Minnesota’s Internet tech crowd flexes its muscle

If one had any doubt about the intensity of our state’s information technology and Internet community, one only had to be anywhere inside the U’s Coffman Union on Saturday for the third annual Minnebar “unconference” (part of an international phenomenon called Barcamp). To say the joint was a-jumpin’ simply does not suffice. And numbers alone don’t tell the story (though attendance was an event record at 430). Rather, it was the intensity of energy through the entire day that could only impress one about this somewhat quiet, and definitely underrated, sector of Minnesota’s economy.

I was there for at least 12 hours of the event — yes, it went on that long, and no one was complaining — and I can surely say that even the most skeptical of attendees who sacrificed part of their spring weekend were impressed with what they experienced, and left beaming with an elevated sense of pride in their industry. One needs only to scan the voluminous talk that went on in real-time — thanks to the magic of Twitter, and all archived here — to see that something big was happening in the Gopher State on this rainy fishing-opener Saturday. (In fact, Minnebar was ranked during the day as one of the top-five conversations going on in the entire, global “Twitterverse.”)

Some key takeaways
As someone who attends many of these local gatherings and reports on several national Internet industry events as well each year, I can truly say I was impressed with the impact this event had, on so many levels. As I thought about it over the weekend, I realized I left with not only a much-renewed excitement for Minnesota’s Internet technology and software community, but many great takeaways. Here are some of them:

• Networking is something our community needs more of, getting out from behind the keyboard and meeting people, mixing it up. One panelist talked about the need for more “dense networks” as something Minnesota’s tech community can learn from Silicon Valley. (That means local, national and social networking — everything.)

• Though we focus here in Minnesota on our own state/region, we must remember we’re really in a global market, and we must constantly strive to be world class — not just to emulate other, better-known tech regions in the United States. We need to benchmark against the best, wherever they may be, and that can be anywhere, to build great companies.

• There’s a real pride here in Minnesota. Techies love it here and don’t want to leave! Many who did have returned. This is a strength that we can very definitely build on.

• We need to do more to connect the technology students on the East Bank with the great business students at the Carlson School on the West Bank.

Minnesota companies, products
It’s important to remember that the Internet industry really started here back in the early ’90s with the invention of the browser appropriately named Gopher. It flourished for a few years, but, alas, was disrupted by a little thing called Netscape (first called Mosaic) and soon was relegated to just a note in history. But our state’s involvement in Internet development began thriving in the ’90s and has continued in many ways ever since.

The industry has some notable local companies, who collectively employ thousands, such as Digital River, Internet Broadcasting, and Dow Jones’ local operations (which began life as BigCharts and was soon acquired by MarketWatch), not to mention Minnesota being home to top-50 e-commerce destinations like BestBuy.com, Target.com, and ShopNBC. But the core of Minnesota’s Internet industry are the developers, designers, engineers and other technologists, marketers and entrepreneurs who gathered on Saturday at Minnebar, and the many hundreds of smaller entities many of them work for, plus the many new startups and products they are building, or just beginning to plot in their minds.

What do the attendees do all day, throughout the many meeting rooms in the wonderful new Coffman Union? Well, the event, organized by volunteer developers Ben Edwards and Luke Francl (and anyone they could get to help them), featured 40 sessions, all proposed and led by attendees themselves, on a wide variety of technical, design, business and marketing topics, as we blogged about last week here. Several sponsors, whio picked up the tab for everything, included the U of M’s Software Engineering Center (the venue sponsor), Split Rock Partners, SwarmCast, FindLaw, SierraBravo, and ipHouse.

The day’s highlight
Probably the biggest highlight of the day was the noon panel on The State of Technology in Minnesota (see the above post for audio link). The panelists’ best points — looking back at my notes (actually my live Twitters!) — were these:

• Matt Dornquast, founder of Code42, said, “We’re too risk-averse here … we need to knock down those tendencies.” He admonished the developers in the audience to just get going, saying that open source software lets them do that. Asked what area is the hottest now, he said, “There’s nothing like mobile.” He noted the iPhone will be a huge platform, very rich with opportunity.

• Jamie Thinglestad, who just left as chief technology officer of the local Dow Jones online operations, said open source is a new way of looking at developing software products. “We need to move beyond ‘place’ as being important. Open source is about passion.” He says he gets asked all the time if a firm can really build a development shop in Minnesota, “as if we’re sitting in a cornfield.” He said the talent here is very good.

• Doug Olson, GM of a Twin Cities-based Microsoft development group, told attendees, “It doesn’t take a lot of money today to make software. It takes guts and boldness — you have to take that risk!” Olson said the development shop he set up here for Authorware/Macromedia (based in Arden Hills) was still going strong for Adobe, many years later.

• Robert Stephens, founder of Geek Squad (until, as he said, “We acquired Best Buy”), said big companies need to be trying out more $500 ideas. That’s how they all started, but they’ve forgotten how to do that.” Robert also announced that Geek Squad will be the sole sponsor of Twin Cities Public Television’s “Make” show starting this fall, which will help teach younger kids about how to tinker with and build technology products and experiments.)

• Dan Grigsby, a locally based serial Internet entrepreneur who worked in Silicon Valley for several years and is now consulting and blogging at Unpossible.com, spoke eloquently about how our community “needs better startup business people.” And, in that vein, he said he will be teaching a U of M class this fall on software entrepreneurship.

• Michael Gorman, of Split Rock Partners, said his firm has invested $300 million in all types of Minnesota companies.  He said our state is the Silicon Valley of medical device technology but doesn’t have any large IT companies here anymore, such as Cray, Control Data and Unisys. He wonders if firms like Digital River can help pick up that slack, but also spoke of the need to develop “denser networks” to better support our IT and Internet startup ecosystem.

As the day progressed, however, it became apparent that it was really the networking — the interchange between the attendees — that was surpassing even knowledge-sharing as the most valuable benefit for most of the attendees.

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