Majority Female

By Mike / On / In Appsterdam

One of my proudest achievements as Mayor of Appsterdam is the diversity of the ecosystem we’ve built. Not only has that led to a technology festival founded by a woman, we regularly have 40-60% female attendance at our events. That means in an industry that struggles to attract its fair share of women, we’ve experienced female majority.

We’ve grown past simply scratching our heads and wondering where the women are. We’ve learned from the people who’ve tried simply lunging at women, or using reverse discrimination to solve this problem. We’ve come up with a methodology that is not only easy on the soul, but provably effective. It boils down to the same trick we use to make great products: provide a great experience for everyone.

Put yourself in the shoes of a young woman interested in programming. She walks into the computer science club and is greeted by a pack of sweaty, staring males with less than average social graces. Can you blame her for turning tail and never looking back?

The first problem we have to solve is breaking up that pack of sweating, misbehaving males, which still exists, except now the clubhouse is a bar. And the thing is, the girls are trying to get in, if only on account of how much whining we do that there are no women around, but they’re still being turned around.

If every other person in the bar was a woman, women would immediately feel more comfortable. When people bring their significant others to technology events, we have a much more diverse crowd, and women instantly feel more comfortable. I hate to say it, but this also keeps the men in line, as their girls will smack them if they start acting out.

I no longer agree to speak at events that aren’t willing to buy two coach tickets. Encouraging your speakers and attendees to bring their partners improves the diversity of your conference. It can be the crucial element in the community building that makes a great conference.

It’s as simple as letting people bring their partners for free. Most of them will only show up for the parties and do something else during the day. If you want to be super cool, you can organize some fun stuff for the non-techies to do in town while the nerds get their nerd on. The best way to a nerd’s heart is through their partner.

Welcoming partners to your conference not only makes for a better show, it makes it easier to show up in the first place. There are a lot of shows happening these days, and having to leave your partner behind is a major reason not to go to yet another tech conference.

One other thing: if we want to make women feel welcome, we need to stop discriminating. Nobody I know in the industry considers themselves sexist, but they still discriminate against women for things other than being a woman. Prime example: we tend to look down on people in marketing. Guess where all the women went who were turned away from computer science? Marketing is like 90% female.

By welcoming all people, by seeking to find something in common with everyone, we improve the experience for everyone. The end result is not just a gimmick, but evidence of a larger phenomenon, a rich diversity perfect for training a new generation of entrepreneurs, independents, and employees, all thinking on a global scale. That’s just good business.

Teaching the Teachers

By Mike / On / In Appsterdam

It’s been interesting seeing people’s reactions to my announcement that I’m giving Appsterdam to the App Makers. Most people are happy to see me take a break, excited to see what I come up with next, but a little worried how the organization will fare without me. I appreciate the concern, but let me assure you, it’s misplaced.

First, because it’s not really about me stepping down as much as it is me setting an example that I hope leads this community organization into being run and led by the community, and not a set group of people. There is no permanent leadership class in Appsterdam—just people taking their turn, ready to serve.

Second, because I’m not really going anywhere. I’m just changing my focus to longer-term goals. I did the doing for a while, then I did the teaching. Now I’m ready to teach the teachers. The success of a generation is not judged by its children, but by its grandchildren, so I’m giving the reins over to a new generation while I’m still around to guide them.

There are more, less obvious changes in the works as well. I’m cutting my speaking schedule way back, to about a quarter of what it is now. Instead, I’m going to be dedicating a lot more time to the Appsterdam Speaker Bureau, meeting demand for my stage presence with an army of even better speakers.

Like I said before, we’re all about results. When the work done by the volunteers of the Appsterdam Foundation pays off, the ecosystem they have built inspires new creativity. Where before the dreams of the community were met with calls of “not possible,” at Appsterdam gatherings they found support, inspiration, and likeminded individuals, to build their own engines of change.

I’ve already told you about the Appsterdam embassies, local implementations of our open source movement, starting in Delft, then spreading to Warsaw, Milan, and now a number of other cities. It won’t be long now before every city with App Makers has their own version of Appsterdam.

I’ve already told you about Apps for the Planet, the on-going hacktivist collective founded by Casper Koomen whose events are not just about the joy of getting together to work on projects, but in focusing those efforts to make the world a better place. I was most impressed when they teamed up with Pachube to teach people how to program the Arduino by having them build air quality monitors.

Now it is my very great pleasure to introduce you to Appril, a month-long festival of App Making born right here in Appsterdam and driven by the amazing Jacqueline de Gruyter and her team of volunteers. When I look at all they’ve built, and how many people they’re brought together, in just a few short months—and I think about a very determined Jacqueline at many an Appsterdam event, overcoming setbacks and making things happen—it fills my eyes with tears, and my heart with pride.

