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Tech City: An Insider’s Introduction to the People of the Roundabout

The past couple of weeks have been big ones in this small, traffic junction heavy part of London. Silicon Roundabout has cemented its position as the centre of the UK’s tech industry. And, under the joint auspices of David Cameron and Boris Johnson, the area will soon get a £50 million make over, creating a centre point for ‘Tech City’, as the coalition likes to call the area.

However, beyond the architecture and headline grabbing names, not a lot is known about this Wild West of UK industry. Many people could list a couple of the big name players, like Wonga and Badoo, but few would be able to tell you what GoCardless or VisualDNA get up to.

So what of the ‘real’ industry? Who are the people that work behind the closed doors on the East London lanes that pour into this now legendary roundabout? In this blog, and the ones that will follow, I will open a couple of these doors, documenting my experiences as a new graduate working in the sector.

The best place to start any introduction to the tech sector is though the same conduit that I have entered this unique social sphere: the Meetup.

Founded not in London but in another Silicon Something, New York, Meetup provides a tool for organising a meeting/talk/gathering with people you don’t necessarily know, but who share the same relevant interest. And it is on these Meetups that much of the networking in the tech sector is based. As such, it was here that I started my tech journey and it is here where you, dear reader, if you are new to the roundabout and its ways, will start yours.

Let’s begin with one of my favourite groups, London Bloggers.

Here you meet a whole cross section of techies, non-techies, and those standing with one foot in each; on my first trip I met Janet, a ‘Mum’ blogger who is looking for lessons on how to use WordPress, and then came across Dave, who himself is building a new ‘Supercharged’ version of the same site. This asymmetry of backgrounds leads to a community at its most charming; it creates a platform that connects those with an idea with those who have the tools for making that idea happen. This also leads to the strangest social pairings. At one point later on in the evening, I bumped into a fashionista and a chap who writes about trains, who were in deep discussion about how best to maximise returns from Google adwords. It was, quite oddly, a lovely moment.

However this wonderful symmetry of mum meets geek does not always occur. And this takes us to our second MeetUp: the all-business, all-tech and distinctly all-male, Silicon Drinkabout. This, my friends, is the perfect place for some real Silicon game watching.

In this world, everyone has an idea and that idea is all consuming. And it’s not just founders who can’t help talking about “their” project. I’m sure most of the people I’ve met since starting with Hire Space 6 months ago know my marketing monologue by heart. And, in the outside world, this is fine. When I meet friends who work in banking or consultancy, they are interested in the work I do as, for most, my working for a website is still pretty unique.

But at these industry events where everyone works for a website, blog, or app, you reach a point of congestion. Each Tom, Dick or Harry wants to talk about his idea and not one Tom, Dick or Harry wants to listen. To move through this you have a weird traffic management solution: the unwritten tech networking rule which states that nobody should ask ‘What you do?’ but everyone should ask ‘What are you building’. The responder is then given two to five minutes to describe their idea. All that is required from the listener is to nod at the right moments, give the odd “yes I can see the value in that” or, if it’s the third or fourth pitch they’ve been put through, a slightly more cutting comment may be given.

At a recent Silicon Drinkabout, I had given my portion and then gave another guy his slot. I was generous and sat patiently for five minutes, with him pushing the unsaid limit to, well, the limit. Upon him finishing I gave my required feedback, going further than usual: I praised part of his business and questioned another. After soaking this in and responding to said feedback he paused, took a sip of his drink, thought for a moment and said, “so, what are you building?” I smiled, gave my excuses and got another gin.

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