My first BarCamp

I went to BarCamp Portland last weekend. It’s my first BarCamp. Even though I read about the definition and checked out some videos about BarCamp beforehand, it was still hard to expect what it would be like. BarCamp was started by the tech community and in the non-tech setting, I guess they call it the Open Space Technology.

Part of my day job involves event planning. I mentioned the idea of BarCamp / unconference at work. The response is “it’s interesting” but the higher power that be would not go for it. I helped organize numerous highly ordered conferences with set schedule of sessions and I am starting to get tired of this old format. After I read about a real life experience in a non-tech setting, I am completely sold on the BarCamp idea. Still, I didn’t know how it works. This is the main reason why I went to BarCamp Portland.

The first thing I encountered was an informal registration table. There were name tags printed with the event graphics but no names were pre-printed on them. Volunteers were cutting strings to make them into lanyards. I brought my own lanyard since I read a tweet about it. It is a great idea. I have more than several lanyards gathered from previous conferences. I think no pre-printed name tags is also a green idea, too. I can’t count how many name tags I printed and stuffed at work. It’s not glamorous and it costs a lot of energy from the computer, printers, plus me, not to mention the paper, clear plastic holders and stretchy strings that make up the actual name tags.

After the registration table, it’s a total social time until the official kickoff. I didn’t see anybody I know so it was a bit uncomfortable for me to swim through the crowd. I survived anyway. The kickoff was a lot of talk and passing the microphone to the sponsors, etc, etc. The major standout is CubeSpace where the event was held is big on composting and recycling. Lots of instructions about what goes into where. This is one of the few event places I’ve been to that does commercial composting and I like it.

Agenda setting is the key component of BarCamp. I heard about other BarCamps where people were elbowing each other to get their sessions onto the agenda. It was completely not the case in Portland. There were more time slots than the proposed sessions. It was super friendly. People would combine sessions if they happened to propose similar topics. And when there were so many open slots, the subject matter started to go away from tech. A few were about beer. One might argue beer is highly technical if you want to be good at making it yourself. Aside from the action, I was very impressed by the simplicity of the materials involved: a grid made of blue tape on a wall and a lot of super large sticky notes. I have no idea such large sticky notes exist.

I wasn’t planning to propose a session at all. I watched people filling up the schedule of the second day and the first night sessions were mostly left empty. After a long while, I went for it. I put up “Stop Death by PowerPoint.” Ever since I checked out Garr Reynolds’ blog, webcast and his book online, I just want to go out to tell people to make better slideshows and give good presentations. I thought I would let this informal event be my starting point.

A tricky thing about BarCamp is most sessions are simply open discussions. I went to a session before I presented my own. I was glad that I did. I didn’t bring a laptop and there was limited access to LCD. It was kind of weird to talk about horrible PowerPoint presentations without the equipment to show bad and good examples. However, almost everybody has a “death by PowerPoint” experience. It wasn’t hard to keep the discussion going. I did ended up using one piece of gadget, the iPod Touch. I pointed Safari to my blog post about Garr’s webcast and took pointers from the post for my session. Other people were also eager to share their ideas and names of other good presenters. Steve Jobs was mentioned by the way. All in all, the session went well and the notes were posted online.

After my session, it was getting late so I skipped the late night stuff and went home. I went back the next day and stayed for about half of the day. There were some good discussions about journalism, blogging and Creative Commons. The most eventful thing on this day was I ran into a former neighbor. He now runs his own blog earning several thousand dollars a month. I totally envy him.

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