Roy van de Water, Derek Neighbors, Jade Meskill, and Trish Gillam discuss the some of the Gangplank history, Gangplank Jr., and Gangplank Labs.
Jade Meskill: Hello. Welcome to another episode of the “Dangercast.” We’ll talk about the culture and design of Gangplank. I’m Jade Meskill.
Derek Neighbors: I’m Derek Neighbors.
Trish Gillam: I’m Trish Gillam.
Roy van de Water: And I’m Roy van de Water.
Jade: So today, we have some questions that a loyal listener has sent to us. And, we’re going to… We’re just going to answer those questions. Some of it is about the history of Gangplank and some of the reasons why we started this whole thing.
Derek: It’s like an inquiring minds want to know kind of thing.
Roy: So, the first question is “When was Gangplank started and by whom? Why did you feel that it was necessary to start off a Gangplank?”
Jade: Oh wait, wait, you’re asking too many questions.
Roy: This is the first question.
Derek: One at a time.
Jade: [laughs] We’re not very smart.
Roy: “When was Gangplank started and by whom?” Do you guys, Do you guys know the original creators of Gangplank?
Jade: I do, yeah, yeah. We stole the Gangplank from them.
Jade: [laughs] it was like Mad Max…
Jade: No, we started Gangplank in what about like formally in about 2008…
Roy: OK. Who as we?
Jade: Oh, that’s the next question…
Roy: No, that’s the first question actually…
Jade: …Oh, Derek and I are I guess through like the formal people who started Gangplank…but it’s really started by a group of people that we were connected to…
Derek: Yeah. I think…for those closer was Ward Andrews James Archer Josh Strebel…
Derek: [inaudible 01:28] Jade, myself and then the some of the original companies that we incubated which were basically [inaudible 01:39] Beau Frusetta Steve Swedler and Chase Granberry.
Roy: And, how long ago was this?
Jade: …by 2008.
Roy: 2008, so why did you guys feel it was necessary to start of with Gangplank?
Jade: So it really started from a desire to we had a consulting and development company, and we want to find more great people to work for us and work with us. That was really the original intent that we started out with…I think we realize very early on is that we were interested in solving problems that were much greater than just that.
We really want to be around excellent people that were doing all kinds of different things. They didn’t have to be working for us or work with our company in any direct way to perform. We really want to be around the best people in phoenix.
Derek: I mean I think we’re doing other things that were unusual for a company out of size at the time, we had a real both Jade and I’ve a real love for learning and exploring and creating. Internally, our company was doing a hack night every week, where we were working on projects that were outside of our normal work.
There’s just fun stuff to work on, or stuff we thought was interesting. All of our employees would give a brown bag every week, where they would talk about a new topic, or a new technique, or a new technology, something.
We already had some things that were happening that were, really easy for other people to gravitate towards, and I think we both have done a lot of work for the Free Software Foundation, so we’ve got very much like a culture of sharing and of openness, and like “Ideas want to be free.”
When people would stop by and say, “Hey, this looks really cool. Do you mind if I sit through the brown bag”?
I say “Yeah, sure. Awesome. That’d be great, in fact would you want to do one sometime? You know a whole lot about this topic, and we would love to learn from you.” I think that just started to build that community up.
Roy: How does that differ Gangplank from what most people think of as a coworking space? Because I think that’s what most people who don’t really know per se Gangplank has a co working space. I don’t know if that applies, but how is it different?
Jade: Our intention was never to rent people desks. We don’t have a business plan. We weren’t trying to make money off Gangplank. We were trying to solve other, more visceral needs that we had to be around interesting and creative people all the time.
Derek: That’s correct. I think originally Gangplank was doing a lot of…Gangplank entity…was doing some incubator activity, which I think did have some potential motives, to do some financial stuff, but I think all of the community stuff was really separate from that.
