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Freelance developers keep OKC in tech game


Grant Slater June 25th, 2009

Sam Soffes is 20 years old and didn't need college to become a publisher of the Bible in 30 translations " from colloquial Japanese to synodical Russian " that are used by more than 1 million pe...

Coop-Ale-locator-Jake-Behre

Sam Soffes is 20 years old and didn't need college to become a publisher of the Bible in 30 translations " from colloquial Japanese to synodical Russian " that are used by more than 1 million people worldwide.

THEORY INTO PRACTICE
WE 'GET IT'
SURROUNDED BY ÜBER-GEEKS
SILICON CIVICS

Instead, Soffes took a fifth-grade class in a basic Web programming language and never stopped from there. He released his Bible application for the iPhone through his former employer, LifeChurch.tv, then watched in amazement as hundreds of thousands of people downloaded it for free in the first days of the store.

"There's tons of people in places like China, where you're not supposed to have the Bible, and with us, they could get it for free," Soffes said.

He is now one of a few freelance iPhone developers in Oklahoma and part of a burgeoning technology community that increasingly reflects the wide-open social environment that is rapidly weaving itself across the Internet.

The new community bears little to no resemblance to the programmers and developers of even three years ago, hunkered down in cluttered basements poring over lines of an obscure programming language.

Like Soffes, many of the developers in Oklahoma jumped straight into entrepreneurial programming or studied tangential subjects in college. They are self-taught tinkerers, working from home offices and increasingly in common spaces devoted to collaboration.

Most are no older than 20 and few are older than 35 with plans for a family or recently constructed swing sets in the backyard.

THEORY INTO PRACTICE
Just a few years ago, there was a mere handful of collectives in Oklahoma City dedicated to sharing knowledge about design and programming. Now there is an alphabet soup of groups for PHP, RoR, SQL, iPhone Dev and a host of other abbreviations that make the Internet hum.

The community is starting to resemble its bigger brothers on the coasts in places like San Francisco or Boston. Developers here are inventing applications that plug into innovation there on sites like Twitter and Facebook or on an iPhone.

Their vision is nothing short of a reinvention of the Central Oklahoma economy that could reach into the halls of the state House and into the towers of downtown.

Many in the community attribute the explosion to the work of Derrick Parkhurst and two partners in opening a common space downtown " called the OKC Coworking Collaborative, or CoCo " that serves as a home base to young talent from the city.

That and a slew of tweetups (meetups organized on Twitter), Jelly sessions (intense one-day co-working) and open-bar OpenBetas (the largest group gatherings held every six months) have spurred projects from the kernel of an idea to a realized company.

"We don't have an oral language or a storytelling tradition," Parkhurst said in describing his vision for the community. "It would be really nice if we had some place where we could hear about how a company got started here in OKC, the steps they went through, their successes and failures."

Parkhurst studied psychology in both graduate school at Johns Hopkins University and in undergrad before becoming a professor of human-computer interaction at Iowa State University.

Speaking to him, you get the sense that his move last year to Oklahoma gave him the chance to put theory into practice. So far, the results have been heartening, he said.

WE 'GET IT'
The ultimate goal for these developers is to be the master of their own creative destiny and finances. Jake Behrens isn't there yet, but he sees the way forward.

Sales of Behrens' iPhone applications provide him enough money to pay for lunch or buy materials for his home-brewing setup, he said.

In one application, the user blows into the iPhone to detect for "Swine Flu" (it's not for real). In another, called Instant FAIL, the user can take pictures with the iPhone and tag them instantly with Internet memes like FAIL or LOL before posting them to Twitter and Facebook. He also made an application that helps users locate the nearest pint of Coop Ale Works on tap.

Behrens' work would be classified firmly in the parlance as Web 2.0, essentially the idea that computers reflect users' daily lives and intertwine with them at all junctures.

That was hard to imagine three years ago, he said, but like a tide that raises all ships, the people who "get it" are increasingly active.

