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A brief history of a community in one corner of the Tri-Cities

Fuse, the Tri-Cities’ community and business accelerator, is beginning a project to publish the history of our local community of founders, professionals, makers, developers, and designers.

Below is my section. I was asked to describe the beginnings of Doctype Society and TriConf, two components I was involved in which contributed to the development and growth of this community. Note that this is incomplete and solely from my perspective, and I am really looking forward to reading others’ accounts.

All life, all of nature, all earthly systems, are closed cycles of nonmonetary exchanges of value… The essence of community, its very heart and soul, is the nonmonetary exchange of value. The nonmonetary exchange of value does not arise solely from altruistic motives. It arises from the deep, intuitive understanding that self-interest is inseparably connected with community interest; that individual good is inseparable from the good of the whole; that all things are simultaneously independent, interdependent, and intradependent—that the singular “one” is inseparable from the plural “one”.

—Dee Hock, One From Many

Let’s get one thing really clear: none of us started this community, we simply discovered it—and then it found us, made us, and shaped us.

But as far as where it started—there’s little doubt it started on Twitter.

February 2008, I had just started out as a freelance web designer and developer in the Tri-Cities and the first thing I wanted was community. I’d periodically run a search on Twitter for people located in the Tri-Cities who mentioned JavaScript, CSS, HTML, Rails, Django, or PHP.

I found a guy who was doing some of the most amazing web design work I’d ever seen anywhere and met him for lunch for the first time at the mall food court of all places. We had a great talk and we resolved to do it again. Doug Waltman and I have had hundreds of conversations since then, and it’s been amazing to watch him and his leadership in the community.

Then one night I stumbled on a Java developer named Brian Manley who apparently lived around the corner from me. After having lunch at Inca with him a few times and finding a few more people interested in talking, he suggested maybe we get a bigger group together for lunch.

May 12, 2008 was our first gathering. We very originally called it a “tech tweetup” (please don’t judge) and we started having them roughly once a month.

Over the next couple years, in addition to the periodic group gatherings, I had a ton of one-on-one lunches, eventually finding somewhere around 30 people who were doing something with web development. I was frustrated though. I felt like there were a lot of interesting people in the area and several cool companies doing great work—but there were all of these imaginary lines drawn because so many of them were competing in one way or another. I wished for a community where people worked alongside and with each other instead of only against each other. Where competitors were seen as allies 99% of the time, and only rarely as people we happened to be vying against for a client.

Over the next couple years I started talking about an idea I’d had to create a “web professionals guild” which would be a way for experienced and beginning developers and designers to connect with each other, where we all could be reminded we were on the same team. Most people were pretty interested in the idea.

In 2009, a coworking group started gathering on a weekly basis—either at Kennewick Coffee Company in downtown Kennewick or at Espresso World on Clearwater. Brian Manley, Adam Baldwin, Michael Garvin, Nathan Fritz, Angela Thomas, and myself were regular participants, but there were a few more who’d pop in here and there. A few months in, we didn’t really have a name for this thing and Adam Baldwin spontaneously called it “that chikapah tuesday thing” in an IM conversation. I laughed pretty hard because “Chikapah” was pure nonsense and what’s more, it was consistently on Thursdays. The name stuck.

Brian Manley and I looked pretty hard at opening a full-time coworking space at a couple of spots on Gage, one of which eventually became the &yet (and, later, Flex) offices. But we couldn’t find enough people who were freelancing or independent.

In January 2011, after growing &yet into a small team, I resolved to finally start something like that guild. I had recently attended a couple XMPP meetups in San Francisco and decided that had all the tools needed to get something going.

I picked a name inspired by one of my favorite scenes from my favorite film, Rushmore. In the sequence, Max Fischer is shown as a member, president, or founder of a long list of extracurricular groups. Several of them are called clubs, but there are a couple with a much more ambitious “society” name. We reference Wes Anderson in the logo’s Futura capitals, Amy Lynn Taylor created a gorgeous crest, and we gave the group the name Doctype Society, knowing that anyone who did anything with the web would know what a doctype was. (It’s the first line of code in an HTML document.)

But more important than the brand was the dozen lunches and calls I made to people I’d met locally, asking them to come to the first meetup and to be part of helping build this into something bigger.

Doctype Society started with a few principles:

I didn’t want to ‘own’ it or be the sole leader. #

From the beginning, the reason I wanted to have a ton of conversation about this before ever starting it is that I wanted to know that there were others who had ownership on day one. Even though I’d made the invitations and laid the ground work, I didn’t want to be seen as “the” leader. I asked Angela to be the first meetup host and she graciously agreed. We rotated leaders and locations for each meetup.

Everyone introduces themselves at the beginning of every meeting. #

This makes it so everyone is on a level playing field. I always find it difficult to join a group where everyone else seems to know each other and I’m the lone outsider.

If it’s your first time at Doctype, you have to speak. #

Giving a talk in front of a group is an outstanding way for them to get to know you, and for you to be welcomed and accepted by them. Doctype was intentionally encouraging and supportive to everyone who spoke, so new people giving a lightning talk always felt like they’d been officially welcomed into the community.

It’s not about the content, it’s about the community. #

Because the community was a diverse set of people, we didn’t want to bore people with topics that weren’t relevant to them, so we primarily had lightning talks. The result is you get a quick introduction to people’s passion, and then you have a great touch point to start a longer conversation with them if you want to dig deeper about whatever they shared.

