My First BarCamp Philly Experience

My First BarCamp Philly Experience


7 min read

This post has been reposted from the CompassRed blog

Last Saturday was my first BarCamp experience and wow was it great! I love the unconference format where there is no pre-determined speaker schedule and attendees host/vote on sessions themselves. My first experience with this kind of conference was the digital analyst’s version of BarCamp, MeasureCamp, last year! I’ll admit that it just hit me while writing this post that BarCamp inspired MeasureCamp…

Wikipedia defines BarCamp as the following:

BarCamp is an international network of user-generated conferences primarily focused around technology and the web. They are open, participatory workshop-events, the content of which is provided by participants.

When looking through BarCamp Philly 2018’s tweets prior to attending, I tried to label the conference based on content themes. Fortunately, the beauty of the unconference format is that you’re going to get a very different event every time; and Philly’s event has developed quite the following with a couple of hundred attendees this year! One long-time attendee said:

This is Woodstock for nerds in Philadelphia. I know people who got jobs through making connections at BarCamp. I know people who got married and have children through meeting at BarCamp. It’s a great event every year.

The day starts with a blank slate, 6 sessions each lasting 45 minutes with a 15 minute break in between. Attendees create cards describing what they’ll use the time slot for: everything from a prepared talk with slides or an informal open discussion to something in between. After attendees vote their interest with stickers, rooms are assigned and the event begins! The “rule of two feet” is encouraged: if a session isn’t what you expected it to be or you want to check out another one, go! You can take a look at the full list of sessions here.

After fueling up on coffee and granola, I started my day listening to a talk on how easy it is to build web apps using MongoDB Atlas (which includes managed deployment) followed by an easy-to-understand overview of GraphQL; a query language for APIs originally developed by Facebook which removes the rigidity that comes with traditional RESTful APIs.

Feelings and Data

Although I got value out of all sessions throughout the day, the first major highlight came with the 3rd session I attended, a talk titled “And How Does This Data Make You Feel? A human-driven approach to data-driven communication” by Matt Cahill, Director of Data Platforms & Services at Inspire. Matt humorously opened the talk by admitting this slide deck was created five years ago from a theory he’s been developing and (prior to BarCamp Philly 2019) had only been shown over drinks in bars!

My interpretation of the thesis was the following:

Humans are emotional. No matter how pretty or visual your data story is, there are three variables that go into how a person might react to new information being presented to them.

Does the person perceive the information source to be credible or questionable?

Does the person perceive themself to be an expert in the domain or do they have a student’s mindset?

Does the person agree with the recommendation or does the recommendation contradict their pre-existing beliefs?

Matt presented the following fictional statement to highlight this:

According to my cousin, who just graduated University of Phoenix Online, Quantum Computers cause spontaneous human combustion.

Questionable source: According to my cousin, who just graduated University of Phoenix Online,

I don’t know much about this (student mindset): Quantum Computers

Contradicts my beliefs: cause spontaneous human combustion.

Reaction: “…well, that’s dubious*”*

And another:

According to my cousin, who just graduated University of Phoenix Online, the internet has had a larger net impact on global economics than the internal combustion engine.

Questionable source: According to my cousin, who just graduated University of Phoenix Online,

I know a lot about this (expert mindset): The internet

Aligns with my beliefs: has had a larger net impact on global economics than the internal combustion engine.

Reaction: “…well, that’s obvious*”*

As you start playing with these variables you get very different reactions! I captured his great “Big Cube of Data Feelings” and associated table view in this tweet:

The main takeaway (and the focus of the Q&A discussion) was the following:

  1. Credibility is key! All of the positive resulting reactions depend on this.

  2. If you want someone to change their mind on a topic you need to shift them from an expert mindset to a student mindset, ready to learn.

As analysts, we work diligently to dig through data and find insights the business wouldn’t have found otherwise. Regardless of the business insight, if I am not establishing my work (or myself for that matter) as credible I am not going to gain the support of stakeholders. Furthermore, if the information I’m presenting contradicts pre-existing beliefs, I need to rally stakeholders into a student mindset and, as Matt suggests, “present as a new domain where the audience can be ready to learn”. Thanks for an eye-opening talk Matt!

After a pizza lunch break, I returned for a talk entitled “House of Code” where Ben Shive drew parallels between shaping one’s software development process and configuring a home to be functional (based on this talk called Livable Code). For example, a junk drawer (messy code) is not a bad thing, everyone has one. Scrutinizing or placing every last piece of junk isn’t reasonable, just don’t develop a large repository of it!

Major Nerd Warning

My second major highlight of the day came with the talk “The Dungeon Manager’s Guide: What Dungeons and Dragons taught me about management and what management taught me about Dungeons and Dragons”. Tyler Baber, Director of Accounts at Creative MMS, talked about the parallels between managing/participating in a DnD game to teams and projects in the workplace. As someone who joined his first DnD campaign earlier this year, deciding to attend this one was a no-brainer!

For those not familiar, Dungeons and Dragons (or DnD) is a tabletop role-playing game where adventurers travel a world that is completely created and operated in by the players. The game is guided by the designated Dungeon Master (DM) who lays out the world, story, quests, enemies, non-playable characters, everything. The players (characters) then work together to travel through that world and make decisions together to progress.

Tyler talked about how DMs (managers) must completely remove themselves from the team in order to be successful. The DM is not there to participate in the quest, they are there to act as a guiding force who sets the direction, boundaries, tone, goals, motivations, and framework for the quest. Thinking about the managers I’ve had thus far in my career, the best have been the ones to set the goal, answer as many questions as they can about the project, and then let the team members take the responsibility to execute.

Tyler also talked about how understanding player (coworker) characteristics, backstories, and adventuring (working) style plays into the success of the team. Leveraging the skills and strengths of each member of the team will yield success, and reflecting on victories along the way to learn is crucial.

Some managerial resources shared were the Five Dysfunctions of a Team as well as a reconstruction of the RACI Matrix (Responsible, Accountable, Consulting, and Informed roles in a project) to be more “ORC-y”… (Owner, Responsible, Consulting, and Informed roles)

The creativity in this talk was mind-blowing and a reason why I’ll be attending next year!

Closing Thoughts

The last talk I attended focused on how to thrive in a professional environment. The speaker, Tara Taylor of Linode, talked about doing deep internal work to imagine a “simulation” of oneself thriving in the workplace. What environmental factors are present? What values are present in oneself and others there? I loved this talk because I felt elements of mindfulness permeate throughout. A great wrap to the day.

After some closing remarks by the organizers, most headed to the after party where attendees were granted the opportunity to continue connecting!

BarCamp Philly 2019 was exciting and refreshing. The unconference format reduces the barrier to entry when compared to traditional conferences. Anyone can host a session. That is powerful. Ideas can flow freely; people can bring out “crazy” theories they’ve had in their back pockets for years. There was a huge push for inclusivity this year which added to the feeling of open, free-form knowledge sharing. I hope more events can adopt this format in the future! Thank you to the amazing participants, organizers, volunteers, and sponsors, see you next year!