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Tech Scenes – Manchester and the North-West

2010 July 12

I was at Manchester Polytechnic between 1986 and 1989, playing about with online chemistry abstracts and yet not quite realising the potential that lay at my fingers. Manchester is a great city to live in, with the facilities of a major conurbation but the feel of a small town, and it has a fantastic tech pedigree. The city is a vibrant metropolis at the heart of the North-West and though it’s much gentrified since I was there, it has a busy grass roots that goes out of its way to make things happen.

Andrew Disley and Paul Robinson are two players on the Manchester geek scene who are making real efforts to bring people together. Andrew started the GeekUp franchise, which has spread virally to the mouth of the Mersey and over the Pennines to Leeds. Like Andrew, Paul has quickly evolved from being purely a developer into an event organiser of note, co-founding User Groups and Community Groups because nothing at the time provided the forum that he needed. Both are strong advocates for the city, the North-West and the North as a whole, championing the cause of and encouraging the participants in the multitude of activities that take place in the towns and cities either side of the M62. These are guys with a world outlook but a local base and they move seamlessly from picking through the minutiae of a block of code to taming the maelstrom of a Northern tech meet.

They were good enough to answer a few questions about Manchester and the North-West.

Who are you? What do you do? What are you aiming to achieve?

Paul RobinsonPaul Robinson (PR):  I’m Paul Robinson, the owner/founder of Vagueware Ltd which is a software development company and soon-to-be online publisher dedicated to innovation in the software industry. I’m loosely attached to GeekUp but more involved in the Manchester BSD User Group and the NWDC. I worked on public sector stuff a few years back, and before that was working in the local ISP scene. I graduated from UMIST (now part of Manchester University) in Software Engineering and have lived in the city centre for the last decade.

I’m a kind of a developer with strong sys admin skills who wants to get more into writing. ;-)

VaguewareIn more broad terms, my main business is Vagueware Ltd. It started as a software company building Rails apps freelance and doing bespoke work, but I’ve evolved my business plan in public. I’m now a few days
away from releasing the latest version of that plan, aka “the simplest thing that will work”, which is best described here:

My driving force is that there isn’t enough innovation in the open source space, and developers aren’t plugged in to listening to their user base. For now, I want to get the 400+ ideas for software products on my desk/in my head out there for somebody to be able to play with. If in the process we build ad-hoc open source projects or even commercial businesses off them, great.

Some people ask how I intend to monetise this, to which I shrug my shoulders and say “I’ll work it out eventually”. Like I said in my last post: doing interesting things appeals more than doing something boring with a guaranteed return. Or maybe I’m just dumb.

Manchester seems a great place to be a techie at the moment. Has that always been the case? Does Manchester have a history of encouraging technology in general and computing specifically?

Andrew Disley (AD):  Manchester is said to be the birthplace of modern computing, Alan Turing was based at Manchester University and his stored-program idea led to Tom Kilburn’s “Baby” (Manchester Mark I) – the world’s first
stored-program electronic digital computer.

PR: Wow, where to start…Replica of the Manchester Small-Scale Experimental Machine aka The Baby (image courtesy of Wikipedia)
OK, first off Turing came here after the War and worked at Manchester University on “The Baby”, the World’s first stored program digital computer. The University is justifiably proud of this, and built a replica of that machine to mark the 50th anniversary:

Between 1948 and until at least the mid/late 1950s the University was one of the few places you could buy a computer if you were a government type in need of one – it was really a pioneering centre of innovation in the early days. If you have access to the BBC Archive Trial there’s an interesting docu in there called “The Brain in the Box” in which Profs Kilburn and Williams are interviewed.

As you probably know, Manchester went through a period of economic decline in the late 50’s through to the 1990s with much of the North in decline. During that period there was a focus on industrialisation and Manchester kind of lost its way and ended up in a bit of trouble.

In the early 1990s there was some interest in digital media in the city, but it was mostly coming from the angle of “new media” – i.e. web design, interactive content, etc. There is an argument this is related to the rise of the Northern Quarter (where even now most web companies are based), which in turn was helped by the rise of the music scene in Manchester.

What helps this argument is that whilst most centres of digital innovation (Silicon Valley, Taiwan, China, Estonia, Israel, et al) are driven by the economics of the sector, Manchester is pretty unique in that it’s driven by the creative possibilities. We need to make money, sure, but doing something interesting always seems to have appealed to the Manchester companies more than doing something outrageously profitable but boring.

After the ’96 IRA bomb which required a major rebuilding of the city centre, there was a renewed sense of purpose in the region and the North West Development Agency (the NW’s RDA) combined with ERDF giving the region Objective 2 status meant the council and several Universities were able to throw money at a purpose. This was described to me as “To make the North West of England the Silicon Valley of Europe.” I was involved in one project at MMU to help businesses engage in digital media and to try and promote business development within the sector: help little web companies find their way to breaking big and dominating in their niche. That experiment broadly failed in immediate terms, but the knock-on effects have been considerable. A lot of companies in Manchester now know of each other and look out for each other as a direct consequence of that project.

