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BCNewt‘s blogger team had the chance to chat at length with Brad. From Barcelona to San Francisco. The exchange of questions and answers, many on the history of this initiative, others about his live and his views on the concept, were interspersed with anecdotes that you will see published along this blogpost. A talk that not only focused on coworking but in which, however, was always present the concepts of community and passion for a well done work. Are you ready? This is what we talked about:
BCNewt: Brad, you have said about coworking: “the freedom and independence of working for myself along with the structure and community of working with others.” What do you mean with structure and community, beyond saving costs?
Brad Neuberg: My original intention was to create the kind of atmosphere that companies have while still being able to work for myself. (Some) companies provide good structure, such as clear start and end times, that can be difficult to create for yourself when self-employed. For example, I found that I was starting late in the day and staying up all night coding and working, which wasn’t healthy. In addition, I was missing the community that a company can provide. Working around other people can create great community. I decided why can’t I combine the best aspects of working for myself (freedom and independence) with the best aspects of working for a company (structure and community)? Coworking was born from this.
BCNewt: We are in San Francisco, 2005-2006, and you are heading to your desk at The Spiral Muse. A time for changes and new projects for you. How did that feel? What were your expectations at that very beginning?
BN: I thought it was going to be really easy to get going, but it turned out to be hard. I created the idea of coworking while working with a life coach named Audrey Seymour. Coworking was going to provide me the structure and community I wanted while I did consulting via open source programming. It was always a means to an end for me, rather than my true focus. I grabbed some space at Spiral Muse for two days a week. I had to set up folding card tables that I broke down each day. I thought getting it full was going to be as simple as putting a message on Craigslist. In fact, no one showed up for the first two months. I would go and “hold the space” in a sense working from there. People slowly started trickling in.
BCNewt: In that sense, what part did your ideas play to develop what we now know as coworking?
BN: Coworking has always been about community in a physical space. Earlier “rent-an-office” like Regus were more focused on separated work spaces with very little or no community (in fact I had been at a startup company right before starting coworking that was working out of a Regus space — it was terrible and lonely). As people visited, I would give them permission to steal the idea and make it their own, to remix it, just like the open source programming I was involved in. People creating coworking communities have always felt the freedom to remix the idea and take it in their own direction, which was something I wanted. No one (including me) owns a trademark. The only thing I asked for was for folks to give me credit on originating the idea, mostly so that if I have another crazy idea hopefully I’ll be taken seriously. A lot of people thought coworking was a silly idea at first…
BCNewt: Can we say that coworking has become the paradigm of modern work?
BN: That’s probably a strong statement. There’s many ways modern work happens. However, when people are working remotely or for themselves I hope that coworking can contribute to them having community and a great coffee-shop like space to help them structure part of their lives. Hopefully this contributes to them being happier.
BCNewt: After more than ten years you are still recognised as the founder and promoter of this movement. What can you say about coworking nowadays?
BN: It’s amazing how far its spread! This is really due to the coworking community itself, all the people running coworking spaces and evangelizing it. It’s the broad coworking community who has figured out how to adapt coworking for each of their own communities. Coworking would have died long ago without them.
BCNewt: For the people who are starting just now with their own coworking spaces, what would you recommend or give as an advice?
BN: Reach out to other coworking spaces for advice! At this point there is a huge body of knowledge on what does and doesn’t work for different spaces. You can probably pretty much put together your business and community plan by visiting and talking to others running coworking spaces. Get out there and visit some of the spaces too to get a sense of the wide range of diversity. If you’re running the space as a business, make sure you’ve got your business fundamentals solid; it doesn’t help anyone if you have to close the space after 6 months or a year due to it not being sustainable or worth your time. And don’t forget what makes coworking unique: it’s not just about rent-an-office. Actively promote the community and relationships in the space, go out for lunch together, have a wall dedicated to providing bios on everyone and what they are doing, etc. A flourishing coworking space requires a strong leader to anchor the community and help folks to connect, otherwise people in the community can be a bit shy. Brewster Kahle at the Internet Archive, for example, has an open Friday lunch there. Anyone can come. Every person gets a short moment to stand up and introduce themselves and their interests and what they are doing. Steal that idea for your space.
