How Do We Get There?

by Kevin Lawver on August 18, 2011

You might not notice it if you live in a tech center like the Bay, NYC or DC, but: we live in the future. Compared to most of the people who live around us and the vast majority of the world, we’re so far ahead it’s almost not fair (in a lot of cases, it’s extremely unfair).

Like Clarence Darrow said (well, the fictional Darrow in Inherit the Wind), “All motion is relative. Perhaps it is you who have moved away – by standing still.” We’re leaving people in the dust, either because they don’t have the interest or worse, the means, to keep up. I don’t care about the apathetic, but the digital divide is real and widening.

What do we owe to those we’re leaving behind? I’m happy to leave the apathetic behind. But, I feel like there’s this huge group of people who want to move forward but have no idea where to start, who to talk to, or think it’s impossible to join us.

From an economic point of view, here’s how it breaks down. The unemployment rate in the US has been hovering around 9% for a while now. That looks bad. It looks worse when you break down the numbers. The unemployment rate for people with a college degree is around 4% (5% is considered “full” employment). If you have a graduate degree, it’s at a historic 2%. If you only have a high school diploma, it’s around 15%. Compounding the problem is that college is getting more expensive and kids are leaving school with a lifetime worth of debt, if they can afford to go at all.

I can’t help but feel extremely lucky to be where I am. Yes, I worked my ass off to be here, but I can’t take the credit for coming along when I did, or for the opportunities I was given. I didn’t earn that luck. I was gifted it.

I can’t help but think that if we could find a way to provide that luck to others (and there are a lot of them – 33% of people in Chatham county live below the poverty line and most well below), we could help change things for the better. It’s why I started Free Advice Friday (OK, why I e-mailed Jake and let him run with it) and partly why I do Refresh.

So, where does that leave us? Can we help? If so, how?

Tuesday night’s Refresh with Christian from the library system brought it all home to me. I started Refresh here in Savannah to share knowledge. When I got here all I saw were networking events and happy hours. I wanted a place to meet other smart web people and learn stuff from each other. And over the last 2+ years, we’ve done just that.

I think it’s time to add another dimension to Refresh, and Tuesday night’s meeting is a blueprint. We’re still going to do the development, design and entrepreneurial stuff. But, three or four times a year, I’m going to try to bring in groups who need our help (you know… geek help) to pick our brains. Maybe some of us will volunteer to help out beyond that first couple of hours. Maybe we won’t. But, I think we owe it to our neighbors to help out, even if that’s by offering some free advice from time to time.

Next month, we’ve got the folks from Unmatched Style coming down from Columbia to give us three development and design-related talks. October will be a Geekend Hackfest Primer (also known as Mashup 101). We don’t have anything for November yet, so if you know of a local group that could use some geeky advice, please send them my way and we’ll see what we can do. And don’t forget that the next Free Advice Friday is 9/2 from 12-2 at the Creative Coast office on York Street!

If you made it this far, thank you. If you’ve got ideas for other ways the local tech community can get more involved, please share them!

4 comments

I had a similar experience recently. My wife just finished training in web design at CDIA in Washington, DC. For a final project, they had students break into teams and do work for various local non-profits. It gave the students a chance to use their new skills on something real. It also gave the non-profits some much needed tech support.

These projects involved various things – design and build websites mostly, but they also had 3D rendering students do an animated walkthrough of a local design for a new history park and there were several photography students who took photos for non-profits. There was a meeting at the end in which the various groups of students presented their projects. It was great stuff, including sites for a number of local education groups and a site set up for a charity that was sponsoring a school in a poor village in Africa. (A side note: WordPress is the CMS of choice for these kind of projects, at least at CDIA.)

The projects ran for three weeks. But these teams were extremely raw – they had just finished their training and they had minimal mentoring from anyone senior. They were still learning the ropes of how to interact with clients and how to work in teams. While the sites were generally terrific, I couldn’t help but think that a skilled team could have built one in a day or two.

That got me to thinking. I would find it extremely satisfying to build a website for a good cause. I’d be willing to do some pro bono work for that. But I don’t know how to find folks who need the help. I’m sure they’re out there – but how to connect to them?

