This past weekend I was at the Columbia Code Camp, which was a rousing success with 6 tracks, a number of great speakers, and 165 attendees. This despite freezing rain and losing some speakers from North Carolina due to the weather. I was a volunteer and speaker (last minute on this one, to fill a slot for a speaker we lost due to the inclement weather), and I wanted to write a little about why volunteering for a Code Camp or SQL Saturday may be a rewarding experience. I've come up with four things I think one gains by volunteering. They are:
The purpose of a code camp or SQL Saturday is to provide free training to IT professionals. They do tend to occur during the weekend. And if you're not a volunteer, it's easy to find a reason not to go. But when you're a volunteer, you know folks are counting on you, so you feel an additional responsibility to show. And once you get on-site, you get to attend the sessions during the time you're not volunteering. For instance, this past Carolina Code Camp I was able to hear great sessions from folks like Andy Kelly, and Jim Wooley. If I hadn't had to present, I would have been able to hear Alejandro Mesa's session, but alas it was at the same time as mine. I was proctoring the second of the two SQL tracks, or I would have made sure to hear John Welch, whose sessions were all in the first track. And all of this is provided FREE! You can't beat that.
Code Camps and SQL Saturdays are a great way to meet new people, people with like technical interests. Because of SQL Saturdays I've met folks like Jack Corbett, Rachel Hawley, Chris Rock (the .NET guy, not the comedian), Kevin Kline (the SQL guy, not the actor), Stuart Ainsworth, and Robert Cain. I've met folks like Alejandro at code camps. I've been able to build upon pre-existing relationships with guys like Andy Warren, Steve Jones, Brian Knight, John Welch, and Andy Kelly. They are real people, not just SQL and .NET gods, and you get to interact with them in the flesh. This is worth the time, in and of itself.
Learning How to Run Your Own
The Columbia Code Camp was run by Bobby Dimmick and C# MVP Chris Eargle. Chris has been to a lot of Code Camps and he had learned a lot about how one should run. Bobby is a naturally smart guy with a flare for organization and administration. Together they made a great team. One example of where previous experience came into play is the giving out of SWAG at the end. Chris found a neat application that automated the raffle drawings. It was originally in Ruby but he got permission and converted it to .NET. That thing probably saved an hour. Previous experience had shown him the need for one. By going to the other code camps, Chris was in a good position to help get one going in Columbia, which was nice. It's nice to do these local.
I need to say that if you've never run your own and you're not surrounded by folks who have run or been a part of conferences before, it can be a daunting task. When I first reported to the USAF, I was thrown into the middle of what was then called the Air Force Small Computer Conference as the special assistant to the conference chairman. A week long conference that averaged 3,500 attendees. There was a lot to do, from running down notepads (with a really nice organizer with it) that had to be put out to bid, to replacing a keynote speaker when HP's CEO pulled out, to handling the mess that was initial on-site registration once the conference began. But it prepared me well. The next year, I was co-chair of it and we renamed it the Air Force Information Technology Conference (AFITC). That year we had 5,000 attendees, video teleconferencing of keynotes, including a VTC session in to the conference attendees from then Secretary of the Air Force, Dr. Sheila Widnall, from her desk in Washington, D.C. I also participated in the next three on the technical side of things. Each time I volunteered, I was better equipped for the next one. And having done a big conference like AFITC, helping out with the Columbia Code Camp wasn't very stressful at all.
Learning Something More About Yourself
Every time I volunteer, I learn something more about myself. This particular time around I was less hands on and served more to assist Bobby Dimmick with questions and advice. Most of the time I was just a sounding board as he worked through issues that always come up in the planning for these types of things. That was a new role for me. I learned a lot more about listening to others and about the importance of letting folks work through some things on their own. I've always been in the midst of things, especially with the AFITC. Hands-on, immersed, with a ton to do and not a lot of time to do it. We always were scrambling. Planning for an AFITC began even before the current one concluded. We would start a week out setting up the site. And it seemed like there were always things to have to do the Sunday before with early check-in or Monday when the conference spun up. It was a great chance to watch a smart guy work through what needed to be done, come up with his own solutions, bounce them around a bit, and then see him execute. I know Bobby learned a ton and we're already talking about whether or not we can finally bring a SQL Saturday to Columbia, or perhaps even to Myrtle Beach, as Andy Kelly posed. We'll see.
So if you've not considered volunteering, please do. It's a great experience. You'll learn a lot, and not just in the sessions. You'll meet great people. And most of all, though I didn't list it as one of the big four, if things are done right (and even if they aren't), you should have a lot of fun. It takes a lot of energy, but at the end of the day, you get a huge sense of accomplishment as the event rockets through to completion. Find one near you, volunteer your time, and make yourself available, even if it's a stretch for you to do so. It is likely an experience you will enjoy and grow from.