I think we transitioned fairly quickly away from incubation, and translated it into all community work. I think we changed from an LLC to a non profit, to represent that change as well. The two big ways we’re different is, number one, we’re vision based, and it’s all about a shared community. It’s not about a desk, so it’s not like “Here’s a space, and go ahead and do it.”
The second way that we’re radically different is, we’ve always taken more toward companies and teams, than individuals. So most coworking spaces tend to like really struggle with what happens if a company of four people comes in. They’re really more targeted forward freelancers, and why we totally love freelancers, and we have tons of them around. That’s not how we see the future economy working is a bunch of freelancers working for themselves by themselves.
We see the world as a bunch of small, talented teams working to change the world and buying into a very opinionated culture about how things should be done. I would say we’re very culture based and very non-transactional based.
Roy: If I’m a member of the Gangplank community, what kind of perks and benefits and offers do I get with that? What’s my signup package look like?
Jade: [laughs] It’s a good question. I think the perks that you get are you get to be around other really interesting, like minded people.
Derek: You’re going to change the world.
Roy: Get any coupons?
Jade: You have one free coupon to change the world.
Derek: We don’t have any paid membership. Membership itself is like this weird thing for us. We have people who are literally in the space more than once a week who feel like they are not members because they are waiting for the check marks, like “Where do I check the box to say that I’m a member”?
I think if you’re participating, you’re a member. There are people who consider themselves Gangplankers who maybe have never stepped into a physical Gangplank before. I think that’s another way that we are radically different than coworking spaces.
We’re really about community and about doing the work. A physical place is just a way to rally around that work, where a coworking space tends to be all about the space. Doing something outside of the space would seem foreign.
Jade: I’ve taken to saying that you can be a Gangplanker anywhere. As long as you believe the philosophy of Gangplank, that makes you a Gangplanker. A physical Gangplank location is just a manifestation of the Gangplank philosophy in a place and time.
Derek: Yeah. I think a good way to do this, and maybe we’ll do a podcast with this group. We have had a number of Gangplankers who have moved to other places. Whether that be Seattle, whether that be Portland, whether that be San Francisco. What tends to happen is one or two of them will move out.
The first thing they’ll say is, “Man, I can’t find anything that’s like a Gangplank. I’ve been to a bunch of coworking spaces, but it’s not the same.” Because what they’re saying they’re missing is not the physical place. They miss the people.
Portland is a great example where we’ve got about 10 or 15 ex Gangplankers. It’s not uncommon that they’ll meet up together to try to experience the fellowship of being Gangplankers, even though they don’t have a physical space. I think that that is really really different.
If I was just a coworking space and I dropped in, it’s like I could go to any other city and probably find another desk, pay my money for it, and we’re totally good to go. It feels fine because I never really deeply interact with people anyway. I’m just there for Internet, power, and a place to work and a conference room.
Jade: There are co workingspaces with strong culture. We’re not trying to…
Jade: I just think our culture is different.
Roy: More than ever before, the economic sustainability of a community is based on a workforce that is able to change, adapt, and acquire new skills. How does Gangplank and Gangplank Academy help in acquiring these new skills every week?
Jade: Gangplank is all about change, embracing uncertainty. It’s just build right into the culture. People who interact with Gangplank, people who drink the Kool Aid, I guess, they become part of…
Derek: Sorry, we’ve got a fly buzzing around the studio.
Jade: [laughs] It just flew right in my face, straight into my mouth.
Derek: It’s really harassing the person who happens to be speaking at any point.
Jade: [laughs] I don’t even know what I was saying. Let’s see.
Trish: Something about chaos.
Jade: Yeah. Really Gangplank is about embracing chaos, and that really is the future of the new workforces. We are entering very uncertain times that are unlike the last 50 years. It’s going to be highly critical for people to have the skills to be able to change and adapt.
I think just by participating in this very strange different culture already gives you a leg up that you are willing to be a part of that. I think we’re taking steps further where we’re very much obsessed with learning new things and obtaining different skills. Roy, you talked the other day, “I want to learn this thing. I have no idea what I’m going to use it for, but I just want to learn how to use a CNC machine or do these other things…”
Roy: In my case, it’s arc welding.
