Hey, Hackers need friends too!

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Despite a plethora of events supporting “new media” types, and even such things as Geek Dinners, the UK eco-system around “hackers” (good programmers, in the true definition) – remains thin. Or so argues Ian Hogarth of Songkick in this guest post.

I believe the most critical thing we can do to improve the ecosystem for start-ups in the UK is to create more community around hackers.

We’ve found that having a community of other hackers around you can massively accelerate both your personal growth, and most importantly for start-ups – the speed at which you can improve your product.

I’m by no means an expert on either start-ups or hacking but I’ll tell you about the experience that convinced me of the value of a local community of hackers.

My background is in statistical machine learning, so when some friends and I wanted a website dedicated to live music, I had to learn some new skills – most critically how to make a website! I’d heard that Facebook had been built on PHP and I liked Facebook so I started teaching myself the basics of building a web app on the LAMP stack and hacking up a prototype. At that point we had a great break and got into Y Combinator (YC). With that we went from being a few friends trying to make something out of an East London flat to being surrounded by a group of 40 really exceptional hackers – 90% of whom had a strong background in web programming. It made an incredible difference. The first thing that became clear was that a web framework could really help to save time. Rails and Django seemed to be the most popular choices and after discussing it with other YC founders we decided to try rails. Immediately things started to move faster, in no small part due to the help and support that some of the other YC companies gave us when getting started with Ruby. The community around YC helped us to find our first hire who was already an experienced Ruby hacker so then we really started to speed up.

When I look back on the craziness of that Y Combinator summer one of the least expected benefits was the value of discussing our ideas with other hackers – on a regular basis. Every week YC would hold dinners for people where we’d show each other what they were working on. The benefits of doing that included the “damn they made a lot of progress, we need to step it up” feeling, the “wow, can you show me how you did that” reaction and most importantly advice on how to do things faster, better and cheaper. Hackers are some of the most generous people I know but even I was surprised to fire an email out asking for advice on efficient ways to set up AB testing and get some code sent back to me within the hour (props Paul).

When we moved back to London after the summer a really strange thing started to happen. We unconsciously became isolated from other hackers again. Although we discussed ideas amongst our team, critically we were missing the structure that those weekly dinners provided. Whenever we did meet other London based hackers (for example the incredibly talented dev teams at Dopplr,
and Socialistics) we’d get a ton of helpful suggestions and would be reminded again of the value of that discussion. Then we’d be head down again and not meet any other developers for weeks.

I believe that in the UK we aren’t missing great technical talent – we’re missing enough regular events for hackers to meet, in forums focused on hacking. In SF there are developer oriented meetups every night of the week, in New York there’s the mighty Tech Meetup but in the UK we need to do more to make sure those discussions happen.

We’ve tried to have a go at fixing that ourselves by organising monthly ‘Hacker Meetups’ in London. For the past 6 months around 30-60 hackers have come down to our office in East London to demo new technology they’ve built and then go out for some cheap food nearby. This month (on September 4th) we’re getting the guys from the Erlang training centre to come and tells us a bit more about the benefits of the language and have 4-5 quick demos from people hacking on anything from new programming languages to iPhone apps. When I see 50 enthusiastic people all absorbed in discussions about a new Javascript framework, or catch our CTO in the corner animatedly discussing ideas for scaling with another start-up it feels like those Tuesday nights at Y Combinator. It feels exciting that we can start to create that atmosphere every month in London and I’d love to see similar events happen more and more.

What do you think? Do you regularly meet up with other UK based hackers? How useful is that discussion to you? Would you host a Hacker Meetup in your city?

  • http://uk.sun.com/startups stewart townsend

    Great article Ian, would love to host a Hacker meetup at our offices near momument, Pizza and beer night, regularly hold community events there such as Drupal, RoR and Facebook, but would be great to see the hacking community talking shop in a Sun office, and our engineers in Startup Essentials are regulars at GeekUp meetups and Im sure would love to attend. drop me a line at
    stewart.towsendATsun.com, I run Startup Essentials for EMEA, helping support startups and communities.

