In the Upper Valley, tech firms bust tech stereotypes

You know who tech workers are.... They're young. They're sci-fi/fantasy fanatics. When they're not talking sci fi, they're extolling craft beers. They're loner nerds. They're entitled and selfish. And this very moment they're poised to flame me for everything you just read.

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So what do you do with Karen Minarik then? She spent the first part of her career in New York's magazine world working for Conde Nast, the publishers of Vogue, Glamour, and The New Yorker. Then she was a preschool teacher. Now, with one son about to go to college and another a freshman in high school, she's an account manager at Appcast, the Lebanon startup that's aiming to reinvent how people get hired.

Or Nigel Leeming, her colleague. If you've ever been to Murphy's in Hanover, you've probably seen him -- he owns it. He heads up the operational work that helps Appcast stay in business: buildings and facilities, tech systems, wifi networks -- all the infrastructure his colleagues depend on. It's not that different, he'll argue, from what he does at Murphy's. "If you look at restaurants, most of the time we’re figuring stuff out in real time: issues and logistics," he says. "Here it’s the same: We’re figuring stuff out to help us grow, and it can change on a dime."

Or Alison Bowen. She grew up in Claremont. Appcast isn't quite her first job out of college--she painted houses for a couple of years before that. Now, at the ripe age of 29, she's the company's director of customer success, running a team that does exactly what it sounds like. At night, she goes home to a log cabin in Cornish, with a couple of acres surrounding it. "I come into the office, and my mind gets to work and expand," she says. "Then I get to go home and go outside and cut wood, mow the lawn, and garden. That's a great balance."

Alison Bowen at Appcast

Or what the heck, let's do one more. Annie Pullen grew up in Plainfield but now lives in Boston, working as one of Appcast's marketing managers. She's young and urban... and also an enthusiastic member of Appcast's community service team, helping decide which organizations and causes Appcast will support. "It's a way to express things that are important to you," she says. "It's a great outlet for people to get involved in the community--and for me to stay connected to the Upper Valley, where most of our community service efforts are. It's super-important to me."

The point is, forget your mass-media preconceptions about the tech world. In the Upper Valley, tech workers do not look like Silicon Valley or Brooklyn. They look like the Upper Valley.

There's a reason for this. "The Upper Valley used to be retail, the college, and the hospital," Leeming says. "Now there are 100-plus high-tech businesses. They're starting here because the owners and principals like the lifestyle -- and airports and laptops have made it less important to be in places like Boston. They want their lifestyle, and they want that lifestyle for their employees."

Down in North Carolina, he points out, they designed the Research Triangle to be a tech hub. "Here, it’s happening quietly because talent wants to be here and talent will do what it has to to be here." Which means that the Upper Valley's tech world adapts to--in fact, revels in--the region, not the other way around.

Nigel Leeming at his day job.

Sure, you can find the usual tropes at Appcast: a generously stocked snack area, a foosball table, a quirky habit or two -- like "Pushup Fridays," borrowed from Lebanon's Global Rescue, where one of Appcast's employees used to work, which has the staff dropping to the ground once an hour on Fridays and reeling off a set of pushups. And because local firms like Appcast are still part of the larger tech world and can't compete with the big companies on things like salary, they also provide some serious perks: in Appcast's case, the company sets up "pop-up" offices elsewhere twice a year, once in some other city in the US, and once in another country.

But there is no question that the company's values spring from being right here. Chris Forman, Appcast's founder and CEO, uses a wine-growing metaphor to make the point. "Our culture, and who we are as a company, are a function of where we came from," he says. "It's terroir, it's the earth here." 

Karen Minarik

That culture shows up in a variety of ways, including how the company fits into the community around it. "Harry Chapin used to play one concert for himself and one for 'the other guy,'" says Forman. "Every other concert he gave all the proceeds away. One thing we believe strongly is that we’re really, really lucky, and part of having a business if you are successful is that it allows you to help others. We have a structured percentage of our total revenue that’s given away every year."

Though Appcast provides good benefits and salaries, its treat-people-decently culture goes beyond money. Forman believes in what he calls "the mowed-lawn phenomenon." On summer Fridays, he says, "my greatest joy is to go home, grab a beer, and mow the lawn. In this world where you never get anything done, I get that done. Culturally here, we try to give people as much responsibility as we can, because when you can sit back on a regular basis and look at the lawn you just mowed, that's one of the most fulfilling and rewarding things you can do professionally."

What may be most striking, though, is how hard local tech firms work to preserve a friends-and-family feel, even as they're growing. "When I look at the jobs my [Boston] friends have, in a lot of ways they are missing the small-town feel," says Annie Pullen, the Appcast marketer based in Boston. "A lot of the bigger tech employers, their values are different, which I definitely see from the outside perspective of living in Boston but being part of this work community based in New Hampshire."

"Maybe it's the people we hire," says Karen Minarik. "They’re just not...." She pauses. "Assholes." And goes on: "Some of my best friends are here. And they’re 20 years younger than me."

As Appcast has grown from a handful of employees to over 100, it's gotten harder to maintain that feel, but it tries. "Chris is huge about making sure the culture of the company is always strong," Alison Bowen says. They eat lunch together once a week, pull group skating expeditions together, head out to go sledding. Even with offices in Lebanon, Boston, New Brunswick, and Belarus, the company's workers try hard to keep its homey feel alive. "If you just punch in and out, you don't talk to everyone," says Bowen. "So we try proactively to create time to bond with each other. Now that we have a bunch of different offices, we still try to figure out ways of getting together and maintaining the culture that's existed since we started."

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This was written by Rob Gurwitt for Story Kitchen Creative, which created the Tech Valley blog. It is published under the auspices of the Lebanon Chamber of Commerce and paid for by the City of Lebanon.

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