How offices and local technology meet-ups are reshaping the way Iowa City collaborates

Busy Coworking
Busy Coworking is a space for collaboration and tech meet-ups. — photo by Heidi McKinley

On the east wall of the office hang paintings of ships with green seas and yellow skies. The opposite wall holds six brightly-colored abstract pieces that could be scientific illustrations of cells or bacteria. At a conference desk with four large computers, a man works with headphones on. Behind him stands what looks like a bare sapling, but is really a metal sculpture. Ben Oakes sits at a tall café-style table; laptop open, Kindle and iPhone beside him. He faces the windows, which overlook Washington Street.

The space resembles an art gallery afterthought, and in a way it is. Oake’s office, Busy Coworking, was founded in the spring of 2012 and is located above the Chait Galleries Downtown in downtown Iowa City. The rooms owned by the gallery weren’t being used, so Sheila Samuelson, a sustainable business consultant, and Jordan Running, an independent web developer, decided to open a workspace for professionals who work from a computer and want to avoid the high cost of downtown office space by splitting rent with other members.

“It’s nice to get out of the house. There would be plenty of days that I would never leave home. It’s always kind of a strange feeling,” said Oakes who works for a company that designs software for community banks.

Isolation is not the only unfavorable aspect of working alone. Opportunities to network or hold meetings can also be lost. When Samuelson moved on, Oakes and Michael Webb took ownership of Busy Coworking. Webb, who recently moved to Austin, Texas to work for Stone Aerospace, credits Busy with helping establish and leverage his own network of techies.

“When I was talking with a client I could say, ‘Well, why don’t you come meet me at my office?’ It really helped me sort of jumpstart,” he said. “It really gave me a solid base.”

Last summer Oakes took on an intern for his company, which, according to him, just wouldn’t be possible when working from home or a cafe.

Busy also functions as a space to share and collaborate on ideas, a dynamic that’s an important part of technological development. While much open-source sharing and education is done online, there is a hands-on, human element that can’t be replicated on the internet and which many consider indispensable.

Hence Open Hack, an event created by Oakes and Webb, which is held at the Busy offices the third Sunday of every month. According to Oakes, the Iowa City Open Hack is not the first. It was the fifteenth branch, and now there are more than 70 nationwide. The goal of Open Hack is to create a space where participants can share projects and where the general public can become acquainted with unfamiliar technology.

“We talk about what we’re going to work on and if somebody mentions something that you think sounds cool, you go work with them,” Oakes explained.

People of all backgrounds come to Open Hack, even children. “I think it’s great that some people bring their kids and try and get them involved. The point of it is to get people to know how to do this stuff. It’s kind of sad if you think about it because you have this entire generation of people that are going to grow up with this,” said Oakes, holding up his iPhone and Kindle, “that you can’t take apart and you can’t really learn that much from taking apart … that’s why Open Hack [is] important … otherwise we’re going to end up with a world full of people who know how to use the things but not how to make them.”

“We have a lot of people come in and they’re just curious,” said Webb. “A lot of times it’s an opportunity to come and see a 3-D printer or see a little electronics project and talk to these expert people who are quite shy normally. There’s no bar to entry. [It’s a] very informal, very welcoming group.”

Open Hack is not alone in their mission to freely spread technological knowledge throughout Iowa City. Andrea Flemming is one of the founders of Tech Chicks who, according to her Twitter, is “making the shift to tech and international development.” Tech Chicks differs from Open Hack in that it is a group aimed at women. According to Flemming, one of the missions of the group is to offer support and a strong network.

At a Tech Chicks meeting in December, Jen Graham, a programmer with the Business Services Department at the University of Iowa, presented a lecture on jQuery, an open source code-writing program. Graham had recently attended a technology conference in Austin where she was one of only a few other women. Her experience in Texas highlights another important aspect of Tech Chicks’ mission: It is a great opportunity for confidence-building and gaining a competitive edge in a field dominated by men. Becky Vardaman, who works for a digital marketing firm in Cedar Rapids, said she came to the Tech Chicks meeting to clarify some jQuery questions for herself, but mainly just to meet people.

On April 5, Mission Creek will join Open Hack and Tech Chicks events by hosting its first ever Tech + Innovation Conference at the UI Pappajohn Business Building. Speakers include Art Genome project founder Matthew Israel, as well as local edu-techies Riley Eynon-Lynch and Dan Sweeney of Pear Deck. The Tech + Innovation Conference will have opportunities for attendees to exchange and brainstorm ideas, as well as work on projects. During the conference, Tech Chicks will be hosting a noon lunch at Thinc Lab. On April 9 at 6 p.m., they will host a tech presentation given by Jen Visser on SEO and WordPress held at University Capitol Center 2520B.

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