The DCamp Manifesto

What is this “DCamp” thing I keep hearing about?

The typical conference model is involves a handful of one-to-many exchanges of information. The conference model assumes that you, as an audience member, will gain the most value by receiving information directly from a few people. It is, in essence, a classroom.

DCamp assumes you don’t do well in classrooms

In 2008, when DCamp was created, and Ruby still wasn’t quite mainstream, Ruby developers were, on the whole, brilliant. It seemed wrong, to me, to have an elite few who were frequently speaking at conferences.

In my experiences, speakers are typically extroverts. This in no way implies that introverts have nothing to offer. But introverts seem to put themselves out there with less frequency. And so conferences would typically feature the same extroverts again and again.

When you attend a conference, how many open laptops do you see? How many people are paying attention? How many are socializing with other attendees besides at the inevitable “drink up” after-party when they get some alcohol in them?

I wanted to lure out the introverts. I wanted to hear what they have to say.

DCamp puts people on a level playing field

We don’t have “talks”. We have “sessions”.

Or, to put it more bluntly, there’s a “no talking head” rule.

No one stands at the front of the room and lectures to you (except maybe during 5 minute lightning talks). Presentations often serve to elevate and separate the presenter from the participants. That’s not our way.

Campers collectively decide on topics that interest them.

Anyone who proposes the topic for a session is responsible to be the facilitator for that session. Facilitating in no way implies expertise in the topic. It connotes a strong enough interest in the topic to moderate a discussion or a hands-on activity. The facilitator is there to keep the conversation flowing and to ensure that no one individual monopolizes the floor. Because…

Time is limited

Sessions are typically 30 minutes. Originally, they weren’t. But, over the years, I found that shorter sessions leave people hungry for more. The last thing you want is to have a session drag on past its inevitable conclusion.

Either a session will be too long or too short. If the session is too long, people become tired, bored, and listless. If it is too short, they’re still excited and eager. They’re more likely to continue the discussion on their own terms during breaks or after DCamp.

You’re responsible for your education

If a session isn’t valuable to you, the Open Space model provides “The Rule of Two Feet”. You have two feet (or perhaps 4 wheels): use them. Go to another session. Or take a nap. Or hang out with other brilliant people and shoot the shit.

Other than the Code Retreat, each morning, we collectively decide on the content.

We spend about fifteen minutes in a plenary brainstorming session.

The next fifteen minutes are spent proposing topics. Everyone is given pens, paper, and duct tape. You scribble down topics that interest you and your name next to the topic. Then you slap the topic up on the “wall o’ topics”.

Fifteen more are spent dot voting on topics.

The camp is set loose for fifteen to thirty minutes while a few of us sort the topics out into a schedule.

We’ve learned that, typically, a two-track schedule works best where one track has votes in descending order and the other ascending. This tends to minimizes the number of session conflicts for campers.

But we usually have a third track: for newbies.

The newbie track tends to be predictable each year as it rehashes a lot of the same territory: setting up a development environment, basic Ruby skills, using git, then an introduction to web development with Ruby. More experienced developers take turns, throughout the day, leading these hands-on sessions. Teaching is a great way to discover knowledge gaps for more experienced developers. To that extent, everyone wins!

DCamp encourages participation

Yes, you can be a wallflower through all of DCamp. But it’s not easy.

First, there are the sessions, that you’ve already read about.

Then there’s the Code Retreat. The retreat gives you about six opportunities to pair with people you’ve just met to solve a problem. Even if you’re an introvert, it’s not too hard to get together with another developer and just do your thing.

And then there’s the chores.

At DCamp, there’s:

  • No catering
  • No restaurants
  • No hotel staff
  • No hotel

Yes, the first DCamp was at a hotel. The event worked but, boy, was that hotel a pain in the ass to work with! Really, it is far cheaper, more fulfilling, and an overall better experience to just do it yourself!

The event provides the venue, a (relatively) comfortable place to sleep, bathing facilities, electricity, a kitchen, and space to hold sessions.

Getting supplies to the camp is tricky. For the first few years, that was all me, me, me and… let me see… *me*! But, as with stone soup, campers began to notice that everything went better when they participated in pretty much every phase of the event including the logistics. Bear in mind: this didn’t happen overnight! Most early assistance that I received was ad hoc at best. It wasn’t until perhaps until the fourth DCamp when campers, of their own accord, became proactively involved in logistics.

I’m not complaining but that was a lot of shit to buy, lift, and haul mostly on my own! Having more logistical help has been wonderful!