BCNewt: Big corporations and companies are promoting coworking spaces around the world. How is this influencing the coworking movement?
BN: I think its great. The coworking tent is large enough to accommodate many different models. That’s part of its strength I think.
BCNewt: Spanish universities are using the word ‘coworking‘ to name spaces where support and motivation are given to young entrepreneurs. Do you think institutions must be involved in this movement or should coworking offices be independent from the establishment?
BN: That’s a good question. Again, I think the strength of coworking is some of the spaces can be inside of the establishment and some can be outside of it. I like to compare coworking spaces to coffee shops, which are their direct historical relatives, born from the coffee-induced revolution of the Enlightenment. There are mass coffee shop chains like Starbucks all the way to very small, worker collective style coffee shop hole in the walls. I like communities that have tents that are large enough to accommodate the full spectrum of things like this. Coworking is no different; there will be many different kinds of spaces, some highly chain-like and business-oriented and others probably closer to Anarchistic info-shops.
BCNewt: Barcelona is well known for being the European city with the highest coworking density, creativity and innovation, but freelance incomes doesn’t compare to European pairs. Would you say that it is better to be a home-based freelancer in San Francisco than a coworker in Barcelona?
BN: That’s hard to say. San Francisco is certainly a mecca for computer work, and computer work can be naturally remote. I haven’t been to Barcelona unfortunately, though I’d love to go some time! I’d love to speak at a coworking conference there, (hint, hint…). Personally, I’d rather be surrounded by art, culture, and community than make a ton of money being alone in my house. This is why I don’t live in suburbia. On that account, being a coworker in Barcelona sounds grand.
BCNewt: Amongst other things you have done extensive work in the open source community and software engineering. In a sense, those works have shaped part of your identity as a professional. Do you think there exists a relation between what we do, our interests, and the ways we interact as coworkers and professionals? Is also that a way to understand what coworking means: the interaction between our work (personal) and others work (community)?
BN: Certainly! Coworking itself came out of me working with a life coach. Before that life coach I had tried to go far outside the system, living and working at alternative communities like Esalen or in Thailand. When I found that didn’t work for me I then tried being in the system at a startup company named Rojo in San Francisco. That didn’t work for me either. I was confused; I didn’t know how I wanted to structure my life and make work ‘work’ for me, so I started life coaching. Via life coaching I imagined the kind of life I wanted to have, and invented coworking as part of that, since I wanted to “scratch an itch” as they say in open source and have it for myself. In some sense I found a middle ground between being inside and outside the establishment.
I’m very shaped by being a software engineer who values open source ethics. I sometimes refer to myself as a hippie geek, or a humanistic engineer. I think I’ve definitely strived to have an integrated life that combines what can sometimes be opposite and contrary motivations, my analytical engineering side with the part of me that is more humanistic and respectful of art and culture. Certainly that means integrating the interaction between work and community.
BCNewt: Part of the appeal of a shared office lays in the hope of meeting entrepreneurial teams from which we could learn, but it isn’t always that way. Should there exist and attitude, a way-to-be when we decide to be part of a coworking space?
BN: Yes, definitely. Coworking spaces should work to create the kinds of spontaneous interactions that a good traditional job can provide. This includes shared meals, holiday parties, interesting talks, etc. Those joining a space should be interested in networking and connecting. Note that its also important to be able to focus and have distraction free zones though. At the last company I was at (Inkling), I introduced something called Make Time that meant you wanted to focus and not be distracted. We had a head band you could put on that said Make Time that meant folks would not bother you unless it was an emergency; they would asynchronously email you instead. It really helped the culture to be both relational but also focused when needed to get things out.
BCNewt: You have said once that you developed the concept of shared collaborative workspaces because the place you were working at was utterly non-social. Nonetheless, nowadays human interaction is mostly mediated by technological devices and some people have said that we are more isolated than ever. What opinion do you have about this?
BN: Technology can be very relational. All those people on the subway you might see looking down at their phone are actually interacting with a huge number of people online, via Facebook, Twitter, etc. I think all this ‘sturm und drang’ we hear about technology making us unsocial is simply Millennial bashing. Douglas Adams has a great way of putting this:
- Everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;
- Anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;
- Anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.
