So tomorrow is the Nashville stop for Social Fresh. Remarkably, it seems that a number of area marketers will be shelling out $315 to learn how to forge better tweets in search of new business and better service. Tell you what, I’ll share a secret with you for free (although if you want to send me $315, anyway, just contact us): there is no unified theory of Twitter.
That is to say, social media in general is yet another tool in the ever-expanding marketing toolkit. And most companies that have demonstrated notable success with social media are doing so because they have freed members of their staff who have engaging personalities to engage with customers or leads on behalf of their employers; not because of some new corporate strategy that has grokking Twitter at its core. Social media is like Web 2.0-lite. It’s easy, it’s fun, it’s a fad. It doesn’t really require any heavy lifting to get started. But that’s part of the problem. Or can be.
Nashville (really, JTMarCom) also recently hosted Chris Brogan. Given the level of excitement, I leveraged technology and watched from afar (somehow saving myself both the trip and the $40, although passing up my opportunity to get a copy of Trust Agents). And I’ll admit: I’m not exactly sure what I saw. Chris is a guru, which means he spoke in the equivalent of self-help jargon for digital marketers. His performance seemed remarkably similar to a sermon by a charismatic pastor as much as that of someone transferring valuable skills or knowledge.
Chris seems like a nice guy who’s doing quite well for himself. In fact, my guess is he’s the rare social media guru who actually gets it to the point of building real value for businesses and other organizations. But having followed his engagement with the Twittersphere, I’m not sure why I would want to pay him to do anything for my business. I’m not critical of his ideas or approach, which I think are generally positive and which have some overlap with my own approach to social media; I’m critical of the worshipful nature of Nashville’s geek community that someone from on high came and left us without a lot of added value. Maybe someone who attended will let me know that they learned something profound about engaging socially in a business context. But I’ll really be impressed if any attendees of Social Fresh experience a return on their investment. Just as I’ll be impressed if Social Fresh delivers attendees insight into how they might measure such a return. I’d recommend starting with Twitter 101 for Business.
Last year, having just opened the doors to SearchViz, I considered whether I should go to BarCamp Nashville. I reviewed the agenda, looking for learning, networking, or recruiting opportunities. In the end, I selectively went to presentations of a couple of people I knew were doing good work in the SEO space because so much of the agenda looked like marketing grain where I couldn’t separate wheat from chaff. I regret having missed Marcus Whitney’s presentation, which sounds like it was trying to say, “If I knew this was all we’d get, I’d never have helped bring BarCamp to Nashville in the first place!”
Fortunately, Marcus wasn’t just whining; he was actively working to help take Nashville to the next level with Enterprise LAMP. I’ve wound up a little too high up the stack to have been able to justify pushing my entrepreneurial schedule around to have been able to attend, but in my opinion, events like this are the ones Nashville needs to see more of. Events leveraging real-world experience and expertise with lessons for both enterprise and entrepreneurs.
Marcus cut his teeth in technology leadership at Emma and has achieved true success in getting his new web startup, Moontoast, off the ground. And his efforts, I hope, make the process easier for the rest of us who see ourselves as technology entrepreneurs.
I guess I have three primary points:
- Fly-in gurus who aren’t here to do in-depth skills-building aren’t going to put Nashville’s technology community on the path to sustainable engineering success.
- Unconferences, where expertise is actually democratized out, don’t give us any indication of who our actual experts are.
- Social media is most useful if it’s built on a strong foundation of deep technology entrepreneurship that extends into the executive suite.
I write all of this not to pop the Nashville geek community’s balloon of enthusiasm but to help us realize that it might not be a balloon at all but rather a bubble. We’re a healthcare, entertainment, and finance hub among other things, but we’re not really a technology center. And we can’t all be social media experts and expect to be. How many Nashville-area web or software startups can you name that don’t have their basis in music or healthcare?
Here’s my woefully short napkin list:
And this is not to discount achievements that are being made in music or healthcare; but it’s to suggest that those sectors, not our technology sector, are driving innovation in the web technology space.
Fortunately, a few of our agencies recognize that the path to success for business in the 21st century will mean having engineering expertise involved. ICG Link developed their 111 suite of tools. Sitening is the team behind Raven, and they have engineered a number of other tools. And here I distinguish between custom developing unsustainable solutions for customers and developing tools that will be maintained across the life of the agency for fun, for internal use, and possibly for external use (the 37signals model). And CentreSource was recently recognized for having Nashville’s best programmer on staff.
I think that the most successful companies for the remainder of the century will be those that are capable of innovating in software. I.e., those that recognize that having development capacity whose expertise is geared toward business interests will thrive. This is true of content companies (where, surprisingly, Gannett, the dinosaur at tennessean.com seems to be outpacing SouthComm, the fresh-faced media startup), retail, services, etc. Just as with print, non-digital companies will never die, but those with more innovative ways to develop new business will not just keep pace; they’ll set the pace.
