Meetup madness: Slumming it in startup land

Odyssey of face-to-face meet-ups rivals golf as a good waste of time

Ever wish you could take a one-year sabbatical from your corporate job, then (after six months of golf) dive into the vibrant, energizing world of grassroots technology innovation?

You'd travel to Silicon Valley, get an apartment in San Francisco, spend time just meeting people and finding the informal venues where young innovators mingle. You'd debate architectures and business models. Do mashups. Stay up all night whiteboarding and prototyping, then drive to the desert for the Burning Man festival, getting back just in time for your stock options to vest.

Well, forget about it, I'm going to save you the trouble. It's not glamorous like that. Maybe energizing on some level – but boy, it certainly ain't pretty.

I know this because I've just spent a couple of months going to a bunch of small, grassroots local discussions about technology, called meetups. These are loosely organized get-togethers where a hodgepodge of techies and entrepreneurs exchange ideas, noodle over problems, and build friendships over beer or in a borrowed conference room.

Now maybe I just haven't gone to the right ones, but I've gone to enough that I'm starting to see some recurring themes:

1. The total non-sequitur (aka "why am I here"). At a recent open source database meetup, I asked a woman next to me if she had any advice about shared hosting providers. She proceeded to tell me everything there is to know about their First Amendment (privacy) policies, which is her top concern because her content is "sensitive." I also found out what she meant by "sensitive," but I'll spare you the details.

2. The smartest person in the room hasn't reached puberty. I attended a content management meetup at a large nearby university. There were about 40 people present, mostly in their 30s and 40s, including several IT staffers from that large university. After a round of introductions, the lights dimmed and the featured talk was given – by a 10-year-old. A freakin' 10-year-old! OK, maybe he was 12. And it was a good presentation. But where did this kid come from?

3. The anti-establishment arrogance factor. "Half our business is because corporate IT departments can't move fast enough and are too calcified," one entrepreneur told me at another event. "Our customers need it up and running next week, but their IT budget process has a one-year lead time… those guys are good for nothing."

4. The "we're so great, woe is us" factor. "Our traffic is off the charts, we're growing 10 percent a week, but the way we designed our database, we have nine million tables. We're so hosed."

5. The "I'm so good, woe is me" factor. "Operations people like me just don't get any respect. I was offered a sys admin job at Google three years ago for $34,000 a year. Can you believe that? Sure, they had all the on-site benefits, but you can't live on that. Good people are leaving there because they don't pay enough…"

6. The "handcuffed by the community" conundrum. "Of course we should add that functionality to our core code … we'd like to, but we're an open source project and need to be sensitive to the community that's developed all the third-party modules. Yes, we know they don't work well together … that'll just have to get sorted out over time."

7. The lurking elder statesman. At another event, an older, debonair, and articulate man showed up, talking about the hundreds of thousands of dollars of developer time he'd invested into the code base of various open source projects. He had great advice and suggestions for everyone. But I wondered … what is he doing here? What does he get out of this? And most importantly, who does his tailoring?

8. The open door debate. There's a door at the entrance to the room. It's propped open so that latecomers will be able to find the meeting. But it lets in noise from outside, making it difficult for those sitting near the door to hear. Should it be open or closed? Who will make this decision?

I could go on, but you get the idea. Don't get me wrong, I was very glad I attended all these get-togethers, learned a lot (that's a low bar), and even met one developer I've been able to collaborate with very successfully.

But my point is this: People are people, meetings are meetings, and the grass isn't always greener. So if you get that sabbatical, maybe you should take nine months for golf.

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