REVENGE OF THE NERDS
Sam Iglesias is really into tea. Not bubble tea, not sweet tea, not any Lipton tea bag dipped into water. He offers it to me, a bitter green, made from loose leaf and poured through an ingenious filter into a transparent glass teapot. Iglesias, a senior,
By: Leslie Griffith
Posted: 4/22/09Over the next hour, Iglesias and his roommate, junior Andrew First, mention the tea several times, commenting on the mechanics of their various steeping systems or the merits of red versus green tea. And soon it's clear that these two Web mavens, members of Duke's small but skilled community of Internet programmers and entrepreneurs, don't just drink tea, just like they don't just read e-mails or check NYTimes.com for headlines. They discuss tea, tinker with it, see how they can improve it. And while the next pot is brewing, Iglesias and First are doing the same to the Web.
Students may know First better as "that guy who made the thing that makes a graphic of my schedule like the old ACES did." Even if his name recognition remains low, First, a dual major in electrical and computer engineering and computer science, is satisfied.
"The best thing is to see people use it and like it, to see their schedule taped onto their door," First says.
For both First and Iglesias, computers and the Internet have always been a source of fascination-and constant innovation.
"I just loved seeing this box I had be able to do more and more," Iglesias observes.
"I was always interested in this phenomenon of someone making a product and seeing it spread," First says, ticking off the success stories-YouTube, Google, Facebook-that have become part of Internet entrepreneurs' lore.
First and Iglesias are two of a couple dozen tech-minded students hoping to someday add to that lore with projects of their own. Too roughshod for a student organization and too goal-oriented for a social group, this community resembles alternately a professional guild and a fly-by-night venture.
"There's a huge community like this in Cambridge, but there it's mostly centered around MIT graduate students and patented technologies," Iglesias explains. "What we're talking about at Duke is dirtier-a couple of guys staying up all night coding and then launching a product. We're more rogue and renegade."
There's no executive committee or firstname.lastname@example.org listserv, and you won't find this group tabling on the West Campus Plaza for new members. Instead there's a gaggle of computer science majors and self-schooled experts, a group whose only membership requirements are the necessary programming skills and an entrepreneurial spirit.
"It's hard to do this if you don't have the skills," says sophomore computer science major Sophia Cui, who is working with four others on a start-up called Quantios and plans to continue the project in Silicon Valley this summer.
Entry into the group is decentralized and personal, where those with skills and ideas seek out others-classmates, friends of friends, whoever has the chops-to join their project, she says.
"If people know that you're a good programmer they'll come to you for help-it's not just who you know but whether you're actually good."
A band of (mostly) brothers
There's an inadvertent truth to Iglesias' "a couple of guys staying up all night coding" characterization. When asked who they know and work with in the group, the guys almost invariably mention other guys. Their memories jog when asked specifically about girls, but they say the group is, for the most part, male.
Cui noted that the gender disparity parallels the mostly male computer science department from which many Internet entrepreneurs come.
"I can always count the girls in my classes on one hand. It's something I've gotten used to," she adds.
Junior Andrea Coravos is a blogger and Web designer who has worked on a start-up called UniTEE. As a female economics major, she is a minority two times over in the group, but in her experience the women don't feel disadvantaged.
"It's not a guy versus girl thing at all," Coravos says. "I think it's partly because this community is so based on referral, and I think guys tend to be friends with guys. If you had girls who are working in it more, maybe they would bring in more girls."
Jeremy Welch, a senior taking a leave of absence from Duke to work on a New York-based start-up, says it might be harder for women to break into the group, especially if they are just getting started.
"It's hard at first. You don't know what's going on, but you ask a lot of questions and eventually you're on the same level as the other guys," he says. "But maybe for a girl it's harder. Maybe if there were more girls involved they'd get others looped in."
It might be that girls are simply less likely to accept the "techie" label, Coravos suggests. And in a community where tech skill and reputation are the only currency, that could create a barrier.
"Guys are more assertive in saying 'I'm a tech person,' whereas girls might say 'Oh, I've done a few Web sites' or 'I've created a blog,'" she says. With such a small number of people involved, however, it's difficult to tell if the disparity is significant, Coravos adds.
