Thursday, August 4, 2011

Field Trip to the Mothership

Well, it finally happened -- I've been promising myself a trip to Portland for a long time. It's been on my radar for many reasons: it has great live music, a micro-brewery scene bordering on religious fanaticism, and currently plays mecca for cycling culture, urban experimentalism, and more. I'd like to think it's Vancouver's cooler, laid-back older sister -- and a vision of what Vancouver could be if it were just a little more relaxed and a lot more affordable. But my main reason for visiting Portland was to tour the Free Geek Mothership -- the place where it all began.

Image courtesy of Jason McHuff; Some Rights Reserved

(I'm stifling the urge to write "Vancouver, Canada" whenever I mention Vancouver. That is because, of course, of the perplexing existence of Vancouver, Washington, just across the Columbia river from Portland. Whenever I mentioned Vancouver to a Portlander, they would grimace -- and when I added "Canada" they would grin and all would be well in the world again. So for the sake of clarity, plain Vancouver will be Canadian and Vancouver, Washington will be American and any complaints may be referred to Captain George Vancouver himself. Similarly, "Free Geek" means the Portland one. "Free Geek Vancouver" is ours.)

For anyone not familiar with the relationship between Free Geek Vancouver and Free Geek, here it is in a nutshell: Free Geek began in Portland in 2000; Free Geek Vancouver, registered in 2006, is one of many independently-run "offshoots" that follow the same philosophy and many of the same practices. Free Geek Vancouver happens to be the second-biggest operation, after Free Geek Portland -- a.k.a. The Mothership -- itself.

Free Geek is located a fair walk outside of Portland's downtown, on the East side of the Willamette River, in a gridded light industrial neighbourhood. To approach it from the modestly-sized storefront is to risk missing the biggest impression that I took back with me: it's huge. Free Geek has 15,000 square feet on one level, practically an entire city block, divided into numerous rooms interconnected by a maze of corridors and long workspaces. (Forgive me, but maze seems like an appropriate word to use for a guy who can get lost in a one-bedroom apartment.)

I met Richard, a rare combination of visionary and hard worker and one of the members who has been around since the beginning -- it seems strange to write, but that's more than a decade of Free Geek. Richard agreed on very short notice to give me a tour of the place, and graciously cleared his schedule; since I was arriving on a Saturday afternoon, that gave me only a couple of hours before they closed for the weekend.

The tour started at the reception area -- there are separate entrances for donations and the store, and a volunteer reception desk somewhere in the middle. I also met Jessa at the reception desk, who is the Outreach & Development coordinator. (And many others, who were also awesome and deserve mention -- but I forgot your names. This is what you get when a geek tries to play reporter.)

This leads to the second overarching impression I took away from Free Geek -- second to my intense jealousy over the amount of space they had to play with. It is this: they have 30 staff members! This means that most spaces in the building, and there are many, not only have someone to maintain continuity and keep things running smoothly throughout the week -- but they also have the space and mandate to think strategically and develop policy and practice.

They had staff dedicated to reception, receiving, dismantle, card testing, warehouse -- the list goes on -- even including an in-house software developer, the very young, talented and valuable Ryan. I would've liked to kidnap him for Free Geek Vancouver but the border folks seemed especially humourless on my trip down. They even had a staffed tech support area with phones manned throughout the day, providing support to adopters and even selling paid support when cases fell outside of their usual mandate.
Tech support

I couldn't help but think: imagine what Free Geek Vancouver could do with so much space and so many staff members. Free Geek in Portland shares a lot of the same challenges that we have -- the need to meet both educational and quality-control mandates; the diversity of equipment; the need to accommodate wheelchairs and various workspace heights; and the sheer flux in volume of equipment -- and their solutions are often simply unavailable to us given our current human and physical resources. Portland is a cheaper place to be, both for warehouse space and to live, and Free Geek has been able to grow into its current and formidably impressive self in part because of it.

Of course, there's more to it than that. If Free Geek Vancouver suddenly had a lot of warehouse space to burn and more full-time labour available, all the challenges wouldn't suddenly disappear. Free Geek in Portland has done a tremendous job in documenting all of the hundreds of tasks that take place under the capable hands of its volunteers and staff.

"Obey the flow chart" has become a mantra, and flow charts are the new wallpaper:
 These flow charts, while imposing at first glance, do a very good job of breaking tasks down for the newcomer who has no idea what the difference between a switch and a hub is, but nonetheless has to sort network gear into a few different boxes.

