If you've gone to any tech events around Tampa Bay in the last few years, you've undoubtedly seen him around—Joey deVilla is a unique figure in the tech scene. Not only does he have a terrific sense of humor (as evidenced by his hilarious personal blog), but he also has a fascinating history in the world of computers and programming.
And, of course, accordions.
Born in Manila, deVilla’s path to tech began with a seventh-grade science fair where his mother suggested he explore this new computer thing.
"She suggested that maybe I look into this new 'computer thing' and see if it interests me. And it did capture my interest. From that point on, I just kept playing around with computers."
More specifically, deVilla worked out a deal with a local computer shop to play with their display computers in exchange for answering customer questions once in a while.
"There's a whole generation of customers out there from the '80s who think I was a Batteries Included employee."
He eventually moved on from the pseudo-gig and landed a computer science degree from Queen's University in Canada.
"I got my first job while doing a D.J. gig at Queens University. I was playing video clips on a big wall projector from a multimedia program group, and somebody walked up on the dance floor to the D.J. booth and said, 'I recognize that multimedia display–you know that the company's hiring, right?' So I actually took a train back to Toronto the next day to talk to them about landing a job there."
And if you know anything about deVilla, you already know that wouldn't be the last time his interest in programming and music would collide.
According to deVilla, there's a strong overlap between computer programming and playing an instrument—an overarching theme that has since weaved itself throughout his professional journey.
"There are a lot of computer programmers, software developers, that kinda thing, who play one kind of musical instrument or another. I think it's partially because one way to describe music is that it's math you can feel. That's the way I like to think of it."
Math you can feel. Wrap your brain around that poetry, why don't you?
To be fair, deVilla's passion for accordion and programming, while rare, isn't totally unheard of in the industry.
"I was just playing accordion at the big Python conference, and it's the first time in a long time that I've run into another squeezebox player at a conference. Very rare, but yeah, at this conference, there were two squeezebox players, which was hilarious. The last time that happened was Lenox World Expo 2000, I ran into another accordion player there."
Although seeing accordionists like deVilla at tech events isn't exactly commonplace, he's still charmingly humble about the whole thing.
"I would lose out to Weird Al if Weird Al were in the room," he says with a grin.
But for now, deVilla reigns supreme as the king of accordion rock—at least as far as Tampa is concerned.
He stumbled upon the accordion by accident, but it turned out to be a lucky charm that brings him adventure (and sometimes, free beer) wherever he goes.
"I was complaining that I have no talent for guitar, and a friend of mine said look, I have an accordion in my basement, it's been sitting there for years. Take it. So I did."
One of the first times deVilla decided to take his squeeze box out and about, he ended up at Toronto's most notorious goth bar, where he played a goth version of Happy Birthday for one of the bouncers.
It was then that the bar's D.J. gave him a challenge.
"He said, 'look, come back tonight, play anything off the goth top 20. We'll put you on stage, we'll mic you up. If you get any applause at all, I will give you all the beer you can drink.' So we learned a Nine Inch Nails tune that afternoon, and we went back to the bar that evening."
(Any guesses which NIN tune it was? This reporter didn't dare ask, but has a hunch!)
The crew's quick rehearsal paid off—they got the applause—and all the beer they could drink.
"I said hey, you know what, I'm carrying this thing around wherever I go. This thing brings good luck. And it's true, actually. I find that the accordion is a machine that turns music into adventure…or at least free beer."
The accordion has become more than just an instrument for deVilla. It's a way of life and a testament to the fact that music truly does bring people together, even when it comes to techies.
Similar to many voices that have chimed in across the community, deVilla is confident that Tampa is on the verge of claiming its rightful title as Florida's top tech hotspot—not unlike Toronto in 2003, where deVilla cut his teeth on the tech industry for the first time.
The way he sees it, Tampa Bay is hitting that sweet spot of having just enough techies to create a lively scene, but not too many to make it overcrowded and oversaturated. Something is drawing the right kind of people to Tampa—maybe it's the beautiful weather, the affordable cost of living, or the friendly locals.
Whatever it is, it's got deVilla excited for the future.
He's not the only one, either. There are plenty of other techies in the area who are eager to build something great.
"We've got interested people doing all sorts of interesting things. We've got Vince from Tampa Devs and Sam from the Tampa Java Users Group. We've just got people from all over going 'you know what, let's, let's do something, let's organize, let's hold events. We have very supportive local companies, like Computer Coach, who are throwing in a lot of effort. And now we've got places like Embarc Collective where we can gather. A lot of it is just the planets lining up in Tampa Bay to make the scene more interesting."
He's confident this is just the beginning for Tampa Bay, and deVilla's looking forward to seeing what the future holds.
"We have nerds, and we have people with money, and when you combine the two together, you get an interesting tech scene. I think that the next ten years for Tampa Bay are going to be very, very interesting. I think you'll see a transformation in the area, and you can already see it in a way. Look around downtown, and it's not the same creature it was five years ago."
Among some of these transformations are the revolutions in artificial intelligence, and Tampa already has some fascinating companies doing their part to get in on the action. That's why deVilla is so passionate about the Tampa Artificial Intelligence Meetup, which is open to anyone interested in A.I., robotics, and machine learning.
The meetup is held monthly at the Hillsborough Entrepreneur Collaborative Center, where members can review and discuss the latest developments in A.I., its future, and the social challenges arising from its rapid progress.
Though the meetup had to go on a hiatus due to the pandemic, deVilla and a couple of other organizers are now working on reviving it. Most exciting of all, he plans to introduce a hands-on component where members can write A.I. programs together, starting from the basics and working their way up.
"I'm gonna run a "Code Along With Me" exercise where we actually start writing artificial intelligence programs. We're going to start with the traditional stuff, and my plan is to work up to the point where we are all writing a baby scaled-down version of ChatGPT. I'm hoping someone lands a nice job at an A.I. company or starts their own."
Yes—deVilla will bring the accordion along for the ride.
"And of course, since it is a meet-up, there will be an accordion, and that's where the music fits in."
If you're interested in being part of the Tampa Artificial Intelligence Meetup and joining deVilla to learn more about coding (or just seeing someone play NIN songs on accordion), you can learn more about the meetup happening here.