On the Birmingham tech scene

A certain amount of kerfuffle over the last couple of days in the half of the Birmingham tech scene that I tend to inhabit, over an article in Business Live about Birmingham Tech Week, a new organisation in the city which ran a pretty successful set of events at the back end of last year.1

I think what got people’s backs up was the following from BTW organiser Yiannis Maos, quoted in the article:

I saw an opportunity borne out of the frustration that Birmingham didn’t really have a tech scene, or at least not one that collaborated very much.

You see, it doesn’t appear that the Tech Week team did much in the way of actually trying to find out whether there was a tech scene before declaring that there probably wasn’t one. If they had then they’d have probably discovered the Birmingham.io calendar which contains all the stuff that’s going on, and can be subscribed to via Google. They’d probably have spoken to the existing language-specific meetups in the city before possibly doing their own instead of rather than in conjunction with. They’d have probably discovered the Brum tech Slack which has 800-odd people in it, or2 CovHack or HackTheMidlands or FusionMeetup or devopsdays or CodeYourFuture_ or yougotthisconf or Tech Wednesday or Django Girls or OWASP or Open Code or any one of a ton of other things that are going on every week.

Birmingham, as anyone who’s decided to be here knows, is a bit special. A person involved in tech in Birmingham is pretty likely to be able to get a similar job in London, and yet they haven’t done so. Why is that? Because Brum’s different. Things are less frantic, here, is why. We’re all in this together. London may have kings and queens: we’re the city of a thousand different trades, all on the same level, all working hand in hand. All collaborating. It’s a grass roots thing, you see. Nobody’s in charge. The calendar mentioned above is open source exactly so that there’s not one person in charge of it and anyone else can pick it up and run with it if we disappear, so the work that’s already gone into it isn’t wasted.

Yiannis goes on to say “I guess we weren’t really banging the drum about some of the successes Birmingham had seen in regards to tech.” And this is correct. Or, more accurately, I don’t personally know whether it’s correct, but I entirely believe it. I’m personally mostly interested in the tech scene in the city being good for people in the city, not about exhibiting it to others… but that doesn’t mean that that shouldn’t be done. Silicon Canal already do some of that, but having more of it can’t be bad. We all want more stuff to happen, there just doesn’t need to be one thing which attempts to subsume any of the others. Birmingham Tech Week’s a great idea. I’d love to see it happen again, and it’s great that Yiannis has taken a lead on this; five thousand people showing up can’t be wrong.

And, to be clear, this is not an attempt to rag on them. I don’t know Yiannis myself, but I’ve been told by people whose opinions I value and who do know him that he’s not intending to be a kingmaker; that what he’s looking to do is to elevate what’s already going on, and add more to it. That’s fantastic. They’ve contacted people I know and trust to ask for opinions and thoughts. I spoke to them when they set up their own events listing and asked people to contribute to theirs specifically and I said, hey, you know there already is one of those, right? If you use that (as Silicon Canal do) and ask people to contribute to that, then we all win, because everyone uses it as the single source and we don’t have fifteen incomplete calendars. And they said, hey, we didn’t know that, soz, but we’ll certainly do that from now on, and indeed they have done so, recommending to event organisers that they add their stuff to the existing calendar, and that’s brilliant. That’s collaboration.

I think of the tech scene in my city like a night out dancing. You go out for the evening to have a dance, to have a laugh. Show up on your own or with a partner or with a group, and then all get out there on the floor together and throw some shapes; be there for one minute or the whole night, nobody minds. And nobody’s directing it. Nobody wins a dance. If someone tries to tell everyone how to dance and when to dance and where to dance… then it stops being fun.

And so there’s a certain amount of resistance, on my side of the fence, to kingmakers. To people who look at the scene, all working together happily, and then say: you people need organising for your own good, because there needs to be someone in charge here. There needs to be hierarchy, otherwise how will journalists know who to ask for opinions? It’s difficult to understand an organisation which doesn’t have any organisation. W. L. Gore and Patagonia and Valve are companies that work a similar way, without direct hierarchy, in a way that the management theorist Frédéric Laloux calls a “teal organisation” and others call “open allocation”, and they baffle people the world over too; half the managers and consultants in the world look at them and say, but that can’t work, if you don’t have bosses, nobody will do anything. But it works for them. And it seems to me to be a peculiarly Brum approach to things. If we were in this for the fame and the glory we’d have gone down to London where everyone’s terribly serious and in a rush all the time. Everyone works with everyone else; BrumPHP talks about BrumJS, Fusion talks about School of Code; one meetup directs people to others that they’ll find interesting; if the devopsdays team want a speaker about JavaScript they’ll ping BrumJS to ask about who’d be good. That’s collaboration. Everyone does their bit, and tries to elevate everyone else at the same time.

So I really hope that the newspaper article was a misquote; that the journalist involved could have looked more into what’s going on in the city and then written something about all of that, too. It’s certainly easy to just report on one thing that’s going on, but exactly what makes the Birmingham tech scene different from others is that it’s rich and deep and there isn’t one convenient person who knows all of it. I’d love to see Birmingham journalism talking more about the Birmingham scene. Let’s hope there’s more of that.

  1. That link describes the 2019 Birmingham tech week at time of writing in February 2020. I do not know whether they’ll keep the 2019 schedule around (and I hope they do and don’t just overwrite it).
  2. to quote Jim
I'm currently available for hire, to help you plan, architect, and build new systems, and for technical writing and articles. You can take a look at some projects I've worked on and some of my writing. If you'd like to talk about your upcoming project, do get in touch.

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  • Matt Andrews responded at twitter.com Some thoughts on the Birmingham tech scene, after the last day or so of discussions. kryogenix.org/days/2020/02/1…
  • Omar Qureshi responded at twitter.com Pardon my French, but, what the fuck is Birmingham Tech Week?
  • Stuart Langridge responded at twitter.com birminghamtechweek.com They ran a bunch of pretty cool events last October and are gearing up to do the same again this October.
  • Omar Qureshi responded at twitter.com Seems to be more startup / buzzword focussed than actual tech. When it comes to tech you think of shit like BrumJS or BrumPHP. I'd love to attend more…
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  • Stuart Langridge responded at twitter.com sure; that's still valuable, though, even if I personally am not all that interested in it. What I am interested in is everyone collaborating together…
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  • Stuart Langridge responded at twitter.com It is a good thing, and I tried quite hard to indicate that I think that. Having more people and more organisations and more stuff involved is all gre…
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