Building a culture of curiosity

At work I've been running my mouth enough to try to kick-start a hacker / tinkerer culture. Here's how I went about it and hopefully can give some tips on how to build a culture of curiosity.

The goal

As with all altruistic motives everyone wins - that means it's part selfish. I firmly believe that a person who gets more input from smart people is able to generate more valuable output. You piggyback on the ideas of smart people and you'll look smart(er) yourself. Great artists don't invent - they ctrl+c ctrl+v (ish).

The unselfish part is that hopefully your counterpart in this gets the exact same experience (unless they are dealing solely with me). They get novel input and are able to use this for themselves. Wins for everyone!

Be sure that you like the idea of running something like this for a community - good signs are that you like to share, talk to people and build things with others. Also make sure that is a clear win in it for you too. Otherwise you'll burn yourself and it'll show that you're not in this for real.

Its about them

I can't stress this enough. Make sure you make it clear - and that you are clear about it yourself - that this is by them and for them meaning the community you are trying to reach (where you are a part of them - so you count - but only as one). If you are really successful you won't be much needed after a while. You are the mere catalyst, the initiator to get things going.

In the long run you are definitely not the boss. Building an open and sharing culture must be based on trust and that no one is above anyone else. This makes anything possible because its up to you to make it happen. Everyone is equally in charge - and (this is the kicker) equally responsible.

Get a reasonable amount of input

To get going you need input from the community. What are we going to achieve, how is this going to look? Hackathons, tech talks, external lecturers, build fares, hardware petting zoos - where are you going to go, and how does the culture look like? Ask and listen... but only for a while.

The flipside of it is to get the right amount of input. Some will never care - let them be. Others will incessantly argue their approach but always seem to be busy when the planning and actual work goes down. Listen to them some - then let them be.

As said - in the long run you are ideally just the catalyst and not the boss. However there is a balance between being democratic (which I'm all for) and getting things going (which I'm also all for). Getting consensus will not happen and thusly you are the BDFL. Its not an easy role - there will be complaints. Take these with stride - the complaints are usually coming from folks that won't participate even if their decision was taken. They just like to tell you how wronged they have been.

I e you are not the boss - except when you are the boss. Speed ties in with this - faster iterations means more won't get their way. You have to make judgement on what speed can be kept vs how many that will be ticked off.

My view is to err on the side of speed and getting things moving. People interested in putting their money where their mouth is are often are happy on doing something - anything even if its not what they want. Because they can't stop being curious.

Start up with a bang

In this great talk from Google I/O it is said that the optimal phase to release something to the public is when there is a clear outline but at the same time there is room for contribution. You have to have something that looks plausible and doable but others gets to have input on. That's the amount of work you want to put in before launch - and no more than that.

Look at a successful kickstarter - that's a perfect example of where you want to be. Its not done - there is no ready product. There is room for improvements and having input on the final product - yet at the same time its clearly doable. Its not just lofty "goals" on a piece of paper - there is a clear roadmap and outline of how things will get done.

You need to set time aside and make a push for launching - don't let things simmer down after getting the initial input. Better that its imperfect and it goes faster because iterations are your friend for building this.

Faster means that you keep the momentum and that the people see that you mean business. You are here to build a culture and by golly, it's going to happen. Actions beats slides and lofty words. Don't squander the interest you've manage to whip up.

Splurge some cash on tools

If you are building a culture of engineers the inevitable "lets get a tool for this" will come up. When it does - encourage it and don't cheap out on the chosen tool.

What tool is of much less importance than who's supporting it. Find out who favors the tool the most and how many that actually care. Aim to please them - these are your drivers if you get them on board. Now they're invested in your culture because they got the tool they wanted.

Splurging some cash on the tool also sends an important signal that you mean this and it's ok for it to cost some. The people joining you on this are worth it. There will be an initial surge phase where everyone uses the chosen tool and then a quick drop off. This is expected - curiosity wanes quickly. Left will be the ones backing you on the chosen tool which is why it's important to evaluate who are your core backers. They strengthen the momentum you are trying to build.

Set an initial format with goals and focus

The first sessions should be simple to set up. It will also lessen your workload in preparing which will be quite substantial no matter how easy it looks. Things take time to do - even seemingly simple things. Make some initial planning list and be prepared to wing it when the event launches. You will have forgotten something.

I've played guitar in numerous of bands. When setting up a new band the easiest way is to do some covers of other songs. This way you have something to unite around and practice on. You can show up at rehearsal and start collaborate - because you've got your individual part down already.

The worst kinds of initial rehearsals are jam sessions. This always turns out in the band tuning their instruments and the drummer never shutting up for an hour. Jam sessions are good only if you've been playing together for a very long time and know what you like and don't.

Get some covers on the first events. This means in tech talk - make events and tasks very defined and focused. No "lets get raspberry pies and do something with them". This is the equivalent of a jam session. No focus, no goal and the assumption that if only we have rpis we'll make something cool together.

The idea is to get folks collaborating and sharing ideas. This is best done with a quite strict format. Only when the culture is built, the format and ins and outs are well established can you do the equivalent of a jam.

Do follow ups

Max one or two days after an event people will have ideas on what was good and what can be improved. Use this as a base for your discussion on iterating on the format and going forward. Don't linger - request input on the next day or at most the second day. Prepare in advance if you need. Input is essential in improving and fine-tuning the concept.

Try to be open that the format can be changed so everyone starts questioning the fixed constraints you have used on the first couple of times. What if this is fixed and this is variable this time? What would be the inverse of the format we just had. What did we miss on having that format - how could we encourage what we just missed while minifying the parts we emphasized the last time?

Get a showcase in plain sight for the things you make. Its fun to show the world whats happening and it builds pride. Ideally - set it up so people can build and tinker with it (just like with the platform). It needs to be as open as possible. Prune afterwards instead of setting hard and fast rules.

Continually build momentum

Success seldom happens overnight and I'd venture as far as a community never happens overnight. After the initial startup phase where you've got your backers the interest will dwindle. Its no-ones fault - that's just human nature. New and shiny catches attention until something newer and shinier comes along and or some realize that there is work involved even in this.

Keep at it - this is why there has to be a win for you in it too. Its way to exhausting keeping at it in the face of disinterest if you're not making way towards winning yourself. Post news, blog, posters, signs and try to hype the next event. Talk about it and constantly (but gently) remind people that this is for them.

Expect a large amount to never show up. It's ok - some folks won't get on board for various reasons - it's probably not personal. Start with the doers - the folks who show up. You know - the second follower that gets the movement going.

Please these folks and with time (and luck) the momentum will catch on and become large enough that your little vehicle will roll by itself. Just maybe.