Jade: Yeah, arc welding. We want to give people opportunities to learn those skills, even though they don’t know how they’re going to apply it just yet in their life.
Derek: I think there’s a digital blue collar coming right? So, we’re seeing a ton of, I mean, this is no different than when we made a major shift a few hundred years ago from an agricultural society to an industrial society.
You had farmers that started to get displaced because, with modern machinery, what took hundred of farmers to produce, a single farmer could produce with high fangled machinery.
You had farmers starting to say, “OK, great! I don’t need to be a farmer anymore. There’s not a lot of economic viability for me. I need to branch out and do something else. Maybe I need to learn, can I transfer my skills to be an assembly worker at Ford? Can I you know, learn some other skills to move forward.”
I think we’re seeing that right now where you’re getting a lot of displacement when you have industrial manufacturing, really being able to be replaced by smart equipment, robots. Right? And you’ve got factory workers, you’ve got, certain things, even when you look at like, construction.
A lot of construction that happens now, the walls and the roofs and the trusses are all built in a plant somewhere they’re like manufactured and brought in on a truck, and you just need a few people to basically stand them up and put the nails in, to you know, put them together. You’re not talking raw construction like, I’m taking a 2 by 4 and do everything like step by step.
So what happens to people that maybe have some skills, right? But they don’t know how to translate those skills into meaningful work for the next century. So Gangplank tries to get people and tell them like, there is opportunity there, right?
It’s all about your mindset. If you have a mindset that I can learn new things, most of the stuff that’s out there in digital blue color isn’t all that difficult to learn. It just takes the ability to say, I’m capable in learning something new.
I think that’s what academy tries to do as it tries to do, basically it, no cost, no risk, other than your time, give you the confidence and the ability to try new things that you normally wouldn’t try and see if you can find out what’s the right thing you really want to pursue.
Jade: I think we refuse to put people on a box. So, we’re not teaching you how to be a dot net developer or a clay pot maker. You might be acquiring a lot of those skills to be able to do some of those things. But we’re not saying that you are defined by just that one particular skill.
Roy: So, you guys have been doing a lot of stuff with junior programs as well, right? Like first legal league and the junior journalism program, and DangerScouts. How has that been benefiting the kids that we’re attending these programs?
Jade: I think it has benefited the adult even more than the kids. Working with kids is an amazing, enchanting experience, you know? They’re just little learning machines. They soak up information so quick, they ask you really hard questions. Trying to teach them something helps you learn so much more about what is it that you’re teaching.
For us really, at least for me, my kids are the future, right? Everything I do for Gangplank is for them. To make a different, better future, possible for them. You know, some of the things that we’ve tried have been grand experiments, some have gone so great. Some have gone fantastically well but all of them, we learned a lot of things on how to work with kids, what kids need to work in the Gangplank environment.
You drop these kids into the Gangplank culture and they totally thrive. They come alive because there are, the boundaries are so few and far between that they have every opportunity to learn and experiment and really just be happy with all of the new awesome stuff that they’re able to try out.
Derek: Yeah, what it really is is trying to bend the way how we think about we teach kids. I think all the programming we do for junior, at least the majority of the programming within our, it tends to say like, whatever a normal school would do, don’t do it here. So if you’re not allowed to play with fire at school, let them play with fire here.
Derek: If you’re not allowed to have a sharp instrument, give them a sharp instrument. Right? If they’re not allowed to touch the keyboard, force them to touch the keyboard.
Whatever your school says to do, do the exact opposite of that in you’re doing in Gangplank junior. Some of the benefits that we’ve seen from this like, for me, the three experiences to me that just do it, for me, for Gangplank junior that says this is our future.
One is we had a, they do fall on summer break, out where we’re at, and that gets, basically a week or two off for the kids. It’s very difficult for parents sometime to find what they’re going to do with their kids.