Manchester Digital Development AgencyIn addition, the council set up MDDA which is still running. They’re more interested in helping disadvantaged parts of the community gain access to technology but have a broad interest in business development as well.

Manchester DigitalIf you add on top of that Manchester Digital – the city’s own trade association for new media/tech companies – and the effort that goes into Big Chip Awards, you can see there’s a lot of effort to try and make the sector really viable here.

Has the original goal been achieved? Are we Silicon Valley? No.

But then, I think the emphasis has changed: we’re no longer interested as a community in being Silicon Valley – we’re interested in being Manchester, and being the very best Manchester we can be. There’s a lot of grass roots tech work going on here, with the largest University campus in Europe, with a massive R&D spend, and it’s affordable and enjoyable living here, that’s where the vive is headed…

What is the scene like with regards people getting together to talk geek?

PR:  Strong. There are to my knowledge at least half a dozen regular geek get-togethers every month covering everything from high-level topics of interest to business managers in the sector down to piss-ups with Unix sys admins.

Do you have a vibrant User Group infrastructure?

PR:  There is a regular meeting of organisers of the various user groups (known as the North West Digital Communities, or NWDC for short) where we sit down face-to-face for a couple of hours, talk about what we’re all doing and what we can do next.

I get the feeling we’re all determined to make people talk to each other and make interesting things happen. We’re supported in part by MDDA and Manchester Digital which gives us focus and means we get cross-pollination. Suddenly a guy who runs an event for VCs is talking to a Unix sys admin and trying to work out if those two groups can overlap somehow.

It’s early days, but it’s getting interesting…

Is there a cross-pollination between different tech areas, eg do the wireless guys party with the Unix crowd, do the developers and designers hang-out together?

Andrew Disley - Barcamp LondonAD:  As far as I can tell it’s only been recently (the last 2 years) that techies in Manchester have started to cross-pollinate. At the end of 2005 I formed GeekUp, after I failed to find an exisiting User Group that would connect me with other designers and developers in the area. GeekUp, while predominately web related, isn’t based on a specific technology so all techie’s are encouraged to come along. GeekUp’s take place each month and proven to be successful in Manchester there are now GeekUp’s in Leeds and Liverpool. There is also a number of technology specific User Groups:

* BSD User Group
* Linux User Group
* .Net User Group
* North West Ruby User Group

In February of this year North West Digital Communities formed. NWDC brings together the leaders of local communities to improve the local digital community by sharing resources and pooling ideas.

PR:  Sometimes. The web guys tend to stay away from the Unix/Windows sys admin guys, but there is an overlap where developers mix between the two. VC events tend to draw SME developers looking to network and so it seems the Venn diagram puts development across the major groups.

I might be biased though: I’m a SME developer and I go to nearly all the events I can, and the only people who tend to show up to all of them with me are developers. We’re like some kind of weird glue. :-)

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?

GeekUpPR:  GeekUp is exclusively Northern at the moment. To my knowledge me and Sam Smith run the only regular BSD User Group in the UK here. The OpenCoffee stuff was started down in London, but Manoj Ranaweera is doing a lot to promote them across the region.

There are plans for a much bigger event next year, but we’re keeping that close to our chests for the time being. It should be quite interesting though if we pull it off. That will be very Mancunian in the modern/cosmopolitan/forward-looking sense of the word “Mancunian”.

In terms of benefit, part of it is just knowing that there are other geeks around here. Knowing you don’t need to move to London or CA to make something happen is something I think helps people. And then there is the conversation, the beer, oh the beer… :-)

What are employment opportunities like for a techie in Manchester?

PR:  Variable. If you’ve got the skills, the work is here. A lot of kids end up going elsewhere in the UK but work hard to get back here if this is where they studied – it might have a reputation for rain, but there’s something addictive about living in and around Manchester.

If you want to work for a small company (and take everything that involves) there is plenty of work around for somebody who knows their stuff. Bullshitters and coasters don’t tend to last long in my experience: you either have the kung fu, or you need to go to London where you won’t get noticed in the swarm of what I can only kindly refer to as “mediocrity”. :-)

The BBC move is expected to produce a lot of jobs, but I’m cynical of how many will be recruited from local population…

In geek-related areas like biotech and engineering there’s quite a lot of opportunity around here as well. Astra Zeneca invest in the region, and the University is trying to bring in a dozen or so Nobel laureates.

Where things really fly around here though is if you’ve got the balls to set up on your own…

Are there big companies that dominate?

PR:  Not really. It’s a SME city in many ways. That’s expected to change to some extent with the BBC move to Salford, but big companies tend to move out to the suburbs or down South: a large web tech company in
Manchester would be one having more than a dozen employees.

