Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Why Not Bakersfield?

Bakersfield has a rich and impressive history. At one point, it was the fastest growing city in California (growing 400% between 1970 and 2010). Even though we have frequently been subjected to the title of worst air in the country, there are lots of things we have going for us. Not only do we have a rich musical history, we are also a long time destination for movies and television. Unfortunately, movies and TV have often poked fun at Bakersfield, depicting us as very redneck and ignorant. Even the locals are left believing that Bakersfield is too isolated and backwards to be seen with respect. I feel that Bakersfield is much more than that, and I've spoken with many who agree. Bakersfield has real potential.

Bakersfield has a pretty awesome page in history. There still exist many tunnels beneath downtown that were once used to smuggle booze during the prohibition days. There are dozens of art galleries and musical venues. Some of the biggest names in classic country called Bakersfield home. We have many performing arts theater groups to choose from, as well as venues that attract traveling productions. We have museums and architecture and culture, oh my! Of course, I can’t list all of these great things without mentioning the awesome eat spots, as well. If Bakersfield knows how to do anything right, we know how to pick a restaurant.

But what I’m really interested in today are the tech and STEM communities. Do they exist here? The Atlantic recently ran an article praising the tech community in Fresno. (http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2015/03/californias-centers-of-technology-bay-area-la-san-diego-and-fresno/387808/) Reading this, I started to wonder why Bakersfield couldn't fill the role of tech hub as well. We have programmers here. We have coworking spaces and coffee shops. We have STEM related meetups. We have college courses relating to computer sciences. Why not Bakersfield?

When I took on the task of discovering the reason behind Bakersfield’s lack of involvement in the tech community, I was overwhelmed. As we can see by the above article, Fresno has become a tech hub in the central valley right before our eyes. Sure, they’re bigger than Bakersfield, but I have to wonder what other differences are there. Why are they able to present themselves as so STEM friendly and tech progressive, while Bakersfield is still seen so negatively by the tech-savvy and entrepreneurs?

I already knew a few people in the tech community here in Bakersfield, but I needed to know more. I went online first, trying to explore the differences between Bakersfield and Fresno. I was expecting to find some glaring differences right off the bat, but that really wasn't the case. Population is potentially a factor. Fresno checks in with 509K people, while Bakersfield trails behind with 347K. Still, even with a difference that large, Bakersfield isn’t a small town by any means. We are certainly big enough to foster multiple communities. Are the lifted trucks so big that there’s no room for the nerds and entrepreneurs to find each other? I don’t want to believe that.

I decided to look into education, and I confess that I expected Fresno to beat us by a wide margin. In 2012, Fresno had a high school dropout rate of 24.48%. Bakersfield was right beside them at 24.11%. Fresno has 4.53% holding a graduate degree while Bakersfield comes in at 4.45%. CSUB has a 66% admittance rate, while CSU Fresno lets in 56% of applicants. CSUB also has a 44% graduation rate within 6 years, while CSU Fresno graduates 48% of its students in the same time frame. Not a big difference there, either. Unemployment rates has Bakersfield ahead of Fresno by a fair margin with rates of 6.8% and 10.3% respectively.

These numbers had me scratching my head. We seem fairly similar by the numbers, so why are the cities so divided? I did find some glaring differences, though, as I dug deeper. Meetup.com offers an interesting glimpse. A quick stroll through available meetups in Bakersfield found 5 STEM related groups, while Fresno showed me 8. Out of the 5 groups I found in Bakersfield, only 2 of them have actual meetups on the calendar with any sort of regularity. Out of the 8 groups in Fresno, however, all of them have meetups at regularly scheduled intervals. Why is the tech community in Bakersfield failing to actually meet? Eventbrite.com was pretty dismal, as well. Bakersfield held one science & tech event, which was a global potluck for Xamarin members. Fresno is holding its own Hack-a-thon, as well the 5th annual Central California STEM Collaborative.

