Liz Dunn started her career as a software developer at Microsoft two years after the company moved to Redmond, Wash. She remembers that it was a big deal — in terms of workplace amenities — to have free milk in the mailroom refrigerator, and that she could binge eat cereal in her office late at night.
But even in 1996, after eight years at Microsoft, she felt like the company was getting big, relatively speaking, and she regarded herself as more of a scrappy small-company person.
“I’d always wanted to do something with cities and buildings. I wasn’t sure what, and for a while I thought I wanted to be an architect,” said Dunn, our latest Geek of the Week. “But it turned out that my experience of leading product development teams made me better suited to be the developer.”
Originally from Canada, with an undergrad degree in computer science from the University of Waterloo, Dunn ditched her first career to eventually start Dunn & Hobbes, her own Seattle real estate development company. In 20 years she’s created such mix-use spaces as Melrose Market and Chophouse Row, as well as the coworking and cultural venue The Cloud Room, all in the city’s Capitol Hill neighborhood.
Dunn is also a guest lecturer on urban development at the University of Washington and she’s been consistently active over the years on civic issues that affect the trajectory of Seattle. Her vision for the city and urban spaces and what it means to be involved has evolved greatly over the years.
“There’s a conversation going on now amongst civic leaders, real estate and policy folks, about how to get tech workers out of their bubble and more connected to the culture and politics of the city. And by ‘culture’ I don’t mean just brew pubs,” Dunn said. “Right now I’m part of the citizen effort to eventually lid over the I-5 freeway where it cuts through the city, to create more green space and buildable land for affordable housing.
“Tech is having more and more of an impact on how we live our lives in the city, and what the future of cities looks like,” she added. “So it’s more important than ever that tech innovators are ‘living’ their cities on the ground, and getting involved in the design of their own cities, to help inform the future they’re trying to create.”
Learn more about this week’s Geek of the Week, Liz Dunn:
What do you do, and why do you do it? I like making places, and I like connecting people in ways that are meaningful for them. The Cloud Room lets me do both. We’re the only coworking space of any size in Seattle that’s not VC funded and not a chain, so we can’t throw money at conventional customer acquisition. We find our members by telling our story and by referral, and we pride ourselves on providing a work platform for deep-rooted local talent (e.g scholarships for all Stranger Genius winners). We also have a lot of members who are corporate employees but crave that alternative “touch down” space to make new connections, feel more creative, host clients or just get a change of scenery.
I really admire people who are brave and creative and willing to take risks. I’m proud of the fact that of the 35 or so retail and restaurant businesses that are tenants in my real estate projects, over half of those owners are women or people of color or both. That wasn’t an explicit goal; I just think it’s an affinity thing. It’s helped that I have earned a reputation over the years for being an approachable person – it has lead to some great opportunities.. Every single one of these businesses is locally owned, and they are doing AMAZING things. Like The Cloud Room, it’s about providing a platform for talented people to do good work.
What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? I like to say that being a real estate developer comes with a lot of responsibility, because you’re not just building a building, you’re creating a new piece of city. In other words, it’s about adding to the urban fabric, and you’d better be helping to weave together the other pieces of city around you.
Also, my projects have received a lot of attention for their design, and I think people categorize the stuff I do as “place-making” which is a trendy design term but one that doesn’t really tell the whole story. I do love creating attractive places and I do think design matters, but a place is only successful if it brings people together to interact in ways that are productive and inspiring for them. I feel so proud that we’ve hit that sweet spot with the Cloud Room.
Where do you find your inspiration? I’ve lived in cities like Toronto, London and Paris where the physical urban fabric, at least in the center, is very tightly woven. I have always been driven by wanting Seattle to be more like those places, with the missing teeth filled in and a more vibrant street life. And now that we’ve got more of that, ironically, I’m nostalgic for what we’ve lost; certain elements of the Seattle I moved to, which was the more laid back, quirky, soulful Seattle of “The Fabulous Baker Boys” and “Singles.” Back then Seattle was like a well-kept secret. The energy was there but also a certain self-deprecation because we were “small potatoes” as a city. We weren’t all shiny and self-confident like we are now. The Cloud Room is named after the original Cloud Room at the old Camlin Hotel, which was an amazing old-school, slightly shabby cocktail bar where entertainers from the Paramount would hang out after their shows and a couple of my friends were servers there. That reference is pretty much lost on anyone under 40, but that’s OK.
In some weird ways I feel like my career trajectory has been very much Seattle’s trajectory as a city. I’ll probably spend my whole career trying to figure out how a city grows up but doesn’t lose its soul. Or maybe we are all trying to do that!
What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? Generally, I have kind of a “take it or leave it” attitude toward technology as I believe that the truly creative part of business (and life) gets done face to face. But having said that, I completely nerd out on spreadsheets. Some people are really good at sports or can play the violin. I tell my friends that if they ever need a spreadsheet, it’s my super power.
