. Local companies have just started layoffs and a lot more are on the horizon. Great adversity can create great opportunities for a community to come together, support each other and find ways to use that community strength to grow. But for the Portland Tech Community to be relevant it takes more than just coming together. If the goal is to ‘put Oregon tech on the map’ then it’s going to take crossing the lines and reaching out to local businesses, involving people from outside the tight knit community and working together to create relevant national stories about Portland and tech.

This is very doable. Over the next year there will be a lot of media coverage on the gloom and doom of business and the lasting impact over the economic recession/depression. A community which can show a compelling story of success in the face of this adversity could really distinguish itself and provide the opportunity to show what a special and amazing place it really is.

Post Script 12/8/2008 – I’ve been pretty blown away by the response to this piece, both good and bad. What I haddn’t expected was that it would stir such negative emotions on the part of some of the readers and writers of OurPDX.

It was fairly shocking to be personally attacked in comments, email and on private writers forum over this post. I’ve had my intentions called to task, my sincerety challenged and berated for writing at several sites in town. Perhaps I’ve hit some sort of nerve.

I’m happy that this piece has spawned the biggest discussion in the site’s history. People talking about these issues is important. But infighting never leads anywhere good, so for my part I’ve said what I will about this post and topic and am moving on to the next topic. Whatever that may be.

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