How to Make the Most of DCamp

Nerd communes in the woods. They happen.

This past weekend, one in particular happened: Ruby DCamp, a semi-organized unconference for programming enthusiasts of all skill levels. This also happened to be my very first unconference!

I have elected to write down what I learned for the next unconference I attend. The title of this post does not attempt to tell you what to do: it reminds me what to do in the future. If some of it helps someone else, all the better. In fact, if you yourself attended DCamp (and if that’s the case, I can’t imagine how you found this post), your additions to the list are most welcome in the comments :).

So, without further ado,  a sparse scrapbook of DCamp 2014, plus things to remember for next time:

1. Pay the check baggage fee and bring everything but the kitchen sink. Your sleeping bag, your pillow, blankets, whatever it is. This goes double if you know you’re not a cold weather person (me). You’ll want to be more comfortable on this camping trip than a typical camping trip because you’re not just goofing off during the day: you’re programming. And programming requires brains.

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Or talking about programming. Here we are picking topics for the day’s sessions. What does that one at the top say?
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Ah. “Being Tall.” Someone is very clever.

2. Since we’ve already established that you’ll be bringing a lot of stuff, bring stuff to share. Here’s the thing about conferences (and unconferences): they’re not so much about the material you learn as they are about the people you meet. DCamp embraces that concept even more than a regular conference. So, maximize your opportunities to meet people. A great way to meet people is to have something with you to share. A refreshment of some kind is a good start. A board game is another good one (if you’re on a budget, substitute a deck of cards). On this trip, I had a blanket that became very popular for daytime wearing and passed among several people throughout the event.

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Julian brought his robots to share! Yes, that’s a drone. And a dance mat. And a disco belt. And a sphero.

3. Pair early, pair often. You can share physical objects; you can also share your knowledge and expertise. Senior programmers can sit down with junior programmers and help them work through problems. And even if you’re a junior programmer, you can provide a new set of eyeballs on a problem and point out opportunities to improve the code’s design.

Strategies to do more pair programming during DCamp:

  • Bring an interesting project with you. If you’re doing something cool, people will be excited to do it with you. Prepare a short explanation of your project so you’ll have a succinct answer when people ask what you’re working on. Identify pieces of the project that are beyond your skill level: DCamp is a great opportunity to work through those solutions with someone more senior.
  • Make a tent. Fold a piece of paper into a tent shape and write down what you’re doing on one side of it; stand the tent up next to your computer so people will know that you’re open to collaborating on it. If you’re too nervous to do this, find somebody else with a tent that interests you and sit down next to them.
  • Come with some questions about an open source project. Maybe you have rails, cucumber, or rspec cloned to your computer, and there are parts of the repo that you don’t understand. This is a good time to ask questions about what you’re reading. You might even find someone at DCamp who maintains the project you’ve picked. You can definitely find someone who has contributed to it. You might be just the person they’ve been looking for to appreciate their vast and detailed knowledge of this particular project.
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Tina hacks away in the Great Hall.

4. Hang out with people. Not just while programming: DCamp offers lots of opportunities to play games with the other attendees, do group workouts, explore the forest, and just sit around and chat. Be prepared to expose your nerd guilty pleasure here. Within my first two hours at DCamp, someone had spotted my MLP:FiM desktop background. The next day, I found several people who were very familiar with poi and  flow arts. You’ll find it all at DCamp: singers and songwriters, amateur pilots, people who brew their own mead at home. Developers in general are an interesting bunch. Who knows? You might come home with a new hobby.

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Cards Against Humanity. Yes, Julian and I had a terrible hand at the time this photo was taken.
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Developer orienteers! Well, not really. But we did cross a very narrow bridge on this hike.
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We also relaxed around a roaring fire. And by ‘relaxed,’ I mean ‘sang Broadway classics and Spice Girls hits for two hours.’

5. Drink water, fuel yourself, and work out. DCamp takes energy. Make sure you approach each day with a lot of it. A healthy programmer is a happy programmer. Plus, it’s not like there’s ever a shortage of food around!

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The boys fuel up on a delicious lentil concoction.
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The Sunday night stragglers stole out to good ol’ cracker barrel for dinner.

6. Get people’s contact information. Evan makes a list of twitter handles at the end of DCamp, but you might want someone’s e-mail address to send them, say, a few of your favorite MLP backgrounds right after camp is over :). If you’re not tethering at camp, you can collect contact information in a plain ol’ text file, or, if you’re me, in a spiral notebook. Start doing this at the beginning of camp so you don’t have to rush around at the end. After all, you’re going to want to keep in touch with these people.

A final note: for more photos of DCamp, you can visit my twitter (there’s only like two on there though) and Yaritza’s twitter, which has a few more.

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