Weekend Code Camps Provide Free Training, Networking for Developers

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By and for the developer community. Never occur during work hours. Always free.

These are the tenets of the Code Camp Manifesto, a set of laws originally authored by Microsoft evangelist Thom Robbins and intended for Code Camp, a localized “unconference” where coders — amateurs and professionals — converge in one venue for an entire weekend to absorb lectures and learn new skills in areas where their technical proficiency is lacking.

Given its participant-driven dynamic and aversion to high fees, sponsored presentations and top-down organizations, Code Camp already appears to have a noble purpose. It may surprise folks to learn that the movement benefits conference participants, particularly speakers, in a highly personal way.

Free, Technical and Local

“Code Camps are a free and open environment for technical content and technical topics,” said Woody Pewitt, director of the Southern California branch of Code Camp. “The idea here is that you never have to be worrying about email or an interruption from a phone call since it’s outside of work hours; it’s localized, so whether you’re on the East or West Coast, you’re likely to find a camp near your community; and the biggest thing — it’s completely free.”

Essentially, Pewitt explained, Code Camp is like a giant programmers’ conference where a schedule on various coding topics is announced ahead of time. Each participant builds a schedule to accommodate sessions on technologies and skills they wish to brush up on, or even learn from scratch.

“But it is a little less structured than a real conference,” Pewitt admitted. “In other words, it isn’t guaranteed that you’re going to learn everything you want to on a particular topic. Participants may find that the sessions on the topics they’re interested in are less advanced or more advanced than they’d hoped. You have to feel it out and go from there.”

Back when it first got its start on the East Coast, Code Camp was a Microsoft-only event that was mostly held after work hours. Fortunately, Robbins never laid claim to the Code Camp branding, and shortly thereafter, Code Camps cropped up in multiple communities, each with their own local flavor. Universities, with plenty of available rooms and wide open spaces, are typically rented out for the events — on the West Coast, it rotates among Cal State Fullerton, UCSD and USC, Pewitt said.

Code Camps last for two days, usually a Saturday and Sunday, and sometimes have hundreds of different sessions from which to choose (depending on the size of the particular Code Camp branch). Topics can range from Javascript and HTML5 sessions to cloud computing and even seemingly unrelated subjects.

“Anything coding is part of Code Camp,” Pewitt told us. “I had one guy do a session on the tax code and why it needs to be changed. Generally, I just make the call that as long as it’s not obscene, it’s fair game.”

Code Camp Culture

The people in the community, including both attendees and speakers, comprise the most essential part of Code Camp. And in terms of participant composition, Code Camp is filled with a lot of the types of folks you might expect.

“Think a lot of Sheldons, and no chicks,” Pewitt laughed in response to our question of what kind of culture exists among participants in these programming camps. “Well, that’s not right. It’s a lot more diverse now, including some women and older teens. I don’t have any hard demographics. But it’s easily 80 percent mid-career developer guy, and the rest is hit or miss.”

Organizers like Pewitt make quite the effort to push socialization within these events, especially since the gatherings can be valuable opportunities for networking and career advancement. Yet the truth of the matter is there is still an undeniable prevailing disposition amongst participants: They are often painfully — and prohibitively — shy. This can be a real problem, especially among speakers who flub their lines during a lecture, then never recover.

Forced Out of the Comfort Zone

Since the camps operate on a completely free basis, speakers must find invest quite a bit of free time — after work, during the weekends or any extra time that would otherwise be spent on leisure activities — to ready their talks.

But not all Code Camp speakers are shy. Doris Chen, a senior developer evangelist at Microsoft, identifies herself as a “technical person” but also “a speaker in multiple developer communities,” particularly among HTML5 and Javascript folks. A veteran lecturer in general, Chen speaks in front of crowds often, whether on a pro bono basis (as in Code Camp) or as part of her regular job.

But what really equalizes her with the rest of the Code Camp community is her unswerving passion to keep the latest techniques and information flowing. She has spoken at the camp consistently every year for the past six years, preparing lectures for about a month and a half before her talk is scheduled, on her own time. And she’s happy to do it.

“Normally, I do travel all over the world to engage with developers in the community, including meetups,” said Chen. “But I always give talks, because I just feel participating this way is more fun.

“I do think it takes up your time,” Chen admits, “but a lot of times, developers are pretty busy people, and sometimes don’t have the money or time to get additional training. That’s where Code Camp comes into the picture. It’s mostly a personal fulfillment.”

Chen’s doing quite well for herself. At the Silicon Valley Code Camp, about 350 people show up for her talks, making them some of the most highly attended talks at the event.

Other Code Camp speakers don’t have as much of a following, but their experiences have been just as valuable. A senior applications and Web developer for a law firm in downtown Los Angeles, Hattan Shobokshi had been attending Code Camp as a participant for quite some time when some of his fellow attendees with whom he was interacting noted that he was particularly knowledgeable in some programming languages. They encouraged him to give a talk.

“I remember thinking, ‘Oh, I can’t do this,’” Shobokshi said when we asked about the experience. “But the others pushed, and I got some preliminary advice from other speakers and went for it — and it was amazing.”

The thing to note is Shobokshi’s speech disorder — he has always had a stutter. At Code Camp, though, things were different.

“I see it all the time where the participants will pick up on the speakers needing a little bit of help,” Shobokshi said, “and they’ll kind of guide them along the way, asking a particular line of questions or making suggestions to help them out if, say, the code doesn’t work as planned.”

Shobokshi said he initially saw Code Camp as a platform where he could practice speaking in front of a lot of people, and now he’s become completely comfortable. “I have people coming up to me all the time saying how impressed they are that I was able to deliver a lecture with my speech impediment,” he said. “I tell them, ‘If I can do it, so can you.’”

A Sense of Community

As with any other profession, in programming one must do community work in order to get recognized in a big way. Pewitt acknowledged this, and saw the value in how Code Camp might bolster people’s careers. That’s when he started trying to coax talented participants to share their knowledge as formal Code Camp speakers.

“I used to encourage people, if you want to get recognized by Microsoft or the greater community overall, this is a great place. Nobody’s paying anything. We encourage attendees to get up and walk out of sessions they’re not enjoying — so it’s not a big deal if you flub your presentation. Practice your sessions at Code Camp, learn to be that community leader and start getting recognized.”

In a world obsessed with patenting ideas, keeping assets to ourselves and driving a flashier car than the next developer, Code Camps are a wonderful reprieve. Information is shared freely, people are not judged and anyone can make the jump from unknown to superstar. Who knew the geek-topia was offline?

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