In the receiving area, they make great use of old parts to build clear signage:

Likewise, plugs and cables are clearly differentiated:
...with numbers corresponding to the bins that they should be placed into:
...and again, space restrictions haunt us here in Vancouver. If only we had enough wall space for all the bins!

Nonetheless, the endless varieties of oddball equipment do pile up, and those are left for staff members or more advanced volunteers.
Advanced dismantle
(What's that you say? Yes, that *is* an original Compaq Portable on the top right.)

Winding through the areas for build, card testing, and drive wipe, I spotted many of the same arrangements that we've worked out -- but on a larger scale, and more systematic. Free Geek in Portland doesn't test everything -- as I recall, network cards are pretty well trusted -- but they do a lot more testing than we do, and they do it in a more organized fashion.
Motherboard testing
Their warehouse operation differs from ours once again in scale, but also based on the external realities of the recycling business. They are required to recycle televisions as well, but are paid for them (and for CRT monitors) by the government. Likewise, they also have an area where they store machines donated by the city of Portland -- these fall under a specific agreement whereby they can't be re-sold and should be kept within Portland city limits.
Ready stock of built machines
And still the space goes on. Richard discusses future plans for the lab space, which is currently being rebuilt:
...and shows off the bike parking area...

...and points out the little portal to the rooftop beer-drinking area.
As the tour went on I got a little weary of the sensation of rounding yet another corner and finding yet another of our unrealized Free Geek Vancouver dreams in the flesh staring back at me. I hope Richard and crew took my frustrated spluttering for what it was -- an expression of envy for what they've managed to accomplish with the purest of grassroots philosophies: take what's available around you, grab some friends, and get something done.

Not all of it is sunshine and flatulent unicorns, though. Governance, as in any non-profit I've ever heard of, is always in a state of flux; they've had to deal with their share of internal problems, like theft, which has led to a staffed bag check and list of personae non grata. But if I had it here, I'd raise a growler of local brew to them folks: it's pretty inspiring to see. $1.2 million annual budget. 30 staff members. 15,000 square feet, not even including the spacious upstairs. Even a large truck with the Free Geek logo proudly screened on the side. And a tremendous, almost incomprehensible amount of throughput -- equipment sent back into the world when it would have otherwise been dumped.

Speaking of beer: after Free Geek closed down, Jessa and Richard and I adjourned to Hopworks to talk further turkey. I pulled a few notes out of the conversation that I think would be good for us to explore, especially with the upcoming AGM:

They want a larger board. They currently have 5-7 members but want 12; this would better allow the board to represent both active volunteers and still capture the various array of necessary superhero abilities, like legal, financial, and administrative. This might be good for us to adopt too.

They replace the board on a staggered basis, with each term running two years, and only half the board being replaced at a given time. This allows for better continuity and doesn't throw a new board into a sink-or-swim extravaganza every year.

They've had the same troubles with hoarding and competition amongst volunteers for good gear. They don't really have a solution to it, either. This was nice to hear just for once.

They're concerned about upcoming trends in mobile equipment. Desktop computers are less desirable -- people want laptops. However, with less laptop volume, less standardization of gear and thus more potential for competition and unfairness, and lower lifespan and serviceability, it's not clear that Free Geek's business model can simply make the leap over to laptops. Worse still is the trend in smartphones and tablets; these are still less serviceable.

Interesting times. The dot-com boom's zeitgeist had it that a single calendar year represented four "Internet years" -- and I suppose the Challenger-style rise and self-destruction of many dot-com business bore that out.

If that's the case, then Free Geek has thrived through an astounding four decades of Internet time -- and all of the changes in hardware, recycling, and Free Software that have come with it. Imagine trying to give away a Linux-based piece of diverted scrap metal in 2001 -- Linux simply had no traction outside of the nerd world, and the idea of using something other than Microsoft Office for business was considered ludicrous. (This from a guy who was stubbornly using WordPerfect at the time.)

And yet, here we are doing exactly that, depending on volunteer labour and donated hardware to pay the rent, and somehow thriving. Well done, everyone. Cheers -- and may I recommend the IPA?


  1. Curse you, Portland. Curse your Powell's Books, your bike lanes and tiny bicycles, your sensory deprivation tanks and your Trek in the Park. Curse your affordability and your live-and-let-live attitude.

    Curse your magnificent hide, Portland.

  2. Pah online community manager of Free Geek Toronto is envious of the space of FGT Portland and wish we could find a big enough warehouse to do all the things that Portland does.

  3. ...that sounds like a familiar story :)


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