An Irishman's Diary


I ATTENDED part of that F.ounders conference – “Davos for Geeks” – in Dublin over the weekend, and I have to say it pulled out all the stops. Or most of them. In fact, strictly speaking, the stops were one of the few things the organisers didn’t pull.

As you’ll know, the expression comes from organ playing. And although Christchurch Cathedral was one of the dinner venues, I’m told the pipe organ was not deployed during the musical entertainment. The hosts did, however, pull out all the pews for the night. Which was arguably even more impressive.

It may have been significant that some of the invitation-only guests (most of whom are creators of new-technology companies) had benefited from a thing called “angel investment”. This does not imply supernatural involvement. Such investors are usually just wealthy individuals giving smart young people a start.

Even so, religion was a running theme in the choice of venues. Guests also dined in the former chapel of the Royal Hospital Kilmainham. So yea, though they walk in the shadow of the valley of silicon, no evil shall these young entrepreneurs fear, at least while they’re in Ireland.

Another theme of the conference – what were the chances in Dublin? – was alcohol. But then, funnily enough, Silicon Valley is said to be one of the places still holding out against America’s new puritanism regarding drinking.

Elsewhere in the US, to order a glass of wine with lunch now is to risk your friends and family organising an intervention to tackle your problem. Whereas in places where techies assemble, the era of Mad Men, when a drinks cabinet was standard office furniture, has not entirely passed.

In any case, the F.ounders conference also involved a literary pub crawl, as well as the inevitable visit to Guinness’s. And part of the backdrop to a programme of events in Powerscourt House on Saturday was an all-day whiskey-tasting stand, which was well attended.

I WAS in Powerscourt because, in a slightly bizarre turn of events, I had to chair one of the panel discussions. It was not a geeky discussion, I hasten to add. On the contrary, the subject was a simple one: storytelling.

This being Ireland, F.ounders founder Patrick Cosgrave had decided there should be writers involved somewhere. So the Arts Council had assembled three of Ireland’s most successful literary start-ups – Colum McCann, John Boyne and Paul Murray, who together now employ hundreds of characters, some of them highly skilled – as an industry showcase.

I just had to ask the trio, and film maker Barry Sonnenfeld, enough questions to keep them talking for 25 minutes. It would have been a bigger challenge to stop them talking that long. And yet, the more I learned about F.ounders beforehand, the less qualified I felt to be doing anything there.

I’m not a card-carrying technophobe. But I am someone who, whenever he has to ring the IT people with a problem, needs to anticipate their possible questions and to practice answers beforehand so that I won’t be out of my depth within the first 20 seconds of the conversation.

And it’s not just that many of the F.ounders audience were super-geeks with very high IQs. Some were horribly young as well. Cosgrave himself is, sickeningly, still only 29. And that’s not the worst. The worst was a guy called Sujay Tyle.

Yes he sounds like a flooring warehouse on the Longmile Road. But in fact he’s a prodigy, who went to Harvard at 15, dropped out at 17 with a $100,000 scholarship to set up his own firm, and now, at 19, looks like the next Steve Jobs.

So intimidating did these people seem on paper that, the night before the panel discussion, I infiltrated their tour of another Dublin attraction, Kilmainham Gaol, seeking reassurance.

It worked. Not only did they all appear human and empathetic, I also sensed that the guided tours of the jail, necessarily condensed for the occasion, presented more information about Irish history than even their enormous brains could process.

Had I been the guide, I would have peppered my spiel with occasional techie phrases, perhaps explaining Irish nationalist history as a series of unsuccessful start-ups culminating in 1916, which went viral and ultimately delivered the Republic, although not as outlined in Padraig Pearse’s mission statement, and with certain user interface issues that are still being worked out.

Still, the jail trip served its purpose and the panel discussion went well. My interviewees were entertaining. The audience laughed at the right times.

And I only embarrassed myself once (that I noticed), when asking the organisers out loud “How are we doing for time?” This was the cue for all four panellists simultaneously to point out the large monitor, it was bigger than my living room television, on the floor beside me, showing a digital count-down of the six minutes remaining.

It wasn’t all talking at Powerscourt, by the way. Guests were also given a crash course in another Irish speciality, hurling, courtesy of Wexford All-Ireland winner George O’Connor.

This led to an impromptu game, into which the visitors threw themselves so enthusiastically that, watching it, I worried about the effects of collisions between hurleys and geek brain matter. None of the players had helmets, after all. But happily there were no accidents. The angel investment probably helped.

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