Should You Contribute To The “Orlando Tech Community” Kickstarter?

In case you missed it, Wednesday at around 10:00 AM the Orlando community started buzzing with requests to contribute to The Orlando Tech Community Kickstarter. The campaign is a Hail Mary pass at the start of the season; they are looking to raise all of the funds required up-front to keep several well-known local tech-centric organizations afloat. Specifically, Orlando TechFireSpring Fund, Starter Studio, and Canvs.

And at first brush, their goal seems…lofty. Standing at a whopping $165,000, the literal shovelfuls of cash required to meet this all-or-nothing goal is daunting. And besides, where was it all going? As is Kickstarter tradition, the description of where exactly the money will go is loose. For example, the Starter Studio portion notes the money will go toward “the funding needed to use the beautiful Dr. Phillips center for demo day.” How much does that  cost? Why should I contribute money so they can use the beautiful Dr. Phillips center?

[edit: Gregg Pollack was kind enough to send me a message on Kickstarter about this. He hadn’t realized the adjective “beautiful” could be construed as lavish, so he removed that from the Kickstarter description. He also noted that the demo day event last year actually made money for the organization.]

I’m fairly critical and tend to question any organization I give to. In the checkout line at Publix, whenever they ask “Do you want to give a dollar to Whatever Fund?,” I can’t help but wonder what that fund’s impact is. How much do they pay staff? Is this just a glorified tax haven for Publix or their CEO’s friends? Do they throw lavish parties? Due to the store’s insistence at exploiting typical social contracts, I give a dollar so the cashier won’t think I’m Hitler. In the back of my mind, it irks me that I may have wasted that dollar on an ounce of caviar to be eaten by some debutante at a “charity event.”

Back to the Kickstarter page, I thought “At least these four organizations are working together.” I have no numbers to quantify this, but lately the Orlando tech scene has felt a bit stagnant and lacking cohesion. Several things have contributed to that gloomy feeling. Orlando Tech has had a lot of upheaval with the original founder Orrett Davis joining financial chat bot company in July. In the Orlando Devs Slack, arguments in #career-advice regarding moving to San Francisco happen like clockwork. UCF seems like a natural ally to the downtown tech scene, but it seems like their involvement is incidental at best. Same goes for the tourism industry here. I’ve met a total of two Disney employees at meetups, and I’ve attended my fair share.

When I moved from DC back to Orlando, I was pleasantly surprised to see the resources we had. This was in 2015; Orlando Tech was going strong and there were typically three startups giving talks each month. I attended the Canvs one year anniversary when they announced the second location in Winter Park. Once I was on the Orlando Devs Slack, I felt like a whole other world was opened to me. However, as time went on, I stopped going to Orlando Tech. It’s not that Orrett didn’t do a great job (he did and I think his efforts are a big part of why we have a tech “scene” at all), it’s simply that I lost interest in the subject matter. I don’t think I’m alone in that.

“I’ve been a few times [to the Orlando Tech Meetup], I like knowing what the community is up to around the area.  A few of the startups have interested me.  Most haven’t.  Few job offers here and there, but yea the general feel is ‘business business business…  numbers.  Is this working?’… I think I attended four or five through 2016. Each time I went, I felt like I was witnessing demos from a weekend hackathon, but where the devs got drunk and the designers had a cold. It was absurd to me to hear that these products were seeking investment. So maybe I’m the asshole.”

— Andrew Studnicky, Software Engineer in Orlando

It seems like in their eagerness to fund and support Orlando’s potential unicorns, an unintended consequence was that some of the very people on which those tech companies rely, the developers and designers and people in the trenches every day, felt alienated. Perhaps it was the lack of interest in slow-growth service companies, or the infiltration of get-rich-quick “idea guys,” or some other intangible that kept me from going.

However, with the kickoff of this Kickstarter, it seems like the horses are starting to pull in the same direction and I’m liking where they are going.

