published Saturday, June 11th, 2011

Geeks gather to share knowledge, build network

If you missed the lectures on Web font embedding, cascading style sheets or front-end performance optimization last weekend, fear not.

While the event may have flown under the general public’s radar, Chattanooga’s technological undercurrent has wide-ranging implications for the city’s economic future.

Programmers on June 4 alternated between listening intently and playing with software code on their laptops, as the dry presentations on HTML best practices were offset somewhat by the free beer and custom-branded Little Debbies.

DevChatt, Chattanooga’s second annual gathering of about 50 software and web developers, resembled more of an extended family reunion than the special effects-laden expos held on the West Coast in sprawling conference centers and auditoriums.

But visitors to the event said the low-key affair disguises a sparkling brilliance beneath the surface — a drive to take advantage of Chattanooga’s unique strengths to grow the local talent pool.

“There’s a big emphasis on sharing knowledge between the developers,” said David Pham, inventor of file-sharing program Dropulous. “You don’t get that with huge developer communities.”

The timing of the conference roughly coincided with an ownership shakeup at Medium, a Chattanooga-based web design and development company, and long a leader in the local technology market.

Josiah Roe, founder of Medium and of DevChatt, said it had been “an eventful week,” with some of the partners splitting away to pursue other ventures and some workers leaving.

“There just wasn’t something like DevChatt in Chattanooga,” he said. “We wanted this one to be by geeks, for geeks, we wanted it to speak to that culture, and be sort of representative like that.”

Others took the reins from Roe this year, a development he calls “a good thing,” as he was busy spinning off a number of divisions from the company to form new entities.

Former employee Tim Willison, who was hired by EPB, said the change allowed many of the creative workers who were let go to work on long-postponed personal projects instead of “just doing what clients want you to do.”

It’s all part of the creative destruction that defines the information age: a speedy cycle of growth, change and rejuvenation that drives innovation in software and on the Web, Willison said.

The fact that the community is alive and changing is preferable to stagnation, he added.

Willison now is able to devote more time to his work on JQuery, a widely used product that helps developers create sites and apps without having to worry about the differences and incompatibilities between browsers.

“I guess I would look forward to it growing and seeing more developers from town come in and work with us,” he said.

Some of the bigger companies are a little skeptical of the rapidly advancing Web opportunities, “but EPB is kind of a cool exception,” he said.

Though small in number, Chattanooga developers are working on other projects to create better standards-based websites and applications, raising the bar for interactivity and connectivity, said Mike Dirolf, New York-based founder of fiesta.cc.

“I got the sense that people were working on a lot of interesting things,” Dirolf said. “You can talk to anybody and they have their genius idea of some product or something that’s going to change the world, but the number of people who actually start doing it is a lot smaller.”

The can-do spirit reflects a level of growth and maturity that puts local developers on par with much larger communities, said Don Sayers, freelance developer and troubleshooter.

“It blows my mind that it exists here and that these people can make products that are used worldwide,” Sayers said. “We’re to the point where it’s getting to be pretty amazing.”

From social-networking startup LifeKraze to interior-design simulation company Tricycle, developers are pushing forward on all fronts, Sayers said, which is especially surprising given the woeful state of education in the area.

“There are not a whole lot of new technologies being learned in classrooms,” he said.

And as the local development community slowly moves from what he calls “un-conferences” to a more structured organization, getting students excited about applied mathematics and other programming prerequisites is a priority for the group.

There are a few education programs designed to help students think like a computer coder, “but there are a lot more people here in town that can contribute,” Sayers said.

In the meantime, the group plans to continue socializing and building new acronym-laden technology to make working and having fun easier and faster. With events like DevChatt, BarCamp and the 48HourLaunch happening throughout the year, there’s no shortage of opportunities.

“I love the community here,” Sayers said. “Its great these people are working together to help make it better for Chattanooga.”

about Ellis Smith...

Ellis Smith joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January 2010 as a business reporter. His beat includes the flooring industry, Chattem, Unum, Krystal, the automobile market, real estate and technology. Ellis is from Marietta, Ga., and has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication at the University of West Georgia. He previously worked at UTV-13 News, Carrollton, Ga., as a producer; at the The West Georgian, Carrollton, Ga., as editor; and at the Times-Georgian, Carrollton, ...

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