One of the best things about working in Austin is the sheer number of great software companies in town. From web-based start-ups to established enterprise software giants, there is huge diversity in the locally available business models, technology stacks, market sectors, and experience levels. It’s a good bet that no matter what technology problem that you’re facing, a few Austin companies have already found, built, or bought a solution before you.
About a year ago, I was having dinner with a friend who happens to work at another local software company. Throughout dinner we discussed a couple of different infrastructure technologies that our teams had recently built, some problems we were facing, and we shared ideas that might help solve some of those problems. We each walked away not only with ideas that might help solve our upcoming challenges, but also with a list of things that had already been tried and abandoned. While we each have intellectual property that we aren’t at liberty to share, that line leaves a ton of room for technology and ideas that our companies don’t wish to protect as IP. The big remaining question was “How do we do this again, and how do we get more of our team members learning from each other?”
Based on that experience, a few months later Bazaarvoice hosted our first ‘tech talk’ for the outside community. We invited half a dozen other companies from around Austin to come and learn about our architecture and some technologies that we had built that might be useful to others. Specifically, our agenda for the night was:
1. An overview of Bazaarvoice for those in the audience that didn’t know us (5 min)
2. An overview of our application architecture to support scale and uptime (45 min)
3. An infrastructure technology to easily configure Spring for multiple environment types (20 min)
4. A technology to supporting backwards compatibility and versioning in a REST API (20 min)
In return, the attending companies agreed to host their own talks at some point in the future. Fast forward a year, and the group has heard from four different companies and we’ve added a few new teams to the roster. For the investment of presenting 90 minutes worth of material, our teams have all continued to learn from the cumulative successes and mistakes of the whole group.
The good news is that Austin is not unique. There are places all over the country with a rich software industry that can replicate this idea. Think of it as a way to open-source some of your good ideas without the overhead of starting a blog or supporting a true OSS project (though you might want to do those things too). If you do consider it (and I highly recommend it), here are some tips to help make your group successful:
1. You are who you work for
One of the keys for the group was to have participation be officially sanctioned by the companies in attendance. While I can attend a technology group as an individual, I can’t share any of the great things that I’m working on unless Bazaarvoice agrees that those ideas are not IP that we want to protect. When it comes to sharing the inside scoop about your team’s technology, you certainly don’t want any misunderstandings or gray areas about what is appropriate and what isn’t. This also made it easy to continue the group, as we had established up front that every company in attendance for the original Bazaarvoice talk was also willing to share in return.
2. Like building software, don’t over engineer it
Getting something up and running doesn’t take a lot of infrastructure. We organized the first few meetings via email with a representative from each company. Did we have a fancy logo? Nope. Did we have a website to manage attendees? Nope. Did we have a name for the group? Nope (although it has since been informally dubbed “Austin Scales”). Did we have a budget? Nope. We just invited everyone to our office and provided some frosty beverages (this last part is highly recommended). Then, I found a volunteer to present the next time and let them organize it. They did the same for the time after that. You can always add those other nice-to-haves once your group is successful.
3. The first rule of fight club is “No recruiting.” The second rule of fight club is “NO RECRUITING!”
While the companies in attendance may not be competing with each other on the business front, we are often at war when it comes to finding and recruiting top talent. No company will want to approve participation in the group if they believe it will result in their best engineers being lured away. Make sure that everyone in attendance is on the same page. If your company is hiring, leave it at the door.