It feels like the start of Oceans 11, or perhaps Gone in 60 Seconds. Pressing matters has brought the old gang back together and the audience wonders if they can pull it off like the old days. Orlando Tech feels like a spiritual cornerstone of tech in Orlando, and now with a well-supported Diane Court acting as Executive Director it seems like they have their footing. I have not met Diane personally, but I have heard nothing but great things. I’m hoping she and the rest of the board can help make Orlando Tech into what it can become.

Starter Studio, along with the UCF Venture Lab, has been one of the big tech accelerators in Orlando, and it seems Gregg Pollack is back in full force manning the effort. Although he never left, lately it seems as if he’s playing a more active role in both hyping Orlando Tech and the closely aligned Starter Studio. We don’t need to worry too much about Gregg being in it for the money, thanks to his multi-million dollar exit from Code School and activism in the community. Working legalese into that transition that included keeping the Orlando office open and staff employed shows his commitment to the community here.

When I moved back here from the DC area, one of the first things I did was get a desk at Canvs. The company I now work for, Nebbia Technology, started out of Canvs and graduated from there. We now have our own downtown office, have seven employees, and turn a profit. We need more success stories like that and places like Canvs and Catalyst can be the difference between success and failure for early-stage companies. Not only do they provide cheap working space, but more importantly, foster an environment where water-cooler talk about who can help who comes naturally. Dayle Moore is the manager of Operations and Programming for Canvs, Starter Studio, and FireSpring Fund. The world is a small place, previously she worked at UCF Venture Accelerator and I met with her to talk about my now-defunct business. And who can mention Canvs without mentioning the always bubbly and helpful Shanika Marlow? As Operations and Membership Coordinator at Canvs, her job is getting and retaining Canvs members. When I finally realized it didn’t make sense to keep a desk there when I never used it, it was extremely difficult to look Shanika in the eyes and tell her I no longer needed it.

And then there’s FireSpring Fund, of which I know so little about that I can hardly comment. Suffice to say that I hope they, too, are making meaningful changes.

As you can tell from the paragraphs above, I’m not a blind cheerleader. Even acknowledging that certain organizations aren’t perfect can be social suicide, but at this point in time we have to wash our face with cold water and take a good, hard look at ourselves in the mirror. What do we stand for? Are we not a community? At the end of the day, these organizations have a solid track record. As the Orlando Tech website says, we have a $14 billion dollar tech industry here. Can we not raise $165,000 to help some of our most visible organizations that support our industry?

When we look in the mirror, what do we see? Be honest. I hope we are a community that’s willing to risk a few bucks for the good of our tech industry. That’s why I gave some money.

That, and the sweet t-shirt.

Consider chipping in to the future of tech in Orlando yourself.


Review: “Enchanted Objects” by David Rose

David Rose’s “Enchanted Objects” book is a great start for anyone who wants to design IoT devices for, well, people. As IoT design matures, we need to look beyond what’s possible and look more at what is actually going to help our lives. Computers have become so cheap, so small, so fast, and so efficient that we have the ability to make nearly any object “smart.” So what do we decide to make?

David is an MIT instructor and entrepreneur who focuses on “making the physical environment an interface to digital information,”  and he covers a wide range of topics in his book. These topics are broken down into the following sections: the human drives behind what we want out of internet-connected things, how we can shape objects to fulfill those humanistic desires, and what the future looks like in that realm. David helps shepherd readers through the process of coming up with solutions to quite a few problems that speak to humanity’s timeless desires. He focuses not just on what the technology is capable of, but how it can transform our lives in ways we might now perceive as magical.

In the introduction of the book, he gives insight into his worst fears, a nightmare which he calls “Screen World.” In this dystopian future, every one of our beloved objects, our time-tested tools and mementos, are all sucked up into the “black slab.” This black slab is analogous to our modern smartphone on steroids, providing our every whim and desire yet sucking us into it’s cold and unfeeling void. People staring into their phones becomes a reality for everyone, all the time, with no escape.

