Reflecting on 15 Years as a Community Builder
On January 21st, 2009 I hosted my first meetup for twelve mobile developers at a pizza shop in Arlington, VA. This one small act changed the course of my life and subsequently many others. I was new to the DC area having relocated from Seattle to marry my now wife Sabrina. Without much of a network I decided to start my own using Meetup.com to start the Washington iPhone, Android and Smartphone Developers Group. In a year this would become ModevDC with more than 1000 members and soon I was organizing multi-day developer events and learning the ropes of the conference business. By 2011 Modev would become an LLC and community building my full-time vocation. I haven't looked back.
When I reflect on 15 years I believe the biggest thing that strikes me is the gravity of being a community builder in an industry that needs a lot of support in the areas of inclusivity, diversity, access, bias and mental health. I was pretty naive to this at the outset as we focused on building mobile apps, growing downloads, transforming businesses from web to mobile and perfecting UX. I believe our first code of conduct was published in 2013 and this started a journey about what it meant to feel safe at an event.
By the time we launched VOICE Summit in 2018, I felt a strong need to place the conference in a market where diversity and access would be a natural part of the event and thus, we chose Newark, NJ. Not only was Newark a wonderful host city, the gifts I would get from this experience are lasting. One of my greatest memories is having the Bruce Street School for the Deaf attend VOICE 2019. We reserved a table for about ten students near the front of the keynote stage and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka came down after his talk to meet each student as they told him what they want to do in life. I could see in their eyes that not only were they a part of a large tech event, they mattered, and they were on equal footing with the rest of the attendees. Our closing keynote that year was Thomas Chappel, a deaf developer and IT specialist from Prudential. He gave one of the most powerful closing talks we've had and as the audience shook their hands in the air and stood to show their appreciation, I was able to hug his parents and have a good cry.
|Bruce Street School for the Deaf Students at VOICE 2019
I have been so lucky to have heard countless testimonials over the years about how one of our events has changed the trajectory for someone's career. Or how they met a co-founder and eventually had an 8 figure exit or sparked an idea for something new and exciting. And the joy I see when students on scholarship meet their tech heroes and gain an experience they otherwise wouldn't be able to. My joy comes when I know the work we do is making a difference.
It's my honor and privilege to be here 15 years later, still at it, still learning and knowing that this is important work. The industry has a longways to go before we truly become representative of the society we live in. But it's making great strides and the momentum is building.
I'll wrap up with this. Community and events is harder work than I ever imagined it could be. The pandemic undid the previous ten years of growth and a recovery back to pre-pandemic ways never really materialized. But life and this vocation are moving forward in new and profound ways. I've had to transform my thinking and forget everything I knew. I believe we all have.
The world is different, the stakes are higher for going to an event. We don't want the same things we once did. We want experiences, we don't want pitches, we want strong connections, not networking mixers, we want innovation houses vs. breakout rooms and lastly, we want a truly diverse, inclusive and safe space to be with other human beings. These realities are my focus and why I'm excited to share the next chapter with you all.