What is an Unconference
Open to all building websites with an open source CMS
The unrules of an Unconference
The Law of Two Feet
IVAN STEGIC: Hey Everyone! You’re listening to the TEN7 Podcast, where we get together every fortnight, and sometimes more often, to talk about technology, business and the humans in it. I am your host Ivan Stegic. In this episode of the Podcast, we’re talking about Twin Cities Open Source CMS Unconference, which is coming up on Saturday, October 13th, here in the Twin Cities, and I’m joined by Unconference organizers Tim Erickson and Wilbur Ince. Guys, it’s a pleasure to welcome you to the Podcast.
WILBER INCE: It’s great to be here Ivan. Thanks for having us today.
TIM ERICKSON: Yea. Good to see you. Good to talk to you.
IVAN: So, what’s an Unconference?
TIM: Unconferences is a format for events that is born out of the idea of the hallway track at a conference. So, certain people were coming back from conferences and saying, “hey the best part was the conversations I had in the hallway,” and some folks decided to try and work that into a conference format as much as possible, whereas to say, let’s build a conference that’s designed around the informal kinds of conversations we have in the hallway. The term “Unconference” got applied to that. It’s been around for a while. There are quite a few tech events that have used this format. I think the whole, sort of, camp idea for Drupal camps and Word camps came out of unconferences but have since sort of morphed into much more structured events.
WILBUR: I think the reason for our Unconference now, is that, we did this four years ago, in 2014, and it was really successfully. By successful, I mean that, when you talk to people that went to that conference, a lot of people still say that that was their favorite event that we’ve ever done here in the Twin Cities. The other thing that’s different about this kind of a conference is that it’s a little bit easier for us to organize. So, we’re able to, kind of lay out the framework of this thing, but we don’t have to pick sessions, we don’t have to have session submissions, we don’t have to manage all that overhead. So, it was a chance for Tim and I to get together and, kind of recreate this thing on the fly, with maybe a little less structured effort than we’ve had on our regular Drupal camp that we run every year.
IVAN: So, you mentioned that you had another Unconference, the one that was in 2014. That was Drupal specific, I think, wasn’t it?
TIM: Yes, our friend Barry Madore helped us with that as well. It was the Twin Cities... we called it the Drupal Open House, or as Barry, I think liked to call it, TC Doh.
IVAN: (laughter) But, the one that’s coming up here in the next three weeks is not Drupal focused though. It has this great bridge building idea to it, where you’re not trying to do an Unconference just for Drupal. You’re reaching out across the spectrum of open source CMSs and trying to get people together in the room that maybe usually aren’t together. Tell me how you came up with this idea.
TIM: I don’t know if I would even say there’s any kind of limitation. Anybody who really feels motivated to come is welcome. We picked, sort of, open source CMSs as a theme. One of the rules of an Unconference is, whoever shows up are the right people. So, we’re definitely targeting our outreach at these communities. But anybody that has any kind of interest in open source, or building web apps or products, is welcome and is going to get something out of this, and, frankly, will have an influence on the agenda for the day.
IVAN: I love that. I think it’s wonderful that it’s not just those major players in the CMS industry, that one of the rules is, whoever’s there are the right people. Tim, could you talk about the rules of an Unconference, just so that we’re aware of kind of what the framework is.
TIM: Yes, I can. I learned about Unconferences initially at a conference I was at, on Dialogue and Deliberation, and I was kind of blown away with this format. The basic rules are pretty simple. Whoever shows up are the right people. Whatever happens is the right thing to happen. And, whenever it starts is the right time for it to start. Having said that, we have a target time, we’re starting at nine o’clock, and it’s over when it’s over. Meaning, we don’t try to push things, or drag things out. The idea is people show up, they have conversations, they get engaged in, and when it’s over, it’s over. One of the other rules, and this just blew me away when I first did it, was the 'law of two feet', and we really tried to drill this into participants that, over the course of the day, the expectation is that everybody be engaged. And if you are in a conversation, or a session where you’re neither learning or contributing, it’s your responsibility to move, and to find another conversation to participate in. So, that’s a hard thing for some people to do, it’s a hard thing for me. I remember the first time I did it, in this sort of a format, where like just sort of a conversation started to drag on, and I said, “you know what, I’m going to move.” And, it felt really powerful to just sort of get up and leave. And, everybody knows this is happening, so nobody should take offense if you leave. That’s part of the structure of an Unconference.
