The Questions We Should Be Asking

Brain dump ahead. I have a bunch of commentary on what’s going on with the PDC software cluster study (and the SAO’s involvement) that’s been floating around in my head, and I’d like to get it out on the page.

I’ve been very frustrated with the first round of PDC surveying, as Silicon Florist noted. The questions in the survey seemed completely oriented toward the executives and managers of large companies. But the initial results from the Portland Software Census indicate that the majority of software development in Portland does not occur in large companies—in fact, 18% of us are sole proprietors. So questions about ‘access to talent’ and ‘ability to innovate’ are mostly irrelevant. (More good commentary on that by Tom Turnbull).

The results that are getting the most attention, stating that our main concerns are taxes, education, and political engagement, are based on a series of questions that asked participants how positively they felt about doing business in Portland as a whole, then how they felt about each of these areas. It did not provide a useful way to indicate whether these issues were important to our overall satisfaction, or whether other (not listed) issues were more important. [1] It also does not address whether opinions over those concerns are specific to the software development field. If the general population’s satisfaction with the City of Portland is correlated with feelings on local taxes, it doesn’t make sense to spend software cluster resources on that over issues that are particular to this industry.

As a result, the initial PDC survey results are flawed, or at best incomplete, and not particularly useful for determining what the average software company in Portland actually needs. It’s essential that they perform a follow-up study that does ask more relevant questions, so that the eventual development plan can include (rather than ignore and disenfranchise) the rest of the local software community.

Not surprisingly, I’m saying this because I have my own opinion of what sorts of issues are important to having a thriving software industry here, and I want to see them addressed. My various projects (Calagator, user groups, helping plan the first two Portland BarCamps) have given me a fair amount of opportunity to talk to people about what they need to get out there and do their work, and where they’re struggling. Here’s what comes up in those conversations.

Economic Opportunities
We need economic opportunities that help startups and independent developers build thriving businesses. This includes educating potential customers and clients that there is a wealth of local talent to draw on. This includes business training, mentorship, and access to business talent (especially as companies grow beyond the founder’s ability to manage). This includes funding at all levels, access to investors, and seed capital. It’s part of the issue people are talking about right now when they ask, “why did Jive switch their headquarters from Portland to the Bay Area, even while most of their developer talent remains here?”

Professional Development Opportunities
We have a thriving talent pool and continue to generate interesting new technology projects in part because Portland already has an active, informal network of professional development and training opportunities. These are called user groups and unconferences and open source projects. This activity doesn’t happen automatically, or by some magic pixie dust, but through the efforts of large numbers of unpaid volunteers who love their work and the tools they use. For this to continue, it needs ongoing support, from financial sponsors, new volunteers, and spaces to hold our meetings and events. The space issue has become particularly complicated in the past year, as CubeSpace, a coworking facility that hosted many of these activities, closed up shop, and no similar facility has emerged to completely replicate its role (though several are doing parts). In particular, there is a lack of a unifying common public space where groups and projects overlap, and developers working on different projects may casually interact with each other.

Here’s another issue: it’s important that any economic development plan has appropriate metrics for determining success. At the PDC-hosted Lunch 2.0, I heard them mention “job creation” as part of how they will do this. But job creation isn’t enough. We need to look at startup activities, whether companies get funding and the customers they need, and whether we’re building businesses that are sustainable over time. There are a lot of kinds of economic activities and even growth that don’t necessarily create new jobs, and if that’s not part of the metric, we’ll have an incomplete picture of what happened.

One last note, on the SAO’s role in this, and getting the independent developer communities involved. The Software Association of Oregon is the de facto trade group for software companies (in Portland and statewide), but they don’t really represent or reflect the kind of work I do, or the work many other local developers do. They come from a big corporation background that often has a different culture, way of working, and attitudes than my segment of the technology world. But they are also well-established in a way that makes them the obvious organization for government entities looking to connect with the software development community, so it makes sense that they’ve been participating and helping shape the PDC’s software cluster study from the start.

It’s very important that the rest of us are represented in those conversations as well, and it can’t be left to the occasional rabble-rouser to get us all involved. That’s why the Civic Engagement meetup we’re having at Open Source Bridge is important. If we don’t have connection points and ways for outside organizations to interact with us as a group, our voices won’t be heard.

[1] For the record: I like paying taxes (as a friend says, “with taxes I buy civilization”); I grew up here and my feelings about my personal educational experience are mixed, but since most of the people I collaborate with are from elsewhere this is irrelevant; and all this writing and talking to people is my political engagement activity, so I guess we’re doing okay there as well.

2 responses to “The Questions We Should Be Asking

  1. Oops, I forgot to reframe what I was saying in terms of follow up questions the PDC needs to ask. Basically, I want to study: what sorts of economic and professional development opportunities are people already accessing, and where do they need help? (either as new opportunities or access to existing ones) Also, what do we find to be the biggest obstacles to building the businesses we’re interested in having? The answers to those would provide a solid basis for further planning.

  2. Pingback: Town Hall: Discuss the results of the initial Portland Development Commission (PDC) software cluster survey « Silicon Florist