Inside Eamon Leonard: Tracing The Roots Of Dublin Tech

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Eamon Leonard DublinGlobe.com

The Big Read, powered by Vodafone: Eamon Leonard is a founder, an advisor to startups, an angel investor, and a tech community organiser.

He sold his company, Orchestra (a Platform-as-a-Service), to Engine Yard Inc. in 2011. There, he held the roles of VP Engineering and VP Developer Relations until August 2014. Now independent once more, he is currently developing a number of new projects, amongst them a distillery.

In the first half of a wide-reaching conversation with Dublin Commissioner for Startups Niamh Bushnell, Eamon discusses the early years of the Dublin tech community.

PART ONE: ORIGINS…

Let’s go back to the roots of the community. Where did it all begin?
There wasn’t really a day one. In my view, whatever ecosystem we have right now in Dublin has its roots going back to IBM, Microsoft and Apple all having a footprint in Ireland. I would even say academia in Trinity, UCD, DCU, and the other universities around Ireland where computer science departments were chipping away for years at research and development. They all have had a role to play in the foundation of what exists now. I should mention from the outset that this is all based solely on my recollection of the time, and not necessarily an entirely accurate account – I’m sure there are people I’m not mentioning. This is just from my perspective.

And where did it begin for you? You had done a computer science degree, is that right?
Not even… I don’t have any qualifications. I have my Leaving Cert, and even then I had to repeat that. But you know, there’s different types of intelligence out there. I started working for myself in 2007, though I was a part of the tech industry in Ireland going back to the nineties. The real catalyst, I think, was the emergence of blogging platforms and Twitter. There were a lot of people here in the early 2000s, designers and developers, that would use blogs as a creative outlet, an outlet to communicate their intent, their ideas, educate other people, share their thoughts and opinions – and there was a lot of opinions. So a nascent community started to be formed around these blogs.

What years are we talking about here?
2003 to 2006. The emergence of Firefox as a browser started to spark the imagination of developers and designers around the world, and Ireland was no different. Anybody could create content, upload content, and you didn’t need millions of dollars to do it. The people who were the early adopters of these technologies would go on to be the new shoots of hope for a future tech industry in Ireland. Nobody realized that at the time. They were just doing what they were doing.

It was a lot of people with ideas, knocking together some stuff, putting it out there and seeing what stuck.

How many people were involved in that era?
It was small enough so everybody knew each other. If not in person, then certainly by name and reputation. And then the conversation shifted from being kind of fragmented across blogs to more singular conversations in one place – that being Twitter. I could be wrong but I think we were one of the first places in the world to have a Tweet-up.

So the first meet-up in Ireland, probably, for tech startups, was organized through Twitter? Cool!
I don’t even know if we would have put a label of tech startups on ourselves. It was a lot of people with ideas, knocking together some stuff, putting it out there and seeing what stuck. Maybe twenty people turned up.

Who were those twenty people and what were they doing?
I remember there was a guy called Marcus Mac Innes. Marcus has since left tech, and he’s working in a bricks and mortar business, he has a shop called Industry on Drury Street. It’s wonderful. Top guy, one of my favourite people in Dublin. I still see him a lot. Marcus had essentially created the Irish Flickr, I guess – a photo-sharing website, for the photography community called pix.ie. He had some funding for it, and I remember being seriously impressed that I knew somebody that had actually been funded. I had just started off as a developer and hadn’t a fuckin’ clue how to sell my skills or my talent. So meeting somebody who was a bit older and was a programmer but also was able to speak a bit of business and had been able to raise some funds, I was like, “This is great to be around somebody like this…”

Who else was there back then?
Eoghan McCabe and Paul Campbell and myself, we pooled our resources and found this shitty little office just off Bachelors’ Walk. We loved it. We had our own little tiny space and we were all freelancers. Paul is the founder of Tito, he was a freelancer and developer back then. Eoghan is now the CEO of Intercom. These two were twenty-three at the time. I was a jaded thirty year old who had just come out of a long period of nothing really happening in web. And hanging out with these two young fellas really just lit a fire under my ass. The energy they had, the flair for entrepreneurship, resonated deeply – I learned more from those two guys, who I’m proud to call some of my best friends, than I had in the previous decade of working in tech.

When you would talk to friends outside of this community about what you were doing…
What are you talking about? (laughs) I didn’t have any friends outside of this community. My world was limited to Dublin back then. I didn’t know anybody in tech outside of Ireland. I remember my mum and dad were constantly asking me if I could, you know, afford to pay the mortgage. They were worried that I didn’t have a degree to fall back on and that, maybe I should go get a sensible job. I think most developers have a horror story like that.

If I had met you back then and asked, “Okay, where do you want to go? And where do you want Dublin to go?” What would you have said?
I was somebody with lots of ideas and not enough manpower or capital to build those ideas. And Dublin was not a place to get the capital to do that. And I was jealous of the places that did.

And now we have 2,000 startups in Dublin alone.
Seriously?

There are over 2,000 startups in Dublin right now.
Holy shit.

We’re mapping them at the moment.
Fair play. There was an attempt, by the way, it should be noted, by Conor O’Neill. Conor had created a blog called Web2Ireland, he would keep track of Irish-relevant stuff in tech. And so that might mean people starting up or some Irish thing going on in the States, or anything that had an implication for the Irish community here – Conor would put it on the blog. So Conor and a few others were part of a drive to map the initial ecosystem on Crunchbase back in 2008-2009, sometime around then. They gave it a big push at the time where they were like, “Listen, guys, we need to get on the map”.

What were the other kind of lines in the sand? The moments that got us from there to where we are now?
Web Summit is absolutely a part of the story, without a doubt. I was at one of the first ones in Trinity College. It was in one of the bigger lecture halls, I remember the place was so jammers, people were sitting on stairs and steps. And even then they had an overflow room, where they were trying to stream in video of the talks. Matt Mullenweg (founder of WordPress) and Craig Newmark (founder of Craigslist) spoke. I was looking around the room going – the same thing as the Future of Web Apps event a few years before – “This is really great to see all this. These are all people in our community and are in our industry but I never see any of these people at any of the events that are going on. Why aren’t they more visible and active?” But still, it was good to see nonetheless.

NEXT: PUB STANDARDS, COHORT AND BEYOND…

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