“How Soon Is Now?” is a column dedicated to tech startup culture and community from the perspective of a software developer in Nashville, Tennessee. His opinions are his own.
The year is certainly off to an interesting start. Silicon Valley looks to be in a downward spiral with several layoffs, and the media is pumping out article after article calling for “blood in the water” and a “unicorn reckoning.”
Hyperbole sells, but the insane valuations everyone has been calling out for years are beginning to correct themselves—and fast. It’s nothing to celebrate or make light of, as these down rounds in a system built to protect the investors are hurting employees most.
With the correction going on in Silicon Valley, I’m sure there are plenty of folks feeling somewhat vindicated about our situation here in Nashville. Local investors will get the luxury of spinning their capital investments, or lack thereof, as a stroke of genius. Though I’m sure we’ll be sweeping a couple things under the rug, like a company that raised $1.77 million, garnered local awards, scored one of those super-cool oversized checks from Steve Case and still, somehow, managed to criticize a lack of capital on their way out. Or another local media favorite that wouldn’t be out of place on an episode of “The Walking Dead.” It’s not hard to see why investors would turn a cold shoulder to technology.
Tennesseeans are still processing the $200 million taxpayer disaster that is TNInvestco, which managed to make $83 million disappear before a single dollar was invested. A much more reasonable tax credit is in the works for the next phase, but the real problem to solve isn’t about capital at all.
We need a cultural shift, and that shift should be built around our makers and doers instead of the “business elite.”
I spoke with a developer visiting from Boston recently and she asked me what co-working spot to check out so she could connect with local technologists and get a vibe for the scene. I struggled for an answer and bought time describing the great technology community here: frequent meetups on a huge range of topics, companies like Emma that are supporting our scene. None of these really answered her question, and in the end all I could suggest were a couple of coffee shops. Nashville has no shortage of co-working locations, but none of them are heavy on tech-based companies or come to mind as standing out for supporting our technology community.
That conversation helped me realize how physically segmented our startups and technologists are during our workdays. We’re scattered all over town in various office spaces, working from home or out of coffee shops. Slack keeps us connected, and the meetups are great, but developers do have a tendency to segment off by language and framework with little discussion around the business impact our technical solutions provide. Our technology community needs to find an entrepreneurial spirit that brings us all together to support everyone’s endeavors, to celebrate successes, commiserate in failures and, ultimately, work together to build our community that makes us stronger on the whole.
I doubt this dichotomy between technology and business is anything exclusive to Nashville, and it could all stem from our colleges and institutions having entrepreneur programs catered to MBA students. With this schism engrained, a “wait for them to come to me” attitude persists and carries over into our careers and seems clearly on display at the Nashville Entrepreneur Center. The halls and meetups at the EC are filled with salespeople, marketers and service providers mingling and passing business cards around. It makes sense that eager entrepreneurs would seek out the EC, but with a lack of technologists around, things go from being about solving problems to being about generating a sales funnel. It’s a big reason why agencies thrive in this town and it keeps our business and technology communities living inside their own respective echo chambers.
In his book, “Startup Communities,” Brad Feld does an excellent job calling out similar situations for startup communities around the country that aren’t working. Feld explains the difference between Feeders (investors, mentors, government, universities and service providers) and Leaders (makers and entrepreneurs). While Feeders are vital to the ecosystem and provide a much-needed service, a startup community must be driven by the Leaders. Unfortunately, we’re short on Leaders in Nashville, leaving the Feeders to run the show. And while I’m sure the cocktail parties and award shows are great, they’re not bringing us any closer to being a community driven by Leaders.
Technologists are going through a time of incredible opportunity right now. Never before has a trade where a degree is moot had labor costs this high and so much potential to disrupt. Never before has the grip of the business elite been this threatened, but it’s feeling like we’re losing that hold. With the funnel tightening on Silicon Valley investments, you can expect the next round to be funded by the powers that be. We’re seeing a similar situation in Nashville, with our accelerator programs sponsored by massive music, publishing and soon, healthcare corporations. The goal no longer being to find new ideas that disrupt, but to maintain control and grow an already massive ecosystem through the fresh ideas of others.
While we’re continually sold on the idea of a STEM shortage, even with no evidence to support it, technology wages have stagnated. The Bureau of Labor and Statistics makes headlines with its 10-year growth outlook for web and software developers, but you’re not likely to find a mention of their predicted decline in computer programmers. And while it makes sense that software development jobs will continue to grow, it will be interesting to see what the correction in the valley does when morale causes a dispersal of talent that could bottleneck a pipeline around the country already picky enough that the average interview process takes 35 days. Meanwhile, we’re still churning out developers with the promise of six-figure salaries and great stock options, conveniently leaving out the bits about executives conspiring to keep wages lower.
I’m all for teaching people to code, as it brings fresh voices, improves diversity and roots out the nonsense. But let’s at least be conscious that the goal of the learn-to-code movement isn’t to bring six-figure salaries to more people, but to increase supply and cheapen labor overall.
The growth that software development has seen in the last decade is incredible. We’ve seen cycles like this before, but with the excitement around technology and sheer number of developers coming into the fold, we need to acknowledge that it’s not enough to learn to code or even be a “10x developer.” We must evolve our attitude toward business and our business sense to stay relevant, especially in Tennessee, where we find ourselves ranked 41st in innovation. We can do better and we will do better, but it starts with acknowledging our failings so we can work towards the solution.
As a software developer with a passion for leveraging technology to find solutions, I don’t think I’m alone in feeling ostracized by the EC. Whether it’s a problem with leadership lacking a technical background, a reliance on investors who don’t understand technology or the lack of desire from technologists to get involved, what’s actually boring is a deadlock that keeps one side complaining about a lack of capital and the other side complaining about a lack of “spectacular deals.”
If it’s not there for us and it’s something we want, then we need to work to find it, foster it or create it ourselves. Let’s work to build the community we want to exist. Let’s focus on solving problems we want to solve, while educating ourselves and our peers. Once we’re successful, everyone else will be knocking down our door to get in.