Throughout the book, he shows a much more positive alternate reality of beloved things gaining additional abilities through the virtue of being connected to the internet and each other. He shows that objects that combine emotional ties and stoic usefulness can become more of both with transformative technology built-in. Our objects all help us out along the way without being disruptive. They are desirable, affordable, and inter-connected. They recede into the background when we don’t need them, and subtly hint when we do. The future he depicts is like a millennial San Franciscan’s Instagram feed: everything is clean, bright, and just messy enough that it feels human. Toward the end of the book, he likens the Internet of Things to electricity: awkward, cumbersome, and even dangerous for the first few years, but slowly it recedes into the background to the point where we don’t really think about it unless we don’t have it.

This proposed future is depressingly possible. What I mean by that is, currently the path we are taking is very different that the one proposed by David. Currently, the status quo is private companies trying to win with different standards and platforms, making it very difficult for internet-connected devices to easily communicate with each other. While much of what David writes relates to a single object’s ability to interact with you, and in that scenario compatibility isn’t an issue, he also indicates that the manifest destiny of the Internet of Things includes systems-level thinking. With information as a sort of currency, things will communicate with each other autonomusly to grease the gears of life as we move through it. We have a lot of work to do if we want to get to that level of interconnectivity. I mean, I’m finding it difficult to get my Alexa, Spotify, and my Phillips Hue lights to play nicely together without some custom solution. I’m not saying we can’t get there, but we need to put a lot of effort in to right the ship. This includes working hard to consolidate on standards.

Nonetheless, I appreciate David’s vision and I do believe we will get there, given enough time. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and whole-heartedly recommend it to anyone who is interested in or works in the IoT industry. We need to make IoT human-centric, and David’s book is a good start for anyone who shares that goal. David, ever the intellectual, examines all of the topics mentioned through an analytical view. Through his broad lens, he pulls influences from all areas of research to form views about what the Internet of Things should look like.

In examining our humanity first, and shaping what the world of IoT could look like around that, he provides a truly exciting peek at what the future could hold.

Can Ubiquitous Computing and Minimalism Coexist?

I was starting to watch a documentary on Netflix called “Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things” when my heart began to sink. What is going on with the world? Are we just robots responding by instinct to shiny, colorful commercials, working ourselves to death to afford things we really don’t even want?

After a few days of introspection, I realized that many of the goals of minimalism (as put forth by “The Minimalists,” the guys behind the documentary) align with my own hopes for the Internet of Things:

  • Reclaim our time
  • Live in the moment
  • Pursue our passions
  • Discover our missions
  • Focus on our health
  • Grow as individuals

There are a few more that don’t necessarily sit perfectly within the Internet of Things, like the goal of “consuming less.” Ultimately, the Internet of Things will help reduce our consumption of electricity and fuel, but at the end of the day you need to buy some sort of sensor and internet-connected device to get those savings.

I’ve also been listening to the book “Enchanted Objects” by David Rose, in which he offers a future that completely aligns with minimalist values. He envisions the current state of the Internet of Things like that of electricity near the turn of the century, it was considered a novelty and many questions were raised. Should we use AC or DC? What voltage should we use? What should the wires be made of and covered with? Can we use over-the-air electricity transmission, or even through the ground? What can we do with it, what should lightbulb filaments be made from, how do we easily add and remove lightbulbs, what should sockets look like?

As we know, we figured these problems out and now you rarely think about electricity. Everything just works.

David Rose imagines that this is the future that ubiquitous computing promises. The Minimalists have no problem plugging in their single phones into the sockets, or turning on their maybe one or two lamps. As time goes by, the “internet” of the “Internet of Things” will recede into the background and just be another part of our lives. Even if you buy less “stuff,” the stuff you do have will still be connected and still enriching your life in ways that now seem like magic. The lightbulbs will know when to come on, and communicate the information you want when you want it. You and your friends can cook together, and the instruction to chop the onions will come as soon as you’ve put the olive oil in the pan.

We’re still in the early stages on the road to that future, but it’s coming all the more. In these early days of IoT, things seem a little awkward. Pulling out your phone to set stuff up, plugging in a few hubs for a few different systems, looking up whether one thing is compatible with another. We will work through these teething pains and come out the other side. That’s the future legacy of ubiquitous computing: the complexity of the machine will be abstracted, and you gain all of the benefits without ever seeing it.

Minimalism and IoT can work together in perfect harmony.