A few weeks ago, Eric Liu, founder of RocketLease, asked me if I would like to help him organize the Chicago Hacker News meetup. We wanted to class it up a bit over the traditional “Meetup Pizza,” so I spent the morning at Whole Foods, trying to figure out how much cheese one buys to feed 100 people, and how I — a developer — ended up in a job where event planning was a core competency.
I moved to Chicago in 2005, about a year after I left the University of Illinois without a degree. I managed to save up about $1,200 doing freelance web development and on March 23 — a day I celebrate like it was my birthday — I moved to this city with no job and little in the way of connections.
I was looking for a new start. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with my life, but I was certain that Chicago would provide an opportunity to figure it out. For two years, I bounced between a seemingly disparate bunch of jobs — teaching web development, doing sales at software startup, leasing high-rise apartments, and even bouncing at a hip-hop club. In retrospect, I realize that I’ve always been drawn to roles where I can meet and serve a diverse group of people.
As much as I love people though, I’ve been programming most of my life and didn’t want to give that up. At a poker game in 2006, I met the CEO of a dev shop called Table XI, and about a year later I joined his team as the sixth employee. Being a small company, I was able to wear a bunch of different hats for a bunch of different clients; and as a developer who liked talking to people, whenever the need arose to take someone out for coffee or represent Table XI at a networking event, I was the one who raised my hand.
The tech community was quite small and disorganized back then, which was odd given Chicago’s significant role in building the web as we know it. The first popular browser, Mosaic, was created two hours south of here in 1994. The preeminent Python framework, Django, was created by Chicagoan Adrian Holovarty 11 years ago. And in 2005, 37signals released Ruby on Rails while pioneering the SaaS model with Basecamp.
Yet despite our history, it’s only been in the last five years that our tech scene has come into its own. Groupon proved that a Chicago-born company could scale, and its IPO injected capital into the ecosystem when the primary investor, LightBank, began funding a slew of startups (there’s a lot of hope that GrubHub’s IPO will have a similar effect). In 2012, Chicago’s tech talent made a lot of noise when President Obama was reelected thanks in part to the most technologically sophisticated campaign ever run. A few successes on a national stage allowed Chicago to carve out it’s own identity instead of trying to be the next Silicon Valley.
Putting on the Developer Evangelist Hat
Of all the roles I played during my six years at Table XI, it was the the community building that felt the most satisfying. This became especially apparent when I started speaking about Developers and Depression and my personal struggles with bipolar disorder. After a dozen conferences and hundreds of conversations with developers, it became obvious that my true passion was serving developers instead of serving clients. In November, I put in my six-week notice and started searching for a job where I could serve the developer community full-time. In February, I began working as a developer evangelist for Twilio.
Twilio’s got about a dozen developer evangelists spread out across the US and UK. Our team’s mission is to “inspire and equip developers to change communications forever.” Twilio believes that a robust, healthy, and growing community of developers will produce more apps, and a portion of those apps will need to send text messages and receive phone calls.
As Twilio’s only employee in Chicago, my job is to help the our tech community flourish. So if you see me around town wearing my red track jacket, come say “Hi.” If there’s a way I can help, whether it’s by speaking at an event, answering a question about Twilio, or just sitting down for a chat, please don’t hesitate to ask. It’s my job.
And if you’re a developer in Chicago and would like to become more involved in our tech scene, here’s what I suggest:
- 1871 – the grand poo-bah of Chicago co-working spaces. Whenever Mayor Emanuel announces an initiative to bring tech jobs to the city, he makes it here.
- Grind - A beautiful new coworking space one block north of where Batman flipped the Joker’s semi truck. While 1871 is unparalleled for the “co-”, the quieter Grind is a bit better suited for “-working.”
My favorite developer focused meetups are:
- RefreshChicago - run by Belly’s Director of Product, Shay Howe.
- HTML 5 - one of the largest tech meetups in the city, run by Mattie Langenberg
- Geekfest - Weekly talks hosted by Groupon on Tuesdays over lunch. If you’ve never spoken in front of developers before, this is a great place to get your feet wet.
- Chicago Ruby - Organized by Ray Hightower, who also organizes the best regional Ruby conference in the country, Windy City Rails.
- Open Gov Hack Night - Civic minded hacking Tuesday nights at 1871. While you’re there, find Christopher Whitaker. He works closely with the SmartChicago Collaborative which is dedicated to “improving the lives in Chicago through technology.”
Some of the most rewarding time I’ve spent over the last year has been mentoring students at:
- Starter School - A nine month program school dedicated to teaching non-techies how to launch their own product.
- DevBootcamp – An intense coding school run by Dave Hoover, the guy who literally wrote the book on software apprenticeship. Since opening last year, DevBootcamp has graduated over 200 students with 85% going onto full time developer positions.
Thanks for reading, feel free to find me on Twitter @greggyb, or find me in person in Chicago