What Makes a Community?

I normally write articles that carry a bit of authority. I usually write what I know about and have a high degree of confidence writing. I don’t write often because I want what I do write to carry authority and be hard-hitting.

This is not really one of those articles.

I haven’t done what people like Alex Hillman has done in creating collaborative working environments for independent entrepreneurs at Independent’s Hall in Philadelphia.

I haven’t been an organizer and champion of city-wide entrepreneurship like Josh Baer has in Austin.

I haven’t fostered a product community like they have over at StudioPress with the Genesis Framework.

What I have done is work within the context of a thriving WordPress community of developers, users, consultants and advocates.

I have lived in a city that has made it’s name on entrepreneurship and arts in Austin.

I have helped and supported entrepreneurs in their quest to build products in DC and find ways of succeeding both with and without investment money.

Moving Back to Baltimore

For some weeks now, I’ve made it clear that I’ve decided to move back from Austin to Baltimore. In 2008, I left Baltimore because I saw awesome things developing in technology in DC. At the time, there were guys like Peter Corbett who was just beginning to do technology advocacy work in the Nation’s Capital. By 2009, iStrategyLabs would launch the first Apps for Democracy contest that challenged contestants to create web and mobile applications with civic intent. That would morph into similar contest like Apps for America, etc.

You would also see some organizations that would flare out dramatically because of business model, ideas, weak leadership, lack of community involvement, etc.

I would then move to Austin where I would see a city immersed in technology. Lots of money flowing. Lots of incubator action, such as the products and entrepreneurs who would be graduated from the Capital Factory incubator. I would see ATX Startup Crawl occur several times a year as guests would have the opportunity to move around town and visit some of the great startups like TabbedOut, InfoChimps, uShip and more. Thousands of people would come through these offices and see the great technologies and ideas being built, all while enjoying local Texas beers and eats.

I would see awesome projects like We Are Austin Tech highlight influencers in that community (including myself) come up.

And I watched Baltimore grow as a technology community to the point where DC entrepreneurs started paying attention to their up and coming little brother 45 mins up I-95. I watched from afar as Dave Troy would put his heart and soul into building Baltimore as a center of entrepreneurship and tech. I’d watch as Greg Cangialosi would build his Blue Sky Factory marketing firm out and have a successful acquisition, all while continuing to personally invest more in the Baltimore scene.

I even watched great tragedies like the systematic destruction of Advertising.com by Aol.

I watched this all over the last 4 years and realized Baltimore was coming into it’s own. It had successes. It had failures. It had investors. It had bootstrap. It’s still not entirely cohesive, but from my seat, it looks promising.

So I’ve decided to move back to my home and put my money where my mouth is and see if I can take what I’ve gleaned from DC and Austin and apply it here in Baltimore. I may be one of those failures. Or I may not be, but I’ve got to try.

What Makes a Successful Community?

In the last few weeks, I’ve had several conversations with Baltimore business owners and entrepreneurs, and I’m finding a common question and point of discussion: What makes a successful community? The answers and opinions are intriguing. Again, I can’t say my opinion carries any authority. What I can say, however, is I’ve been in a bunch of communities and witnessed elements of success.

Some folks think a successful business community requires investors who are willing to commit their time and money. Anyone who has gone through the fundraising process knows that hands on investors are the best kind. If a VC or Angel investor can help a portfolio company supplement resources (human capital or otherwise) through their network, they bring quite a bit of upside to a startup. Investors who wire money and never pay attention to their portfolio companies, expecting the founders to execute according to plan, are in my opinion bad investors.

So in this light, some entrepreneurs here in Baltimore find the lack of investment money or engaged investors as detrimental to the community.

On the flip side of the coin, some entrepreneurs seem to be thinking that the mark of a good startup community is going to be in the number of entrepreneurs who are able to successfully bootstrap. There is some validity to this claim as well. The more you can do on your own, the less of your company you’re giving away (as I noted in the “Valleyboys” segment of this article a few weeks ago).