IVAN: So, part of your goal is to remind people of what the rules of the Unconference are, to kind of lay the ground work. But I was struck by something you said to me in an email, which was your goal as facilitators is to really create a safe space. Right? So, you’re trying to enable people to feel empowered and encouraged to ask challenging questions. Do you guys have any idea, or can you anticipate what those challenging questions might be? Or, maybe you have some of your own challenging questions that you’d like to see discussed.
WILBUR: I think you kind of have to get into the situation, to feel what happens. But, what we try to do is layout, like I said, these ground rules, and people kind of realize that, “hey, there’s no agenda here, and, what’s going to happen next?” And, when we go through these ground rules and tell people, “hey, you know, this is your conference and you can have it be and do anything you want.” Suddenly the light goes off for people, and they kind of realize it’s like, “oh, I guess this is the, now that you say that, I actually have this burning question. I really am interested in deployment right now, and I’m wondering how other people handle this problem that I’m having?” And, instantly, a couple of people in the room would be like, “yea, I’m actually working on that too right now", and this is where the magic in this happens. And then, somebody is going to see that, and they’re going to realize that, “hey, my question about local development environments, I have this thing.” And, then another bunch of people are going to go off and do that. All we want to do is create the environment for that to happen, and then suddenly people, who think they don’t have anything to talk about, suddenly have a lot of things to say about things, and that’s when these things really heat up, and that’s where the magic of the conference happens.
TIM: I think the format and the cross community stuff allows us. One of the things that I’ve been running into people talking about a lot in the Drupal community is, we’re a ways into the Drupal 8 cycle, and some people are frustrated, there’s a segment of the Drupal population that are frustrated, with some of the challenges of learning Symphony and Composer and these things, and part of the Backdrop fork was to address these kinds of problems. I heard recently that there’s a similar thing going on in WordPress right now, and I think as a Drupal developer, I would really be interested in talking to WordPress developers and hearing what their experience is on the future of WordPress, where it’s going and sort of, how people are getting along in dealing with change in the community. Change in the community, I think, is something that I feel pretty strongly about, talking about and hearing how other people are doing with it.
IVAN: Change in the community, as we see it right now, but also, maybe talking about where we see ourselves as separate communities in the future. Do we see ourselves as cross-pollinating more? Working together more? It feels like we’re all using the very similar stack, and honestly, the difference is in how that code has been applied. It feels like we have more that joins us than actually separates us. So, I would be very interested in a discussion about that as well. I’m glad you’re having this. I think this is a needed thing.
TIM: I should say another motivation for this particular event was talk that we’ve been having in the Twin Cities Drupal community about our camp, and how to maybe adapt, to change it over time. The formats have been pretty same for quite a while, and some people raised the idea, like, should we talk about doing some sort of a camp that in parallel, or cooperate with WordPress, or other communities, instead of just talking to ourselves. And, there was interest in that idea, but uncertainty in how to proceed. And this Unconference seemed like a chance to, sort of, test and experiment with it. So, one of the things I’d like to see happen at this camp is some talk about that. Like, how can we do programming, together in the future? How can we collaborate? What kinds of events are going to have appeal across different open source communities.
IVAN: Do you have a rough schedule for the day?
TIM: I’ve been talking a lot. I was going to give Wilbur a chance. We do. I mean, roughly, and this gets back to the rules and the structure of an Unconference. We will begin the day with introductions, give people a chance to let people know who’s in the room, because that’s very important. For our previous event, for the Drupal event, we had something called a pro-action café, which was a semi-structured event to start out the day, where people broke into groups, in a slightly more structured environment to talk about specific problems, and then we broke into the heart of the Unconference, which is, really we put a grid up on the wall that says, time slots 11, 12, 1, 2, 3 and it has either rooms or designated corners of the room, where people could meet, and somebody just says, “hey, I want to talk about dev tools at noon. And I’ll be in room B,” and anybody can put what topic they want to talk about, claim a space, and that’s how the agenda gets made. Then we do want to have a closing session at the end of the day, which I think we’re closing at 5, between 4 and 5 at some point, we’ll all get together and give people a chance to sort of say, “here are the kinds of things that we we're talking about today, and the kinds of things we learned.” It’s great if people can stay all day, but if you can only make it through a part of the day, that’s acceptable as well.
