Discussing the nuts and bolts of software development

Thursday, April 10, 2008


BarCamps or: How I Learned To Let Go, And Love The Self Organizing Workshop

Macadamian is made up of many different people with a very large space of interests. Any given trip across the office can net one a variety of lessons, covering anything from how extremely large microwave dishes work and where not to point them, to car operating systems, and how to tie gmail into an extremely effective and professional GTD setup with a couple of greasemonkey scripts. It is to capitalize on this aggregation of knowledge that I have decided to start organizing Barcamps at our Ottawa office. What better way to work through ideas, practical or "what if?", than to lure a bunch of engineers together in a room and change some lightbulbs.

Photography by Sarah Naegels Barcamps were traditionally intended as "hack-a-thons", or "open source workshops". It is the latter definition I have chosen to concentrate on. A workshop without a plan, also known as "winging it", will put fear in the hearts of anybody who has ever organized any presentation. But this is where the strength of the Barcamp lies. The organizer of Barcamp needs only to set the meeting in motion, and it takes on life of it's own. The immediate disadvantage would appear to be that without organization, the members will not stay on topic and the collective attention will wander off topic. In practice, however, the common interest of all attendees will steer the workshop on a relatively tangent topic. And this is the key: when the attendees walk away from a completed Barcamp, they have participated in an active, hands-on, discussion of the primary topic and relevant related topics.
What starts as a Barcamp to learn about Google Android's architecture, will also cover the history of open mobile platforms, wireless signaling, carrier business practices, and competitor behavior. This sort of many-to-many learning ensures that all questions are raised and answered. Compare that with a one-to-many presentation that might have to rush through certain topics that are not immediately relevant to the stated topic, and you start to see how
a Barcamp can become an extremely powerful tool. Instead of following the presenter's ideas, the workshop will follow at the pace set by its attendees.

So how does one organize such an ad-hoc workshop?

Step 1: One Foundation

Imagination sparks innovation. Not all attendees are going to be aware of Google Android in detail, or mobile platforms at all. Prepare to have several high level introductory items to get the discussion going. Google's original announcement of the Android SDK is a good start. It doesn't go into heavy detail and establishes context. More importantly, instead of showing code or
documentation, it shows practical uses and what is possible with their new platform.

Step 2: Punky Reggae Party

Discussion ensues. This is the event horizon of the Barcamp. What starts as a discussion about Google Android can cover any hundred different topics, from UI design, JVM design, hardware design, or even be a practical walkthrough installing eclipse, creating applications, and attempting to install them in the Android VM (which we never did get to work properly, for the record).

Step 3: Pass It On

A Barcamp should have some tangible output, if only notes. Attendees should be able to look at minutes or resulting code to review what was covered as a refresher, or a base for further research. What's more, those that couldn't attend would also have something to look at, and would be able to follow along on their own.

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Let me also point out, that to have a successful barcamp, you probably have to be surrounded by a strong and diverse crowd of people eager and 'turned on' by technology!
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