Lessons learned from building a tech community in Upstate NY by@hackupstate
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Lessons learned from building a tech community in Upstate NY

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Sign up for Hack Upstate XII — October 6th and 7th — Syracuse, NY

When you think of Upstate NY, what comes to mind? The rolling hills? The beautiful landscapes?

When I think of Upstate NY, I think of a sleeping STEM giant with tremendous potential that’s yet to be realized.

Upstate NY has some of the absolute best universities in the world when it comes to producing STEM talent. Cornell, Clarkson, RIT, RPI, Syracuse, etc. The list goes on and on. In fact, on Forbes recent Top 21 STEM Colleges of 2016, Upstate NY universities made up 14.28% of them — by far the strongest representation of any region in the country.

However, Upstate has two HUGE problems when it comes to STEM:

  1. Our talent churn rate is incredibly high. We educate the best and brightest, then they leave and work elsewhere.
  2. There’s very little cross-collaboration between the regional communities (e.g., Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, and the Capital Region).

That’s why I decided to start Hack Upstate 4.5 years ago.

What is Hack Upstate

Hack Upstate’s mission is to unite and facilitate collaboration among the greater Upstate NY technology community. In pursuit, we organize hackathons, offer web and mobile development classes, facilitate talks and lectures, and ultimately help align Upstate STEM talent with promising employment opportunities. To date, we’ve built a growing network comprised of thousands of Upstate NY engineers and facilitated dozens of job placements.

From this experience, here’s what I’ve learned from building a tech community in Upstate NY.

Establish a clear mission and vision

It was critical for us to have a clear mission and vision right from the start. Our underlying mission — to advance Upstate NY’s technology community — acts as our community’s compass. It determines the direction we take and puts our future into focus. At the end of the day, building a tech community takes time. It isn’t done with ad hoc tactics and ephemeral campaigns. It requires a strategy and the time necessary to successfully execute against it.

Identify strategic partners

Strategic partners have been instrumental to Hack Upstate. Early on we identified organizations like The Tech Garden and the Syracuse iSchool who were also invested in our mission and had the capacity to support us long-term. To get them onboard early — before we had any momentum or credibility — it was important for us to identify ways we could provide them additional value that was inline with fostering an Upstate NY STEM community. For instance, Hack Upstate is a small organization. We’re nimble, fast and flexible. We can execute upon certain initiatives much more quickly and cost effectively than a larger organization can. Highlighting these additional value propositions helped us get buy-in early when we still had much to prove.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help

Building a meaningful and sustainable tech community isn’t easy. Over the last 4.5 years I’ve come to rely on help from so many others. At first I was reluctant to ask for help. I didn’t want to inconvenience anyone. However, over time it became evident that for Hack Upstate to evolve into something meaningful it would require support from others. I needed to find individuals whose strengths complemented my weaknesses. Fortunately for me, given our mission and vision, so many awesome people joined the effort. Over the last 4.5 years countless individuals have taken on roles that have been absolutely paramount to the community’s success. They’ve gone above and beyond. It’s been a thrill to see.

*Always* put the community first

With Hack Upstate we *always* put the community first. When it comes to decision making, we ask ourselves, “Is this in the best interest of the community?” Using this model has had a profound impact. First, it’s instilled a sound decision making process and made things far less complicated. Second, it’s helped establish trust among community members, and fostered an environment where feedback is welcomed and encouraged. Third, it’s given us leverage to do bigger and better things, and to make a lasting impact.

Empower community leaders and self-starters

Over the years we’ve been fortunate to have a core group of passionate leaders and self-starters involved with Hack Upstate that go above and beyond to help further the community. Consequently, we do everything we can to empower them. This harkens back to the notion of not being afraid to ask for help. We provide our most passionate community members with the tools and information they need to lead and take action…then we get out of their way. Instead of trying to manage them, we simply let the underlying Hack Upstate mission act as their compass.

Create a friendly, welcoming, and inclusive atmosphere

It’s always been a priority of ours to ensure Hack Upstate be inclusive and welcoming to those of different backgrounds, experiences and ways of life. We try to alleviate any friction that would prevent someone from taking part. For instance, we often receive questions along the lines of, “Do I need to be a developer to participate?” The answer of course is “no”. We welcome and encourage anyone, regardless of background or skillset, to join the fun. We also have a Code of Conduct in place that’s open source and managed by the community. Our intent with the Code of Conduct is to ensure we foster an open, friendly and welcoming community where Upstate NY’s STEM community can thrive.

Organize events that are repeatable and easily anticipated

From the very start of Hack Upstate we had long-term objectives in mind. We sought to build a deep-rooted STEM community that would be sustainable long-term. To do this we made a conscious decision early on to organize events that were repeatable and that the community could easily anticipate and predict. Specifically, we began hosting hackathons every fall and spring to coincide with the academic calendar. In doing so, our predictable hackathon schedule stayed on people’s radars. Prospective participants always knew when the next hackathon would be, and thus, could plan accordingly.

Lead through action

There are plenty of resources out there that discuss leadership and what it takes to be a successful leader. For me personally, I’ve learned the most about leadership from the wonderful leaders in my life. Whether they be family, friends, teachers, coaches, advisors, etc., the best of the best all led through action. Leading through action transcends boundaries of age, experience and seniority. It creates a level playing field where culture and standards are molded by what you do, not what you say. With Hack Upstate I’ve tried to do the same. Whether it’s taking out garbage, cleaning up workspaces or running out to grab food that accommodates an individual’s unique dietary restrictions, I’ve always tried to lead by doing.

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The last 4.5 years have been incredibly rewarding. I’ve met thousands of people and have been fortunate to collaborate with some of the best and brightest the STEM field has to offer.

I can’t wait to see where our community will be in ten years from now, but for now I’ll continue to enjoy the journey.

Doug Crescenzi is the founder of Hack Upstate and a partner at Upstate Interactive, a digital consultancy that combines product development with digital marketing.

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