A computer guy once told me “tech geeks aren’t human and don’t let anybody tell you different.”

It’s not true. I’ve interviewed more than a dozen tech geeks recently and didn’t meet any androids. It’s true that their offices look different from earlier generations’ workplaces, with prominent Ping-Pong or Foosball tables to provide a break from long hours staring at computer screens. And the people I talked to are conspicuously intelligent.

But they’re also conspicuously human. Many of the young people I met are now parents themselves, whose own kids are the center of their lives. And though only one of them was born here, many of them love the town they now call home.

A Texan tubist and his techies

I arrive at the Maynard St. entrance to Barracuda Networks, a worldwide computer security and data storage company, just before 9 a.m. The door is locked, but a dude wearing a khaki duster and toting an empty cat carrier lets me in.

“In engineering land, this is the crack of dawn,” explains Rod Mathews, Barracuda’s general manager of storage and head of the Ann Arbor operation. “The first floor is support,” he says, waving at a huge room where dozens of people sit in front of multiple monitors and quietly work the phones. The second floor is even quieter. “It’ll be noisier in an hour,” says Mathews, a big man with a shaved head and a winning smile. “The sales guys tend to be louder.”

Barracuda has 1,300 people worldwide, and close to 300 of them work here. “This is our second-biggest office,” Mathews says. “The fact that there’s a tech community here definitely makes it more attractive.”

In the basement are tables, chairs, video games, a Ping-Pong table, vending machines, and a beer keg–plus a tightly sealed room containing a data storage center. “We’ve got petabytes and petabytes of active data,” says Mathews–a petabyte is a million gigabytes.

The folks coming to work look like a mix of geeks, goths, nerds, punks, and hipsters. Most are young, averaging around thirty, and 90 percent are male. “Women tend to stay longer and do a good job,” Mathews says, “but there’re not as many women in the job applicant flow.”

Why the games? “In the afternoons, there’s almost always somebody playing Ping-Pong and talking through a problem.” Why the beer? “We want people to be social in the office, so we keep a keg in the office, and in the afternoon have at it–as long as we have people who are responsible and are of age.”

Mathews grew up in Texas, then “went to Julliard in New York. I’m a musician. I play the tuba. That’s what I did when I got out of school, then I went to the other thing I loved: technology.”

Though he lives in California with his wife and two daughters, Mathews is in town at least half the month. He clearly digs it here and has big plans. “What we want to do is make Ann Arbor the flagship for the rest of our company,” he says.

A week later I’m back to meet five Barracuda folks while Mathews sits in. What’s it like working for Barracuda? “It’s a large extended family,” says Andy Blyler, who moved to Ann Arbor from Pennsylvania after Barracuda bought the start-up where he worked.

“College isn’t the most important thing,” says Evan Zacks, who lives in town with his wife and two kids. “What we’re looking for is how curious are they.” Blyler adds that one of his star performers just graduated from high school last year.

“It’s pretty fast-paced and there’s an expectation that you will adapt and change,” says Terry Branoff, who grew up behind Arborland and was working in California before he joined Barracuda. “That’s very challenging, but it’s a problem you want to have,” says Andy Jensen, who came from Seattle and lives in Dexter with his wife and three daughters. Jessica Haralson, originally from the Flint area, also lives in Dexter with her husband and two daughters.

None of the folks I talk to, even Mathews, will say how long they’ll be with Barracuda. “We like the team we’re building, the thing we’re building, and the direction we’re on,” says Mathews. “As long as Barracuda can be that for us, we’re in good shape. But if Barracuda stops being that, we have problems.”

Still, nobody has plans to leave, and everybody says they’re happy. “I guarantee you I wouldn’t put myself through what I’m putting myself through if I wasn’t happy,” says Mathews.

A skate punk and his homies

On Ashley just north of Huron, the entrance to Duo Security, a net security company, is as unprepossessing as Barracuda’s. With bare walls and ceilings, Duo’s inside is funkier than Barracuda’s but definitely tres post-industrial chic. There’s no Ping-Pong, but the coffee bar on the second floor has a sweeping view west.

Dug Song, Duo’s co-founder and CEO, is slim and wiry with a shaved head and an often quizzical smile. In 2007 Song and Trevor Staples led the campaign to build a skatepark in Ann Arbor. Though venture capitalists just invested $30 million in his company, Song looks like the skate punk he still is at heart.

Song, forty, enrolled in the Residential College at the U-M in 1993. “When I grew up I thought I’d be a philosophy major like my dad, who was a Buddhist monk.” For a living his dad ran a liquor store in Baltimore and had one of the first computerized checkout systems. “I’ve been programming since I was eight.

“Most of what I knew about Ann Arbor before I came here was through computer networks,” says Song. “I saw that Ann Arbor had the potential to do new things.”

Song worked for the university as a security administrator. “I did a company called Arbor Networks, started it back in 2000 with these guys out of university, that was a big success. I was with Barracuda briefly to help those guys prepare the IPO and decided I wanted to build a company that was in the middle, like Goldilocks”–not too big, but not too small.

