Philly Tech Week: Silly & Social Edition

Philly Tech Week is almost here. 

Around this time of year, one of the most common questions I get is: 

“Which Tech Week events should I really go to?”

The simple answer would be, “it depends on what you’re interested in.” But even that answer kinda sucks. There are hundreds of events in less than 10 days, which makes it impossible to go to everything you might be interested in, even if you have nothing else to do. 

So my #1 advice is to get outside of your bubble. 

Your interests?
Throw ‘em out the window during tech week.

If you’re going to take advantage of the most densely populated calendar of tech events you can get during the year, go to something you’d never go to. Pick a topic you know nothing about, and go learn something new. 

But more importantly meet people you’d never otherwise meet. 

You know how they say Philadelphia is a “city of neighborhoods”? Well thing about having awesome neighborhoods is that people tend to not leave their neighborhoods. They don’t have to…their neighborhood has everything they could want.

Except it doesn’t. Philadelphia is the 5th largest city in the country and it’s full of people that you’ve never met before. 

You don’t know who they are. 
You don’t know what they care about.
ou don’t know what they know, you don’t know how they can inspire you and help you. 

Philly Tech Week is the same way. There isn’t one tech community in Philadelphia, there are dozens, if not more. But I’m willing to bet that you never leave your little “neighborhood”. 

I’m guilty of this too. We all are. I realized recently that Indy Hall’s biggest weakness might be that, like an amazing Philadelphia neighborhood – diverse, supportive, and prosperous - it’s so good that some people forget to get outside of our bubbles. 

In fact, that’s our top priority at Indy Hall for this year and moving forward. We’re even restructuring our memberships to support it. 

But that’s not what this post is about. This post is about Philly Tech Week, getting out of your bubble, and meeting people in the tech communities beyond your tech community.

Who Tech Week Is For

I force myself to remember that Philly Tech Week isn’t designed for me, or people like me. 

I – and a lot of the people who will read this post – are active and involved in our tech communities 52 weeks a year…including Philly Tech Week. 

But there are many, many more people for whom Philly Tech Week is the first or the only time they’re exposed to our communities. Many of them don’t realize the countless amazing events our community organizes across Philadelphia the other 51 weeks of the year. 

How do we change that? I believe that a part of the answer is to take our Tech Week events a little less seriously, and to go out of our way to create space for people to get to know each other beyond their common interests in tech. 

When people build real relationships, they are many, many more times likely to want to come back much sooner than 51 weeks later. 

So Below, I’ve embedded an agenda that includes 17 events that, as far as I can tell, are purely social. No demos, no pitches, and no lectures. 

I probably won’t go to all of them, but that’s not the goal. 

My suggestion, instead, is to make your goal to end Philly Tech Week having met just one person you would have never met inside your bubble, and make a meaningful conversation with them. 

Really. Just one. Anybody can do just one

But first, there are some issues with my list:

  • Too many of the social events are drinking/bar events. While I’m the first to admit that I enjoy spending time in a bar, I’ve become increasingly aware of the fact that a lot of people don’t enjoy this kind of socialization. We also have a massive under-21 population among the tech communities, and very few means of socializing with them 

    I think we’d benefit from shifting to dinners instead…or lunches, or breakfasts, or afternoon snacks. I’d love to see more community meals (not meetups/talks during a mealtime, but actual group meals). Urban Geek Drinks at Frankford Hall does an incredible job every month of creating an event that is diversely attended and a ton of fun and puts the focus on making connections with people you probably wouldn’t otherwise meet. I’d encourage everyone to learn from what they do.

  • “Alex, you’re wrong to say that people can’t socialize at an event just because it’s not a party. My Hackathon/Lecture/Panel/Expo is totally social.”

    I’m not saying that at all. People can socialize anywhere.

    My challenge to event organizers is to design community events, not just run events “for” the community. This article has a plethora of tips for designing community events that people love and remember. Use it, live it, love it, and tell me what you’ve changed and the impact it made. 

Above all, Enjoy Philly Tech Week however you want to, my friends. 

If you see me at one of these silly social events, please say hi…especially if we haven’t met in person before. 

Oh, and if I missed an event, let me know in the comments so I can add it to the calendar!

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The stories you tell

You remember to talk about the future, what you haven’t done yet, because it’s still amazing/exciting to you. It’s easy and fun to dream, and share that dream with others.

But when the future doesn’t happen the way you imagined it, or the way you promised it, there’s disappointment. In others, but most of all in yourself. You lose momentum, and trust. With others, but most of all in yourself.

You forget to talk about the present or past because to you, it’s old news. It’s already happened. But for most people, it’s still new and exciting. And best of all, you can be sure it will happen because it already has.

Think about which stories you tell, and who you tell them for. Yourself, or for others?

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“Open-plan offices were devised by Satan in the deepest caverns of hell” and other similar nonsense you might read about trends in the workplace

Oh look, open floorplan offices are under scrutiny again, this time by the Harvard Business review.

