Late Tuesday night in the dimly lit basement of Arlington's Rhodeside Grill, about 40 technologists drank beer and wrote furiously with big marker pens, some of them using pool tables as their desks, as they worked to invent a better cell phone.
This was not your average technology networking event, which was why most of these people were there.
Negar Moshiri rarely goes to business-related evening gatherings, because she has work to do building an interactive television technology for Hillcrest Communications in Rockville. But this meeting, put on by the Washington chapter of the Product Development and Management Association, offered something specific: a mini-course on innovation, taught by Georgetown University professor Jeneanne Rae. "It was intriguing," Moshiri said. "It's more brainstorming than mingling."
The event also had the attraction of being free (with no food served, and everyone on his own for drinks from the bar).
Long gone are the days when techies could party like fraternity kids at lavish events every night, from launch celebrations to no-reason-at-all get-togethers. Meetings in recent times have been more sober, and more sparsely attended. Most people have been busy saving their companies, and many of those who have gone out were looking for jobs.
Now, as the technology economy and social circuit begin to heat up again, events are becoming more frequent but more focused. Call it purposeful networking.
Many groups that once hosted networking events disappeared with the magazines or companies that sponsored them. The stalwart Northern Virginia Technology Council still draws some of the biggest crowds, finding particular success in awards events -- for chief financial officers, for companies with the hottest buzz, for whoever might merit a community cheer. The newer Potomac Officers Club has created a following with its menu of big-name headliner speakers, such as MCI chief executive Michael D. Capellas and Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. John Edwards.
Monika Blaumueller, vice president of the Washington chapter of the Product Development and Management Association (PDMA), and managing director of Blue-Mill in Washington, a business development consultancy, said she planned the mini-course in innovation to be cheap, fun and practical for her constituency. "You have to find the little dives," she said, referring to the basement location. Rhodeside Grill, which usually keeps that room closed on Tuesday nights in the summer, lent it for free in anticipation of making some money on drink orders. Blaumueller estimated she spent $15 on the event -- $8 for a blast e-mail service to urge members to come and $7 on fliers, printed in price-conscious black and white.
The evening's subject appealed to those who wanted something more than the typical speech, small talk and cheese table. "Time is the value now," said Joe V. Travez, president and founder of Technology Worx in Ashburn, which builds prototypes of a range of technologies. Travez wanted to meet other industrial designers who would be interested in innovation, and he wanted to hear Rae's presentation. "I love the energy," he said. "A lot of creative types are here."
Alden Hart, chief technology officer for investment bank Chessiecap in Bethesda, didn't want to sound mercenary but said he'll only go to a networking event if he thinks he can get something specific out of it, and he's usually traveling too much to go to such meetings anyway. On this evening, he was talent-scouting for developers who might work for companies Chessiecap advises. "There are certain things I need to get accomplished," he said. "It's better to go to the source."
And so they came, from dozens of different companies, to hear from Rae about how to innovate. Most weren't sure what to expect. After an hour of traditional chatting, Rae broke the group into smaller circles of five people each. They were given a task: Create a better cell phone using an exercise Rae teaches at Georgetown. It's based on the method of Russian engineer Genrich S. Altshuller, who analyzed more than 200,000 patents to find patterns in creativity. In her day job, Rae does such seminars for large corporations such as Danaher, Kodak and Amtrak.
Each group had an easel, a marker and the task of coming up with as many ideas as possible, then narrowing the list to the best of the bunch and presenting it to the whole group. The winner would get a prize from judge Mary Foltz, director of location solutions at Nextel in Reston.
The techies sat down, pulled out their cell phones for inspiration, and began to throw out ideas: a solar panel for easier recharging. A biometric reader to ensure security. Jewelry-size phones, like the ones in "Dick Tracy" comics. A phone that somehow mutes your voice so people at the next table can't overhear you. One that locks and unlocks your car. A phone that tests atmospheric conditions, for the weather, pollen count, pollution and the like. One that helps find you. Or one that makes sure nobody can find you.
"How about a digital treasure hunt?" asked Christian Loredo, product manager at Nextel. It would be a combination of a location tracker and a video game, played with other cell-phone users. "What if it helped you cook something?" continued Loredo. Things were getting a bit unrealistic, but that's the point of such free-flowing exercises.
One group settled on "The Linus," a security blanket phone that acts as a secure wallet and identification system. "I'm going to be watching Nextel on this," joked Jonathan Lehman, a product developer with Opus Plus in McLean. Lehman is a fan of these PDMA events for purposeful networking. After being laid off from UUNet, he found his current job through someone he met at one of the organization's meetings.
The next group presented a phone that politely explains why cell service has been dropped to both parties (so the person at the other end no longer wonders if there was a car accident or an intentional hang-up) and reconnects the conversation when service is available.
There were two winners of the Nextel prize, a cooler filled with pens and paper and drink holders. First prize went for a health phone that would help count calories, act as a pedometer and check alcohol levels. Travez, who presented for his group, said it even could wirelessly send information to doctors and spouses. The runner-up was Pet-connect, a dog collar phone that tracks pets and could be modified for toddlers and people under house arrest.
Hart seemed disappointed that his group's invention, a personal appliance that would be flatter and more flexible than a regular cell phone, was not chosen. Nonetheless, "it was an entertaining evening," he said. And he may have met some potential hires.
Shannon Henry writes about Washington's technology culture every other Thursday. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.