“The problems we have in security today affect everybody,” Song says. “Used to be that only banks and hospitals needed security; they were the only ones who had anything to protect, all the money, all the data, all the risk. But today even your corner coffee shop has systems they have to protect.”

With Jon Oberheide, Song launched Duo in January 2010. Song says Duo’s growth has been “exponential. We’re doing three times, four times year-to-year growth. That’s when we started building the rest of the business.

“Learning is one of our cultural values in the company. How can we compete against huge companies? We’re not smarter. We don’t work harder. We’re not better looking. The advantage we have is we outlearn our competitors.”

Duo now has more than 100 folks working on Ashley. “My ultimate goal for the company is to build it here. Being next to maybe the major research university in the U.S. is good. But I love being in a town where people are trying to change the world. That’s in the water here.”

But neither the U-M nor the water is Song’s main reason to be here. “You can build a company anywhere. I’m here because it’s the best place in the world to raise kids. That’s the number-one thing. Where do I want my kids to grow up, what kind of experience do I want them to have?”

Song was crucial in the skatepark project, and he’s working on something equally audacious now–a new performance art space on Main St. [see sidebar]. He’s also got social ambitions.

“If we can marry our economic, housing, development plan to a cultural plan, then we’ve got something. I don’t want to be all Maoist, but seriously we need a vision for this city. We need folks who are willing to stand up and articulate what this place should be and what it should stand for. Ann Arbor’s still figuring out how we become a city.

“We need to figure out how we maintain transit hubs,” Song says. “We need affordable housing. We need diversity. People who have money are going to make more money, and the rest of us are screwed. You see it in places like Boulder where everything is expensive. Rich white people with Subarus–that’s all that can exist there.

“That’s not sustainable,” Song continues, his voice rising. “That’s not how serendipity and progress happens. Ann Arbor can’t grow in ways that only benefit the few. I’ve got a bunch of people here, and we need some place to eat, and it can’t be like high-end restaurants. It can’t be like this luxury food court downtown. Where’re the damn food trucks?”

He’s starting to sound more like a philosopher than a businessman or a skate punk. “The middle way,” he says with a smile. “Everything in moderation. Nothing in excess.”

Brian Kelly, Duo’s product marketing manager, was born in Virginia in 1981. He came here from Fort Wayne as Duo’s sixth employee. “My first week here,” he recalls, “I’m writing the press release for our $5 million raise from Google Ventures.”

Kelly says “Barracuda’s focused on things like data backup and spam filtering. We sell into a similar market but are wholly focused on one product. We have a subscription-based model. Instead of selling you a box you own for life, we collect money”– $3 a user a month or $36 a year.

“Our customer base is global,” he continues. “We now have an office in California, and we’ll have another office in Europe this year. We have three of the five top social networks in the U.S. Tumblr, Yelp, and Facebook use Duo internally.”

Despite the big playing field, Kelly says Duo has “a Midwest culture. One of our core values is ‘be kinder than necessary,’ helping people out and making sure if they need help to get their job done they get it. You’ll get called on being shitty to someone here.”

Kelly says the average age of a Duo worker is “just shy of thirty,” and 70 percent are men. The pay is “good. You can live a good lifestyle here in Ann Arbor.”

He and his family do. “We couldn’t be happier. I’ve got two small kids now, and it’s a very walkable neighborhood” near Slauson. “I live less than a mile from downtown and have a five-minute bicycle commute. Duo is definitely more than a forty-hours-a-week commitment, but I’m able still to get home and do dinner with my kids and put them to bed.

“Our intention is to grow the biggest company we can grow and keep it here,” Kelly concludes.” But much as he likes it, he says he might not always be with Duo. “I want to start a business of my own, something that is relevant to this community, that’s focused on Michigan. I’m here for good.”

An artist of online experience

Sally Carson, a petite woman with a big smile, apologizes for arriving a bit late at Mighty Good Coffee. Her bike had a flat, and she changed it. Dug Song suggested meeting Carson for three reasons: she has experience as a CEO; as a San Francisco transplant she has an outsider’s view of town, and she is a woman in a field dominated by men.

Carson, born in 1978, was an art major at Virginia Commonwealth when she landed an internship with a web design agency. “There weren’t formal programs in web design. It was very much self-taught, and everyone was a generalist. My specialization became what’s called user experience design, [which] represents what the customer actually needs when you’re building a product. It’s very much design imbued with empathy and an understanding.”

After graduating, Carson moved to California and consulted in Los Angeles and San Francisco. She moved here in 2011 when her husband started grad school at the U-M. Working remotely, she teamed up with engineer Eric Jennings.

“He’d been trying to create a smart sprinkler system for his veggie garden in Reno,” Carson explains. “He wanted to be able to check the soil moisture, check the web to see if it was gonna rain that night, and then water at the most efficient time. Eric became my partner, and we co-founded Pinoccio, an open-source tool kit that allows anybody to connect a physical object to the Internet wirelessly. It’s a computer the size of a matchbox you attach to a robot [so] you can drive that robot from another state.

