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Charlotte's technology community

by Raquel Velez

Charlotte's technology community

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Picture by Chris Cureton

June 22, 2011

I moved to Charlotte seven months ago to join my mother in growing Escúchame, Inc., a startup company centered around Smart Latinas and the people who support them. My background in technology as a robotics engineer from Caltech and as a Systems Analyst at the MIT Lincoln Laboratory was the basis for my role as Chief Technology Officer, but not the basis for my move to Charlotte. I moved to North Carolina because of a compelling job opportunity, not necessarily because I thought it would be a cool place to live.

Fortunately, it turns out that a lot of people have moved to the Queen City when their technical natures also brought them here for work. As a result, almost by accident, that’s how Charlotte’s technology community was born. Its members include programmers, designers, engineers, managers, investors, and executives, all focused on harnessing technology for fun or profit.

I have done some casual research on the subject, and it seems that Charlotte's technology community started 1978, when someone started an Apple Computer fan group. Since then, growth has been exponential: Charlotte is now home to more than 30 technology-based groups, including the Charlotte Regional Technology Executives Council, the internationally award-winning group Hackerspace Charlotte – a community garage for folks to geek-out and learn together – and Hackers and Founders, a social group for chilling out over beer or biscuits. In addition, Charlotte has every sort of technology-centric user group you can think of, like the Ruby Meetup Group, the Charlotte Linux Users Group, the Python/Django group, the User Experience (UX) group, and so many more.

All of us within the technology community know that all the pieces of a strong, Silicon Valley-type community are all here in Charlotte. We have executives, managers, developers, investors, and government support.

I am concerned, however, that the good intentions of the people behind Charlotte’s technology community to make this town as strong as San Francisco’s may fall flat.

The fact of the matter is that we are all busy. While most of us in technology didn't purposely come to Charlotte to blend with like-minded folk, we did come to enjoy Charlotte's nice weather, family-friendly environment, and affordable cost of living.

It is specifically because of those reasons that Charlotte's technology community is having such a hard time snowballing into a Silicon Valley-type status. In the last seven months, for example, I have learned of a dozen new families amongst my new technology-savvy friends, due to marriages, pregnancies, newborns, in-laws, and more. Each step along the family chain brings on new responsibilities, none of which include pushing the technology community agenda. (Let's be realistic – neither Jobs nor Gates nor Zuckerberg were anything but single and committed to their startups. There's a valid reason why the stereotypical "geek" is a microwave dinner aficionado with no responsibilities outside of him or herself!)

Sure, the good people of Silicon Valley are busy in their own ways, but the sheer number of single, technologically-focused people in Northern California far outnumbers that in Charlotte. Charlotte’s culture – blame it on its Southern location, if you must – is all about family. The numbers simply aren’t here.

Furthermore, as we all continue to enjoy our families, old and new, we end up focusing on our singular selves, separate from the larger Charlotte technology entity. Perhaps the answer is to organize more family-friendly, technology-focused events so that we can redefine what a technology community can look like; at the very least, we need more opportunities for all the different pieces of the technology community to come together. Because, really, communities are groups of people working together, not separated individuals focused on their personal lives.

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