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mug of beer We're in with the e-Crowd at an e-Coast ebrew

By J. Dennis Robinson

Read our review of the e-Coast.org web site
Read also: Poor Man's VC Guide

Today's assignment is to attend an e-brew and write about it. My young editor thinks this will make an awesome human-interest story. As the owner of three high-traffic web sites, I'm supposed to find this fun. I find it intimidating. I embrace the Internet for its isolationism. My cube is my Fortress of Solitude. If I wanted to meet people in the flesh, I'd drive a bus.

An e-brew -- is an informal get-together of technology professionals who live or work on the e-Coast, or wish they did. When not at e-brews, the same crowd attends Technology Roundtables, which are the formal incarnation of the e-brew without the beer. And yes, all three names are trademarked. Last year the group also took an e-cruise on the Piscataqua River, but so far have neglected to trademark the event. Currently e-brews are held at 5:30 pm on the first Thursday of the month at Red Hook Brewery at the Pease Tradeport.

Visions of geeky kids on scooters with their hats on backwards, all pulling down 10 times my income. I try to imagine my father picking his way through a smoky, psychedelic black-lit party from my formative years. It isn't a pretty sight.

Surprise! These kids are business people. A couple, in fact, were wearing suits. The scene is reminiscent of any chamber "business after hours", and tame by comparison to those I remember in the mid-80s. Back before political correctness the alcohol flowed freely. I vaguely recall one early BAH in a downtown bank that started with a wooden dory filled with ice and shrimp and ended out on a fire escape near midnight. But that's a story for another time.

Step one, as always, is to don the dreaded name tag. "Hello, my name is..." I fight back the countercultural urge to write in "Mickey Mouse." The revolution, after all, is over. The computer won, and now we're all working together in one great flowing corporation.

Step two is to get a beer. In a brewery with an industrial-sized bar, that's cake.

Step three, sidle toward the food. Sidling isn't as easy as it sounds. Red Hook is packed. The e-brew dips and chips are strategically located on a table floating in the center of four converging diagonal eye-beams -- and I've left my safety helmet at home. After a few attempts at dipping, I grip my designer beer and advance reluctantly to step four.

Step four: mingle. This is the part I've been dreading. I love technology, but as a former English teacher, I have issues with the jargon that has sprung up around it like choking weeds. Nothing in human history has communicated more information to more people faster than computers online. Yet high tech talk never seems to get to the point. Everyone I ask seems to be "a consultant providing full service ITT solutions to a wide range of industries." Uh-huh. And everyone seems taken aback when I respond with -- "So what do you really you do?" -- as if they've already told me. I suspect that in a culture of change, one is reluctant to be specific for fear of finding himself a dinosaur. Already well on my way to dinosaurhood, I begin to converse more openly. Then again, it might just be the beer talking.

"That's no way to mingle!" Kirke Roth of Roth and Roth said out of the blue. He was right. I had my name tag on upside down. I was frowning, looking down at my feet. "You've got to get with the vibe and vision, man."

Networking, he told me, is a craft. As a corporate real estate service agent, he should know. I'd never met the man, and minutes later I was getting mingling lessons. Personal contact is the key. Interaction makes things happen. Then relationships grow quickly, become deeper, engendering trust, which is where business connections thrive. I was beginning to see the light. I talk to people, they talk back --- interesting concept.

I made seven circles around the perimeter of the e-brew. I know because that's the number of times I passed e-Coast communications manager Tom Cocchiaro who maintained a fixed position near the hummus and salsa area of the snack table. On one orbit he introduced me to e-Coast president JoAnn Hodgdon. She introduced me to Joshua Cyr who runs the e-Coast web site. He introduced me to Jennifer Quinlan, the newly appointed e-Coast Business Manager, whose salary is supported in part by the City of Portsmouth.

Jennifer is so new to the Seacoast, after working at Bank of Boston and Harvard Kennedy School Research Center, that she still uses words like "quaint" and "charming" to describe this region. Her first e-brew fit the adjectives perfectly. Everyone was upbeat and genuinely friendly. I felt it was my job to drag the conversation down. Does she fear, I asked, that the techie revolution will pump up housing rates, drive out diversity, and gentrify the Portsmouth area into a suburb of New Jersey? Jennifer turned my dark vision to daylight without losing a beat.

"The growth is happening. It just is," she says. "But the mission of the Roundtable is to further the RESPONSIBLE development of the e-Coast region as a SUSTAINABLE center for the technology community." Jennifer accented the two key words.

"I'm seeing it's very fashionable and stylish to be in the technology community here," she says, "Geek is chic -- it's the same thing. But it's also stylish and fashionable to be involved in philanthropic organizations. That is part of the lifestyle of being cool in Portsmouth."

I want to believe this is what's happening -- a new breed of kids who have both the spirit and the resources to prevent the Seacoast from turning into Route 128. It's a new kind of peer pressure, perhaps, where the 60s meet the 90s.

"In a small community people are accountable, Jennifer adds. "You cannot get along being anonymously greedy if you want to be part of this community."

I'm impressed. I mingle on. Eric Ott of Heine (pronounced HY-na) produces a web site in multiple languages that sells medical items like Fiber Optic Laryngoscope Blades. He explained with insight how important it is for web developers to be both artists and technicians -- not an easy task -- since it requires equal use of both sides of the brain.

Suddenly Sheyne Branconnier of NEIP materialized among the crowd. He was one of the first web developers I met way back in '97 or '98. We reminisced about the old days before broadband, back when it took five minutes to download a small photo. Ahh, memories.

Now I was mingling like a madman. It's possible at an e-brew, once you get beyond the jargon, to just step up to anyone and say, "So what do you do?" -- and find myself deep in conversation. Wendy Sykes of RCM Technologies and I had great talk about something. Troy Zervekes of Northwestern Mutual LIfe, one of those in a suit, was at the e-brew to help me invest my dot-com millions. I said I'd let him know when it arrived.

Much as I'm loath to admit, there is a distinct e-brew energy, something that does not come across on e-mail. Although the concept of a technology community is impossibly broad, certain basics apply. Everybody has a web address. Everyone has e-mail. Everybody knows how to work a computer. As different as our use for the Internet might be, everyone in the room was hurtling through space at the same speed, all tethered by separate lifelines to the same mother ship.

I got so darned gregarious I found myself in conversation with a couple sans nametags. They were just stopping by for a beer and had never heard of the e-Coast.

"You're drinking in it!" I said happily.
"Cool," they said.

That idea of being both geeky and cool continues to spin in my brain. I was having another flashback -- this time of a skinny kid with Coke-bottle glasses sitting at home with a soldering iron, tongue between his teeth, building a Heathkit AM-FM radio from a do-it-yourself kit. I hesitate to confess this publicly, but this same geek won the school science fair in sixth grade with a hand-made calculator built from a cigar box. My father and I assembled it with hundreds of wires connecting lights to brass paper fasteners. Turning the dial set off lights that transformed analogue numbers into binary code.

Yes, it was a sort of computer. That was about the time the Beatles came on the scene, back in an era where geek was geek and cool was something else altogether. What's happening at the e-brew is nothing like the dark vision of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. What if they were wrong, and things really are getting better.

I'm staring finally at the e-Coast logo. For the longest time I thought it was the letter "e" trapped in the eye of a swirling hurricane. Jennifer Quinlan says it is the letter "e" riding a wave, like a surfer. I look again. I'm not sure. Maybe she's right. Further research, combined with further beer, may be necessary to reach a conclusion.

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