Charlottesville's First-Ever 'Unconference,' Sponsored by U.Va., Draws Raves From Participants

June 21, 2007 -- Last weekend, more than 75 Web technology and design professionals gathered at the Fry’s Spring Beach Club for Charlottesville's first-ever “unconference” on advanced Web technologies, called beCamp. Participants, some from as far away as Boston and San Francisco, were responsible for creating every aspect of the two-day beCamp — from deciding discussion topics to setting the schedule and volunteering supplies. The results included a "geek" guitar band jamming during the kickoff party, a Nintendo Wii available for gaming and numerous enthusiastic roundtable discussions. Participant Anson Parker, a local Web programmer, said the event was “the coolest thing the University has ever sponsored.”

The idea of a “summer camp for geeks” first came to organizer Steve Stedman about a year-and-a-half ago. Stedman, a University of Virginia Webmaster, had already founded beTech, an informal network of U.Va. Web developers focused on “bleeding edge” technology, and wanted to hold a major knowledge-sharing event for members. But orchestrating the logistics of a conference seemed daunting, and he wasn’t sure he could do it alone.

“Then I heard about this international ‘BarCamp’ movement, where the attendees organize their own conference, on-the-fly,” Stedman said. “It’s the open-source software philosophy applied to the real world. And a light bulb just went off in my head: ‘We could really do this'.”

So, Stedman enlisted some fellow geeks as volunteers, and secured a venue — the historic and quirky Fry’s Spring Beach Club. Then the magic began. At first, some were nervous. How could an event come together with no one signed up to make presentations, or to bring food, flip charts, or T-shirts — 10 days out? “I just had faith it was all going to work out,” said Stedman.

He was right. During the week before the conference, things started falling into place. U.Va.’s Department of Information Technology and Communication (ITC) picked up the tab for T-shirts; local businesses provided free coffee and meals; one participant brought sound equipment; and countless others provided wireless routers and power cords to their fellow attendees.

Then, at the conference, still others contributed. “We had people leading roundtable discussions on Web technologies; we had a geek band jamming on their guitars during the kickoff party; we had people signing up to work the registration table or go on trash duty,” Stedman noted. “When participants understood that the success of their conference was their responsibility, everyone wanted to play a role. And when it turned out well, everyone had such a sense of ownership and accomplishment. There were so many small victories that everyone could savor.”

Organizing the event agenda itself was one of those small victories. The sessions were coordinated democratically: “basically the entire group enumerated the topics they would like to either learn about or lead a dialog on,” said attendee Mel Riffe, a software developer in Richmond. Then everyone voted on their top preferences. “Very cool — a conference where the attendees set the sessions they're interested in! Very cool, indeed.”

Then, others coordinated when and where all the most popular sessions would be offered by moving around giant Post-It Notes until the agenda worked. “It really took a group effort to make the program, but everyone felt so excited about just making the schedule. That’s the beauty of the unconference format,” said Stedman.

Unconference discussion topics included Web page accessibility for visitors with disabilities, Charlottesville's technology scene, Web design for the design-challenged, computer game development, and lots of talk about advanced Web programming technologies like Ruby on Rails.

Participants raved about how well the event turned out. “I had a great time even though I'm not a hard-core coder type,” said Leslie Johnston, director of Digital Services Integration at the U.Va. Library. beCamp truly “made history,” noted co-organizer and U.Va.  Java programmer Erik Hatcher. “It was awesome seeing all the geeks in C-ville in one place,” Parker said.

"I am delighted by the great success of the first beCamp," said Mike McPherson, U.Va. associate vice president and deputy chief information officer. "Steve deserves kudos for believing in his vision and for recruiting others to bring their talents and gifts to this great event," he continued. "BeCamp is a fine example of the best ways in which the University and the local community work together to make Charlottesville and Virginia a great place to live and work."

Stedman added: “When it was all over, everyone was so jazzed … already planning the next beCamp, and just bouncing off the walls with excitement.” All that free coffee probably helped.