If you’re looking for a chance to change the world, to become a teacher, to join people like Casper Koomen and Jacqueline de Gruyter in the pantheon of future heroes of Appsterdam, now is the time. Whether you’re bringing your knowledge to Europe, or bringing your experiences in Europe to the world there’s never been a better time, or a better place, to take up the mantle of knowledge.

We’ve called for pilgrims. We’ve called for students. Now we’re calling for teachers. We want Appsterdam to be a bright shining beacon in dark times ahead, but we can’t do it alone. We’re trying to solve the world’s problems, one app at a time, and we could sure use your help.

All Others Bring Data

By Mike / On / In Appsterdam

One thing working at Apple taught me is that if you don’t have data to confirm what you’ve done, you haven’t done anything. That’s why when Apple makes a promise, a bond on their reputation, they don’t just pay some contractor to meet their obligations. They send a team of inspectors to make sure things actually get done. If it isn’t documented, it didn’t happen.

The Appsterdam Foundation was not the first team to try to build a technical destination in Amsterdam. Hell, we weren’t even the first people to use the name Appsterdam to describe such an idea. The existing idea, which had been floundering around in some way, shape, or form for over a decade, just sort of got applied to us. We’re not the first, but we are fundamentally different, in some very important ways.

First, we eschew simplistic solutions that are either too top-down, or too explosive to effect real change. We believe that technology is fundamentally a people problem. Likewise, we believe that technologists are people, too. Therefore we appeal directly to the community of our peers. There are no easy or one-time solutions to building a tech community. Building anything worthwhile takes getting your hands dirty on a grassroots level.

Second, we believe optimization requires profiling. You can’t claim to be making things better—especially at public expense—unless you can actually prove that you’re making things better. This is why, before ever taking a dime from the government, we’ve started a research project with the University of Amsterdam to gather and visualize the data behind our tech community.

We’re going to show you not only who’s operating in this ecosystem, but who’s moved here, and who’s visiting here, because of Appsterdam. We’re different because we produce results, and we know this because we gather data. Building a better tech community isn’t art, it’s science, and the work we’re doing to reverse engineer the fundamental algorithms of our ecosystem are meant to be reused anywhere.

We are not just people who believe in our ability to change the world, we’ve proven it. Moreover, we’ve proven that in solving the world’s problems, money inevitably follows. It is not in chasing money that wealth is acquired; it is in making a dent in the universe that immortality is acquired. That’s what money can’t buy.

Hall of Heroes

By Mike / On / In Appsterdam

In my head are many imaginary rooms, dreamed up for some unrealized future home or headquarters. Among them is the Hall of Heroes, where hangs large woodcut portraits almost exactly like the author portraits that used to hang in Barnes and Noble. I used to imagine sitting in the cafe at Barnes and Noble and writing a great novel, inspired by those portraits.

When they took those portraits down from my local store, the Stephen King portrait found its way onto my wall, where it hung for many years. When I started making software, I would look at that portrait and imagine the portraits I would hang to inspire me in my future career.

Steve Jobs, obviously, and Steve Wozniak. Linus Torvalds, and Bill Gates as well, as you can’t understand one without all. Alan Turing. MLK and Malcolm X. Che. Elizabeth Blackwell. Musashi Miyamoto. Alison Jolly, who began the study of lemurs, and John Cleese, who taught us all so much about nurturing a sense of humor. Both people, notably, who have recently had new species of lemur named after them.

And Tim Berners-Lee. It felt like a significant decision adding him, not for inventing the World Wide Web that underlies so much of what we’ve done since, but for giving it away. In his book, Weaving the Web, he argues that computer scientists have a moral responsibility as well as a technical responsibility. To me, that felt like a charge, and declaring him a hero felt like a statement of how I wanted to be.

Which brings me to Appsterdam. Appsterdam was conceived a year ago, at NSConference 2011. Taking stock of where we are now, looking back at all the dots connected across what seems at once like all the time in the world and no time at all, has been a heady and emotional experience.

It’s clear we’ve passed a certain threshold, that we’re at the point when things start accelerating, when things start growing faster and faster. When I think about what I’d like Appsterdam to be a year from now, I want to see it outgrow its founder.

I was recently introduced to a concept I like a lot: post-heroic leadership. It’s what every company has to achieve in order to retain everything good about its creator, without becoming mired in what was bad about them. It’s what Apple is going through right now. It’s what I want for Appsterdam.