If you’re new and excited, you’re likely to be the next leader. #

I really believe that a leader’s primary job is to make more leaders, and that if you’re going to grow a community, the only way to do that is to maximize the leadership surface area, and create as many opportunities for people to lead as possible. This also helps keep people from burning out from always being depended on.

The second Doctype meeting we had, a man named Erik Ralston showed up. His eyes lit up with enthusiasm as he envisioned building a real startup community in his hometown. Something happened to Erik there and he just kind of kept rocketing right through the atmosphere, eventually pulling off the first Tri-Cities Startup Weekend (and seemingly a million other efforts).

At the very next meetup a woman named Shenoa Lawrence showed up. She came looking for community, but little did she know that she’d become central in building it, in co-founding Room to Think, the area’s first full-time coworking space. (She later told me the first time she even heard about the idea of coworking was at Doctype Society.)

A few months into Doctype Society’s existence, I got a random email from Richland Library Director Ann Roseberry , who I’d never met, but instantly loved. She asked me to come to a meeting focused on brainstorming the library beyond a place with books.

It was a very fun conversation with some very interesting people—this is where I first met Bruce Schmoetzer, who would become central to a variety of community efforts. There was discussion about different types of events that could be hosted at the library.

I don’t recall whether Bruce or I suggested it, but the topic of doing a barcamp came up. Barcamps are anarchic knowledge-sharing event where the content is created by the attendees. I said, “Let’s do it.” There was some shuffling around of calendars and people seemed to be talking about maybe doing it in the fall. In bold ignorance, I said, “no, let’s just do it in a few weeks.”

Ann seemd a bit stunned at that, but she laughed and then heartily said, “LET’S GO FOR IT!” (Ann has been a massive supporter, encourager, and voice of wisdom for this community ever since.)

So on June 22, 2011, we committed to running the first TriConf—set to take place July 22–24. It’s amazing to think back that we decided on, planned and executed a conference for the first time with just a month’s notice.

TriConf was so named because, yes, it was Tri-Cities focused, but also because there were three tracks: tech, design/communication, and entrepreneurship. We had around 60 people total at that first event, and actually managed to pull in people from Seattle, Spokane, Portland, and Walla Walla for that first event, including a session with the original developer of

That first TriConf was like nothing any of us had ever been part of—in the Tri-Cities or elsewhere. And we did it. We didn’t bring in any superstars, and we didn’t even have that many people. This was our community, bootstrapping our community’s knowledge and passion, creating new connections and relationships.

In 2013, I handed off primary responsibility for TriConf to Jenn Turner. She immediately changed it in a way that has dramatically shaped its trajectory. Where it had been focused on tech, design/communication, and entrepreneurship, she added culture, arts, and community as topics. Then in 2014, Isaac Lewis and Jenna Tormanen created a music festival called Tri-Fest in association with the event.

TriConf kind of looks like this:

People make new things happen #

One of the philosophies of TriConf is: “Don’t ask permission. Manufacture and distribute it.” So people have all kinds of ideas when it comes to TriConf, and those people are told, “Great! You should do that.” We’ve constantly added components to TriConf over the years by encouraging as many people who want to be involved to be leaders and make happen the thing they care about.

We nominate and vote on sessions #

Weeks before and on “selection night”, people from the community nominate themselves and each other to lead sessions. These sessions could be things like a talk, or a community brainstorming session, an interactive performance. We literally write the session ideas up on the wall, and everyone votes for them by sticking post-it notes next to the sessions they’d like to see.

A schedule gets created #

A daring group of people get together late on selection night and go through all the sessions and their votes, then try to create a multi-track schedule that balances . The community has a bias for including new people and against people giving more multiple sessions, so we end up with a high percentage of attendees giving a talk.

We trust the process #

The classic barcamp attitude is: “Who’s there is supposed to be who’s there. What happens is what’s supposed to happen.” Not everything works out, but lots of things serendipitously emerge that we couldn’t have possibly planned.

For most everyone who’s experienced it, TriConf is something special—because it’s a visceral reflection of the community itself. And as the community has grown and as it has crossed different angles—particularly as its incorporated arts and culture—the event itself has grown and turned into something that may well become Eastern Washington’s equivalent of South by Southwest in another few years.

Regardless of what it becomes, it has been yet another component contributing to growing and connecting grassroots communities in the Tri-Cities and helping spawn brand new ventures.

So many great things have emerged from TriConf over the years.

Shenoa gave a talk at that first TriConf—”Why the Tri-Cities needs a coworking space” and very quickly a community was assembled that resulted in Room to Think being born. And the fourth TriConf had a session called “Let’s create a maker space” and there are efforts underway that started in that conversation. We’ve seen TriConf help start new initiatives like the collaborative blog, The Pot-Luck, and a community for parents of autistic children (Better Together).

But one moment that happened at the second TriConf sums up the spirit of the event better than anything. Shenoa and I were with a couple others at Room to Think very late at night creating the schedule for that year’s TriConf. A guy passing by saw the lights on and came by and looked in. We invited him in. He said his name was Nick Napoli and he said was kind of stunned to see anything in Richland with lights on after 10pm. Nick went to that TriConf, and has become a key leader in our community.

In reflecting on how much it meant to him to stumble on the community assembled by TriConf, Nick later summed up what so many people have said about TriConf since: “I’ve finally found my people.”

That’s TriConf—it’s all about creating connections between people that likely would never happen were it not for this unique gathering.

In its chronic suburban disconnectedness, the Tri-Cities can be a hard place to find your people. I’m all for any endeavors that seek to help people do that.