It’s Saturday morning, but on the fifth floor of a Downtown Long Beach office building, dozens of people chatter and hover over laptops while snacking on muffins and sparkling water.
This diverse group of tech workers gather at Pacific Towers for a weekly Code and Coffee meet-up, where some of Long Beach’s most talented programmers have gathered regularly for a little over three years.
The club started with only about 10 people who wanted to socialize and share ideas, but membership has since swelled to about 500. David Nuon, who has attended the gathering since “Day Zero,” said the group met for the first time around a picnic table inside MADE by Millworks, a retail store on Pine Avenue.
But the growing membership is not necessarily reflective of a city that has satisfied some leaders’ dreams of becoming a tech city. While there have been successful startups that have formed in recent years, the tech scene in Long Beach is a far cry from neighboring cities like Irvine and Los Angeles.
Nuon is hopeful that is changing.
“For a long while now the tech scene in Long Beach has been rather dormant,” Nuon said. “But starting recently there have been some new tech startups coming to Long Beach. To say that Long Beach is a tech hub, it’s not quite there yet, but it’s on the way.”
The crowd at Code and Coffee is diverse; it includes a high school senior who is hopeful to soak up knowledge and a Baby Boomer seeking help with WordPress. Some are job-hunters and others are looking to hire. They point across the room to each other, promising to talk before the day is over.
“Coding is pretty useless [unless] you can apply it to something,” Nuon said, picking up an Otamatone, a wacky digital instrument comprised of a harmonica-like slide-bar and squeezable face that allows users to manipulate the sound.
He recalls once that a member of the group turned an old printer into a typewriter, but there are far more serious applications for coding.
Cheyenne Ziegler doesn’t work in the tech industry at all but is still seeking help with coding to improve her productivity at work. The 23-year-old works in stem cell research, but said the tedious task of analyzing protein markers could “literally take an entire lifetime.”
With coding, she could potentially build an algorithm that would allow her sort through data at warp speed.
“It’s basically a matter of ‘Do you want to do something in 15 years or do you want to do something in five months?’” Ziegler said.
Ziegler’s boyfriend, Ian Watts, followed her to the meeting to seek help with numerical analysis. He works for SpaceX as a propulsion analyst and admits he could look through message boards online for solutions to questions, but the person-to-person interaction helps “cut out the goose chase” of wading through the internet.
Building this critical mass of talent and community was the impetus of Roger Howard, a programmer and former Long Beach resident who many within the group credit with bringing code and coffee to where it stands today.
Howard took the reins of the group about three years ago when he quit his job to work from home. He quickly realized that the tech community in Long Beach was wanting and that the code and coffee at MADE was lacking structure—and oddly, it had no coffee.
“I started bringing coffee, which ironically Code and Coffee didn’t have, and fruit plates and started having people introduce themselves and whether or not they needed help with anything,” Howard said.
He also started integrating more structure where the group now hosts guest speakers from the industry or software companies and regularly debates current events like net neutrality, software licensing and patent law.
Howard, who has served as a chief technology officer among other roles, said that groups such as Code and Coffee are the first places he looks for talent when making hiring decisions. He explains that the in-person interaction goes so much further than a resumé in showing how talented a person is.
“The hardest thing in tech is weeding out the actual talent from the noise,” Howard said. “It’s such a huge industry, and such an attractive industry that it draws a lot of people who are not qualified and it’s sort of an employees’ market. You can get a job relatively easily. The number of open positions is generally greater than the talent that’s out there.”
Howard remains concerned with how Long Beach can retain its talent as young, talented coders and programmers continue to leave for more robust tech communities like Los Angeles, and in turn keeps investors wary of sinking funds into Long Beach startups because of that talent going elsewhere.
One of those coders that has stayed in the city is Karim Amer, and he crossed the Atlantic to do so.
Amer came to Long Beach in 2014 as a fresh graduate from Egypt who was seeking to escape the fallout of the Arab Spring as well as to find better job prospects. He moved in with a cousin in Downey while he worked in a warehouse but started seeking out his tech career by attending the Long Beach Code and Coffee.
Amer, now a co-organizer of the group, met a programmer who became impressed with his knowledge and invited him to work on a project the following week. That soon turned into a job offer from the tech start-up CritiqueIt, which recently sold to the online education giant 2U.
He said that having meet-ups like Code and Coffee are important for those in the industry because in most instances that’s how jobs are found. It’s how he found his.
“It’s critical because the best jobs in tech usually come by word of mouth,” Amer said. “If I love the place I work, I want other people to work there. So it’s critical having a group of developers who can know where the healthy companies are and help get you to a healthy company.”
Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or @JasonRuiz__LB on Twitter.
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