“After we raised venture capital, the team got up to about ten people. And it’s still going, I’ve just left the company. We worked on it for about three years before I left.

“I left because they’re now headed in a pretty different direction that I’m actually really excited about. It’s the right direction, but it’s one where they don’t need high-level product design. It’s becoming a much more technical company.”

Carson enjoyed running her own company. “We pretty much built the all-star dream team. We had a couple people here in Ann Arbor, but we had people in Reno, St. Paul, Los Angeles, San Francisco. We had a small office space here and another one in Reno where we did order fulfillment. Other than that, it was just people working out of their home offices or cafes.

“We had decent sales,” she continues. “Pay was decent. You decide your own salary, but you have to be reasonable, and it has to be sustainable.

“The hours were insane, sixty, seventy, eighty a week. You wake up in the middle of the night, you’re thinking about it. You wake up first thing in the morning, you’re thinking about it. If you’re not totally obsessed with your company, maybe you’re not pursuing the right problem.”

After a while “decompressing, just bumming around town,” Carson went back to work for Dug Song. She’s now the product design manager at Duo Security.

So what it’s like to be a woman in the tech field? “It’s fairly rare,” she replies. “I’d like to change that. I feel like the best thing that I can do is just be a very visible leader in the tech industry. I’m personally invested in the careers of the young women that I’ve taught. I want to see them succeed.

“It’s really important to have diverse teams, not only in gender but in socioeconomic backgrounds, different ages,” she continues. “The tech industry is building products for the rest of humanity to use. If it’s not representative of the population that’s gonna be using those products, it’s not gonna be empathetic in the way that it needs to be.”

Carson describes the Ann Arbor tech community as “extremely well educated, which is really interesting. The cohort of technologists that I came up with were self-taught. Many of them did come from academia–fields like psychology, journalism, or creative writing. The community here is vast enough where you do feel you’re a part of a rich, robust community, but small enough where you feel like you can make an impact and you can get to know everybody.”

She and her husband live off Miller, and she gets downtown every day “usually [by] riding my bike. I love that it’s walkable. There’s a decent selection of restaurants. And I can work from anywhere I have an Internet connection.”

But that’s only for now. After her husband graduates in two years “we’re hoping to wind up back on the West Coast. He’s from Oregon.”

Like many tech folks, Carson describes herself as introverted. But a social goal drives her technical work: she says her ultimate career goal is “humanizing technology, making sure that it’s solving real human needs, real human problems.”

A Cultural Bank?

“When they were trying to build a new library, one point a lot of people got hung up on was that they wanted a 400-seat auditorium in there,” says Pete Baker, creative director of Duo Security. “Half the town was saying, ‘Why do you need this?’ The other half was saying, ‘We need five of these!'”

Baker and his boss, Duo CEO Dug Song, were in that second half. “I met Pete originally because he’s organizing all these events,” says Song. They were “group shows out at warehouses on Airport Blvd.,” Baker explains. “A lot of arts and music, video stuff. They were drawing five or six hundred people on any given night.”

Now Baker and Song want to create a permanent scene for those types of big arts events. Baker says they considered the old Maple Village Kmart, but decided “for this to really be successful as a cultural hub, it’s gotta be downtown. We stumbled across space in the Chase bank building” on Main. “Their [former] home mortgage brokerage office there is this cavernous space divided in thirds. The front third is a perfect visual arts space, and the back two-thirds is this easily constructible space for a stage [or] seating.

“Part of what’s so interesting about that space is that block is dead otherwise,” Baker adds. “After 4:30 there isn’t even anyone in those buildings. Surrounding the space, it’s entirely offices, then an alley with a parking garage behind it. It’s well shielded, so hopefully noise complaints wouldn’t be an issue.”

“The hope is that we establish a space in which we can inspire each other,” says Song, “a space to see things that change your thinking or expose you to different ideas.”

Song says there’s financial support for the project. “The real question is can we pull together enough folks in the community to help with the programming [and] the agenda? Can we build an organization around this? If we find the right executive director, someone who can lead this …”

“I don’t think either one of us has the capacity or the inclination” to run an arts space, Baker says. “We’re far more interested in making the things happen than running the organization. I don’t want a total top-down approach. I want the people who will be programming and attending and participating to be the driving force of what happens.”

What’s the timeline? “If it is gonna happen at the bank, I imagine the negotiating will take six months,” says Baker. “If we could have the first event there at the beginning of next year, I would be ecstatic.”

Duo Security CEO Dug Song emailed to say that the company isn’t quite as male-dominated as a statistic from product marketing manager Brian Kelly suggested (“Tech Town,” August). Kelly–who’s since moved on to become vice president of product at another software company, Nutshell–estimated that Duo’s workforce was 70 percent male.

“Duo is actually more than 40% women, though only 20% of our engineers are (which is sadly nearly double the industry average),” Song wrote. “We’ve worked really hard to achieve this, both through very targeted recruiting efforts to build a diverse pipeline, but also through flexible and supportive policies.”