What is a DevCamp?

DevHouse + BarCamp = DevCamp

While the event is still fairly fresh in my mind, I wanted to take a moment to extract some of the elements that I think made iPhoneDevCamp such a success. I’d like to put down my thoughts on how others can emulate our model towards yet another extension of the community-run, grassroots-driven event known as BarCamp — into a new style of event that shall be called DevCamp*.

You’ll note that in the original logo deliberations for iPhoneDevCamp I was very intentional about not including iPhone-specific artwork in the mark, instead choosing something more generic to the idea of building or construction. Fortunately Louie Mantia pitched in and was able to help me refine some of the ideas that I had and we ended up with the logo above — which you can download in vector form.

Anyway, getting back to the event itself…

First and foremost, the event set out to capture the spirit of four successful event models before it: SuperHappyDevHouse, BarCamp, Mash Pit and Mac Hack. It helped a great deal to have had experience running those events before and we relied on our collective instincts to keep the event flowing and ensuring that the participants were both enjoying themselves and contributing to the overall atmosphere of the event.

Equally important in the success of the event were the people involved. It was a rare privilege to work with such dedicated and passionate folks and I really can’t say enough how much the model of selflessness Raven Zachary, Christopher Allen, Dominic Sagolla, Blake Burris, Whurley, Jerry Murray and countless others portrayed over the weekend. First time participants eagerly volunteered their energies to improving the event for others in incremental but crucial ways. In all my experiences with BarCamps, DevHouses and DevCamps, the lesson is consistently that these events are all about the people who come together for each other — and go out of their way to improve the experience of their fellow campers.

It’s truly remarkable to see, but I’ve seen it over and over again and I think it’s at the heart of what’s been called the “Spirit of BarCamp“. iPhoneDevCamp was no different and carried forth a tradition that’s come to define our community and the events that we host.

Moving right along…

An essential aspect of this event, like the first BarCamp, was implicitly “embracing the chaos” as we like to say. The first BarCamp was organized in six days and catered to nearly 300 people. iPhoneDevCamp was planned in only three weeks and catered to nearly 400 (if not more). We were able to cobble together an incredible venue stemming from a simple tweet. We pulled in over forty sponsors who provided. When Raven originally put out the call to Whurley and me about throwing this event, we had no idea how it might turned out — and embracing that uncertainty and being transparent about our progress lead us to be open to the twists and turns along the way that ultimately resulted in an incredibly worthwhile experience.

In fact, Christopher Allen’s participation didn’t materialize into much later into the event planning process. His desire to rekindle aspects of the original Mac Hack that he chaired in 1993 lead us to step back and encourage Chris to take the reigns and bring his experience to bear. Sure enough, he did a fantastic job of guiding the Hack-a-thon and presiding as master of ceremonies. He was able to deftly get people on the same page and describe how we were to work with one another and really join in the spirit of collaboration and learning.

It was this aspect of education that I hoped would resonate most with participants — and that with an open atmosphere where no question was off limits, we’d see some really interesting and inspiring thinking about how to embrace the constraints of the iPhone as an opportunity palette — and to really push what might seem conventionally possible with just a cell phone with an internet connection and a web browser.

I would argue that it was the imposition of external and topical constraints that lead to such enormous focus and productivity. I’d add to that the utter necessity of having a widely diverse assortment of skilled participants in attendance in order to be able to approach problems from multiple perspectives and skillsets and to not accept simple technical limitations as barriers to executing on a vision. As Kent Bye put it:

Twitter / KentBye: DevCamp model of connecting teams of IA/Designers, coders & UI testers to create projects is a lot more productive than BarCamp-style demos

Again, I think this underscores my point that is a good thing, simply because it enriches the fabric of the intelligence available for solving problems in new and unexpected ways. It’s no surprise that Tilt, one of the favorite apps of the camp, was developed by a small but diverse team made up of a game designer, an artist, a couple developers and a documentary filmmaker.

So the best design pattern that I would extract from this event comes, historically, from Chris Allen’s experience at Mac Hack and deserves something of a brief retelling:

On Saturday morning, the organizers were huddled in the ops room reviewing how to most appropriately award the incredible schwag our sponsors had donated. We had a bunch of iPod and iPhone add-ons, a number of tchotchkes and other ephemera, but we also had a couple iPhones, a couple Adobe Creative Suite Design Premium packs and various other top quality prizes… but we wanted to make sure that we had an equitable way to distribute the prizes. We started brainstorming:

“We could do a raffle.”

“We could have a hack contest for best app.”

Chris Allen broke into the discussion and told us that instead what they used to do at Mac Hack was reward participation and helpfulness. He proposed that staff get 100 or so total “special tickets” that we’d pass out throughout the event to people who were being the most helpful, the most constructive or generally contributing something to the event that didn’t necessarily directly benefit themselves. These special tickets were the ones that would be used for the big prizes drawing — the iPhones and Creative Suites — and the regular tickets would be dispensed as people arrived as an incentive for sticking around for the entire event.

By focusing on helpfulness and enculturating a spirit of coopetition, we avoided zero-summing the event by encouraging and refocusing energy on sharing, co-educating and building things collaboratively. Eventually people were having so much fun doing pure experimentation and hacking that they forgot all about the prize tickets… providing the perfect opportunity to swoop in and reward their participation. All in all, this approach worked extremely well and is a pattern, again, that I think should survive iPhoneDevCamp and carry forth into other such DevCamps.

To bring this all together — what I’m most proud of out of this event is how it brought people together to solve (or at least hack on) some pretty challenging and vexing problems and to do so with utter abandon, wearing one’s passion on her or his sleeve. It was an opportunity to learn in an open environment where diversity and raw talent were at a premium. There was no room for posturing or pretentiousness. And I think for folks not familiar with the camp community, like Michelle Quinn of the LA Times, this was a novelty and not something that she’s used to at conferences or events.

And I think it’s a testament to those involved and those who helped organize the event that we’ve set the bar exceedingly high for subsequent iterations. Like BarCamp and SuperHappyDevHouse before it, DevCamp offers a free, compelling, low-cost event model for organizing people around their passions. While there is already talk of subsequent iPhoneDevCamps, there is also interest in extending the model already. I’m excited to see how people can take this original design and stay true the values of openness, diversity, education, and the passionate pursuit of ideas and expertise.

came before Raven’s creation of the iPhoneDevCamp name. I believe Raven coined the name independent of the prior event but seems like a good idea to extend the name outward, while we have momentum.

Author: Chris Messina

Head of West Coast Business Development at Republic. Ever-curious product designer and technologist. Hashtag inventor. Previously: Molly.com (YC W18), Uber, Google.

7 thoughts on “What is a DevCamp?”

  1. Salut
    Genius blogpost. Fantastically described.
    Thanks for this detailed explanation

  2. This is a great post, Chris, we’ve been keeping it in mind as we plan WidgetDevCamp (in DC no less!). I’d love your advice as we put it together, btw, if you ever wanna chat via an appropriate channel…

  3. Thanks for the excellent overview of what a devCamp is. Will be linking back to you post rather than explaining it myself in the next couple of days 🙂

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