What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? I work at The Cloud Room and I love the energy in the room. We uniquely occupy the seam where tech and creative meet, so we’ve got magazine editors, filmmakers and designers working side by side with tech and real estate entrepreneurs. Most days I camp out on the sofas or community farm table, but I like that I can find a quiet desk or even have meetings when I need to without having to leave. I’m also going to brag and say that we have the most diverse membership of any coworking space in Seattle if you look at it across all dimensions — social, race, age, gender. Oh, and we have one of Seattle’s best craft cocktail bars with an amazing outdoor deck to unwind at the end of the day. And a white grand piano in deference to the old Cloud Room.
Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) Pick your head up. Focused time is obviously important but you can’t sit in meetings all day, or hunched over your laptop. Distractions are not helpful, but breaks can do wonders for productivity — really! Grab a coffee and talk to a neighbor. Go get your hair cut or your feet massaged. We located The Cloud Room at Chophouse Row which is an urban “village within the village” with a bunch of restaurants and services and a park a block away.
Can we talk about dogs? Pat your dog. Walk your dog! I know it’s a cliché but I think it was a positive development when we started bringing our dogs to work. Research shows that people with dogs have lower stress levels and live longer. My company is named after my old (departed) dog; he was named after English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes. I now have a dog named Sir Francis Bacon who comes to work with me every day.
Also, when we worked from a smaller office we used to have a “disco moment” every day at 3 p.m. where everybody had to stand up and dance. It might be time to introduce that at the Cloud Room!
Mac, Windows or Linux? Windows. I’m very loyal.
Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? Kirk. He was a flawed human being but a great leader.
Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? Cloak of invisibility. I love walking around a huge city, being anonymous.
If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … I would try to invent a machine that you could hook up to your brain, and in 15 minutes it would produce the effect of sleeping for 8 hours. I always like to say that I’m funnier, smarter and way better looking when I’ve had enough sleep. But it’s often not possible to get it.
I once waited in line for … Voodoo Donuts in Portland. Season tickets for Seattle’s new hockey team (35 minutes of online torture, watching that little “wait” icon spin). Also I took my entire team to Beyonce and JayZ and can I just tell you, it’s not easy to get that number of seats together!
Your role models: I’m a huge fan of all my badass friends and Cloud Room members who are starting companies or trying out new ideas, and I learn new things from them every day. But I’ll give a specific shout-out to the folks at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation who continually study and tackle new problems. They’re always learning instead of assuming they know the answer. As a Canadian I’m also pretty proud of prime minister Justin Trudeau. He’s not perfect but he’s trying. These are examples of good human beings trying to solve hard human problems, in a time where we are desperately short of that kind of leadership.
Greatest game in history: Old school tabletop. Jigsaw puzzles. The original Cranium.
Best gadget ever: I spend a lot of time skiing in the winter, while trying to pretend I’m at work. Last season I got heated gloves so that when I’m on the chairlift, I can take them off, answer emails on my phone, and then put the gloves back and warm up my fingers before they freeze and fall off.
First computer: My high school had an ancient Hewlett Packard with a paper card reader and we would write programs in BASIC by filling in the little bubbles with a pencil. Then my dad brought home an Apple Lisa from work which was a whole new world — you could focus on debugging your code instead of whether you had put the little pencil marks in the wrong place.
Current phone: It’s an iPhone. I don’t know which one. I’m constantly smashing them or dropping them in the toilet accidentally, so I’m not allowed to have the most expensive one.
Favorite app: I can’t pick just one. Google Street View. IMBD. Wanderlist. I’m kind of obsessed with list making. Blok24 (full disclosure — I’m an investor and on the board).
Favorite cause: The BLOCK Project, an amazing solution to housing formerly homeless individuals and families in tiny economical backyard homes in supportive neighborhoods. It’s not a solution for every homeless person, but it will be an amazing solution for many. The Cloud Room has supported the effort from the beginning and is now raising money to put a Block home in one of our member’s backyards on Capitol Hill.
Most important technology of 2018: OK, this isn’t a new technology thing but I’m excited that the conversation took off this year about a couple of transformative future projects: getting a high speed train from Portland to Vancouver, and putting a lid over the freeway in Seattle. These are engineering feats that won’t be easy, but the impact will be incredible.
Most important technology of 2020: It seems like there’s a whole bunch of development activity around three- or four-wheel electric urban vehicles that are somewhere between a scooter and a car. I’m excited about getting something that won’t tip over, has a bubble to keep the rain off and a platform that’s big enough for my fat old dog to ride with me.
Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: Get out and volunteer on city issues. It will inform your work in all kinds of ways you can’t imagine.
Website: The Cloud Room
LinkedIn: Liz Dunn