First Light mike maney | storyteller + photographer

Every October for the past five years, I make a pilgrimage to Portland, Maine, for Redmonk’s Monktoberfest conference. Most years, I take the quick and easy hour and a half flight from PHL to PWM. Most years. A few years ago, my friend Matt and I drove up in my Tahoe, stopping into a number of small craft breweries as we traversed eight of the Eastern seaboard’s former colonies. This year, I wanted, no, needed to do the drive solo.

Seven hours in the driver’s seat with Google Maps and a bag of Haribo Gummi Bears as my co-pilots. Seven hours for some deep introspection. Seven hours alone to allow germinating ideas to rattle around my brain and see if they might form into something cohesive, something bigger than their molecular pieces. A seven hour journey to think about the art of storytelling and rethink how I could combine the literal and visual pieces of it to help organizations tell their’s better. Little did I realize how prescient this trip would be given the talks I was about to hear at the conference.

When you really think about it, pictures and words aren’t that different. We use both to grab attention. We use them to pull focus where we want it. We use them to entertain. when we use them best, they make people feel something.

An empty laundromat next door to my hotel room.

I set out to get into Portland late Tuesday night. I’d crash in a cheap hotel and wake up before dawn to, hopefully, get shots of the iconic Portland Head Light lighthouse. I ended up arriving in Portland a few minutes before the sun was set to dip under the horizontal line at the end of the Atlantic. I grabbed a few long exposures and headed to the hotel to grab some dinner and a few winks of sleep.

My pre-conference dinner on this trip was a cute little pizza place near my hotel in South Portland. From the outside, it looked like any town’s local pizza joint. As a matter of fact, it looked that way from the inside, too. That’s where the similarities ceased. The pizza was gourmet and the beer list and knowledge was on par with a craft beer bar. That they had one of my favorite canned pale ales -- Butternuts’ Pork Slap -- was foam on the pint.

After a short Pork Slap assisted slumber, I awoke to make the 10 minute, pre-dawn drive back to Portland Head Light. I arrived to join three other early rising photographers setting up to capture the sun’s first appearance over the Atlantic.

Once the sun crested the horizon, the good light was gone and I packed up my lenses to grab some breakfast. One of the advantages of doing what I do for a living is having a network of friends around the world who can point you to the best local places to see, hear and do things most tourists will miss. Such was the case in South Portland. My childhood friend, Erika, used to live here with her husband and daughter. She advised me not to miss a little out of the way place called Scratch Bakery. It was located in a quiet residential area littered in the morning with families at school bus stops and multitudes of backpack-laden kids riding bikes and scooters to school. I grabbed a double shot KLO caramel espresso accompanied by a ham and smoked cheddar scone. Scratch Bakery doesn’t have inside seating, but its on the street picnic table made a perfect perch for this traveling flaneur to witness dogs on leashes, an absence of cell phones and people actually connected to other humans through something other than bits and bytes.

Inside Scratch Bakery in South Portland and breakfast at the roadside picnic table.

After the scone and much needed java, I wandered up the coastline to Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse. It sits at the end of a rocky jetty on the grounds of Southern Maine Community College. I hopped across the rocks and grabbed a few shots (Spring Point Ledge is the only caisson-style lighthouse in the United States that people can walk to). I was the only one out there. To be honest, it got a bit eerie being that far out in the bay at the end of the jetty alone underneath the lighthouse. You don't see the waves on the calm harbor, but you can hear them lapping against the jetty at the bottom of the lighthouse. Like in a movie. A scary movie. A movie like Jaws or Friday the 13th.

Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse

After getting my fill of lighthouses, I drove the Tahoe into Portland’s historic district, parked it at the Hampton Inn and took off for a few hours of photo walking around the city.

Congress Square

The morning light was still decent, so I headed to the docks off Commercial Street. I worked my way down a back alley and stumbled upon an open warehouse bay. Inside were a couple of workers offloading the morning’s catch of lobsters. They invited me in. One of the workers told me they get about 200 cases of lobsters in a day. The showers of water raining down on them keep the circulation going. He tells me he’s been doing this for two decades.

On the way out of the alley alley I stopped at the 40 year old, family owned and operated Harbor Fish Market. It’s where I met Rudy, who’s been sorting lobsters here after moving north from the tropical climes of Key West two years ago. He seemed to enjoy teaching the tourists how to identify the differences between male and female lobsters. He encouraged them to hear him play guitar and trombone in the Americana band he was part of that plays at Andy’s Pub every Wednesday night. A couple of other people came up to take pictures with Rudy, but I think I was the only one who actually stopped to have an actual conversation with him. For me that's the best part about traveling. It’s not the images I get; it's the conversations I have with people I otherwise wouldn't.

