Sheffield BarCamp 2011: The tourist’s perspective

The mighty grid

The mighty grid

For those of you who are similarly clueless as I was, a BarCamp is somewhat of an unconference, “an ad-hoc gathering born from the desire for people to share and learn in an open environment“.  Attendees are encouraged not only to come and listen, but also to talk as well. There were 4 rooms at this event and those who wished to speak simply affixed a post-it note with the title of their talk onto a grid on the wall. I played the role of a ‘tourist’ because I brought nothing to the party: I had never been to one of these events before and being the shrinking violet that I am, simply sat back and took in as much as possible. These events are held all over the world, but at this Sheffield event there were no sponsors nor was there an entry fee. It was arranged with help from the GIST Foundation massive. and hosted at Sheffield Workstation over the weekend of the 16th of April. A great location because a) free Wi-Fi and b) it’s opposite real-ale haunt the Rutland Arms. Unfortunately, due in part to a (reasonably epic) duel-headline tour in the evening by …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of the Dead and Rival Schools I had to leave for Manchester earlier than I would have liked. I did however promise the man of a thousand Twitter accounts, Jag that I would publish online some of what I experienced. For the pathetically short time I was in attendance I found the BarCamp enlightening, so here is some of what I learnt, and how I could apply it to what I do.

Documentation and Storytelling

The first session I attended was on documentation by Dee Vincent-Day (@deevincentday). Her job is to work with developers and document their work. I do not envy her job. However, it sounds like she has it down and I got the impression that she was a master of social engineering, with a different approach to different developers! I found it surprising (from the discussion amongst other BarCampers) that documentation is often fed into MS Word and propriatery management systems like the infamous Sharepoint. She talked about how although documentation may add to the cost of a project initially, there are savings later down the line, especially if developers move on from projects/jobs. Having been burned by this first hand, I appreciated this. I think it’s great that there is someone who is there to purely help developers document.

Gem (@ruby_gem) presented a more fluffy topic: Stories. Here, I use the word ‘fluffy’ not negatively at all, but the concept of story telling is a higher level concept than my practical-focused little mind is used to. I liked the idea of creating a story for everything (and Gem was adamant that a story can be created for everything). The form of these stories should follow:

  1. As a
  2. I want
  3. So that

Often when I have my UX hat on, the question running through my mind is simply “what do we need”. But these more involved (yet still simple) stories seem like they’d serve me better in communicating with clients, managers and pulling together a spec. The rearrangement of this into “In order to > As a > I want” would better serve some situations. She was also keen on drawing pictures to illustrate needs, but when dealing with more technically minded folk, then a simple table of figures would serve best. (Edit: ‘Writing Stories’ has all been much better explained on ruby_gem’s blog)

Attention grabbing and Mobile Development

For ‘Getting attention on FlickrMartin Cunningham (@martin88) told us the importance of interacting with the community. On Flickr can involve joining groups, providing constructive criticism and favourite-ing others photographs. My personal efforts on Flickr are a complete joke, however the lessons that Martin has learnt can be applied elsewhere. I deal with a lot of organisations who realise the potential and power of social networks and online communities, but they often forget that simply being there isn’t enough. One needs to engage, and Facebook, YouTube or wherever else you think it’s important to promote yourself have equivalents to the Flickr techniques that Martin mentioned. Of course, his flickr account is worth a look!

Trevor Ward (@thewarpedcoder) spoke specifically about the Titanium development platform. As a front-end guy, this has attracted my attention before as it utilises existing HTML/JavaScript skills to produce native applications. However, it was great to see it in action as Trevor walked us through some of the processes. It looked pretty simple, certainly when compared to learning Objective-C! I also didn’t realise the extent to which Titanium can interface with a device’s sensors (cameras, gyroscopes, GPS etc) which is obviously the biggest advantage over mobile-orientated native-web development. It seems like a pretty mature, ordered way of producing mobile apps for both Android and iOS. He was upfront about the limitations (i.e. this isn’t for building 3d multiplayer fps frag-fests!) but I’m left with the feeling that I should spend some time poking around in Titanium. Speaking of gaming….

Collecting stars, flying spaceships

Video Game Bucket List

Video Game Bucket List

Many talks at this BarCamp provided me with things I can take back to my daily work life. Two, however, were simply fun. The first of these was Katie Fenn’s (@katie_fenn) talk on the Space Shuttle. As an aviation nerd myself this was pretty interesting, and it was nice to hear someone who obviously loves the Shuttle take such a critical look at it. Katie detailed the massive cost overruns and tragic accidents but still felt the whole adventure was worth-while. I agree. Katie: I believe your talk is online somewhere but I can’t find it. Send us the link, because it’s worth another look. Liam (@losvaive) took us even further away from earth and into the realms of fantasy with his ‘Video Game Bucket List‘. I hadn’t heard the term ‘bucket list’ before, but apparently it’s a sort of ‘things to do before you die’ checklist. His talk was focused on games that provide things sometimes beyond their design so his recommendations were not the unimaginative stuff like “Killing Talibs in COD 7 PWNZ!11”, but more subtle ideas like “Complete HL2 by only firing one shot” (which is possible, apparently: you only need one bullet to shoot a lock off a door) and “build a giant 1000ft golden phallic tower (complete with balls, natch) in Minecraft“. Incidentally, I’d love to see the screenshot of the latter again. It was simultaneously awe-provoking and terrifying.

My first BarCamp

My first BarCamp experience was excellent. A good crowd, as per most GIST events. I’d re-attend in a heartbeat, maybe as less of a tourist. God knows what I’d talk about but I’d be open to suggestions. I am a little sad that there were a number of talks I missed on such things as QR codes, Fractal Geometry, APIs and more, but I guess that’s the nature of a BarCamp. Thanks to all who arranged and took part in this event and if I’ve misunderstood or misrepresented what you were trying to say, then please let me know!

Leave a Reply