Perhaps that would be a worthwhile endeavor that would help reduce the digital divide. Have some of us techies, the haves in the digital world, set up a program to combine folks who want to do pro bono web work with those who need it. I’m going to give that a little thought.

by Dr Dzoe on August 18, 2011 at 9:38 pm. #

I think that’s a good start, but creating web pages for people feels like treating the symptom not the problem. Creating something for someone else doesn’t teach them how to create it for themselves – and that’s the problem. There’s a great program here in Savannah run by a local non-profit that takes at-risk kids and teaches them to take apart donated computers and build usable ones that then get put back into the community with free or discounted internet access.

I’d love to find a way to take that model and apply it to learning (IT, web development, computer science, etc). How do we take folks who can’t afford to go to college, or who’ve been left behind by technology and get them up to speed quickly, for free and without us all having to quit our day jobs and donate 100% of our time to it (because I have two kids I have to send to college at some point)?

by Kevin Lawver on August 19, 2011 at 6:42 am. #

Kevin, I am in agreement on your thesis which is tangential to feed a hungry person a fish, and all they come back for is the fish, but teach them to fish (and the intricacies thereof), and they’ll fish and probably apply that process to more endeavors…
For most, truly understanding the variables to a growing (or having) a business or business vertical, is really the first step…those variables per say are everything from design/marketing, to sales, to raising capital, to managing growth, to managing expectations, to having founders or execs scale their knowledge as the business outgrows their comfort zone, to the technology needed to run/scale said business, ad infinitum…

The knowledge of managing those bits which are in constant flux, is the more powerful takeaway…

In kind, since I became President at Morris Technology some years back, I enacted what we call an INFOxChange (Information times change, and Information exchange) with other companies 3-5 times a year, under the agreement that neither company will try and poach team members nor steal products…in these sessions, we bring in outside companies’ teams and talk about product, processes and tools (PPT)…each group has a set timeframe to have their discuss in those three verts, with the other side asking questions along the route…successes and failures are to be talked about with equal foci and fervor…Execs are not allowed to run the discussion, but can ask questions within limited quantities…the team members have opportune to showcase their PPT, and that in itself also gives the execs an ability to really listen and learn about what their team members know, do, and have passion for beyond the 10,000ft views…

The only outcome I ask of my teams is to walk away with one thing that will improve our products, processes, or tools…I liken these sessions to my team members going to work for another company for years, but learn about all the smart things (and dumb ones) in a day, and bring that experience back to the fold…

by Jim Goodlett on August 19, 2011 at 8:50 am. #

While I’m guilty of usually listening long enough to launch into a mental deep dive about how to scale what I’m hearing, my experience (and perhaps age) has tempered me against this…although I still slip.
People are messy. That is, relationships are messy. Thinking in scale allows me the luxury of not having to think about pesky relationships, as I line up my assumptions as if they were established truths. My challenge is staying motivated by the reality that serving my fellow man, loving my neighbor in my Christian vernacular, is a one-to-one exchange. It simply does not scale well and having tried to scale me, or being on the consuming end of a highly sought after mentor, it’s actually a complete failure IMO.
I love your call to arms Kevin. And I’d point out that YOU are eating your own dog food and engaging your community, your fellow man, at many levels. It is that simple idea, that I have the ability and the duty, to become part of the solution, that made your article ring so true for me.
This is not to discount thinking about scale, and the reach and efficiencies it can offer, simply to say that in my own desire to serve my community, I’ve had to squash my natural tendency to ignore those individuals around me in exchange for a loftier, system-wide, perspective.
There are so many wonderful opportunities to step into an existing organization here in Savannah (and every city really). You can bring your specific skill set with you, and start to serve and get plugged in right now. As in, NOW. Not only does that make you part of the solution RIGHT NOW but it will give you tremendous insight into tangible solutions about our community, should you spend time engaged in scale strategy. Serving now gives you insight into your market (see, I’m falling back into business-think) and how best to serve it.
Thinking that way is great but don’t hide behind it. Put yourself at risk by reaching out now, to a person. For that matter, you don’t need an organization to help you do that. Look around. Our great city has lots of opportunities for people to help people.

A wise younger man once told me that people that need help rarely ask for it. You’ve got to meet them where they are and build relationships to find out how to best serve them. That sounds easy on the surface but it seems to me, hard to implement. Thanks for putting this out there Kevin.

by Rad on August 19, 2011 at 10:39 am. #