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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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At the inaugural Innovate Baltimore--described on its web site as a "social community for business leaders, entrepreneurs, creative and digital technology enthusiasts in the Baltimore region"--Subelsky, Troy, and a few others were engaged in a conversation about their suddenly overfull social calendars, which in part was due to the success of their own events.

In web development, the moment when a site used to a few thousand users suddenly finds several hundred thousand users is harrowing, as site crashes could ruin the site's reputation and cause it to eventually die off. While Innovate Baltimore's launch was successful by any measure, and brought people from the gaming and advertising worlds into the conversation, Subelsky and Troy agreed that similar events started well but had trouble keeping up the same level of energy over time. Despite both the number and the density of tech professionals in the greater Baltimore region, convincing them to see these events as the first step in starting their own companies is difficult.

But one of the reasons there have been so many tech events in the past year is that the tech community is both diverse and dispersed throughout the region. While both the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins have biotech parks in Baltimore, and Gov. Martin O'Malley recently announced increased state funding for biotech industries, there has not been similar support for consumer technology.

Game developer Benjamin Walsh, who lives in Towson, and brand strategist Tina Tyndal, who lives in Silver Spring, met at a September 2008 meeting of the International Game Developers Association. Walsh said he was looking for a way to network with video-game professionals at a time when he believed programmers dominated many of the meetings in the area.

"I've been doing a lot of networking in the area, going to D.C. and Philly," he says by phone on the Sunday after Innovate Baltimore's first event. "I didn't see anything that really appealed to me. We work in technology, but we involve a lot of other disciplines, not just programming. Since I'm not a programmer, it's hard to talk in a room of people who are just talking about codes."

While some of these events, such as Innovate Baltimore, are initially only social gatherings, and others, such as Ignite, are oriented around presentations, over time each event becomes a little of both. Entrepreneurs need good ideas and talented employees to be successful, but they also need to be able to present their ideas well to raise investment money. While many event organizers and attendees are attracted by meeting others in the city doing similar work, they are also looking to find new people to work with and improve both the presentation and content of their own business plans.

Tyndal, an avid gamer whose speech is peppered with marketing terms such as "brand leveraging," says that she was looking for a way to bring together different disciplines in the tech community. "What I wanted and Ben wanted was an opportunity for professionals to have drinking socials," she says in a phone interview. "Our group definitely brings in some extra people from the video-game side and the marketing side."

In interviews with a half-dozen people in the room, it became clear that while many people were successful professionals who were looking either to find new partners or clients, or just support the development of the tech community, others were still on the outside looking in, waiting for an opportunity to break into the industry.

For example, Eric Ruth, a local independent game developer who was showcasing one of his latest games, Georgie George & the Great Quack Machine, in the corner of the bar, works the night shift at a convenience store to make ends meet. The 26-year-old Paul Capestany moved to Baltimore eight years ago to attend Johns Hopkins University and now works at the International Center for Spinal Cord Injury at the Kennedy Kreiger Institute. He's also at work on a start-up that allows users to chat with one another regardless of which web site they are visiting. He says he's planning on starting an event that united mentors and young entrepreneurs interested in starting their own companies.

Like many in his age group, Capestany says that he finds it difficult to find others willing to commit to the long hours and fundraising start-ups require. "People aren't willing to go all in," he says. "They want a cushy job."

Patrick Roanhouse, who describes himself on his web site as a 25-year-old "technologist and budding media technology entrepreneur," had already soured on government work. At the Innovate Baltimore event, he met Peter Allen, a freelance graphic designer who lives on the Eastern Shore. Both agreed that government work ties one's hands.

"You'll design something cheap, fast, and dirty so you've basically guaranteed yourself a contract for life," Roanhouse says, pointing to the fact that many of the tech jobs in Baltimore are, unlike those in Silicon Valley, very secure, as the federal government is unlikely to stop demanding the services of the contractors it hires, particularly in the case of software designed to meet a specific government requirement. "You've done something that no one else can ever do so if they need to get service or support, they'll come back to you."

Subelsky, Troy, and the many others who have helped create and promote tech events in the past few years have thrown themselves behind free, open-source, and participatory software, terms that are still anathema to a government that grades the importance of its officials by how much access they have to secret and proprietary information.

While switching Baltimore's technology culture from a government and business service focus to an entrepreneurial, user-focused culture appears to be as easy as throwing up a Facebook invite to an event modeled on a successful one in another city, it's not yet clear if the local tech community that Troy envisions will become large enough to be sustainable. "I'm trying to get a lot of this kind of stuff established and prove that it can be done," he says. "A lot of the challenge in creating change is just to demo that, yes, this is possible."

And although the Silicon Valley model comes up again and again, particularly among younger people who are more mobile, Troy emphasizes that transforming Baltimore's tech culture into a clone of Valley culture is the wrong way to go.

"There was a really good tweet this morning from a friend up at Philadelphia who runs a co-working space up there," he said. "It was 'Why do cities want to be like Silicon Valley? They should instead try to be themselves, but with less suck.' That's spot-on. We're never going to be Silicon Valley. We can just be ourselves, but with less suck."

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