Paris by Xavier Cazin
A few days before he spoke at XTech in Paris, I asked Xavier Cazin of O’Reilly Editions to talk us through the Parisian Tech scene:
Paris seems a great place to be a techie at the moment, with XTech just around the corner. Is that the case? Has that always been the case? Does Paris and France have a history of encouraging technology in general and computing specifically?
Paris is becoming a very comfortable place for a techie to live. Thanks to the explosion of high bandwith triple-play ADSL boxes, anyone can now enjoy at home a minimum of 600Ko/s incoming bandwith and 100Ko/s outgoing, as well as free telephony and hundreds of international tv channels for just 30€ per month. This network of boxes even allows Wi-Fi telephony; the most innovative player on the ADSL front, Free (www.free.fr) recently enabled this feature for its 2 million subscribers: you now can benefit from the free telephony feature of your own box whenever you walk near other so-called Freeboxes, or from any accessible WiFi network in the world for that matter. The future of networking in Paris also looks bright; free wifi access and fiber optics everywhere before 2010, dedicated servers in brand new datacenters for around 30€ per month: Parisians will be able to broadcast their own TV very soon, and companies won’t need to host and maintain their own servers.
Technology has always been encouraged in France, but, until very recently, it was made “à la française”, that is mostly via big universities and big corporates or directly via government initiatives. French innovators tend to come from these established structures, where they learned enough about French communication infrastructure to start a niche. For example, the founder of the above mentioned Free started as a Minitel service provider, where he understood the specificity of the France Telecom homogeneous network and key people. Quite a few French innovators today come from the early days of the French Internet (even people behind http://www.nabaztag.com/!)
What is the scene like with regards people getting together to talk geek? Do you have a vibrant User Group infrastructure? Is there a cross-pollination between different tech tribes, eg do the wireless guys party with the Unix crowd, do the developers and designers hang-out together? What events are specific to your part of the world? And what is the benefit of live events to the attendee? How does it affect their output?
Technical user groups have usually been quite small and informal here. Often they meet during their studies and start a project there, but don’t try to grow. There may be tons of them that I didn’t even hear about! There have been visible ones around Linux, TeX, XML, PHP, IPv6 or Wi-Fi, and also music or games, but there doesn’t seem go beyond a few dozens of people at the same time. The two biggest events for techies to gather and exchange are Solutions Linux and RMLL. On the proprietary side, Microsoft and Apple both organize regular events, but visitors seem to mostly come there in order to keep up with new products more than exchanging and building new opportunities or get exposed to new challenges.
Now that you make me think of it, it seems that almost no one still knows how to set up conferences in France that would gather key technical people and allow them to mix together and with attendees :-)
What are employment opportunities like for a techie in Paris and in France? Are there big companies that dominate? Do they innovate? Is the work on offer interesting or routine? Do they focus on any particular technology or admin/programming skills? Are there Open Source opportunities? What about the big US tech companies – do they have big set-ups that co-ordinate with the grass roots developers? Any developments in the pipeline to look forward to?
Someone who masters web technologies has no problem finding a job right now. But this is not because companies innovate, rather because they keep up with the natural movement of things toward Internet OS. Investments are usually made where money already is, not were innovation happens. Big US companies (IBM, Microsoft) have always understood that in France money was in publicly funded institutions :-) Apple always had a lot of faithful fans, and Google doesn’t seem to have a specific French policy, although they probably were made bored by French publishers’ attitude against Google Book Search. International companies usually do what French companies do when they want to hire: they go fishing directly in Universities and Engineering schools. They don’t seem to see a need for setting up specific gatherings yet. This may change as interesting individuals will soon be able to expose their work easily thanks to telecommunication boom I was talking about earlier.
Does the culture support start-ups? Are the government helpful in this regard? Is there a ready supply of venture capitalists eager to invest in the talent of a promising set-up? Are other techies supportive? Do the best ideas come from the best techies or do they come from outside the pool of Parisian/French geeks? Is there a particular business model preferred round your way, eg do the start-ups build to sell, use advertising as a model, give the app away and hope that somehow money will follow, or do people develop purely for fun?
It is very difficult to find true risk takers here. Start-ups do exist, but they usually are financed on proper founds or because founders have established records or success. Venture capitalists seem to invest in me-too projects that may one day be bought by big corporates that fear to be left behind.
In France, more than the usual rants about too strict labour rules, I think there has been a idealistic view that great projects, like real art, don’t mix well with money, because having to make money from your product means making trade-offs and compromises and French people used to dislike compromises. As a result, a lot of great projects are just developed for fun and never compete: better nothing than a soiled thing :-) This is actually changing, but the change is just at its beginning. For instance, bloggers have nothing against soiling their blog with AdSense.
Often, the most ambitious projects seem fueled only by goodwill. For instance, videolan.org (home of VLC, the versatile multimedia reader) is a fantastic and crazy project that has roots in Ecole Centrale, a famous engineering school. They probably could have attracted a lot of money, but they preferred to continue to improve their tools continuously, as new students replace old ones. Another, smaller, project I like a lot, called Savonet/Liquidsoap (a scriptable radio coded in OCaml) would probably have a hard time finding investors while having the potential to be a marvelous multimedia tool.
What part do key bloggers play? Is there a feedback loop that helps everyone keep in touch with what others are doing? What sites do you all read?
It’s interesting to note that the most visited blogs are web and technology reports more than new thoughts on how and where technology goes. People read these blogs to stay informed on latest technology or latest (international) events, not to get their mind boggled like they would on Radar, for instance. True geek blogs, with practical sharing of new recipes and experiments, often very good, all have a Google Page Rank of 0 or at most 1! Fortunately, some of them are relayed by the oreilly.fr site, which give them a bit more exposure. Also, I think people are still reading newsgroups a lot, which give them their technical fix more surely than blogs.
What major conferences go on in your neck of the woods? How do they affect the day-to-day life of a techie? Are they a source of inspiration or something that goes on in the background for a while but doesn’t really touch the grass roots geek?
You know, Microsoft is doing a really good job at setting up small technical conferences around their new .NET products. Last year, I attended a presentation on SQL Server 2005 and LINQ that not only showed me that MS would soon become a true actor on the data and networking side of technology, but also triggered a lot of thoughts on what Web 2.0 actually was and where it is going. Inspired by Microsoft, do you believe that?
Other than that, the conference around Open Source and Free Software get their usual faithful attendees, but it’s hard to get a sense of their output, beyond spending a nice moment with 10000 family members.
Other “Technical conferences” are not places for geeks but rather for IS departments.