One of the lecture halls in the Medical Science building is illuminated with red spotlights and pumping with club music. It’s approximately 9am on a Saturday, and if it weren’t for the fact that the place is packed with keen young adults clad in variations on the theme of “business casual,” I would assume I had slept-walked into a club in the Entertainment District. It’s a little bit discombobulating.
I’m at the Canadian Undergraduate Technology Conference, an annual student conference started up by the folks at the University of Waterloo eleven years ago. The conference has a variety of events, from key-note speakers, to programming competitions, to a technology expo. The speakers include Alexis Oharian, co-founder of Reddit, Matt Flannery, founder of Kiva, and Evan Reas, co-founder of Likealittle.
The conference is quintessentially cool. The MCs for the event are platinum blond, Torontonian bloggers with improbable haircuts; everything has been organized by students; attendees are encouraged to tweet questions to the speakers. It’s easy to imagine that you’re sitting in a lecture hall with the next Mark Zuckerberg, and listening to people who sold their start-ups to Conde-Nast for an “undisclosed sum” rumoured to be 12.8 million dollars is kind of awesome.
The first keynote speeches end, and we’re released to the technology exposition. I’m chatting with my technologically savvy contemporaries while looking at some of the technologies on display and chomping on free food. But as soon as I mention that I’m a writer, not a programmer, I keep getting this demoralizing reaction:
And there’s only so much of that a girl can take. I’m getting tired of shamefully pulling out my not-so-smart-pay-as-you-go-Samsung phone (food for thought: Is the opposite of a smart phone a stupid phone??), and justifying my philosophy degree to the folks I’ll be serving coffee to in a couple of years.
I decide, instead of facing further scorn, to come up with an alternate personality for myself, in which Emily-the-average becomes programmer extraordinaire, computer-science student, Emily Saskatchewan,* a mysterious genius who masterfully avoids follow-up questions and obfuscates a lack of technical know-how with an expansive repository of buzz-words.
And from Emily Saskatchewan’s adventures in tech-land, I bring you:
A BRIEF GUIDE TO IMPERSONATING A TECH ENTREPRENEUR SO THAT YOU CAN IMPRESS PEOPLE AT PARTIES
- Be cool. Wear jeans and a hoodie, a button-up shirt that doesn’t quite fit, or an ironic t-shirt with a blazer. Remember, you have more important things to think about than your appearance. You might put on a tie for your meeting with the President. Maybe.
- Make sure you have the right gear. If you don’t have an iPhone, a Blackberry or an Android, HIDE YOUR PHONE. Compensate by talking about apps. Talk vaguely about your groundbreaking app ideas. You can’t tell anyone, because they might steal your idea. Mention in passing that @mashable follows you on Twitter. It’s no big deal.
- Be Meme literate. Be in on the global inside joke. Know about sad Keanu and lolcats. If anything else comes up, fake it, or check Wikipedia.
- Hate The Man. This is the second tech boom. The classic business-man model is dead. Long-live the age of the creator. Say things like: “What makes a start-up successful is creating a product that people want, instead of trying to sell people something that they don’t need. My site doesn’t advertise itself as ‘user-friendly’ and ‘hip.’ We just are.” Make fun of Bill Gates whenever you can. Hack.
- Be definitive. Never waver on your pronounced opinions. Say things like: “Yeah, I dropped out of university to work for Google. I quit because I needed more ownership of my work. I have a few things in development right now. The site is in talks with a major media conglomeration but my lawyers tell me that I probably shouldn’t talk about it.”
- Be a visionary. You’re creating the future. You are creating the programs that are going to transform all of the cultural zeitgeist. Talk about the future. Talk about your plans, not for yourself, but for the world.
The real lesson I learned from CUTC is that anyone can make a start-up work, all you need is a good idea, someone with expertise, and a constitution made of steel. Until then, I recommend faking it until you make it. It worked for Emily Saskatchewan. Her imaginary start-up is doing great.
*not my real name