I’ve given a year of my life back to the community. It’s been an amazing year, a successful year, but also an exhausting year. I’m ready for a break, and more than that, I’m ready to let go. It’s time for the movement to level up. It’s time to pass on the reins.

On April 13, Judy and I will be flying to Taipei, Taiwan, to visit her family there, and to celebrate our engagement. We’re going to take a month to disconnect, to quiet the mind, to eat fresh food and drink a lot of water, maybe see a doctor. Hike up a mountain to a temple or a tea plantation, where you can have the best cuppa conceivable. See the future on sale at the street markets there. Relax, recharge, repair.

While we’re away, Paul Darcey will be interim CEO. Paul moved here from Australia to be part of Appsterdam. I’ve been impressed by his travels, and with the broad, round view they have given him. He has a calmness and maturity that is such a complement to my own fiery passion. He has exactly the kind of “steady as she goes” leadership I feel the organization needs now.

If all goes well during my month abroad—and I have no reason to believe otherwise—we’ll make the change permanent, and I will further seek to leave the board of Appsterdam, leaving me with no official ties to the organization. I will continue to carry the honorary titles of Mayor and Founder, and evangelize the city and the community we’ve built here.

I will also continue to advise the now independent leadership of Appsterdam, unbounded by the political necessities of actually running the thing. I’ll be experiencing things from the customer side of the counter, and offering my feedback from a position of experience, rather than of power.

I hope this will also serve as an example to all those inspired by Appsterdam, and as a thorn in the side of any who would attempt to hijack our work by questioning the goals of our organization or the intent of its founder. It is only by selfless action that we disprove those who do not believe in the existence of selfless action.

My hope is that, in good time, we will be able to transition the organization into something that is truly owned and operated by the community of App Makers it serves. I would love to see the leadership positions in the foundation opened up to elections. Democracy is scary and messy, but it’s also the best way we have to give something to the people—for our community to manifest itself through our organization.

As for me, I am in the process of starting a new company, of assembling a new team. I plan to take advantage of the new ecosystem by founding my next startup right here in Amsterdam. As I mentioned before, I plan on making the world’s best educational games for kids.

The Long Play

By Mike / On / In Appsterdam

There’s a common misconception that, since Appsterdam is the world capital of App Makers, the Appsterdam foundation makes apps. We don’t. As a meta-organization, we don’t produce apps ourselves; we represent the interests of people who do. The inevitable next question is, “then how do you make money?”

It’s like the Egg Board or the Cheese Council. The individual for-profit producers pitch in a bit of money to support a non-profit organization that promotes the product, advises the government, and guides the industry. Their goal in doing so is not to make money themselves, but to increase the overall economy for the sake of their constituents.

We come up with solutions to problems our industry has. We have meetings with 40-60% female attendance. We teach people how to give better conference presentations. We’re building a better valley in the heart of Europe. We’re providing a destination for the world’s smartest people.

Individuals and organizations who appreciate what we do can support our work by donating money, time, and facilities to the foundation. We’ve been operating for the past year on almost zero budget. Imagine what we could do with money.

That inevitably leads to the question that must cut to the quick of every person who’s ever founded a non-profit: “How do you make money?” The logic goes something like, if you’re not paying yourself a huge salary, then you must be doing it for love, and nobody works for love, so you must be a fraud.

That kind of logic is not just insulting, it’s simplistic. The Appsterdam foundation does not have commercial goals. Personally, I do this for religious reasons, but if you are unable to see a world where people do things for reasons other than money, you will just have to look harder. The opportunity is not in the Appsterdam foundation itself, but in the ecosystem that the foundation is building.

This brings us to the parable of Steve Jobs. As CEO of Apple, he only paid himself a dollar a year. You can argue about whether he did it for love, but you can’t argue that he didn’t become a very, very rich man.

In lieu of salary, Steve took stock. Then he led the organization into a period of growth that saw it eventually become the world’s most valuable company. Not only can you make a lot more money with stock than a typical CEO salary, you pay a lower tax rate, and don’t look like you’re fleecing investors, since they’re getting rich, too.

We are App Makers. By contributing to the tech communities where we live, we can all benefit. As Appsterdam lives up to its potential, it will continue to attract top talent, investors, and opportunities, not just for the people of Appsterdam, but for everyone.

There are plenty of people around here content with a couple hundred thousand Euro from the government, but that’s chump change compared to the kind of money you can make in the long play.

I want to make the world’s best educational games, right here in Amsterdam, and I plan to make money by doing so. A lot of money. But to steal one from Carl Sagan, if you want to build apps, first you have to build Appsterdam.