So, we said, hey, why don’t we just have a day, a couple days where the kids can come in and we’ve got the LEGO robotics competition going on. We’ve got all the boards set up, we’ve got all the electronics. We’ve got art supplies. We’ve got all sorts of, just bring, bring your kids in to work, whatever and we’ll do something for them. Hahaha, let’s put a program together.
Well, the program consists of all the kids here, all the stuffs you’re allowed you know, that’s here, you can do whatever you want with it. Let us know when it’s lunch time and we had kids from eighth grade down to probably four years old.
What was amazing to me is, nobody told them what to do, they just said like here’s a podcast, here’s a video recorder, here’s robot. Five days straight, eight hours a day, they totally figured that out, never came and ask for help. But what was amazing was you had eighth grader making sure that the fifth grader was included, or the five year old was included.
You had the, third grader helping the forth grader learn some topic they hadn’t learn yet. Right? It’s just like this total organic, raw learning and exchanging information.
Jade: The kids were teaching each other Geometry and computer programming and all kinds of stuff without any adult back there telling them what to do.
Derek: Yeah, it was just crazy, and like their diverse interests, right? Like, I mean.
Roy: Just because like, they just felt like teaching each other Geometry? Or?
Derek: Well, no.
Jade: They were playing with robots and trying to make the robot do certain thing, and they had to understand ingles to get there.
Derek: Right, so like, I want the robot to turn and I’ve need the, to turn the radius, to turn that. And so, like, I don’t know, I’m twelve and you’re nine, how do I explain radius to you. I can’t use the word radius, so I get on a board and I start to draw a circle and I start to, so I’m teaching somebody Geometry but all I’m trying to teach them is this is what you do to make the wheel turn so that the robot turns, right?
Jade: Uh hmm.
Derek: And it’s awesome to see that kind of stuff. Another one that I think it’s just totally awesome is during robotic competition. One of the things we had with all of our instructors for robotics, we basically said “You’re never allowed to solve a problem for a student and you’re never allowed to touch a keyboard.” Those are the two rules.
Everything, there are so many times these kids are doing something wrong. Like, oh my God, you’re solving this in the most stupid way ever. I totally want to tell you how to solve this because it’s, and so we drop hints like, “Man, do you think that’s going to be reliable?” OK let it fail much.
What was great, they go into a competition, they end up having a challenge that fails where they did like 6 things all in 1 run. So, they program the robot, it does six things before it comes back. The forth thing in fails.
The robot comes back, they’re almost out of time, they’re ready to go, and they want to get the points for that thing. You see the two kids start to argue with each other and all of us were like, “What are you doing? What are you doing? Do something!” They put the robot down. They run one of the other programs it wasn’t designed to do and they go and get their points.
They totally because they understood the point values, they understood how the robot worked, they understood the programs they totally improvised in the face of complete failure.
Nobody else at the competition saw that but us as coaches were like “Holy shit! They did it! They did it! They’re thinking for themselves. They’re solving problems on the fly, under pressure with a clock going down on them.” That was huge.
In the last one, obviously I’m very passionate about Junior and what’s going on here. The last one is, I had my son come in for an entire summer and said, “here’s a list of stuff that you need to learn. Nobody’s going to tell you how to do it. You can ask for help. There are plenty of people in this space that will teach you how to do it.”
He did that. He did program Minecraft with Python on a raspberry pie. He created music videos. He learned songs.
Jade: He learned WordPress and HTML.
Derek: He learned WordPress, HTML, went through all the code academy. All this stuff isn’t what was impressive to me. What was impressive to me was at the end he said, “Dad, do I have to go back to school?” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “I come here and I learn so much more and I have so much more fun. Can I just go to school at Gangplank?”
That just told me how…I mean, my son does really well in school. He gets straight A’s. All his teachers love him. It’s not like, “I’m having problems in school and I want to avoid school.” It was literally, “I learn here and I want to learn here. Why can’t I do this more often?”
