Kris Buytaert – Belgium Tech Scene
Kris Buytaert has been a prolific contributor to GMT for the last six months, bringing news of the goings-on from the heart of Europe, beside writing for his own blog, Everything is a Freaking DNS Problem. He is a long time Linux and Open Source Consultant doing Linux and Open Source projects in Belgium, Europe and the rest of the universe. He is currently working for Inuits, and starting up some new projects still in stealth mode.
Kris is the co-Author of Virtualization with Xen, used to be the maintainer of the openMosix HOWTO and is the author of different technical publications. He is a frequent speaker at different international conferences. He spends most of his time working on Linux Clustering (both HA and HPC), Virtualisation and Large Infrastructure Management projects, hence trying to build infrastructures that can survive the 10th floor test.
Kris was the obvious choice to ask for an overview of the tech scene in Belgium. He’s done us proud.
Let’s get started with discussing Belgium, if that even exists as a community… don’t get me wrong … I love Belgium, but the fact is that we are a multilingual country, and it’s mostly these languages defining the communities. Luckily there are some exceptions. But still localisation is one of the borders. Where the Flemish speakers will mostly only work either for a local audience in their own language or for an international audience in English, the French speakers often stick with French as they have a big enough audience with that language.
Is the tech scene in Belgium buzzing? Does Belgium have a history of encouraging technology in general and computing specifically? What is the scene like with regards geeks getting together?
Geeks get together … we have our GeekDinners, monthly events where people from different areas meet, have some fine food and chat about technology. The GeekDinners initiated by Serge van Ginderachter tend to attract an interesting mix of entrepreneurs and kernel hackers. The GeekDinners travel around – we started in Gent, went to Brussels, Antwerp, Leuven and now back to Gent. The GeekGirlDinners are more hyped (even made it to local TV and national radio) but given the fact that I’m male I can’t really comment on them as I’m not one of those wannabees that try to get a date with one of the geek girls. We’re up to the 5th Barcamp, we had 4 editions in Brussels organised by Peter Forret and now Thomas Bouve is organising an edition in Gent. Last but not least we have Robin Wauters organizing frequent OpenCoffeeClub, down in the center of Brussels.
Do you have a vibrant User Group infrastructure? Is there a cross-pollination between people in different areas of technology?
User Groups tend to be really local and small, usually due to the language issues, they tend to start … not gain a critical audience … then fall apart.
We had different LUG’s over the years, but even the bigger ones are now struggling to get an audience.
Our MySQL group is really small, the PHP group is just starting, the Ruby Group seems to be growing steadily…
What events are specific to your part of the world? And what are the benefits of live events? How do they affect the attendee’s creativity and output? What major conferences take place in Belgium? 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?
Fosdem definitely … who doesn’t know Fosdem? Already in it’s 8th edition this year. Fosdem attracts geeks and FOSS developers from all over the planet. With figures up to 5000 visitors (no real figures as there is no registration required), Fosdem is starting to become the victim of its own success. Different development rooms are too small, the BeerEvent location is too small and there definitely isn’t enough time to meet everybody who is around.
And of course Javapolis, the Mecca for the Java Developer, one of the bigger events in Europe. I went to the early editions but I haven’t visited recently however.
Lots of new groups/organisations are started at Fosdem, most notably this year Fosdem was the founding point of the Postgres Europe organisation. Last year an Open Source Government workgroup was started.
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?
I never really did much research on this topic so I’m pretty sure I’ll be missing some stuff here.
The government support depends on which side of the language border you are – things differ a lot.
On the Flemish side, we have the IWT and the IBBT. I’ve seen a lot of people trying to get funding from the IWT and few succeeding. The IBBT is doing a good job at getting people together.
On the French side, we have Agence Wallonne des Télécommunications (AWT): their people are also pretty active talking to new businesses, helping them getting started.
The fact is that we don’t have a good track record in trying, compared to other countries where you can become a serial re-starter: we have more of a try once, win or disappear mentality. Also we have what we call the “under the church tower” problem. Local businesses often think local, say local and don’t even dare to go away from their local church. Luckily also that mentality is changing.
Are other techies supportive? Do the best ideas come from the best techies or do they come from outside the pool of Belgian 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?
Ideas come from everywhere, sometimes it’s dreamers that have absolutely no clue on how to get started, sometimes it’s techies who launch before the market is ready. I don’t think there is a rule that defines our way of working. Lots of start-ups combine consultancy tracks to get the money rolling with internal development of the product they really want to build, the advantage is that they can invest their own money and still have bread on the table, the disadvantage is their time to market.
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?
I’m not sure if there is a site we all read … the tech communities have planet.geekdinner.be and planet.grep.be. There’s gentblogt.be but there is much more going on. We have a couple of bloggers that are really talking about the bloggerscene (blogologie.be), others are reporting local startups and business ideas (web.2point0.be)
I’m personally blogging a lot but my audience is not the local start-up scene, I’m sure there are couple of them reading my blog since I’m advising them technically but the first Barcamp we had was more of a blogger meeting than a real techno start-up event where people came to meet and discuss fresh ideas. Lots of start-up folks are blogging, other are more focussing on their code. It’s a mixture. Robin Wauters is organizing Plugg which I’m really looking forward to.
Lots of interesting stuff is going to happen in the next couple of months, I’ve been talking to a lot of people with good ideas … and some of them are planning to launch soon I’ll keep you folks posted :)