December 1, 2010

Slightly edited, after posting – a guy really shouldn’t talk in the third person or say “you know” twice in one sentence, you know? I’ll flesh this out with URLs later, but for now this will do.
While I couldn’t stay for the duration of the Technicity conference – time, tide and daycare wait for no man – I was there until shortly before five. It was clear from the keynote onward that this was a first-time conference, but hopefully the first of many. My initial impressions, though, were “unexpectedly and somewhat inconveniently successful”. Not a bad problem to have, all things considered.
While things were pretty well laid-out and well put together, the conference was really standing-room only and a lot of time, at least initially, got spent on stuff that I thought was only obliquely related to the main thrust of the conference. I took that main thrust to be “how to find and foster talented, resourceful people in Toronto”; broadly speaking, this including how to encourage people from not-Toronto to move here, and how to provide the resources for people in and around Toronto to grow their companies. I’m not exactly a seasoned veteran of these things, though, so I assumed that this sort of drawn-out introduction is just an accepted time cost of ramping up this kind of event.
I also thought that it was pretty likely that most of the people attending already think Toronto is awesome, you know? There weren’t a lot of people there who I wouldn’t have sized up as having the option to go somewhere else, if they decided that’s what they should do. And there were a lot of people at this, a lot of people and a wide variety of them – startups, veteran consultants, IP lawyers, media people of the new and old varieties, seasoned tech mandarins, bank VPs, etc, where “etc” encompasses a range from “people struggling with scruffy little web2.0 startups” to “people whose suits cost more than that startup will ever make.”
Indeed, some of the weaknesses of the conference had purely to do with it’s clearly-unanticipated (or cannily overbooked) success. When I say standing room only, I am not kidding – there were flat-out not enough seats for the first hour or so, but that’s not a bad problem to have for a first-run conference; until we broke out into different rooms, there were maybe fifty people leaning on the walls.
And yay for that, but that also guaranteed that there were people in that room that I, startup guy, really needed to talk to that I simply couldn’t find. It may be that DemoCamp is the right place for me to find those people, but I am going to suggest to the organizers that if we do this again in six months or a year, that participants be asked to try to provide a little background about who they are and what they’d like to get from a conference like this, and to have some people with good judgement and taste try to taking a birds-eye-view approach to pairing people up a bit better. But I did have some good conversations with people who are were muttering something about agonizing intranet migrations and corporate desktop images mutter mutter, and who were very interested when I said that I could make that less risky and less painful, and a few business cards changed hands, also yay. I wish I could have heard David Crow’s speech, but I hope I can find a transcript and catch up with him a little later this month.
The thing that was made crystal clear very early on was that Toronto’s success (and consistent placement among the top ten places in the world to live and work, yay us) has been almost entirely accidental. And that people who are concerned about big-picture questions and long term trends (who had the sense to argue against amalgamation back in the day, for example) are clearly of the opinion that a handful of things are going to be critical to attracting and keeping new talent, and that virtually none of them are about “investment”, “financing” and “centers of excellence”, and whatever the usual keywords are.
The Missing Piece
The two big questions that came out of that, to my eye, were:

  • Can we, among ourselves in the ITC community, create an environment that fosters and rewards the seeds of what will eventually become successful companies? (This was a question that had several different axes to it, among them “providing young employees with rewarding work, young startup companies with sales opportunities, early feedback and other support” and many other points that revolved around questions of early support for new people/companies/ideas.
  • How can we make a Toronto a place worth doing any of that?

One point repeatedly made, one I fully agree with, is that the bar to entry for technical entrepreneurship is both as low as it has ever been, and is not likely to go anywhere but lower. Need server infrastructure? S3. Need an office with connectivity? That’s what Starbucks is for. In a lot of ways, what you need to to start a company now is a laptop and an idea, so the question is, why Toronto at all?
“The city”, is the answer to that. Kensington Market, is part of the answer. Chinatown, Little India and Queen West, those are part of the answer. The fact that St. Lawrence Market, the Canadian Opera Company and the financial district are half a kilometer away from each other, and another half a kilometer away from good nightlife and great restaurants. Good health care and good take-out. When the physical location of your actual work is almost completely irrelevant, the physical location of everything else is critical.
I wasn’t surprised that there was as much serious apprehension over the election of Rob Ford, though. Saddened by it, for sure, but utterly unsurprised. The people who are clearly thinking the hardest about the long game there are also the ones that are the most concerned; I heard and overheard more than a few people saying, this is really bad for business.
The core of the argument is that Rob Ford’s policies amount to wanting all of Toronto to be like Rexdale, and the fact of the matter is that anyone who’s smart and talented enough to make a real difference in information and communication technology is simply not interested in living in Rexdale.
“We’re really not OK” was a phrase, uttered with some gravitas, that stuck with me. Another one, and a fantastic analogy given by the keynote speaker, was “You can’t ask a fish about water.” They were born in it, they grow up in it, they have no idea what it is because they’ve never had anything to compare it to. That wasn’t about our new Mayor, but I can’t help but think it applies.
Evening Fog
The sum total of that conversation was that it’s incumbent on not only larger companies but on startups and entrepreneurs at every level of this economy to step up and say that culture matters. That the vibrant diversity of this city, as an immigrant’s destination and a city of real opportunity, makes it one of the genuinely few cities left in the world where a first-generation immigrant can start a successful company, where their children can go on to be Councillors and MPs and CEOs. We need to remind people that the culture and diversity of this city are critically important, and not in some hippie, lefty, let’s-all-sit-in-a-drum-circle-holding-hands-and-singing-kumbaya kind of way; in a real, nuts-and-bolts, dollars-on-the-bottom-line sense. There are not, to put it mildly, a lot of places like that left in the world, that feel like a perpetual home to new frontiers and new opportunities.
I’m really looking forward to the next Technicity, and I hope to be able to take much better advantage of it, then, and to have a much clearer picture of the direction the city is going. I also hope that my business cards arrive in time for that one, that would probably help too. There’s opportunities for improvement here, partly on the part of the organizers but in fairness mostly on the part of electorate; overall, though, it was a good opportunity and an interesting confluence of a couple of good ideas.
A+, would buy in again.