"There are definitely people who don't get it and don't understand what's going on," Behrens said. "I'm like, 'Mobile's here, man. It's already going on, and you're late to the boat.'"

Still, Behrens' laments the certain aspects of the freelance life. In the wild world of ideas, start-up capital can be hard to come by. For every paying customer, there are 10 suitors that want to share future revenue with him on their idea for "the next big thing."

"I find a lot of people saying, 'Hey, let me take you out for a beer, and let's talk about this idea that I have,'" Behrens said. "I don't mean to be rude, but it's just like, 'I'm sorry, I don't want to waste your time.'"

SURROUNDED BY ÜBER-GEEKS
The developer community has sprinted so far ahead in recent years that some now feel Oklahoma needs to play catch-up with them.

Many have ventured out only to return because they love the low cost of living, but they're also telecommuting far and wide. Some currently work in local powerhouses like Devon or OPUBCO, but they work nights with their eyes turned to the coasts.

"This area's population is less tech-savvy than other places you see," said Vance Lucas, a developer who launched his own application called InvoiceMore at the last OpenBeta event.

The dearth of work leads to more opportunities for those who can perform at a professional level, but the paucity of local clients makes it difficult to stay locally focused.

Grant Schofield has three co-workers in Oklahoma, but the rest are scattered around the world.

The company he works for, Engine Yard, is a "hot, sexy, venture-funded" operation based in San Francisco. They host properties owned by MTV and others on the fastest-growing Internet platform right now, called Ruby on Rails.

"I think that we have a long way to go," Schofield said. "To put it fairly bluntly, when I went to look for a job in OKC, I couldn't find a job that paid as much as I could get working at home for a company in San Fran. I can't go to OPUBCO and make the same money."

Schofield dropped out of the University of Oklahoma and packed his bags for Boston to cash in on the dot-com boom. "I got kind of full of myself," he said.

In Cambridge, Mass., surrounded by über-geeks from MIT, Schofield would walk down the street and eavesdrop on conversations about out-there tech ideas at every turn. When he shipped back to Oklahoma, he hunkered down in a Norman-based financial services company that zipped data around the globe.

There was no chatter that piqued his interest during those four years, he said, but that all changed as he made the move to work from home. At some point, Oklahoma will have to make a jump to catch up with the enlivened community.

"We have people doing start-ups, but they can't pay those high-end, sexy geeks what they do in San Francisco to work on Twitter," Schofield said. "I'd like to see the next step, making a little Austin or a little New Hampshire where they have a lot of start-up companies. Maybe that's the government getting involved in the state and providing money."

SILICON CIVICS
If any sector in Oklahoma City has less money to throw around than the Internet start-up business, it's the metro's nonprofit sector.

That was painfully evident to Shane Kempton from his years dabbling in local charities. He also realized that technology could provide a boost to those nonprofits by both streamlining the business models and raising awareness.

Kempton, who worked with nonprofits as director of consulting for Phase 2 Interactive, decided to plug the two worlds into each other with a group called Code4aCause.org.

"Nonprofits don't have money, and they need help with this stuff," he said. "At Phase 2, we could have worked every day for free and still not met the needs of those guys."

Code4aCause.org takes proposals from nonprofits in the form of applications and then doles them out to groups of developers and designers. The system prevents burnout, he said. In the past, nonprofits would find a bleeding heart programmer and work them into cardiac arrest.

The idea is to give back to the community and then reap the benefits as the city's civil sector grows around it, he said. But he fears that Oklahomans are not attentive enough to hop on the train to the next big thing.

He doesn't bemoan Oklahoma's economic focus on energy or biomedicine, but he sees it as shortsighted.

"The currency of our information age is going to be technology and knowledge and information," Kempton said. "I don't want us as a city or a state to get behind. I don't want us looking back and saying, 'Well, Austin and Silicon Valley and Kansas City and Boston and all these folks are just booming again because they're hanging out in this Web tech, and now we don't have a booming economy.'"  "Grant Slater

 
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