I don’t like to be ageist, so I don’t think it has anything to do with age and being over or under 30 but rather outlook: are you open to new things or nostalgic about what has already been done? Not all human contact has to be eye to eye. When I read a book, I’m interacting with the person who wrote it perhaps hundreds of years ago. Books are a technology, just like Twitter. I’m most interested in using new technologies and ideas, while also having physical spaces where I can be embodied. I don’t think we have to choose; I spend a great deal of time on the Internet reading, connecting, writing, etc., but also value physical spaces as well.
In fact, I’ve started a new thing I’m calling colearning recently. The last five months I’ve been working part time and teaching myself Machine Learning. I’ve been doing this via online classes on Coursera. I found that a month in I was starting to flag in terms of actually getting my homework done and watching the videos. I started a new thing called colearning which is for those doing online education or personal projects to meet up every Sunday for the day. We aren’t doing the same classes or projects, but just knowing that others will be there is a positive motivation to show up and do your remote studies. It provides the same kind of structure and community of a traditional class but with the freedom and self-pacing that remote Internet education provides. Already its caused a huge acceleration in my own studies; I know that every week I will make tangible progress forward in my online classes. I know that the others who have showed up have made strong, consistent tangible progress towards their own projects. I think these kinds of fusions between online/remote and physical can be very compelling.
BCNewt: You have also done a lot of work with HTML5, Douglas Engelbart and the open source community. We would like to know a little bit about the ideas you have developed in those fields and your work with Engelbart.
BN: Engelbart was an incredible human being and inventor, a real class act. His belief in the 1960s was that computers would be as instrumental as writing and language have been in terms of accelerating human evolution. Most people don’t realize that a huge segment of what they have today came from Douglas Engelbart literally trying to accelerate human evolution and collective intelligence via technology! His view was greater than technology though; he’s actually considered the father of Human Computer Interaction (HCI), as he thought of not only the tool but the person holding the tool, their training, the methodologies that had developed, etc. Really a big picture person. He gave what is considered the Mother of All Demos in the late 60s, which showed hypertext, windowing, etc. for the first time.
BCNewt: Brad, can you tell us more about your newcoming projects and ideas within and outside the coworking world?
BN: I spent the last four years at Inkling, working with a great team to re-think what is possible with interactive eBooks and education, especially around publishing. I helped run a team named Inkling Habitat, you can see more about it here. You can also see some of the writing I did on rethinking how we approach interactive ebooks and publishing on my blog. For example, here’s a piece on what happens when you treat ebooks as software. I’ve also been focused on colearning recently, as I mentioned above.
On a personal level I’m a bit bored with the consumer web, which I’ve been focused on for a long time. I think the web has become commoditized like electricity or concrete, which is great for building other things but its a bit boring for a technologist like me. I’ve decided to take a stab at trying to learn machine learning, which is tough as its a big field and I’m not the most mathematically inclined person. I’ve been working part time to be able to focus on learning it though.
I’m especially intrigued by what is happening with neural networks recently; neural networks as a field have been around for 40 years but we are finally getting to the point where we have enough data and server clusters to do powerful things with them. I think we are on the cusp of a second machine learning revolution (the first was in the mid 2000s with Google‘s algorithm, recommendation engines like Netflix, spam classifiers, etc.). I think this revolution will have deep neural networks at their core; they look like they are a generally applicable tool for both machine vision and natural language understanding, for example. Siri, Microsoft Kinect, and Google’s Self Driving Car are all harbingers of what this new era might look like.
I think essentially we are giving machines the ability to hear and think, which is both very exciting and also potentially disturbing. I think the field is roughly where general purpose computing was in the late 1950s: big, expensive, and consigned to large corporations and academia. I think some of this will start really revving up in the late 2010s, but I think we are beginning to see the emergence of the post-PC, post-mobile world, which will be powered by some of these things. I’m excited about it! I’m trying to learning enough in this area so I can form cogent thoughts about it and do some work in this area.
BCNewt: Last one: are you still coworking?
BN: Of course! I always enjoy dropping by coworking spaces and hanging out.
Brad follows very closely topics on coworking and software development as well as everything related to new technologies. You can keep on some of his updates and comments through his Twitter @bradneuberg or his personal blog Coding in Paradise.