Managing web projects is an extraordinarily expensive and time-consuming prospect. It’s better conceived of as a development challenge than as a design challenge. And customers are better served by agencies that leverage existing frameworks and APIs than by those that hand off a pile of hodgepodge PHP for an application that starts suffering bit rot as soon as the vendor agreement is concluded.
I think there’s actually a lot of room in the marketplace for an agency that is exclusively geared toward developing sustainable solutions built on solid technology foundations. Leveraging free and open source software (FOSS) would make this about as cost effective as software development gets, and the services that could be bundled with such an agency would both add value to customers and be profitable for vendors. Optaros seems to have built some success with this model.
And I think what creates so much space is the digital divide as considered in the marketplace rather than society at large. Finding a trusted technology adviser is possibly even more difficult than finding a trusted technology practitioner. Who could assist with bridging this divide?
The Nashville Technology Council has lumbered for years as the voice of institutional and enterprise technology in the area. Somehow, despite not really being a part of the target audience, neither the Nashville Linux Users Group nor the irrational exuberance of the dotcom-1.0 era (when everyone suddenly realized they were web designers/developers) supplanted it or created an alternative outlet focused on LAMP-oriented entrepreneurs. But now it has a competitor in Digital Nashville, which seems to be speaking to the irrationally exuberant online marketing community. As I consider membership in both organizations for 2010, I’m laboring to understand why both exist, and I’m not sure either has discovered how to speak effectively to Nashville-area engineers and true geeks.
In many ways, this post is an extension of thoughts Luke Kanies left with Milt Capps (N.B. the comments section) as he relocated Reductive Labs and its flagship product Puppet to Portland as he capitalized it. There simply weren’t enough engineer-level geeks in Middle Tennessee to help him get where he wanted to go.
Though the Mac/Windows/Linux/BSD and Emacs/vi debates continue to rage, I’m constantly amazed that there is less agreement over everything from best hosting provider to best cloud solution to best content management system to best source code management system in the web development community. There’s probably neither time nor interest in creating groups around every framework that gets off the ground, but maybe a content management framework group would be useful. And maybe Enterprise LAMP will continue the process of tech-oriented meetups they began last year to keep people focused on deep tech.
As a computer scientist by degree, I am made anxious by reports that people are not pursuing academically rigorous pathways into IT. Yes, Google and search have made troubleshooting a breeze, but reviewing the online documentation for PHP is not the same as having an understanding of how to plan for scalability, how to design a database, how to manage and deploy releases (including how to roll back a release), how to ensure portability (by vendor, by platform, by version), and many other difficult problems (some of which, to be sure are as much project management as software development, but the interplay is significant between the two).
Engineering builds value; marketing lets people know about it. So who am I, at the helm of a young inbound marketing agency, to be spouting off about the value of engineering? Well, as a developer by background who has only ever worked deep in databases, on glue code, or around the periphery of actual software, maybe I write all this with a sense of longing. One of my goals for SearchViz in 2010, in fact, is to have at least one project under development in what I hope becomes a vibrant laboratory for web development. I remain, ultimately, a web developer entrepreneur who hopes to be able to build a true web startup or at least a collection of useful or interesting tools. For now, though, I’m someone who believes strongly in the principles of engineering that apply to success in web design and search engine optimization (SEO). The best web designers are secretly programmers who simply think about programming problems differently. And the principles I’m talking about include analytics (evidence), development (e.g., integration with frameworks, new modules/plug-ins/add-ons), and troubleshooting (debugging). So I need Nashville to have great developers as much as anyone.
For anyone who’s made it this far, I think one of the best essays for anyone interested in Nashville’s success as a technology center is Joel Spolsky’s article, “Finding Great Developers.” (In fact, if you do anything with the software end of technology and you’re not reading Joel on Software, you should be.) I offer it knowing that I could never get hired by Joel. I’m not focused enough on being a great hacker. I developed a curiosity but not a deep passion that could get me to true greatness in the last decade because my curiosity is too expansive. At this point, I’ve ranged the stack from system administrator to database administrator to database programmer to system programmer to web developer to internet strategist and marketer. I wound up a generalist, not a specialist. But we need specialists, and we need to be able to bridge the gaps. And I think if we stay trapped in the realm of gurus and unconferences we risk not recognizing that we don’t have enough great developers in Nashville. Or, if they’re here, we risk not leveraging their expertise to develop the next generation. Here’s another great essay by Paul Graham on how to start a startup.
Bottom line: I support the people who are working on Nashville Geek Breakfast, BarCamp, Social Fresh, Digital Nashville, and the Nashville Technology Council, but I want us all to recognize that we need to find a way to engage, recruit, retain, and reveal the great developers among and around us. We need marketers, and we need to be able to engage non-practitioners, but we also need experts and developers to give us something to market. I look forward to continuing to participate in this effort.
I offer all this as constructive criticism in hopes that the Nashville geek community will find new opportunities for collaboration and sharing of best practices as well as a profound technological curiosity that elevate us beyond having our enthusiasm constrained by events that amount to little more than online marketing self-help.