IVAN: So, this sounds a lot like what happens at a DrupalCon, when there’s a series of boards, and we do Birds of a Feather, and there are BOF sessions. Are you cribbing from that idea? That’s where it came from?
WILBUR: Yea. The idea of a BOF session that’s really, kind of, a Drupal thing, and definitely our conference was influenced by that initially. And like Tim said, this is sometimes peoples’ favorite thing, where they can get together with people and talk about what really interests them, and then just put it up there and say, “hey, this is what I’m interested in, is anybody else?” And, you have enough people there, that this can happen. That is kind of the backbone of this thing, as an Unconference. Whoever shows up, and what they want to show up, let’s see if that flies, and that other people want to talk about it.
TIM: So, locally, this is a lot like a minibar. And, actually, some of the first events, sort of, Unconferences, I saw in tech were called bar camps, and I think, minibar evolved out of that. Minibar is a local event where anybody…for the last few years they’ve been doing it at Best Buy…they have like 15-20 different rooms available, and anybody can say, “hey, I want to talk about x.” Then people vote on sessions and depending on the number of votes, you get assigned a room. So, sessions that get a lot of votes, get big rooms, and sessions with smaller votes, get small rooms. But there’s no curating of the topics. Anybody can nominate something. In that case it’s all done online, in advance, so when you show up that day, the sessions have already been nominated. In our case, we’re doing the same thing, except that you can show up that day, and propose a topic. So, the Drupal version of this is BOFs. I think in other communities they have other names for a similar thing. But, they all come from the same spirit.
WILBUR: Yea, let’s define that term too, right, a BOF. That’s a Drupal term. BOF is “birds of a feather” and that comes from birds of a feather flock together. This is just trying to organize people loosely into things that people are interested in talking about. That gets kind of formalized at Drupal camps and DrupalCon, where they have BOF boards, and locations where people can just put up a BOF suggestion and people check the board, and then they’ll come and join sessions, and talk about different topics.
IVAN: Thanks for defining that Wilbur. I have to be honest and say, it took me about a year to figure out what the heck a BOF was. I think I saw it, someone had written it on a whiteboard, and then in smaller letters, it was defined at the bottom of the board, and I was so relieved when I saw that that’s what it meant. It does make a lot of sense. BOFs.
TIM: I think BOFs work well at DrupalCon, because there’s so many people that know about them, that have done them before. One of the reasons we started planning this special event was, in our local camp every year, we have a BOF board, and we invite people to schedule BOFs. But most people don’t know what they are, there’s the competing sessions going on and, I don’t think it works really well, I mean, it’s there as an option. Some people use it. We’ve gotten better at doing it in our local Drupal camp over the last few years, have gotten more people doing BOFs. It’s still hard and it’s competing with the regular sessions. So, by having this straight up Unconference, we just sort of give people permission and turn the whole conference over to that format.
IVAN: I love that idea. Then you don’t have the need to compete with regularly scheduled sessions. Can we talk about where the Unconference is happening? Tim, maybe you could tell us about the location.
TIM: We’re doing it at a place called Real World One, which is offices associated with Silicon Prairie Portal Online. They are a client and collaborator of my company's, and I work out of their space, which made it readily accessible. Wilbur talked earlier about one of the big advantages this event, this low overhead in terms of planning. The biggest challenge in having an event like this, is probably having a good facility for it, and I think the facility we have is going to be excellent. We have whiteboards all over the place, we’ll be able to put signs up on the wall, we have a couple of small meeting rooms. It’s going to be just a great venue for this kind of an event. It’s on Cleveland, right off of 94, the sort of midway area of St. Paul.
IVAN: So, we’ll link to the address, and of course, we’ll link to the registration page in the show notes and in the transcription as well, but you said it was the Silicon Prairie Portal and Exchange and that’s on Cleveland Avenue North in St. Paul? (475 Cleveland Ave N, St Paul, MN 55104)
IVAN: So, it’s in St. Paul, it’s available to anyone to attend, it’s on Saturday, October 13th. You think it will start around 9, and it should end around 5. And you are providing lunch as well and are requesting a registration?
