ThoughtWorks tends to be a bit of a community magnet for technologists. Be it our open office space or the fact that we like working on cutting edge software technology, or that we employ smart people that other smart people like to hang with - we tend to do a decent job at being a community space for technologists. If you’re a technologist in a city where ThoughtWorks exists, then you’ve probably experienced this yourself.
Over the years, we've organised several events, be it Paradigm Shift, ThoughtWorks Live!, Converge, vodQA, the legendary Geek Nights or the democratic BarCamps. Additionally, our Tech Radar makes for an exciting read that a lot of technologists look forward to. This sustained engagement for over 10 years in the Indian and global IT industry has helped us build our own influence amongst local technologists and to probably even catch the eye of potential clients. To me, this is one of our bigger achievements in fostering software excellence in the long term.
Building Communities for Progressive Change
As an organisation that wants to lead social change, we want to be as much of a connector in the larger community where we exist, beyond just software technologists. The challenge for us is to identify and engage with groups and individuals that are focused on social and economic justice issues. How do we bring together regular people to look at the world from the perspective of the oppressed, powerless and invisible?
How can ThoughtWorks be a catalyst to precipitate change without always being an active participant? How do we make change makers talk to each other? These are some interesting questions that we want to try and answer over the next decade of our existence in India. And to this effect, we think our office space can be a great way to rebuild community and create strong ties amongst change makers, both potential and current.
A Few Initial Experiments
Back in the day, people would meet at a temple or a church or a marketplace or at a community hall. Television, the Internet, smartphones, long commutes hadn't taken over the lives of the previous generation as much as they've taken up ours.
Today these traditional venues of community building have become endangered to say the least. Society can either take this as the new status quo or we could invent new places for the community to gather. We've got a beautiful office space in Pune that probably could be one of these new community spaces. Here are some experiments we've tried with our office space in recent days to try and bring together change makers, ThoughtWorkers and those sitting the fence.
Banyan Tree Talks: ThoughtWorks has a rich tradition of calling in inspirational speakers for a series of talks that we call the “Banyan Tree”. In Pune, Arvind Gupta, Ashish Kothari, Pankaj Sekhsaria, Nipun Mehta have already spoken at our office and we have several more speakers lined up in coming months. We've made our talks open to outsiders and I have to say, it's a pleasant surprise to see people of all ages and from all walks of life come together to share these experiences with us. Some talks have better attendance than others and the onus is on ThoughtWorks Pune to be a great host to our speakers and guests and to explore how we build relationships with them that could lead to interesting possibilities in the future.
Community Event Space: Just as we've opened up our space to technologists, we've recently opened up our space to the broader community and to people who're working in the space of social justice. We've started off by hosting two great events in the last few months. The Pune Urban Village UnConference was a community organised event to bring together people from all walks of life in Pune to discuss matters like education, local business, food alternatives, politics and what have you! The second event was a collective exploration and dialogue on social change with PV Rajagopal, the founder of Ekta Parishad - an organisation that's fought for the rights of farmers and indigenous people for several years.
Right the Wrongs of IT: This is something that falls squarely in our space as an IT company. As an industry, IT represents much of the historic discrimination that already exists in society - that against women, those from backward castes and tribes, alternative sexuality and minorities. We’d like to not just reject this status quo but also be participants in forming a new one. So community activities that help us take affirmative steps to address this imbalance are big for us. An example of this is Rails Girls - a full day workshop that helps women with little or no programming experience learn Ruby on Rails, deploy their first application and get a headstart on their IT careers.
Organising & Coworking Space: There are probably very few spaces like ours out there and many organisations in the social sector really appreciate having access to such a space for projects and special activities. For example, we recently hosted Kalpavriksh and Misereor for a meeting on Food Alternatives. ThoughtWorkers often get to work with such groups and along the way we learn from the ways of activists and change makers. As time goes by, we're keen to get the word out about our space so other organisations and individuals who need a co-working space for a short while, don't have to look too far.
What was that about the Thousand Flowers?
No, that wasn't just an attempt at a catchy title. When the office leadership at Pune started speaking of using the office space for community building, we decided that we'll be as open as we can and do as much as we possibly can until we hit our physical space limits. We won't apply any filtering criteria to activities and events unless they're at a diagonal opposite to ThoughtWorks' own political and social stance. We'll let a thousand flowers bloom to begin with and then, once we've built our own strong, local network and the demand for the space far outstrips its availability, we may agree on criteria on who we host. And when the thousand flowers do bloom, people will probably make their own connections and there'll be alternatives to ThoughtWorks in the long run. If that happens, I daresay we can claim some success in our community building agenda.