Sting, Prince, Madonna…Shaharris?
Our Interview with HackerNest Founder, Philanthropist and Mononymous Tech Celebrity – Shaharris.
It’s 10:00 PM on a Monday, and despite my fashionably late arrival, the HackerNest Mississauga social is buzzing. Rumour has it, some HackerNest events have raged as late (or early) as 4:00 AM.
Greeted by a table of smiling strangers, an organizer holding a Sharpie requests my designation and prepares a name tag. Naively, I ask my new friends to speak to “the founder” and the entire table simultaneously points towards “Shaharris, in the yellow!”
Over the years, the HackerNest founder has become “kind of a big deal,” but in the most unpretentious way possible. Shaharris’ no bullshit, crowd pleasing meetups continue to make waves in international tech communities, uniting all walks of life.
It began January 2011 with a dozen nerds huddled around a six pack. Five years later, the non-profit has become a global movement, active in 30 cities, 14 countries and 5 continents…with a whole lot of nerds, gathered around a whole lot of beer. In fact, today, it’s the largest most prolific tech community in Canada.
But make no mistake, the intimate and chill atmosphere isn’t a coincidence. Handcrafted name tags are just one of the “hacks” organizers design to set the vibe and force attendees out of their introverted shells.
“We have 500 attendees at HackerNest Toronto, logically any event manager would tell you to print out the names and have guests pick up their tag as they enter the event,” explains Shaharris. “HackerNest organizers man the desk to write down your name, smile, give you a warm welcome and make you feel comfortable right away. It sets the tone for the rest of the evening.”
Looking around the energetic room of 100 plus attendees, the tone is definitely neighbourly. There’s no sign of an estranged loner hovering over pizza slices and tall cans, instead, small pods of eclectic groups are engaging in conversations about everything from artificial intelligence to deep sea fishing.
But if you’re hoping to host a chapter known as a “splinter cell” in your own hometown, get in line. Expansion has been skyrocketing over the past 3 years, resulting in a long wait list. For Shaharris, maintaining a high level of quality control is critical. The HackerNest team ensures that each candidate and their associates are thoroughly vetted before onboarding.
“You need to be doing it for the right reasons. When you become the central figure in your tech community, it’s very easy to get an inflated sense of importance,” says Shaharris. “I’m even guilty of being arrogant sometimes.”
And if selected, here’s the secret sauce for successfully running a splinter cell — be the antithesis of every other tech event. HackerNests have a “hard no policy” for long speeches, hidden agendas and pitch fests. Tired of the inauthentic ‘exchanging of the cards’ Shaharris wanted to develop something more meaningful.
“We define networking as looking around for people to impress, so you can use them down the road,” explains Shaharris. “At HackerNest, you don’t network, you meet new friends. It’s not about us, it’s not about our sponsors, it’s about getting to know your community, getting to know each other and building real, actual friendships.”
In addition to creating visceral connections, the grassroots movement has helped form countless startups through “hackathons.” Last year, Toronto hosted a DementiaHack where developers teamed up with patients, caregivers, researchers and health professionals to design products to improve the lives of dementia sufferers.
Building a happier and healthier world is HackerNests’ main purpose after-all. A life-threatening motorcycle accident inspired the whole idea. During recovery, Shaharris spent time carefully considering his path ahead. Although a philanthropic venture was always top of mind, years of servitude at a children’s HIV/AIDS orphanage had instilled some reservations about the emotional tax of frontline care. So, he opted to use technology as a means to organically grow a brighter future for struggling communities.
And as we look around the bustling room, things seem to be working out just as planned.
“HackerNest is my two mile away approach to helping people. I know if we build it right, it will take a life of its own and continue ever more.”
Toronto’s next HackerNest social is on July 26th, 2016, register here: http://techanddesign.ca/hackernest-toronto-july-tech-social/