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Nick Plante

Dr. Dobb's Bloggers

Camps Vs Conferences

July 22, 2009

Technology conferences, for me, are usually a mixed bag. The keynotes, panel discussions, and sessions are often interesting or informative, but are rarely unique enough that I couldn't find the same information on the web (particularly if the worthwhile ones are being recorded, in which case I can just wait and watch them later). The real reason I go -- and I think the real reason most people go -- is for the hallway discussions, late night hack sessions, and extra-curriculars.

So, that being the case, there's an argument for conferences as "camps", where those latter bits are the heavy focus, and the formal structure is completely de-emphasized. BarCamps and PodCamps have been revolutionizing the conference scene for awhile now, and I like their direction. But what if you took the "camp" metaphor to the next stage? You'd have an entirely different thing...
Pat Allan has been doing just this for awhile within the Ruby community, running "Rails Camps" in Australia and the UK for a couple years now. But only recently have these events spread to the North American continent. In fact, the very first one was last weekend, in the woods of Bryant Pond, Maine about 3 hours north of Boston. 

Basically the idea is to get a small group of motivated people get together in some relatively remote locale and rent a large house for a weekend retreat. For that period of time everyone lives together, eats together, and works together. The primary focus seems to be on projects; people bring their OSS work, hobby projects and startup ideas, and find partners to pair on, people to help review code, like-minded house residents to bounce ideas off of. There's zero(-ish) Internet, encouraging people to rely on one another for advice rather than going to the web. This is amazingly effective.
Along the way, there's plenty of time for play, which also serves to help socialize everyone. This most recent event, given that we were in Maine in July, was a great setting for canoeing and kayaking, as well as frisbee and other out-of-doors activities. FPS games and Rock Band were played too. Evening discussions were interrupted by games of werewolf by the campfire, which it turns out is another great way to get to know one another.
 So what do you learn? You learn what you want to learn. You get help on the projects you're stuck on, pick up tips from pairing with and mentoring others. Sessions are held, too, but in an ad-hoc way; you announce that you're going to talk about something on a whiteboard at a certain time, and just give a talk on whatever it is you're interested in or currently working on. Sometimes slide decks are prepared, sometimes not. Often, someone who is a subject matter expert will be prompted into doing a talk after having a conversation with someone else that touched on the subject.
With only 30-50 individuals present, talks can be a lot more conversational, and everyone is much more accessible. In our case talks topics were as diverse as the Radiant CMS, Testing, CouchDB, Internationalization, Ruby Gems, and Twitter Apps, and we also saw a number of live demos of different products and services people were working on.
Experience levels at our camp varied greatly, with both seasoned professional and complete beginners well-represented. I think people at every level enjoyed themselves, learned a lot, and the average productivity was far greater than it would have been at a conference. Costs were also kept low (a mere $120 for the weekend including catered food and all lodging), which certainly levels the playing field for a lot of people who can't -- or just won't -- shell out four figures plus travel for a 3-day conference event.
 To be  honest I feel a bit strange writing this up as if it were a conference report, because it wasn't not a conference at all. In hindsight it felt far more like a weekend getaway with old friends -- and that's exactly what makes it unique and worthwhile. I really hope this sort of trend away from more formal events continues. I'd like to see the traditional conference get smaller and more intimate rather than larger and more vacuous as the years go on and the subject matures. Which isn't to say that formal conferences don't have their place of course; they're just missing that personal touch and the agility that you can experience with a small highly motivated group, in the same way that enterprise software compares to a scrappy startup.
Why not take a shot at putting together a similar event for your community / locale? 
***Thanks again to Pat and Brian for organizing the first Rails Camp New England.

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