Dominic Muller, a regular at Bakersfield Mesh Cowork, sat down with me to discuss census data. I was interested in comparing the number of programmers in Kern County with Fresno county. Since this data is not easily accessible, he was kind enough to walk me through it. The 2012 census (this was the most recent data available) showed only a sliver of Kern County residents as programmers. We come in second to last at 0.35%. Fresno County is only one rank above us at 0.43%.

Dominic also gave me a tip about checking internet speeds between the cities. According to testmy.net, Bakersfield has an average upload speed of 2.7 Mbps (337 kB/s) and an average download speed of 17.7 Mbps (2.2 MB/s). That’s pretty embarrassing. Fresno soars past us laughing with an average upload speed of 12.5 Mbps (1.6 MB/s) and an average download speed of 49.3 Mbps (6.2 MB/s). This is just ridiculous. Why are we so much slower than our neighbors? Who is to blame for this?

With all of this data swimming around, I still don’t have a solid answer. Why not Bakersfield? Why is Fresno seen in such a positive light, while Bakersfield is not? My personal theory deals with how we see ourselves. Fresno has taken their public image by the reigns. They have decided to present themselves as a tech hub through the use of their community. They don’t have anything going for them that we don’t as far as population per capita statistics. What they do have, however, is attitude. They create events and actually attend them. They create groups and keep them alive. They network and brag about it. They are a tech hub because they want to be a tech hub.

I took a last minute drive up to Fresno to check out their spaces compared to ours. I visited Cafe Corazon, which has a similar feel to Dagny’s in Downtown Bakersfield. A friendly barista, eclectic art, strong coffee, and free wifi. They had far less space, however, and no outdoor seating. There was a single table that I like to call introvert friendly, the rest of the seating was more socially oriented. Cafe Corazon was the highest rated coffee shop on Yelp!, as well as being conveniently located a couple of doors down from the coworking space I wanted to see.

Hashtag Fresno was another spot I really wanted to see. Bakersfield recently found itself with its very own coworking space. Bakersfield Mesh Cowork is located (kindly) above Dagny’s coffee shop downtown, and they offer super fast internet speeds and a quiet atmosphere. Hashtag is quite a bit bigger, and with more bells and whistles. However, the alternative pop music being piped in was annoying and distracting. I had hoped to find someone there willing to chat about Fresno tech culture, but the other attendees were hiding from the music behind their earbuds. I would love to see Bakersfield Mesh grow into a space like Hashtag, but in its infancy, I’d say they’re doing damn well so far.

My last stop was Bitwise Industries. I was showing up unannounced, so my hopes weren’t too high for a grand tour. I sent an email and left a voicemail before my arrival, but still only gave them about an hour notice while I finished my sushi. (Bakersfield has them beat there, for the record.) Unfortunately, I couldn’t find anyone at Bitwise to talk to. There was a sign on the front counter encouraging me to find Miguel in the office by the kitchen, but once I found the kitchen, the only nearby office was dark and deserted. The gentlemen protesting outside (complete with banners and an 8” tall grim reaper) were happy to talk with me, but they couldn’t explain exactly why they were protesting against Bitwise. They left an impression that was not much better than the absent Miguel in the office by the kitchen.

I did get a call back from a friendly guy named Jed from Bitwise, but I was well on my way home before he called. He seemed very disappointed to have missed me, and explained that he and his administrator were in a meeting when I attempted to contact them. He did ask to follow up with me, at least.

So, after all of this hunting and driving and typing, why not Bakersfield? Bakersfield falls short on the future of STEM positive communities because Bakersfield won’t stand up and network. We create groups and then we neglect them. We make meetups and then don’t attend them. (To be fair, venue is an issue for many meetup groups. We need to get our businesses on board, in the interest of building the community, and not just trying to make a dime on the foot traffic.) We need to reach out to students and show them that they aren’t alone. We need to foster more places like Bakersfield Mesh Cowork and Idea Hive. And we damn sure need to demand faster internet.

Bakersfield is not behind Fresno in any statistically significant way. Bakersfield is simply not united in how we want to present ourselves. This blogger thinks that the next step is simply getting Bakersfield excited. More meetups, more spaces, more groups, and more activity could bring us a long way.