Will Bennis from Locus Workspace in Prague shared a link to this article along with the following on the Coworking Google Group:

[I'm] putting this out there because I suspect what gets posted is generally filtered toward the “coworking positive”.

While cubicles are the worst, this article is about shortcomings of open-plan offices more generally.

Putting aside the obvious fact that even if open-plan offices aren’t for everyone, they’re certainly preferred by many of us, my existing bias has been that most independent workers would do better (in terms of psychological health as well as productivity and work quality) over the long run in a social work environment than in a private/enclosed office.

But articles like this make me wonder if that really is just my own bias.

Most of the findings suggested are contrary to what I would expect for independent workers, and I wonder how much the results here may be contingent on working in an organization (where being in an open plan office also corresponds to being lower in the work hierarchy and where many of the people you’re working alongside are implicit competitors).

Even though I wasn’t feeling well this morning, I penned a fairly lengthy response on my phone and think it would be worth sharing here on my own blog.

While most of my experience historically came from coworking and at Indy Hall, which is absolutely an open-floor-plan workspace, I’ve done a lot more consulting outside of the realm of coworking in the last couple of years and I’ve learned that the lessons from Indy Hall and coworking spread much further beyond the trends being forged by coworking.

Lesson 1 – There is no “better for everyone”

I’ll start with this: if you’re good for everyone, you’re great for no-one. This is a universal truth, has nothing to do with coworking or workspace.

Lesson 2 – Noise is definitely an issue. But not always how you think.

Earlier this year, noise levels came up as an opportunity for improving Indy Hall during one of our own internal research projects.

Curious for more details, I followed up with a subsequent line of questions: where so you believe the noise is coming from? Is it people on their phones, people talking to each other at their desks, people talking to each other in nearby common areas, or something else entirely?

The results of that question were evenly spread across the options (ha!) but the real answer emerged, and was far more interesting:

MANY more people than had mentioned noise issues spoke up and said, “Please don’t make Indy Hall more quiet. I come here for the noise. I love that buzz. I can’t get it anywhere else. If I wanted silence, I’d stay at home or go to the library.”

Noise isn’t for everyone. But no-noise isn’t for everyone, either. Again, refer to lesson 1.

Lesson 3 – Cultural evolution isn’t optional.

I’ve worked on several projects now with regard to open floor plan implementations in corporate settings. Every time it looks like this:

  • A company spends a boatload of money on design, consultants, architects, and furniture
  • everybody hates it, rebellion, etc (not unlike the article)
  • Alex’s phone rings with an inquisitive and frustrated, “why isn’t this working?”

My first question is, “well, what did you change?” 

The answer is ALWAYS environment.

The answer is NEVER anything related to evolving the culture, management or communication.

And that’s the problem with open floorplan offices. When the environment doesn’t match the culture, the management, and the communication, we shouldn’t be surprised that things break.

I have two concrete examples that I can share from recent conversations:

Example A – The manager who can’t keep track of her team

A manager cites that she actually likes the flexibility of choosing different areas to work, but…there’s a new problem.

“I never know where my team is. I spend half of my day hunting them down.”

From what I’ve learned, a rarely discovered issue, even though it’s a simple one.

When a new open floor plan office is designed and implemented, the teams and management need a new set of tools and techniques for communicating and leading. They need to learn how how to effectively check in and report to each other, without being a burden on each other.

Note that this is not the result of ”flatness” in an org chart, but the result of a “network” style of communication rather than a hub and spoke style.

Example B – The employee who doesn’t think they’re trusted

Several employees hate their company’s new open floor plan, citing many of the things in the Guardian article linked above.

But when I start to dig into the specifics, a common theme emerges: trust.

Or more specifically, a lack of trust.

People don’t like having people able to walk by and see what they’re doing…because they don’t know why that person is looking. So they guess. They make up reasons (and sometimes they’re right).

Often, an employee feels like their manager is hovering more…which she may or may not be.

The point is the feeling, which affects everything from productivity to retention.

Often, it’s competition among employees. “Someone’s always looking for a way to get a leg up, or take credit.” 

Again, a culture issue.In all of these cases, compared to the amount of work that went into the open floor plan, proportionally zero work has been done by management or staff to build or reinforce trust in the workplace. In some cases they do things that actively chip away at trust.

Without trust, “open” isn’t possible. And  that goes far beyond floor plans.

That’s just a sampling of my own research and experiences.I acknowledge my personal biases, which have been challenged a lot during this work. But I continue to discover that the root problems are consistent – and have VERY LITTLE to do with space design (there are a few exceptions, I could talk about those another time).

My challenge to to find issues with open plan workspaces that aren’t rooted in pre-existing cultural problems, or a limited (or non-existant) effort to put things like trust and communication in place long before a penny is spent on furniture or design.

Got one? Let’s talk about it in the comments.

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