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The Wired

Baltimore's technology workforce tries to energize the region's entrepreneurial spirit

Photographs By Christopher Myers
Patti Chan, co-founder of Ignite Baltimore.
Mike Subelsky, co-founder of Ignite Baltimore.
Dave Troy, founder of Social Devcamp East.

By Martin L. Johnson | Posted 10/21/2009

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Technology isn't the first, or even 50th, thing that comes to mind when Baltimore is mentioned. While the Museum of Industry houses remnants of the city's past prowess in manufacturing umbrellas and even television sets, high tech is more commonly associated with Baltimore's crime-fighting tactics, such as COMSTAT and the blue-light police cameras, than new start-ups. Nevertheless, business- and government-oriented technology firms, and a handful of independent video-game development companies in Hunt Valley, many of which were founded by former employers of the pioneering game company MicroProse, have long existed in Baltimore, even if their headquarters were in the suburbs.

The report blandly titled "Information Technology in Greater Baltimore" and published by the Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore in November 2008 confirms this basic finding. With the usual business community glitz, the study finds that the Baltimore-Washington area had the highest concentration of tech workers in the country, with its 270,000 tech workers, second in number only to New York. More than 100,000 of these tech workers are based in Maryland. The area ranks only seventh, however, in the amount of venture capital invested in the region, placing it behind cities such as Boston and Los Angeles.

Tom Loveland, a self-described introvert who nonetheless recently attended another new tech meeting independently organized and titled Innovate Baltimore (innovatebaltimore.com), started the IT services firm Mind Over Machines (mindovermachines.com) in 1989, making his company one of the oldest technology businesses in the area. Because his company does both government and commercial work, Loveland says that he has employees who are interested in both sides of the business. "Maryland has a very strong federal government presence, which keeps our unemployment rate low," he says at a cocktail party at a bar on Boston Street in Canton. "But that sucks up a lot of the talent."

After spending several months last year fighting the "tech tax"--a 6 percent tax on computer services passed by the state legislature in 2007 and repealed in April 2008 before it ever took effect--Loveland became more involved in other technology issues in Baltimore. When his company was asked to sponsor events like Ignite, he says it was an easy sell.

"There was no pitch at all," he says, noting that he was an admirer of the sociologist Richard Florida's argument that the future of cities lay in encouraging members of the "creative class," code for artists, writers, designers, and programmers, to settle there. (Then-mayor Martin O'Malley tried to become an early adopter of this idea for urban cultural and economic development in 2003, when he invited Florida to speak at the city's second annual Cultural Town Meeting.) "It was a new concept. My company is a little bit richer than some others, so it's a bit easier to sponsor these things."

While Loveland's involvement in the local tech community has largely taken place on the sidelines, Dave Troy--who founded and ran the internet service provider ToadNet from 1995-2004 before moving on to a number of social media projects including the Twitter Vote Report, which attempted to account for real-time voting problems in the 2008 election--has been at the head of many of the recent developments in Baltimore technology. Troy, whose wire-rim glasses and pressed shirts give him the appearance of an elder statesman in a relatively young demographic, has ties to official tech organizations in the area, but he has also embraced the participatory and energetic nature of the grass-roots social events. He sits on the Board of Directors of the Greater Baltimore Tech Council (gbtechcouncil.org), and was the founder and co-organizer of SocialDevCamp East, a participant-organized "unconference" on social media that was first held in Baltimore in May 2008. (It should be noted that while longstanding city initiatives such as the Greater Baltimore Tech Council have been supportive of these new efforts, they did not generate them.)

"We have great fundamentals," Troy says of Baltimore technology companies during an interview at Beehive Baltimore (beehivebaltimore.org), a co-working space for, as Troy puts it, "pretty much anybody who uses a laptop," in Canton that he and several others started this past February. "We have a very highly educated workforce, we have a very wealthy population, we have great access to all sort of cultural institutions. There's really nothing we lack here."

In the past few years, Troy has started many initiatives, including the TEDx MidAtlantic and Baltimore Angels (twitter.com/baltimoreangels), an investment group that specializes in new start-up companies and accepts initial pitches only on Twitter. "We want for nothing," he says. "The difficulty that we face is that we've not developed an entrepreneurial culture."

The elephant in the room, again, is the government, which due to its outsized presence in the region often discourages people from leaving secure jobs and pensions to start their own companies. "It's a challenge to get people to start companies when the alternative is to take a $120,000 a year job at a defense contractor," Troy says. "All these new jobs coming in with BRAC [the U.S. Department of Defense's Base Realignment and Closure, which according to a 2007 study by the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development will bring 45,000 new jobs to the region by 2011] and the cybersecurity initiative at Fort Meade, in fact, worry me because they are going to create a lot of pressure on people to move into those kind of jobs just because there will be so many of them and [they'll be] so well-paid."

Although he doesn't say it explicitly, many of the events Troy has backed in recent years have been cultural or social rather than technical. For example, in February he helped sponsor Baltimore's first "Twestival," one of hundreds of volunteer-organized concerts that took place worldwide between Sept. 10-13. Because many of events like this are, in business speak, proven concepts, organizers are able to put together more events in less time.

Troy says that his goal is to get people to meet who otherwise would not know each other. "If you get people together and get them to trade good ideas and get to know each other better--my goal is to make the entrepreneurial climate better, and to get to know a lot of people, and figure out how to participate in the entrepreneurial climate once it is improved," he says. "We don't have too far to go. All we have to do is work at it a little bit and believe in ourselves, and good things will start to happen."

Some events, such as the Greater Baltimore Tech Council's TechNite, now in its 20th year, have long served as gathering spaces for the technically minded in the city, but these new happenings occur much more frequently, and each has a slightly different audience in mind. For example, D:center Baltimore (dcenterbaltimore.com), a monthly series of conversations and presentations about design in Baltimore hosted and co-organized by former Urbanite editor Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson, might not attract the same crowd as an event on the open-source web application framework Ruby on Rails, but members of both groups might attend Ignite.

Loveland says that Subelsky was typical of the type of person he wanted to see become part of the tech community in Baltimore. "Subelsky is a fantastic example," Loveland says. "A couple of years ago he thought that there were just two or three software development companies in the city. But he started to reach out and found that there are dozens."

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