Can Corvallis Hack It?

TechballoonEvery city likes to think of itself as technologically savvy and entrepreneurial. And in a way, every city is. Silicon Valley has startups and technology à la The Social Network, Colorado has clean tech and energy, and Oregon is a wannabe Silicon Valley with startups, agriculture, and food sciences research, as well as robust DIY hardware communities.

I recently moved here from Palo Alto, California, where I had been immersed in the tech scene. For seven months prior to moving, I lived with a dozen guys aged 17 to 24 and all but one (myself included) were college dropouts.

When I decided to move here, I got a lot of pushback from people back home who couldn’t understand what there was to do here. Indeed, at first glance, there doesn’t seem to be much going on. What I’ve come to realize, however, is that neither Corvallis nor Silicon Valley are “better” or “worse” than the other one—they just are.

Corvallis’ tech scene focuses on enterprise software development and CMS-aided web development, while Silicon Valley makes its money writing web and mobile applications. Yet a few weeks ago I attended a tech talk here on a new programming language being developed by Google; which I had never heard anyone mention when I went home to visit a few months ago. Oregon State has an Open Source Lab and Corvallis is slowly starting to do some of the things that are ubiquitous in Silicon Valley. For example, the city had its second hack-a-thon event in January, and there is a burgeoning co-working group and co-working collective downtown.

There are many more things that I never saw happening in Silicon Valley in the hardware and DIY sector. One man in town, previously interviewed in these pages, has what is essentially his own personal hackerspace and is using it to make a VW van run on electricity by placing it on top of a Tesla. There is a flourishing community of DIY bike building and repair, complete with makeshift garage bike shops and the Corvallis Bicycle Collective, a volunteer-run organization that puts bikes together using used parts that would otherwise be thrown away.

Oregon State provides plenty of resources for research, innovation, and patent-creation. OSU’s solar car team won first place in last year’s Formula Sun Grand Prix, a global solar car race, and Corvallis is the number one patent-generating city per capita in the country.

However, for all the technological awareness Corvallis has, there are just as many things this city isn’t even aware of. When it comes to startups and forward-thinking mentalities, Corvallis is essentially a scaled-back, late-to-the-party version of Silicon Valley. Here are a few examples:

— Definition of “tech”: I moved here knowing HTML, CSS, a little Python and Javascript and was pleasantly shocked that I could get a job in “tech.” In Silicon Valley, a “job in tech” means you can actually code, not just make websites pretty or use WordPress.

— Sharing economy: The sharing economy is a system built around using technology (specifically web and mobile applications) to share resources. In major cities around the world, people make supplemental income, or even their living, by sharing rides (using the GPS tracking that smartphones come with), and all over the world people share their houses with strangers. At my first job in Corvallis, I was explaining to my boss how disconcerting it was to not be able to just tap a button to summon a car and go wherever I wanted in the city. The reaction was overwhelmingly, “But isn’t that dangerous?!” The fact is that the sharing economy is something that upwards of hundreds of millions of people use every week as well as the way of the future considering rising income inequality, population growth, and technological access. I realize that Corvallis might have difficulty getting enough of a critical mass to make ridesharing work, but there are many other parts of the sharing economy this city could participate in, such as Meetup groups and Airbnb.

— Dropping out of college: There’s no getting around the fact that OSU runs this city. I’m 19 and not in college, but I only know two other people my age who are in my position. I know a few people who ought to drop out, and if they were in the Valley, would have already, as well as some people who have dropped out but subsequently moved away from Corvallis to the Bay Area so they can work on their startup. There simply isn’t a positive view of dropping out to start companies or even just start working and learning skills through apprenticeships or internships. In addition, the physical infrastructures aren’t in place to foster youth entrepreneurship and hacking. In the Valley, “hacker houses” (such as the one I lived in prior to moving here) provide inexpensive rent to help in creating companies. Saying Corvallis needs hacker houses is putting the cart before the horse, but a good start would be to become more open-minded about the idea of not relying on college for future success.

— Hackers and hack-a-thons: Hack-a-thons are events during which teams of programmers and designers create something during a limited period of time, typically between 24 and 72 hours. Many things you may take for granted, such as Facebook chat and the “like” button, were conceived during hack-a-thons. The idea is to quickly get the most basic functionality of an idea out there so it can be tested and improved upon. According to my Googling skills, Corvallis has only had two hack-a-thons: one in 2012 at OSU and another last January at HP.

— Definition of entrepreneur: Another thing that continues to amaze me about Corvallis is the vastly scaled-down definition people have about what “startup” means. In the Valley, a startup is a business that is meant to scale. Therefore, the fact that you have a taqueria or a consulting firm or an insurance brokerage firm does not make you the “founder” of a “startup.”

In short, the Willamette Valley has a long way to go to becoming the Silicon Valley of Oregon, but I’ve found that technology is what you make of it. Pound for pound, Corvallis does okay for itself, and is on the fast track to tech relevance, probably.

By Catherine Stevens