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Fight for Your Right to Hack

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Courtesy Daniel Gies

Hacker Dojo

Imagine a tribe of hackers working in a room together testing their ideas and imaginations against each other. Such a place could be called only one thing: Hacker Dojo. 
 
It’s an establishment in Mountain View that’s facing the growing pains of its own success.  And members are now scrambling to raise a quarter of a million dollars to keep the city from shutting them down.
 
Just call Hacker Dojo and you get a sense of the place.
 
“To speak with an operator, please enter the first 200 digits of Pi,” says a computer-synthesized voice.
 
On a recent visit, I find Director of Development Katy Levinson unpacking boxes of T-shirts, mugs and shot glasses with the Hacker Dojo logo to help them raise money.
 
“Hey! Look what just came in,” she says by way of greeting.  “I can give you a real business card now like a grownup.”
 
All this attention to fundraising is a big change for a place that was supposed to be more like a high-tech Paris in the 1920's.
 
“It’s a great kind of community center to meet other people working on cool stuff,” says Ajay Kamat.  He and Himani Amoli are working on a service called Wedding Party that allows couples to create their own personalized app for their wedding.
 
“There’s free internet and free coffee and we’ve met some of our co-founders here, so it’s been an awesome ride for us,” says Kamat.
 
“We met a bunch of our close friends here,” adds Amoli.   “It’s just become a home for us. A second home.”
 
In the creative ferment of the Dojo -- with people working on their startup dreams and sharing their knowledge and expertise -- membership grew. Several months ago, Levinson says, the group decided to expand into adjoining spaces.
 
“Two nights before the party that was to celebrate the fact that we’d just doubled in size to become the largest hacker space, we got a visit from the city,” Levinson explains.   “They expressed some concerns about the way the building was kept up. And we were pretty surprised.”
 
When the founding members started the Dojo in 2009, they leased a building zoned for light industrial use as a shared hacker space. But by last winter they’d transformed it into a cultural hub with hack-a-thons, classes, meetups, job fairs and fundraisers, often attracting more than 150 people at a time. That’s when the city got involved.
 
The city’s chief building official Anthony Ghiossi says requirements change when the building use changes.
 
“Once you start having assembly events or training, you have more people that are unfamiliar with the building,” says Ghiossi.  “The code has specific requirements for the life safety features of the structure at that point.”
 
The Dojo has installed a fire alarm system. But members must also install fire exits and sprinklers and make bathrooms compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Until then, occupancy is limited to 49 people. A recent hack-a-thon had 75 people signed up, so not everybody could be there at the same time.
 
One of the projects threatened by the Dojo's space issues: development of an advanced programming language called Haskell.
 
“It’s used for a lot of things,” says organizer Mark Lentczner.  “A common usage is doing web programming tasks, web servers and the like. We have someone who is doing a music synthesis and composition program. I heard someone today say they were working on financial modeling.”
 
What makes Haskell different from other programming languages is nearly impossible to explain in just a few words without a strong grounding in software terminology.  But for those who know how to use it, it’s a powerful tool.
 
Which is why corporate and financial donors have stepped forward to help keep Hacker Dojo going. Venture Capital firm Andreesen Horowitz donated $20,000. Partner Margit Wennmachers says it was a no-brainer.
 
“The entire ethos in the Valley is to help and support young entrepreneurs as they’re trying to hack up wonderful things and experiment,” Wennmachers says.  ”And having places like that are so important to the fabric of the Valley, they need to be supported.”
 
Wennmachers says she hopes other tech titans follow her firm’s lead. The campaign still has about $130,000 left to raise.
 
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