    • joan oxton

      sorry for this, i need someones advice. hope someone out there can, my daughter got her new laptop hacked! her to mobilephones as well 1 but thats not the problem, shes a single mum with 2kids and we think this hacker is doing all kinds of things to her home! like blowing up freezer, microwave, makeing a smell of gas in her home, lights going very bright, giveing her so much static she can move a pin by putting her finger by it! now its like her skin is crawling with bugs under the skin, she calls it worms, can anyone do this by hacking? ever take control of what she watches on tv, she says there watching every move she makes, she thinks its her x boyfrend, but i dont think so, i cant see him putting his son through that? please i dont no what to do! can hackers do that! shes got no money or a bank account, someone must hate her so bad if thay are doing this, and if thay are how can i get it to stop.
      thanks to every one who is reading this.
      from a very worryed mum

  • http://johnndege.com John Ndege

    I’ve been to a few hacker meetups set up by Ian and they’ve been great, just to see what other people are doing and working on and its also great for advice. Its good to meet real programmers, not just business people with an idea. I find when hackers are amongst hackers they are often candid and direct giving you an insight into the startup and their vision.

  • http://ekstreme.com/ Pierre Far

    Good thoughts Ian, and I agree completely that we need UK-based hacker meet ups.

    One problem I see is that we don’t have critical mass of hackers around the country, apart from London. In London, there are enough hackers to support a regular meet-up. In Cambridge where I am? Maybe – I don’t know. Oxford? In Leeds? Or Edinburgh? Who knows.

    I think we can try two things:

    1. Set up an IRC (or other virtual) meet up once a week. Stick with it and keep it regular come rain or shine. This way people don’t have to travel and can dedicate some time to it.

    2. set up an orchestrated series of meetings (every major town holds a meeting at the same day and time). The publicity of such a massive nation-wide drive would be great enough to kick start things and also gauge if there is interest in the UK or not.

    BTW, if you need to get in touch with me, you know my email address (search for our brief conversation on April 15th) and I’ll try to come on September 4th.


  • http://omgponi.es Peter C

    OpenCoffee is pretty sucessful in the UK, London, Brighton, Cork, Dublin …

    Cambridge doesnt have any hacker meet ups (there is Refresh Cambridge, an an annual barcamp) – I’m suprised, Cambridge really suits that environment. Maybe.

    Startups in the UK don’t get as much exposure as their US counterparts, TechCrunch UK is a bit pants, ycombinator is US focussed and so on. Create a good community of startups and the social bits will come with it.

    The Register ran a list of the top 25 startups in the UK and it pretty underwhelming, I can’t believe there isn’t a facebook or a twitter or a reddit growing in someones head and it just needs exposure to british people (and investors).

    So – to fix it, step up TechCrunch UK and actually update this blog constantly – surely you get a ton of email from british startups?

  • http://www.twitter.com/soundboy Ian Hogarth

    @Pierre Far

    I think those are both great ideas man. Can you help get the IRC channel started? Will follow up with you by email.

    Think it’s also a smart move to try to sync up hacker meetups in other cities around the UK. Sam Collins up in Edinburgh is planning to organise one up there so perhaps we should try to schedule them on the 4th September to coincide? In a similar way to Open Coffee, Meetup.com looks like the easiest way to synchronise.

  • http://www.yadster.com Sam Collins

    Good article Ian, you know I completely agree with this. As you said it’s so much more productive to have like a network of people you can bounce questions off and keep in touch with what everyone is doing. We have tons of tech talent in the UK, but that’s just what we read and hear about, we’re really lacking a means to bring it all together.

    I’m going ahead with the meetup in Edinburgh – had a chat around and everyone is really keen to see something like that. Not only on a local basis but the ability to connect with you guys in London is a huge appeal as well. As goes for any other city that can organise them. It’s massively valuable to have a bunch of different meetups connected – but it has to be an easy and effective connection. What I liked about your London meetups was that it was really relaxed and everyone could just chat. Ideally I’d like to see that if you’re in a city on the 4th of a month (or whatever) you can pop into the hacker meetup there and you’ll have already chatted to some of the people at it.

  • http://stubblog.wordpress.com Stuart Grimshaw

    http://geekup.org is a great community based in the North, there are monthly meetings in Leeds, Manchester, Sheffield, Liverpool & Preston as well as what seem like weekly Geekup lunches in Manchester.

  • http://fivepoundapp.com/ John Montgomery

    We’ve been running something we’ve been calling “the £5app” (http://fivepoundapp.com/) down in Brighton. Been going for about a year now and seems to work fairly well.

    It’s not a straight Hacker meet, as there’s a certain amount of discussion of business/entrepreneurship, but that often seems to go hand-in-hand anyway.

  • babul

    (For the benefit of general TechCrunch readers.)