At the last count I saw in later 2005, there were reckoned to be around 4000 such companies in the North West, but that had a pretty broad definition of “digital” attached to it.

Do they innovate?

PR:  Not as much as they should. I’m trying to do something about that. :-)

Most innovative company I think that geeks should know about, based a 10-minute train journey away from the city centre:

Yes, the rockets are real and they work. :-)

The Big Chip Awards is the place where a lot of local firms show off their digital media stuff, but I think in the next few years there is going to be a lot more in general tech locally.

As you probably know, innovation tends to come from smaller, risk-taking companies than it does much bigger firms. We’re primed, we’re just not moving as hard as we could yet, IMHO.

GeekUp Job BoardJobboard_geekup

AD:  GeekUp runs it’s own Job Board. The up and coming Media City UK will no doubt open up massive employment in the area, with the BBC set to move 1500 London based jobs up North.

Is the work on offer interesting or routine?

PR:  It tends to be bespoke development work for larger organisations. High street names often bring their digital portfolio to be developed here. What’s just starting to break out now is the start-up with their own technology funded out of VC or other investment channels.

I expect in the next few years Manchester will become more of a mixture of companies that develop for themselves as part of their own business as well as handling bespoke development as part of a media campaign.

Does the work focus on any particular technology or admin/programming skills? Are there Open Source opportunites?

PR:  I’d say it’s dominated by web and ISP work (we have the largest concentration of telecoms and data centre work outside of London) but there are some interesting light engineering firms doing interesting stuff with embedded systems. They’re not prominent though, and don’t talk themselves up.

What about the big national/international 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?

PR:  Sun Microsystems is working hard to reach us, and they’re just starting to succeed. They’re based down the road, and doing much better at engaging than the regional IBM office (which is mostly sales). Google has a Manchester office but it’s sales only.

If they took notice of us, we’d take notice of them. As it is, we’re quite happy co-existing if they’re not interested in what’s under their noses.

Does the culture support start-ups?

PR:  Yes. The Northern Quarter is very bohemian, and the city itself is full of relatively cheap office space. The cost of living is comparatively low for a cosmopolitan city, and VCs are starting to take interest. The Universities run R&D outfits and incubators and because the city itself is so small everybody kind of has a way of knowing everybody else – useful when you need ideas and contacts.

Are the government helpful in this regard?

PR:  The Objective 2 funding has ended, but the NWDA still are trying to help in ways they can. The council are keen to help where they can through MDDA, but it’s becoming more “self-hosting” through Manchester Digital and GeekUp and NWDC. We’re trying to break the culture of saying “why isn’t somebody doing something about this?” and actually doing something about it ourselves. It’ll take a while, but if the enthusiasm is there, it’ll work.

Is there a ready supply of venture capitalists eager to invest in the talent of a promising set-up?

PR:  I know of one VC firm on the look out for local companies, and there are rumours of more expecting knocks on the door. To my knowledge, it’s only these guys who go to the effort of trying to knock on geeks first:

Are other techies supportive?

PR:  Very. Sometimes the mailing lists for local techs can be a bit aggressive, but that’s what happens when you get a bunch of intelligent, opinionated people who know what they’re talking about together. In general though, great bunch of people.

Do the best ideas come from the best techies or do they come from outside the pool of Manchester geeks?

PR:  All over the place. The geeks tend to be the waterwheel of the local industry, but they’re not always the people who decided there needs to be a waterwheel in the first place. :-)

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?

PR:  It’s mostly bespoke development, so you pay, we play, you get a working set of code to make you rich.

There’s a mild increase in VC and investment funding, and they’re keen to follow open models where possible. A mixture of build-to-flip and build-to-dominate in my experience.

There is a lot of hobbyist work around here though – lots of passion out there for doing interesting things. “Hacking” is starting to mean something pure around here these days, which is nice given that for  years the only geek group that met were 2600.

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?

AD:  GeekUp has an active mailing which keeps everyone up to date with whats going on.

PR:  The GeekUp afeeda is closely tracked and has several blogs on it from local geeks doing different things, there are plenty of mailing lists knocking about, etc.

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?

AD:  Up to now the only major grass roots conference I can think of that Manchester has hosted was the first international OpenStreetMap conference. Next year Manchester will be home to a four-day long Futurology: 2008 Manchester UK conference. On a smaller level GeekUp hosted a one day mini conference on Ruby and Rails, and because of its success, Dave Verwer formed the NWRUG.

PR:  Have laptop, will travel: it’s not unusual for whole groups of us to suddenly appear in Brighton, Berlin, London or Paris for a conference. Tends to be focused on EU and UK confs, but sometimes people wander off to the US.

I wouldn’t say they’re a major driving force, but make for interesting conversation. Like I say before, there are plans for us to do something here in Manchester in the next year which I hope will be notable, and then we’ll see where we take that as a city.

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