If you get hungry, start cooking a meal. If the kitchen is a mess, clean it up. If the main hall is cold, get some firewood and start a fire in the fireplace.

Oh, and you’re on your own for internet at DCamp.

That’s right: bring your own internet and wifi.

DCamp is free

At first, it was $100. Then the US economy melted down. While our sector has withstood most of the storm, not all of us were so fortunate.

So… free (as in beer).

Again, that means the entrance fee, the food, the venue, everything: free.

That is, in truth, the event sponsors pay for it.

That said, you pay for the event with your full participation. If you register, you’re expected to attend for the duration of the event. And you’re expected to sleep on-site in the cabins. That’s because DCamp is about more than just the code retreat and the sessions.

Yes, DCamp is listed as $1337 on the Eventbrite page. They require a for-pay ticket to be listed. If you don’t get the joke…

DCamp is frugal

If you include the cost of t-shirts, DCamp costs around USD $5k per year to produce.

DCamp participants are curated

I’ve used Eventbrite to handle mass-email, registration, and wait lists for DCamp. Each year, I create coupon codes in Eventbrite. These codes get distributed to community leaders who I trust and respect. Each code is usually good for 5 registrations at a time. These leaders are then responsible to find the awesome people who will populate DCamp that year. Once a code is used up, typically, I refill it. Some communities are rabid DCamp fans so I titrate the release of codes to them. Otherwise, they would utterly overwhelm the event. This would not be a bad thing except…

DCamp supports diversity

Monoculture is death. We are stronger when we have a diverse set of individuals to learn from. And, so, I encourage, and actively attempt to draw from, people from all walks to participate. In the past, we have had software testers, a film director, an investment banker, women, men, people black, yellow, white, straight, and queer. Variety is not only healthy but damn fun!

DCamp is not commercial

Commerce is out there but it’s not part and parcel to the event. Sure, we all work for a living. And our sponsors generously help the event occur each year. But, first and by far foremost, the event is about its participants: the campers. If the campers win, the sponsors win.

Though we’ve had repeat sponsors: they occasionally get a good hire from DCamp!

DCamp is for technical people. NO RECRUITERS. NO MBAs (unless they’ve become programmers). Because…

DCamp is not for profit

No one makes money from producing DCamp. When I created it, I was an overpaid government contractor (though now I’m a sporadically paid freelancer). DCamp was born for love of Ruby and its community and not greed. It continues in that vein.

DCamp is finite

DCamp is size constrained to 78 people: the number of beds available at Cabin Camp 3 in Prince William Forest National Park. We want to ensure that each and every camper adds to the value of the whole. This means that we welcome neophytes, journeyman, and experts alike. You’re qualified to be a DCamper if you’re:

  • Inquisitive
  • Passionate about sharing your knowledge
  • Someone who plays well with others

Due to the recent surge in interest, there will be exactly 0% growth in the size of DCamp.

Instead, I encourage you to make your own DCamp. This is the entirety of the reason for this blog post.

DCamp is remote

DCamp is off the beaten path, removed from civilization, a little difficult to reach. Coming and going can be a challenge. And that has proven fortunate because…

DCamp is a community

I will in no way pretend that I intended every aspect that has made DCamp the wonderful event that it has become. Much of the above was discovered through serendipity and some from suggestions from within and without. But we, the campers, noticed these gems. Then we integrated them into our ethos.

I make every effort to include past campers. While I do not curate registration, beyond reaching out to community leaders, I am personally responsible for the wait list. Preference always goes to past campers.

Why?

Because, over the three-to-four nights that people spend at DCamp, we forge tight bonds. This happens naturally when you are constrained to the same physical space with the same 78 or so people with similar interests.

And, so, each DCamp serves as a reunion of sorts for returning campers.

At the end of it all

We get together and hold a retrospective. We discuss what felt good and what didn’t. Lessons are shared and, sometimes, relearned. Occasionally, a worthwhile lesson is lost year to year.

Finally, we gather together, clean the camp in no more than 30 minutes, the remaining food is divvied up among folks who can use it, then folks depart.

Oh and I’m left with a small lost and found. Hooray. ;-)

What’s the point?

If you didn’t pick up on it along the way, DCamp is, at its core, a four night nerd commune.

In closing

The purpose of this piece was to provide the inspiration and insight for you to roll your own DCamp. Should you decide to, please do reach out to me. I would be glad to provide counsel and would love to attend!

If you’re a former camper and find that I forgot to include some essential insight, please do let me know!

Posted by evan on Saturday, October 06, 2012

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