"It's important to distinguish a Web nerd from a computer science nerd," says Justin Wickett, a junior. "Knowing how the Web works, knowing how computers work is a valuable skill, so instead of looking down on them, people look up to nerds."
The stereotypical nerd, programming alone in his basement, casts a long shadow over this community. He's held up as a model, but at the same time members strive to distance themselves from him. In keeping with the Internet's newest manifestation, one filled with new media and new business models, Duke's hopeful hotshots are a new kind of nerd.
"If there's anything that's great about Duke Web 2.0 entrepreneurship, we're all good at networking and find each other quickly-well, the ones we didn't find we don't know about," Iglesias says. "Before you know it, you're doing dinners, mixers, hackathons at the Link, working on projects, giving each other feedback."
Welch says as unstructured as the community is, the camaraderie it provides is a much-needed relief to the solitary work involved.
"The community is good because it's pretty lonely, and a lot of people don't understand the work. It's good to have a lot of people doing the same thing," he explains.
Within the community an unabashed nerdiness coexists, a little awkwardly, with mixers and networking and monetizing.
"To most people, yeah, we're a bunch of computer science kids. I wouldn't say we're the cream of the social crop," Cui said. "But there's a social aspect here, you're looking for investors, to network, whatever. You can't be totally socially inept."
'Hey, check out what I can do'
Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg is the unacknowledged archetype for Duke's Web entrepreneurs. Zuckerberg's name seems, at times, shorthand for success, for reaching 200 million people, for the type of phenomenon they would like to create. They may not consider Zuckerberg the perfect nerd, or Facebook the perfect product, but Zuckerberg is nevertheless the nerd who made it big.
But though Welch and the others bring up Zuckerberg and his brainchild frequently, they rarely, if ever, mention the $1.5 billion the man is worth. Sure, money is a motive for the Zuckerbergs in training, but it's not the only motive. They know the low success rates for start-ups, and they've all lived through the bursting of the first tech bubble.
What drives many of these people, even in the ever-shifting world of the Web, is a desire to create something lasting that predates the most primitive version of the Internet.
"The thing about the Internet is, it's not going to go away, and it's an incredibly powerful tool if you know how to harness it," Coravos says.
Welch says money doesn't and shouldn't motivate most of the group, and it can even distract from the creation of a useful product.
"Everybody that does it is somehow a tinkerer or a hacker of sorts-they enjoy messing around with new programs, improving on them and building new ones," he observes. "If you look at how Facebook started, it all came out of being bored with classes and wanting to see what they could do. They wanted to build something."
The word "build" seems out of place when talking about something called both "a cloud" and "a series of tubes." But Welch returns to it again and again. The respect and reputation that comes with building a successful product-or even a failed but interesting product-outweighs any monetary motive, he says.
"They didn't do it for money, they did it just to see if they could build interest," Welch says of StrawPoll, an application Wickett created with friends. "The whole community of people who build those things is centered around respect, around getting points within the community for building something, even if it fails. Everyone wants to build something to show everyone else-there's a feeling of 'Hey, check out what I can do.'"
The instantaneous spread of information and the lack of need for a physical product makes building this reputation easier than ever, Wickett says.
"I can write code, release it and immediately I'm out there."
A DAY IN THE LIFE
"Even before the iPhone, I was always within three feet of the computer, and now I'm always within one foot-I don't know the health implications of that later on," says techie Justin Wickett. Here's Wickett's typical day caught in the Web.
1. Wake up, check iPhone for e-mails-"maybe one or two merit an immediate response," he says.
2. Hit snooze, sleep, repeat Step 1.
3. Start checking Twitter, blogs and the RSS feed reader-a mechanism that organizes and aggregates streams of content from online sources, letting people consume the data from different Web sites as they would read their e-mail. With about 15 feeds, some of which receive five or so articles a day, Wickett has a lot to process: "I'm just taking a quick snapshot, skimming so I can remember a few key words if I need to search for it later on," he says.
4. Check Twitter.
5. Repeat Step 4.
6. Ride C-2. See giant angry hornet causing panic throughout bus. Tweet about it.
7. Repeat Step 4.
More and more Wickett finds himself relying on Twitter and RSS feeds, where information is "pushed" to him and he doesn't need to manually type in a Web site or click a bookmark, he says.
"It's a little scary that the regular Web and HTML are no longer the right technology for me."