May 21, 2018
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Technology-and-beer conference becomes vibrant brew in Portland

By Whit Richardson, BDN Staff

PORTLAND, Maine — For two days this week, software developers from throughout the country, and even Europe, came to Portland to discuss technology, open-source software, cloud computing … and beer.

Monktoberfest is a unique conference, focusing on technology with a healthy predisposition toward Maine’s offerings of craft beer. It’s the brainchild of Stephen O’Grady, a New Jersey native who moved to Portland about four years ago. His job as a technology analyst means he could live anywhere, but he chose Portland.

“It’s a great place to live and a great place to work,” O’Grady said. “It’s not hard for me to organize a conference here because I know once people get here, they’ll have a good time.”

O’Grady is co-founder of RedMonk, a 10-year-old technology industry analyst firm that focuses on software developers. It counts companies like Microsoft, Adobe, Dell, Juniper Systems and Cisco Systems among its clients.

The idea behind Monktoberfest actually started as a joke, O’Grady said. “On Twitter, I said something like, ‘I should combine my love of craft beer and technology into a conference … hahaha,’” he remembers, “and a bunch of people were like, ‘I’m in.’”

After more people chimed in with encouragement, O’Grady said he had enough interest “to at least kick the tires and see what happens.”

O’Grady wanted a relaxed, non-stuffy, non-suit-and-tie conference focused on the developer, “but I also felt very strongly that it should be run here in Portland,” he said. “One of the things you find when you travel a lot, as I do, is that people’s visions or impressions of what Maine is vary pretty widely, and a lot of them don’t see it as anything other than a vacation destination. So it’s nice to bring people into this city for this event and really show it off.”

The first Monktoberfest was such a success last year in Portland that they did it again.

This year’s speakers included representatives from Etsy, RedHat, Citrix Systems and Black Duck Software. The conference took place in the basement of the Portland Public Library.

The crowd is a diverse mix of technology industry folks, from all throughout the country — “a ton from California,” O’Grady said — and even Europe. “We tend to draw a pretty diverse crowd,” he said.

Monktoberfest was enough of a success that not only did RedMonk plan this year’s sequel, but the company also has started a similar beer-and-technology-focused conference in London, where one of O’Grady’s partners is based. In keeping with the clever names, the London event is called Monkigras.

The conference’s theme is injected with O’Grady’s love of craft beer. Allagash beer with lunch? Check. A beer-and-dinner hosted by the former owners of The Lion’s Pride, a craft beer bar in Brunswick? Check. A personalized video from Sam Calagione, the founder of Dogfish Head Brewery? Check.

“You have the people who like their beer, and the beer is getting better and better and more sophisticated,” O’Grady said. “Like I said, you put those two things together, and it seems to be an OK combination so far.”

O’Grady was able to involve local breweries in the conference like Allagash, based in Portland, and Oxbow Brewery in Newcastle. “You can use the local businesses to draw people in from all over the world to an event here,” he said. “It’s been great.”

The response he’s heard from attendees has all been positive.

“I think Portland is awesome,” said Joe Hildebrand, a Denver-based software developer who works for a major software firm he didn’t want to name because he came to Monktoberfest on his own time.

Hildebrand enjoyed walking around the city and visiting some of the bars and restaurants. “It’s fantastic to visit,” he said, adding that it’s a more appealing location for a business trip than Silicon Valley or Las Vegas. “It’s more real than any other place we go to conferences.”

Joe Brockmeier, an open source cloud computing evangelist for Citrix Systems, flew in from St. Louis for the conference.

Brockmeier said the open-source software community has a long history of having conferences in cities wherever the organizer lives, so traveling to Portland for a conference wasn’t hard to believe. “It doesn’t seem unusual … until you’re booking hotels and start finding out that none of my preferred hotels are there,” he said.

Any time you can bring close to 100 people to Portland for a multiple-day conference, it’s bound to have an economic impact, even if it’s a small one. “I think it really benefits the local economy because you have a hundred people dropping several thousand dollars on hotel and food, and I’m sure Stephen puts a lot of money into the local economy buying food and catering and all that,” Brockmeier said. “It’s not like having the World Series here, but it’s good.”

There could be other intangible benefits, as well, Hildebrand said. Several conference attendees were from Portland, but actually hadn’t met each other, he said. But once those relationships form, and you get three or four small software development firms in an area, he said they start benefiting from their proximity by sharing independent contractors or resources and swapping employees and ideas.

It’s the classic cluster idea, which Hildebrand said could happen in Portland judging by what he saw at Monktoberfest. “It can be an engine for interesting economic growth,” Hildebrand said.

Given the success of Monktoberfest during the past two years, O’Grady said it’s likely RedMonk will bring it back to Portland for its third year.

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