I think that we’re hurting our future generations by not letting them be who they are. Not letting them learn the way they’re capable of learning.
Roy: You guys have this concept called Innovation Labs, right?
Jade: Gangplank Labs.
Roy: Gangplank Labs, OK. What are some of the most innovative projects that have come out of GangPlank Labs?
Jade: Some of the most fun ones have been solving real problems. Gangplank has a very limited number of toilets.
Roy: That number is one.
Trish: For the males only.
Jade: We have a large male population. We had a serious problem in that it’s a pain in the butt to get up…
Jade: …yes, you’re already feeling a little urgency. You’ve got to get up walk all the way down to the hallway, go to the bathroom, walk in the door, realize that, “Nope. Everything’s full.” Walk out the door, stand in the hall looking like an idiot sometimes for ten or fifteen minutes.
Derek: Words with Friends is your worst enemy when you only have one toilet.
Jade: That’s right. So we created a really awesome system to show people whether the bathroom was occupied or not. It involved all this, we had a bunch of Arduinos. We had a bunch of wireless stuff. We ran to Wal Mart and bought all these crazy parts because we were trying to figure out how could we easily detect if the stall door is open or closed.
We ended up building a really awesome system that would light up a light out in the main space if the bathroom was full or occupied. It would turn off the light. We also have a urinal in the men’s room too, so it could detect if you were standing at the urinal or not. So we had a number one and number two sign that would light up. It provided a lot of really great information.
We had a ton of other people in co working spaces wanting to buy the system from us because they were all suffering from the same exact problem. That was bringing together a ton of different things: open source, a ton of different programming skills, hardware, sensors, and really fascinating stuff just to solve our bathroom problem that we got really frustrated with.
We open sourced all the code and all that stuff.
Derek: There’s been some good stuff coming through. There’s a guy that does a bunch of these battle bots for kids that are really cool. We had a guy coming through recently basically doing a guitar effects pedal that fits in the sole of your shoe. So if you’re a musician, you basically just drop this thing in your shoe and you have a full guitar effects pedal everywhere you go.
Almost like the flip flops that have the beer opener in them, only for a musician you have a nice built in effects pedal.
Roy: I’d add a beer opener too.
Jade: That was really cool because they were working with people who knew about the 3D printers, people who knew about audio modeling, they were applying these complex algorithms to the sound that was coming in. They were testing it out with a bunch of different people. They pulled in musicians to try out their stuff and play around with it.
That was a really cool cross section of a lot of different people at Gangplank.
Roy: Lastly, how difficult was it to scale up Gangplank from just a coworking space to a place where you not only space but also vision?
Jade: Gangplank never started out as a coworking space. I think very early on we created the manifesto. We realized we had a whole lot of vision for what we wanted that maybe wasn’t expressed in a way that was consumable for other people.
It helped very early on to put our values down and say, “These are the things that make Gangplank, Gangplank,” even though they might be hard to understand sometimes or lacking some context for people who weren’t there. Those are the things that keep Gangplank honest with itself.
Derek: I’d say scaling the original location was easy because we’re just us. We just let the values organically come from the people who were in the space and what was happening in the space. I think we talk about spreading Gangplank to other spaces, that became a little harder.
We can’t transfer us, we can’t transfer the values everywhere. Those are the kinds of things we’re dealing with now.
We’ve got this really strong culture, how do we get to the point where we can pick that up and basically put it down somewhere else, and let it flourish, and then let someone else pick it up from there, and let it flourish.
Those are the problems we’re currently dealing with. We keep going back to it’s really about having a strong culture and if that happens, good stuff happens. When we start new Gangplanks it’s all about getting the right people seated at the beginning that understand the culture and are permeators or carriers of that culture. When that happens we get really phenomenal results.
Roy: Cool. That’s all my questions.
Jade: All right. Thanks for listening to the Danger Cast. We’ll talk to you later.