I met up with my friend Aneel for lunch at Nosh Kitchen Bar, where he polished off a two story replica of a Big Mac and I poured my first ever Bissell Brothers down my throat. Yes, the hype you hear around this craft brewery is real and worthy.


Wednesday night rolled around and for me on this annual of annualest weekends, that meant one thing: the opening boat ride that kicks off Monktoberfest.

Casco Bay at dusk

The Wednesday night sunset cruise around Casco Bay is eye opening for first time conference attendees. The beer brought onto the boat is top notch barley and hops, but those of us who’ve been there before know it’s just a tease to what’s in store. I took in my second Bissell Brothers of the trip and enjoyed an amazing sunset and great conversation. The sun set, the boat docked back from whence it came and we all self formed into random groups headed to town for dinner.

Morning arrived -- okay, mid-morning arrived, Redmonk knows its community -- and we re-congregated at the Portland Public Library for Thursday’s talks. Breakfast featured donuts of both the gluten free and gluten full varieties.

Portland Public Library

Steve O’Grady kicked the day off as he does every year explaining what to expect for the Monktoberfest rookies. It’s not a normal conference. There’s no marketing, no booths. Just smart talks and an audience of 75 fellow brain sponges.

The Monktastic Stephen O'Grady

Bryan Cantrill, the CTO of Joyent, led the day with a thought provoking discussion about the role oral tradition in software engineering. It caused me to think about journey I made to get here and how critical the ability to tell stories is to innovation.

Why I love #Monktoberfest: @bcantrill makes the Illiad, Odyssey, and Hemmingway relevant to programming (all before noon). - ‏@drkellyannfitz

David Smith, the R community lead at Microsoft, talked about the intersection of commercial and open source software. He showed how the value of software lies in the ecosystem around it.

The tech industry is littered with the carcasses of solutions that failed to create communities around them.

Then he said something that struck me as all too relevant to today’s corporate PR strategies. He explained how their first blog started as his team writing everything and how it evolved into showcasing posts from the community. This is a strategy more startups should replicate.

Two hugely personal stories followed.

Rex Sorgatz reading from "Netflix and Ch- Ch- Chilly"

Cloudera’s Amy O’Connor told a touching and dark humor laden story about lessons the healthcare industry can learn from big data. To illustrate the story, she took us inside the timeline of the mountain biking accident that paralyzed her husband and the trials and successes of not giving up.

Getting even more personal stories than normal at #Monktoberfest this year. Drives home the importance of how tech can make lives better. - @piewords

Then, Kelly Stirman took us deep inside what it’s like to parent in the age of social media. He spoke about a troubling incident experienced by his child, the type of incident too many kids keep hidden and too many parents try to squelch from discussion.

As an industry, we talk a lot about community. We often forget that communities form around evil as well as good.

It was the kind of talk you don’t hear among friends and family, much less at a technology conference. I wish the entire tech industry was in the audience to hear Kelly and Amy’s talks. Both were vital talks that went beyond the code we all take for granted.

More insightful talks followed. You should check out the conference Twitter feed for the highlights.

Beyond the great speakers, one of the best things about Monktoberfest is the beer. Not just any beer, mind you. World class, one of a kind, no longer in production beer. Stephen O’Grady, the accidental creator of Monktoberfest, works with Ryan and Leigh from the bar Of Love and Regret in Baltimore to ensure attendees -- all of whom are beer snobs in their own right -- are shocked and awed by the beer that gets tapped at lunch and dinner.

I had to bail early on Friday morning to beat the end of week exodus commuter traffic. Not long after crossing the Maine-New Hampshire border I began to reflect on the talks and conversations I heard in Portland and the ideas that had been forming in my head during the earlier drive north.

If your company isn't telling a personal story -- a narrative about WHY you do what you do -- find it. Stories matter.

I’ve been to every Monktoberfest. This year’s felt different. The industry was different. The people in our industry seemed different. I sensed that we’re entering a new era. An era where the human element and impact of what we do is more important than the code that makes it possible. The sense that it’s no longer enough to build the next big thing, but, in so doing, to understand the larger stories that next big thing changes. I sensed an opportunity to help people and organizations tell their stories better by combining the power of the written and spoke word with the visual impact of photographs. It’s a service I’ll be exploring more fully over the next couple of weeks. Stay tuned to maneydigital.com.

Many of us come to Monktoberfest for the beer. We come for the conversations. But we stay for the stories.

Created By
Mike Maney

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