TechCamp Memphis 2014

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A first-person view of my TechCamp 2014 experience. For a more comprehensive look at the day, check out the #TechCampMemphis tag on Twitter and the official TechCamp website.

Breakfast

This was my first year as a TechCamp volunteer, so I arrived bright and early on a frigid (for Memphis) morning to help set up. Lucky for me, Brittney's Bites catored breakfast, and I got first dibs on the cinnamon rolls.

Key Takeaways:

  • Cinnamon Rolls are awesome
  • I still despise cold weather

The Keynote

Brian Swanson started off the day with a touching dedication to the late Dave Barger - originator of Tech Camp and champion of the Memphis Tech community - and a moment of silence to #RememberDave. We all hope to continue raising the the tech tide with the spirit of Dave at our side.

Following Brian was a keynote address by Chago Santiago - former VP of IT at AutoZone. Unbeknownst to most of the crowd, Chago spent a good portion of his career as an Air Force officer at NORAD protecting us from Soviet aggressors, rubbing elbows with Margaret Thatcher, and observing unidentified flying objects from outer space (which he will neither confirm nor deny).

Mr. Santiago had some very compelling anecdotes from his career and always made a point to relate them to his key points of building a successful career in tech:

  • Always keep learning
  • Take advantage of opportunity
  • Don't be afraid to take risks

A few surprises from his talk stuck with me. He made an important distinction between programming and software engineering in that programming without a process is similar to creating a work of art - it takes a lot of personal creativity, but the result is often highly personal and cannot be deconstructed and changed for the future. A work of art is static, whereas and engineered solution is part of a process that allows for constant change.

Also, he mentioned that Memphis is fertile ground for tech talent, and that he had no trouble hiring capable employees at AutoZone. He gave a clear message to 'stay put' if you are looing for opportunities in tech.

Unfortunately the morning time slot was only 45 minutes total, with 30 dedicated to Chago's talk. It seemed that just as he was hitting his stride, it was time to go. Hopefully this won't be the last we hear from him.

Key Takeaways:

  • Dave Barger is sorely missed.
  • Wildly successful careers in tech are possible in Memphis.
  • Attitude is just as important as ability in shaping a career in technology. Unpleasant challenges should be viewed as opportunities for change and innovation.
  • Programming is only a small part of software engineering.
  • 30 minutes is not adequate for a keynote address.

Dev 101

My morning was spent in the Developer 101 track acting as a mentor and facilitator. The session was intended to allow attendees to complete a set of self-directed tutorials prepared by Gerald Lovel with the guidance of several mentors. The tutorials are all available on Geriald's website at develop.aaltsys.info. Gerald and I were able to round up a set of linux machines to provide a clean slate for students to utilize for the lessons as well.

The actual attendance was pretty low, however, and at one point there were more mentors than students. It turned out OK, as the attendees that did show up all got one-on-one attention.

I spent the marjority of the time working speaking with a young fellow looking to get started in a career in web development. After running through one of the prepared lessons, we chatted a bit about self-learning, the job market, and poked around with a little bit of code.

Despite the low turnout to the Dev 101 session, I still believe there is a demand for tech/dev related tutorials, workshops and educational events. Hopefully the newly formed Memphis Technology Foundation can shine a light on local programs that already exist, and help kickstart new initiatives for providing tech training in Memphis.

Key Takeaways:

  • Promote your event in advance to get people to show up.
  • People eager to learn make good students.
  • Self directed learning is hard, but finding (affordable) formal tech education is also a challenge.

Lunch

Three years ago at TechCamp I went through the buffet line and faced a not-uncommon problem for introverts around the world - take the safe route and sit alone, or swallow my anxiety and sit with strangers. I don't actually remember what I did then, but this year I had a completely opposite conundrum...

Over the past two years, I've attended user groups, social events, tech events, and even started a new meetup group. In other words, I dove head first into the #memtech community and was repaid in kind with a great group of friends and acquaintances.

So this year after I worked my way through the BBQ buffet line I was greeted with a room full of familiar faces, and my challenge was to decide which of these great folks I should sit with. It was nice.

Key Takeaways:

  • The Memphis Tech Community is welcoming and friendly.
  • I have a real problem saying no to a third helping of pulled pork.

Brad's Marketing Talk

The first session I was able to attend was given by Brad Montgomery entitled, "My Startup Failed and It's All Marketing's Fault." It was a poignant account of the rise and fall (mostly fall) of his startup company Work For Pie and a cautionary tale for new and existing entrepreneurs to pay more attention to marketing.

Tales of personal suffering are always captivating, but aside from that, Brad has a knack for public speaking and definitely continued his tradition of excellent presentations. It takes guts to admit failure, and a special kind of person to not only learn from his own mistakes, but help others learn from them as well.

Key Takeaways:

  • Engineering as Marketing is a thing. Widgets, APIs and micro-sites are effective marketing tools.
  • Many (most?) hugely successful startups achieved massive growth through strategic partnerships. And nobody talks about it.
  • Making mistakes and failing at stuff sucks. But you learn and move on.

Daniel's Funhouse

The second session of my afternoon was Daniel Pritchett's Stupid Programming Tricks workshop. Daniel did his best to live code and demo some fun hardware/toys, but as anyone who has ever presented at a tech conference knows: live demos and code will never, ever work, no matter how many times it was successful at home.

Here's the best part, though. As Daniel was presenting, members of the audience wouldn't hesitate to troubleshoot and shout out suggestions. Not only that, a few people got up and jumped into the drivers seat to fix some Sphero code, or volunteer an API key, or help hook up some wires to apples and bananas, or present the latest greatest IRC bot script.

It was less of a presentation/workshop, and more like a bunch of pals hanging out in someone's garage tinkering around with toys and code. I'm not sure if this as Daniel's intent, but it was a lot of fun and I commend him for taking a risk on a more 'interactive' format for his session.

Key Takeaways:

  • Using fruit as a keyboard is generally a bad idea.
  • I need to spend less time working, and more time in IRC.
  • Twilio makes it way too easy to make prank calls.
  • I'm not the only one who has no idea what to do with Sphero.

Nathanael Talks About SVG

The third and final presentation I attended was given by one of my co-workers, Nathanael Smith. His presentation on using SVGs on the web was jam packed with useful information and practical tips on using vectors in a web project. And for someone relativley young and new to conference speaking, his delivery and content were pretty spot-on.

The only problem was hardly anyone was around to hear it :(

There were about three attendees in the audience that weren't Nathanael's co-workers. From what I gathered, most of the other sessions were just a sparsely populated. A good portion of the 80+ conference-goers for the day had decided they'd had enough, which was a shame. Lucklily Nathanael is a good sport, and we can probably provide a bigger, better audience at a Web Workers meetup sometime in the near future.

Key Takeaways:

  • You absolutely should be using SVG on your website.
  • Vector animation is neat, and no longer requires Flash.
  • We need to figure out a way to keep people from leaving TechCamp early.

The End

By the time the closing remarks rolled around, the crowd was mostly organizers, volunteers, and #memtech regulars. We congratulated ourselves on a job well done, and helped ourselves to leftover T-Shirts.

Overall I think the day was a success. A few hiccups are natural to an all-volunteer event. The mission of preserving the momentum started by Dave Barger and inducting a new generation of TechCamp organizers was accomplished. Until next year!