WILBUR: A couple reasons for the registration, one, we want to get people to register that and then give them a little skin in the game, so, we’re just collecting enough money to buy lunch for people. Tim’s gotten the space for free, so we don’ have to pay for that. We’ll provide some coffee. I think the last session of the day we’re going to call the beer session. Maybe that’ll have people stick around a little later, and maybe that session will be a little more lubed, a little more interesting. We’re not here to make any money on this. This is Tim's and my passion, to have these kind of conversations and further our occupational skills. Like I say, having that registration fee gives people a little impetus to get there, and then they’ll get a lunch out of the deal. It’s a fair deal for everybody. I think it’ll be a good event. We hope that the right people are there to make this really something that’s of value to everyone.
TIM: When we say a little bit, we’re talking $13.13. (laughing) The event is on the 13th, and Wilbur is a big fan of prime numbers, he tells me. So, that’s where that came from. For $13.13 you get the whole day of events, plus lunch.
IVAN: And where can people go to register for the event Wilbur?
WILBUR: Bitly address is bitly.com/tcoscms, that’s for Twin Cities Open Source CMS.
IVAN: Great! So, that’s bitly.com/tcoscms.
WILBUR: Yes. That’s also our twitter handle and our hashtag, so we’re a totally unified front.
IVAN: Now, I was going to ask about the beer hour at the end. I was going to ask also about sponsorship. If there was a company out there that wanted to give you money, would that actually be okay in the format of an Unconference? Or, do you try to steer clear of these kinds of things? Because you don’t want this to be influenced or biased in any certain way, I would imagine, if it’s an Unconference?
WILBUR: I don’t think we’re too worried about being biased on this. The space will accommodate about 50 people. There’s a pretty large open space that people can sort of go to corners and we could have a big open assembly in. There’s a couple of side offices, where we can have breakout sessions in, so it’s a great space for about 50 people to hang out for the day. We don’t have a lot of costs, so, the $13.13 will pay for your lunch and a cup of coffee in the morning, and a donut, and some cookies in the afternoon. It’s only 50 people, so if we spend a little more than that, we’re not overly exposed. For us, we just thought it would be a little bit cleaner to run it this way, that it’s just come and show up, there’s no corporate sponsors. If you’re a sponsor, just come and show up and present some ideas, but this is really, let’s say, on a smaller scale, where it’s a little bit easier for us to run with this thing. I know that when we do our Drupal camp, it’s really getting the space, and all the things really turn into a lot of money, and that’s where sponsors really help out.
TIM: That’s all true. One of the things we did do, and Wilbur and I haven’t talked about this yet, but at a Twin Cities Drupal open house, we did have a table if anyone wanted to bring literature and stuff. So, we don’t have sponsors, there isn’t any big advertising, there won’t be any tables, but, I think we would probably be fine having, sort of, a literature table if anybody had an event, or wanted to bring their business cards and lay them out, they can do that.
IVAN: Well, I wish you guys the very best of luck in this endeavor. I hope that the Unconference is a monumental success. I kind of felt bad, because I thought that I would really like to attend, and that I won’t be able to attend for the whole day, and then I realized one of the rules are, it’s whenever it starts it’s the right time, whenever it’s over, it’s over, and, I would imagine that flows through to the people who are attending as well. So, I’m going to be signing up here, and I might only be able to attend for a little while, but I think it’s okay that that’s the case.
TIM: It’s absolutely okay, Ivan. I think there’s an advantage to being there all day, but if you can only come for an hour or two, that’s totally acceptable, and we’d love to have you.
IVAN: Wonderful. So then, we’ll see you there. So, you guys are on Twitter @tcoscms. You can register for the Unconference at bitly.com/tcoscms. Wilbur and Tim, thank you both for joining me on the Podcast. Good luck. Would you join us in a month or so, when the Unconference is done, so we can get some feedback and hear how it went?
TIM: We’d love to do that.
WILBUR: Absolutely, Ivan. It was great to be back and talk about it. Thank you for spreading the word about it. We need as much help with that as we can get out there and tweet, and let people know.
TIM: Yea, anybody listening. Please help us spread the word, because this is a new event, and we just need to get the word out there about it.
IVAN: You’ve been listening to the TEN7 Podcast. Find us online at ten7.com/podcast. And if you have a second, do send us a message. We love hearing from you. Our email address is [email protected]. Until next time, this is Ivan Stegic. Thank you for listening.