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Rise of the geeks
Most people agree Oxfordshire is a wonderful place to live, but is it really the hub of a new ‘tech cluster’?
Leaving aside the area’s research-based spin-outs, is it attracting the dynamic companies that will lead us into the future?
One person who believes Oxford is on course to join ‘Silicon Roundabout’ in Shoreditch as one of the UK’s growing tech clusters is Dave Fletcher, founder of web developers White October.
He set up his business in 2003 at the age of 23, having left his job at schools computer company RM to go it alone in a cheap-and-cheerful office in Oxford City Council’s enterprise centre in Cave Street.
Since then, White October has grown to employ 12 staff and moved to The Gallery in East Oxford, an office complex converted from the former Blackwell’s book storage depot.
He said: “We believe Oxford’s reputation as a centre for web knowledge is growing.”
Mr Fletcher points out that the Jericho ‘geek nights’ sponsored by Charlbury-based web company Torchbox are now attracting 60-100 people.
“It’s listed in Wired magazine as being one of the top tech meetings in the country. For developers, I think they are really great events. There is a huge variety of contacts, which gives everyone the chance to network.”
As well as London’s East End, Brighton and Bristol also have a reputation for Internet-based start-ups, but Mr Fletcher says Oxford is catching up.
The enthusiasm of the predominantly young workforce is being harnessed for social good by events such as Random Hacks of Kindness.
Mr Fletcher, whose company hosted the get-together, said: “Oxfam and other charities present problems they have, or desires, and we invite groups of web developers to work with them to put something together.”
Then there are ‘Bar Camps’, informal conferences where the participants set their own agenda, then join workshops to tackle different issues.
When I ask where the name comes from, Mr Fletcher explains that it is a joke involving programmer’s slang — the interesting point being that these professionals speak the same language.
This concentration of similar-minded people is what governments love.
Prime Minister David Cameron has declared the area of east London around the Old Street roundabout ‘Tech City UK’, in the hope the magic will spread to the Olympic Village in Stratford, more than three miles away.
One of the philosophies that links many of Oxford’s Internet workforce is a belief in ‘open source’ software, shared throughout the web so the combined brains of thousands of programmers can iron out problems and create new applications. White October joined a ‘social innovation’ camp in London two years ago to find a Facebook application that would help young offenders.
The result was a tool that allows them to ask their friends to tell them what they are good at.
“A 16-year-old cannot say what they are good at, but their friends are well-placed to point out their talents.
“We have never regretted our involvement with events like that because we have made contacts that have ended up providing work for us. There is a growing trend for events like that, where people can play with ideas at a very early stage,” said Mr Fletcher.
“There is a theme here, which is bringing together people from different backgrounds to come up with ideas for technology that might be able to help.”
He points out that not all those who attend the events are entrepreneurs.
“Some work for multi-nationals. It is not just small companies and individuals. It’s a demonstration that there is a big community of geeks, or web professionals, who live and work and collaborate with each other in Oxfordshire.”
Another sign of Oxford’s importance is that the city is hosting the first official jQuery conference in Europe.
White October was thrilled that its offer to organise the event was accepted by US-based jQuery, which powers most of the interaction and animation on modern websites.
Places filled up within a few weeks of the date (next February) being released on Twitter, with delegates coming from all over the world.
“Our mission is to have more of these events. In three weeks we have sold almost all the tickets and sponsorship slots. It is a massive boost for Oxford.”
So if London’s tech hub is based on a roundabout in Old Street, where is Oxfordshire’s?
Mr Fletcher is tactfully reluctant to criticise the choice of some of his rival Internet companies to run their businesses in the countryside (Torchbox is in Cornbury Park, in Mr Cameron’s Witney constituency) but says east Oxford is a wonderful place to network.
“I love the Cowley Road. The kind of people that we hire like to live in the inner city.” * Contact: White October, 0845 636 1703 Web: www.whiteoctober.co.uk