    Not living in London, and always being busy, it takes a lot of time and energy to attend events/meets/conferences. In general I avoid most of them as they do not inspire me and are not really worth the effort, often being too soft on focus or business related (with no tangible and realistic implementation paths) to be useful.

    However, I do like the Hacker meets Ian has organised as it provides good insight into building web-apps, something I am learning to do. It is very cool to see what people are doing and how they are doing it.

    To really benefit, it does help if you are working on a project/startup/web-app or seriously thinking of doing one as the advice and feedback is very great and the event is really geared towards that.

    Thanks to everyone at Songkick et al for their efforts, especially Ian, Pete, Phil, and (the elusive) Michelle.

  • http://www.tink.ws/blog Tink

    Again not really a hackers event, but we hold an independent Flash Platform User Group in London once a month, and we’re always happy to see new faces to discussion the ins and outs of Flash and related subjects.

    London Flash Platform User Group

  • http://ekstreme.com/ Pierre Far

    I got an IRC channel up and running: #ukhackers on irc.freenode.net. It’s been a while since I’ve done this so it may not work 100% as expected.

    Ian: I dropped you an email but got an autoreply.


  • http://www.stirr.net Sanford Barr

    You may want to connect with the SuperHappyDevHouse guys in Silicon Valley. They hold some of the best hacker meetups in the bay area, and I’m sure they’d be thrilled to see some happen in the UK. http://www.shdh.org

  • http://www.brainbakery.com Jof Arnold

    There’s at least 100 of ’em at minibar tonight. With a bit of research on meetup and upcoming you could easily go to a meet-up every day of the week… there’s PHP meetups, JavaScript meetups, Ruby… Web Dev in general… loads of stuff. Not to mention minibar, the Sun startup events, facebook dev garage… Endless meetup joy for all.

    See you at the next one!

  • jas

    Brilliant at their job hackers are but they cannot design to save their live i mean look at the state of songkick it’s terrible looks like an 11 year old knocked it up in their lunch break,songkick if you can hear “get a redesign asap”

  • http://www.kappaprime.com/blog/2008/08/23/bootlaw-free-legal-seminar-for-startups-from-winstonstrawn-2/ Kappa Prime blog

    […] UK recently published a post by Songkick’s founder, Ian Hogarth, on the lack of hacker meetups in the UK. No doubt about […]

  • http://www.freehillmedia.com Dallas Clark

    Excellent post and couldn’t agree more, I find hackers to be a different type of crowd and they are usually those who help us endlessly without fuss to create more secure, better and faster applications.

  • http://www.songkick.com/blog/2008/08/26/great-weekend-press/ Songkick Blog » Blog Archive » Great weekend press

    […] I wrote a guest post for TechCrunch UK about hacking in the UK and a need for more developer related meetups. We’re running our next […]

  • Laurie

    Cambridge has SuperHappyDevClub meetings around once every month or two. http://groups.google.com/group/shdc

  • http://www.last.fm/user/RJ RJ

    Cool, I’m getting into Erlang at the moment. Hope to see you there.

  • http://www.geirfreysson.com/2008/09/songkick-hacker-meetup-5-should-i-rewrite-this-blog-in-erlang/ Songkick hacker meetup #5: Should I rewrite this blog in Erlang? - Geir Freysson - The Internet Industrialist

    […] behind the meetup, Ian Hogarth of Songkick, wrote an article on Techcrunch recently titled Hey, Hackers need friends too! explaining the thinking behind the […]

  • http://www.songkick.com/blog/2008/09/08/photos-from-hacker-meetup-5/ Songkick Blog » Blog Archive » Photos from Hacker meetup #5

    […] were hacking on. Thanks to Mike Butcher from TechCrunch UK for helping to spread the word with my guest post last […]

  • http://www.techmeetup.co.uk/?p=52 First Tech Meetup in Edinburgh - Sept 4th 7pm | Techmeetup

    […] of finger food and paper napkins. Ian Hogarth wrote about “Hackers Need Friends Too!” (http://uk.techcrunch.com/2008/08/21/hey-hackers-need-friends-too/) on TechCrunch UK, and we’ve decided to do what they do in London: get all the developers, […]

  • jaja

    heyyy umm jaja and i kinda need some and i belive hackers do need friends

  • C_Doll

    I want to be apart of the hacking team…i don’t know anything about the technical side of a computer but i know how to turn it on and off…that’s a start right….

    I just want to learn something new :)

  • C_Doll

    ….Gave the wrong email address….see i need all the help i can get..

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