However, there is also value in bootstrapping and taking money, if the situation is right.

Other folks I’ve talked to feels the value is in the number of people attend professional meetups compounded by the sheer number of meetups. In Austin, we have a vibrant meetup community. From the Austin WordPress meetup to Austin on Rails to Austin Lean Startup to Refresh Austin and the list goes on.

My opinion is that a city startup community is built on all these things. It’s not money, really. Money will follow success. Perhaps Baltimore needs to have an IPO or high profile acquisition that allows the company to continue to operate and hire in Baltimore to put them on the map and in the conversation. I don’t really think it’s that, per se, but that certainly helps.

It would help if the State of Maryland was more business-friendly to small businesses, as Texas is. People come to Texas, and more specifically Austin, from California and New York because the environment is notably friendly to small business. More business would be created in Maryland with better business policy. It might even attract out of state growth.

Beyond that though, meetups are important but meetups don’t create value if the conversations end at the meetup. The idea of building something – a prototype – as you might get out of a Startup Weekend is good… if it continues afterwards from prototype to business product.

But I think the biggest thing that makes community grow is collaboration and the willing to share ideas without being defensive, sharing resources without being possessive, sharing physical space without being prohibitive. It takes more that an entrepreneurs flying solo behind his Macbook Pro in a coffee shop, but it takes less than structured office space with prohibitive managerial org charts.

It doesn’t take sacrificing lifestyle on the altar of work, but it does take entrepreneurs willing to gut out ideas by working with other entrepreneurs and customers and transparently sharing war stories of success and failure while helping to mentor others new to the space.

It does takes the karmaic “pay it forward” approach without fiefdoms and regional rivalries to ensure that a rising tide raises all ships. What you put in to other companies you have no direct stake in, but can help with informal advice (when solicited) makes for a circle of life that encourages a community to exceed expectations and move from one level to the next. Mentorship is not an ROI term, but it is critical to the ecosystem.

Am I off-base in my thinking here?

Most Commonly Used Git Commands

A lot of chatter about using Git and Subversion from the command line versus clients. Folks, take your time and learn the command lines. There’s a lot of stuff you can use the UI clients don’t always wrap into UI. Things like post-commit hooks, etc make the command line way more pure and powerful.

Here’s the same list for Subversion.

But for Git/Github, you can get most of what you need out of git clone, git commit, git push, git pull, git status, git diff and git merge.

Learn these and you won’t know everything about git, but you’ll be most of the way there.

Most Commonly Used Subversion Commands

A lot of chatter about using Git and Subversion from the command line versus clients. Folks, take your time and learn the command lines. There’s a lot of stuff you can use the UI clients don’t always wrap into UI. Things like post-commit hooks, etc make the command line way more pure and powerful.

Here’s the same list for Git/Github.

But for Subversion, you can get most of what you need out of svn co, svn ci, svn commit, svn diff, and svn status.

Learn these and you won’t know everything about svn, but you’ll be most of the way there.

Turning the Resumé on its Face

Resumés suck. They suck bad. Somehow, you need to convince a prospective employer that you are, in fact, the right candidate for a job. Or you might be and they should take a second look at you and maybe give you the time of day to put up a phone interview.

You have to convince someone that you are entirely worth the time and effort without ever speaking to them. It’s all got to be conveyed on this little 1-2 page document that gives a snapshot of everything you are and can do professionally.

And you have to do it in a bad economy when people with Masters degrees are also looking for work. Maybe you too have a Master’s degree. That’s okay, you’re still competing against all the rest of them.

The traditional way of building a resumé is to provide a chronological context of every school and degree you’ve received along with every professional role over the last 7-10 years, give or take.

What do you do when you’re in the tech space and the requisite skills are constantly changing? What do you do when your role at the last 3 companies were essentially the same with little deviance in the job description?

