Yesterday, I attended Day Camp for Developers: Soft Skills. Wait. Hmm. Do you say "attend" when the thing is not a "real" conference but happens online? Shouldn't that be "watched"?
So what was it, really? The idea was to do an online conference on the topic of "soft skills", aimed at developers. Five presenters each talked about one topic. The presentations were streamed live via GoToWebinar. As a participant / viewer, you got to see their slides (and, sometimes, their computer's desktop) and hear their voice. You did not see the presenters. Since the presenters couldn't see their audience either, this had the potential to become a series of five 1-hour monologues. Fortunately, this isn't what happened.
Let's start with the facts: Cal Evans organized the conference (let's call it that). The lineup of speakers and their topics was:
- Lorna Jane Mitchel: Open Source your career
- Elizabeth Naramore: Technical Writing
- Scott Gordon: Rocking your resume
- Brian Prince: Actively managing your career
- Josh Holmes: So you want to be an architect
This was a good mix of topics that covered concrete tips as well as more inspirational talks. All of them are experienced speakers who know their topic well and could also present well (as far as that is possible within the restraints of this particular setup). So that alone was well worth the time and small admission fee (and I think those who couldn't make it to watch it live will still get their money's worth out of the recordings).
However, the fun thing about "real" conferences as opposed to webcasts is the interactive element and the socialising and the chance to talk to the speakers afterwards over a beer (or other drink of your choice). How well does that translate over the web?
Since the speakers and audience couldn't see each other, there wasn't really a chance to ask questions during the talk, unless the speaker remembered to stop and check (kudos to Scott Gordon for doing that). Cal took questions via the GoToWebinar app, where you could type them in, and apparently via voice as well (I didn't bother using a headset) and forwarded them to the speakers, usually at the end of their talk. So that provided some form of interactivity.
The real fun, however, happened in the IRC channel. I got the impression that it had been set up more as an afterthought, but I think it proved to be a vital part of the experience. Between 30 and 40 people (including some of the speakers) were in the channel at all times, picking up quotes from the presentations and commenting on them or discussing related topics. There were some great insights posted there, as well as links to all kinds of resources. If you weren't there, you missed a good bit of additional input.
This was the first Day Camp for Developers, but more are planned (Cal mentioned on IRC that he thinks about running it twice per year). Given that, there weren't any real snafus or technical issues.
There was some initial confusion about the start, since all times were given in CDT. I thought I had it figured out and decided to check in an hour early, "just in case". And just when I was about to do that, I saw @lornajane's tweet that her talk was about to start in 10 minutes, so I really was off by an hour. Adding to the confusion was the fact that the event happened on a weekend after Europe had switched back from DST but the US hadn't yet. Next time, can we have the times in UTC, please?
The GoToWebinar applet worked just fine. The only issue there was more of an organizational one: Apparently, there was only a fixed number of slots available and when people logged out during the "lunch break" and logged back in later, they were counted twice and we ran out of slots. A restart of the entire webinar session fixed that.
Sound quality was pretty good overall, with the exception of the last session. I guess the problem was really on Josh's end and there wasn't much that the organizers could have done about it at that point. I didn't experience any lag or dropouts, even on my not-so-fast (by today's standards) 2048 kbit/s DSL connection.
What else? As an attendee, this sort of conference requires some self-discipline. It's just too easy to be distracted by email or twitter and suddenly you realize that you spent five minutes surfing the web instead of listening to the speaker. One fellow attendee solved this by streaming the sessions to his TV. Makes it a bit harder to be on IRC though, I guess. I did some streaming on my end, too: I streamed the sound to the speakers in the kitchen and the living room (thanks to Airport Express and Airfoil), so that I could get up without missing too much during a talk. I did spend almost all of the time in front of the computer screen, though.
In summary, this was an afternoon and evening well spent on a couple of interesting and thoughtful talks. Other than the face-to-face contact, there wasn't really much missing from this form of a conference over the real thing. I'm already looking forward to the next installment.
- The FrOSCon version of Lorna Jane's talk: Open Source Your Career
- Slides for Josh Holmes' talk: So you want to be an architect
- Event feedback on joind.in
- Twitter: #dc4d
- Cal's wrapup post
- A more detailed review of the sessions by Jeff Carouth
Please email me for details.