Building a Tech Ecosystem: Ada’s New Wave of Community-Driven Meetups

By: Sunnie Dawn Baker

Technology work can be isolating, but it doesn’t have to be. While much of the work is done in solitary, spending hours at a computer building code, developing websites, or finding solutions to problems, it can also be helpful to be a part of a community. Our area lacked this until recently. The Ada Jobs Foundation, through the Conduit Initiative, is supporting and encouraging tech entrepreneurs in the area, making tech meetups a crucial aspect of this work. While the focus is on connecting these tech workers with one another, building this tech ecosystem and encouraging people to talk to each other as part of a community could eventually yield a new business, especially since some of the attendees are already tech entrepreneurs.

Ashia Todd, Startup Community Manager for the Conduit Initiative, organizes the tech meetups, which began in September of 2023. In the beginning, it was a small group of people, gathering at The Lot and getting to know each other. Since then, the group has grown, with one of the participants kicking off the discussion, focusing on a particular issue in technology work. For the December tech meetup, Lucas Hudson, the IT Systems Administrator for PEC, led the discussion on Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA). Hudson is planning on implementing MFA at PEC and was curious how other organizations handled this and what worked best for them. He gleaned knowledge from other IT professionals, including representatives from the Chickasaw Nation, the City of Ada, ECU, Pontotoc Technology Center, Ada City Schools, Citizens Bank, as well as tech entrepreneurs. Hudson left the meetup with new insights after the discussion. He says, “These meetups are beneficial to other IT professionals in that there is not an established IT community in Ada to share ideas and knowledge, which is exactly what this is striving to be. The meetup provides an excellent opportunity to learn from others and network with other IT professionals within the Ada area.”

Tech meetups are not a new idea. However, it is relatively new for rural communities. The Techlahoma Foundation, which was founded in 2014, has been hosting and promoting tech meetups in urban areas. Tech meetups were taking place in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, prompting the decision to establish a non-profit organization to expand these events. Emily Harden, the Executive Director of the Techlahoma Foundation, considers these meetups highly beneficial for the participants. She states, “Participating in meetups allows people to network with people who share a similar interest or learn a new skill. Many people connect with future employers or employees, business partners or mentors via Techlahoma user groups. Many members attend a group about a subject they are unfamiliar with, so they can expand their knowledge base and understand a new concept.” While these programs have shown value in urban areas, their significance can be even greater in smaller communities. Harden says, “Being in a rural community, you may think you are the only one who does x or y. But most of Techlahoma is full of developers and other tech professionals who work remotely. What that means is you may not get the experience of working side by side with someone who has similar job responsibilities as you but, by being a part of a community, you can learn from each other and share best practices.”

The community-building aspect of tech meetups assists these tech professionals in meeting other people while encouraging them to consider problems in a different way. Andrew Long, a tech entrepreneur and founder of Long MSP, remarks, “Seeing how other people in the industry approach problems and the different ways they solve them is great.” Matt Harp, a local programmer and developer, emphasizes the importance of these meetups because, “You engage in ‘cross-pollination’ with other organizations and industries and establish valuable contacts. You get help keeping up with new developments in the industry, outside of your own scope. And, even in a sense outside of professional development, you get to engage with like-minded individuals.” The tech meetups enable people who frequently work in isolation to connect with others engaged in similar activities, while simultaneously learning from their own challenges and successes.

Jake Cantrell, the Investment Associate for the Conduit Initiative, was a former tech entrepreneur who grew up in Ada, actively involved in many aspects of technology. Cantrell possesses a unique perspective on tech meetups. He sees their benefit not only as someone working to promote tech entrepreneurship in the area but also as a former tech entrepreneur himself. Cantrell sees the great potential for the community, stating, “The tech community is often perceived as somewhat reserved, particularly during networking events. I’ve really enjoyed seeing the growth and evolution of our tech meetups transform into a valuable resource for our community.” Moreover, he wishes that something similar had been available for him when he was starting out. He says, “Growing up in the area, I’ve often felt like our local tech community has been more competitive than collaborative. Looking back, I wonder how much access to a group like this could have shaped my business and what other avenues of growth might have emerged.”

One of the major impediments to growth is the silo mentality that can exist in all fields, including technology. This is why it is so significant that all of these voices are brought together to share their vision and insight when it comes to tech work. It allows them to learn from one another and form a community. They are no longer isolated, they are no longer alone, and their work is stronger for it.

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