Do as I do… flip your resumé on it’s face.

Let’s face it. If a company is going to hire you into a role, they want to know that you’re going to be innovative in your approach to the job and that you’re willing to think outside the box to do the best job you can. If they don’t, you probably don’t want to work for them anyway as they are plainly hiring you to just follow marching orders and that, let’s face it, sucks ass. There’s no place to achieve and rise to the top because you’re just doing things the way you’re told, by the book, all day every day. Sounds like a reason to drive off a cliff, if you ask me.

Let’s provide some context as to how this concept has worked for me for years.

In 1994, I graduated from a private high school in Annapolis, Md. I hated school but I went to a community college and decided not to do any general education coursework, as is typical. At the time, this school was piloting a program that shifted all the coursework from the police academy to the school with only firearms training being done at the academy. This was the county’s idea of slimming the budget. So I decided being a cop sounded like fun and I pursued a bunch of criminal justice work in my first year of college.

I dropped out after a year and pursued other interests.

Years later, I was given the opportunity with little experience to work in a federal data center for a government contracting company. I spent three years in that windowless data center watching my life slip away from me. It gave me a shot though.

As I started looking to move up inside the company, I realized that to do so meant punching some certification cards. I put a few small ones under my belt – enough to get a promotion to work desktop IT support as a contractor for the U.S. Navy. I did well in that role, consistently rating among the highest, knowledgeable techs on that contract.

When that contract expired and I was RIFfed (Reduction in Force), the company scooped me up into a similar role on the corporate side. Again, I was able to perform at a high level and by the time I left in 2006, I was single-handedly responsible for the IT support of 7 offices around the Baltimore/Washington area.

I still had no formal education, so during this time, I went back to another community college and worked toward getting coursework under my belt that would allow me a 4-year degree at some point in the future.

That was until I said, “Fuck it”, and went into the startup world. For the past 6 years, I have worked at or started 3 startups and ran my own consulting business in between (as I still do today). I did some advisory consulting with the Air Force, wrote a book, and even taught some classes at the post-graduate level at major universities including American University. Not bad for no degree.

Today, I still have no formal education. I’m a few credit away from a 2-year degree which wouldn’t be worth the paper it was printed on. When I went back to school, my experience was such that I was teaching the teachers.

I can go into a diatribe about how higher education is broke in this country, but I feel like I would be preaching to the choir. While some of my experience can be translated as college credit, most is ignored despite the fact that, in my field, I am 5-7 years ahead of what they are teaching in colleges today. And while a 4 year degree would be fairly useless to me as the industry is ahead of academia, a Master’s could be quite handy. Sadly I can’t get a Master’s without a 4-year, but I digress.

Coming back to the point about the resumé. I have tremendous chronological gaps if I were to formulate my resumé in traditional fashion. Am I ashamed of having no degree? No. Do I want to highlight that fact? Hell no. It’s unfortunate that America’s HR departments have been trained by buffoons who play to the checkboxes instead of actual skill, but those are the rules we play by.

Instead, I present to you an achievement/skills-based resumé. Instead of discussing formal education or companies that have been worked at ad nauseum, try laying it out to highlight the things you’ve accomplished along the way. I begin my resume with several one-sentence paragraphs that describe achievements I’ve made professionally – not for a company, for me.

I then mention companies I’ve worked at, purely for the sake of context. I also use LinkedIn recommendations I’ve received over the years to highlight what others say about me.

These three steps provide the context needed for employers to decide if they want to talk to me. If I can humblebrag, I usually get phone interviews for the companies I want to talk to and they usually go deep into multiple rounds. I’m still working for myself because timing, pay or perks are off in the end, but I rarely fail to get the attention of someone who I want to work for.

Try this concept. Maybe A/B test between a resumé of the format I’m describing and a more traditional one and see which one gets more traction. It can’t hurt, right?

Oh and here’s my resumé.