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Ruby DCamp: What I learned on summer vacation

Posted: October 4th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Community, DCamp, Programming | 1 Comment »

Ruby DCamp is one of only a couple of my “can’t-miss” events of the year. This was my second time participating, and both times, I’ve come home with life-changing experiences. It’s incredibly special to me, and I want to share with you some of the reasons why.

What is Ruby DCamp, and what makes it so special?

Ruby DCamp is a code retreat and unconference (which I’ll describe later), and takes place about 45 minutes out of Washington D.C., in Virginia’s Prince William Forest state park.

It’s the brainchild of Evan Light, a Maryland-based Ruby developer and self-described hippie. It’s simple in concept: a three-day event, held in the forest, for programmers of all skill levels to get together, write code, socialize, and self-organize as a community.

What makes DCamp unlike most other events is a combination of the venue, the sessions, the community, and the event’s mission.

The venue

Unlike any other conference I’m aware of, DCamp takes place at a campground, the sort of idyllic summer camp depicted in movies and TV shows from the 1980′s and 90′s.

There’s no internet: it’s BYOWifi, and cell coverage is… meh. A lot of people (like me) don’t have tethering and have to borrow someone else’s device to connect.

The cabins are subdivided into rooms, with 2-4 cots per room. So there are some limitations on privacy and personal space.

The constraints imposed by the remote location, close quarters, and lack of connectivity are actually incredibly freeing. Without all the little caves we tend to retreat into, we’re encouraged to bump into one another, strike up conversations, and let serendipity happen.

Attendees wake up early, stumble into the bathrooms (which are about what you’d expect at a campground), and are ready for breakfast around 8. The conference proper starts at 9, breaks for lunch, and wraps at 6 each day.

The Format, Day 1: Code Retreat

Day 1 is a Code Retreat, which is a well-defined formula for honing programming skills. At DCamp, you pair up, work on solving Conway’s Game of Life for 45 minutes, follow up with a retrospective, and jump back in with a new pair programmer. Meanwhile, in each iteration, Evan throws a new wrench at you by adding a constraint.

One of the constraints is called “mute evil” pairing, where no speech is allowed, the code does all the talking, and the programmers are instructed to sort of antagonize one another through the code. It was all very challenging, and at times, frustrating.

By the end of Day 1, I was completely wiped out. It’s not my favorite part of DCamp, but in the discomfort there’s a tremendous amount of learning. It’d be quite difficult to spend a full day gaining that much exposure to people of varying skill levels, styles, preferences, and tools without learning a ton.

The Format, Day 2 & 3: Unconference

On Day 2 and 3, the group gets together and pitches each other on ideas for topics for the day. Then, you write down your proposed session and duct tape it to the wall.

Each member gets 5 votes. You cast your votes by dotting the duct-taped papers, they’re tallied, and Evan compiles it into a two-track schedule.

The schedule tends to fall into two tracks: one is code-oriented, and the other tends toward the philosophical.

Each track gathers at an end of the main cabin, and you’re free to “vote with your feet” and switch between tracks, spin off a session of your own, or just duck into your cabin for a nap. Or help out in the kitchen (more on that in a bit).

There’s also a third track for new Rubyists or non-programmers, held out on the picnic tables outside. For such a small group, it’s shocking how accommodating the schedule is for varying experience levels and interests. That’s the benefit of having the attendees determine the schedule, I suppose.

As for the sessions themselves, I’ll provide a “what I learned” section toward the end.

The Community

DCamp is essentially a self-organizing pop-up community. There’s no staff to speak of. Evan handles the logistics of making it happen, but once the camp starts, all sessions, planning, cooking, cleaning, and activities are the shared responsibility of the participants.

Some of the people there are well known in the community, and some are first-time programmers. But everyone pitches in, everyone teaches, everyone learns, and everyone enjoys each other’s company.

After dinner, it’s up to participants how they spend their time. Some retreat and read books, many bring card and board games, some hack on projects, and some just converse (you may not be surprised that I tend toward the latter).

I can’t overstate the quality of humans that DCamp attracts. It’s an awe-inspiring group of people. I’m still astonished at the backgrounds, knowledge, accomplishments, and depth of character of the people there. I actually feel a bit sad knowing that I don’t get to interact with many of them at that level more than once a year.

I got to hang out, code, and talk with some personal heroes of mine. I also met people who became new personal heroes to me.

The Food

It may seem strange to spend a section on the food, but DCamp has become known for taking food seriously: There are options for everyone from vegans to paleo adherents. Rather than burgers and hot dogs (as had been the case in prior years), the menu consists of a number of from-scratch items made in the dated, somewhat dangerous, but still-functioning industrial kitchen in the main cabin. This year, the food ranged from grilled portabello to a smoked whole pig (yes, seriously).

DCamp eats are also famous for improvisation. Last year, Brad Herrup made astonishingly good bread pudding from leftover hotdog buns, and this year we had to cut ice cream into cubes with knives, as we’d failed to remember an ice cream scoop.

The food in particular is a herculean task, from purchasing, to cooking, to cleaning. The kitchen is a hive of activity literally from dawn to dusk. Everyone gets a chance to participate: I had a couple of nights of dishes, and got my share of injuries while cooking 20 lbs. of pasta.

What I learned

One of my favorite things about returning for a second year was that it has become a yearly moment to reflect. I got to see the progress that my friends had made in the intervening year, and to realize how much of my own progress I’ve made.

Most importantly, I got to ponder on what I’m passionate about and what I want to accomplish by the next time DCamp rolls around.

Several of the sessions stand out in my mind:

Sexism in Programming: Sandi Metz and several other female attendees helped steer this delicate conversation, and the way the men participated made me proud to be a Rubyist. Without resorting to becoming “word police”, we can make the Ruby community a shining star for diversity until we reach 50% parity between men and women.

Raspberry Pi: I brought my Raspberry Pi (the $25 computer) and led a session on what they might be used for and how to get them set up. Even with technical difficulties with the TV, we had it all set up and running the programming language for kids called Scratch within the half hour session. (Later, we set up Ruby and Rails on it. That did not take half an hour.) I’m still terribly excited about the educational implications of this fun, approachable, and inexpensive computing platform.

If Money Weren’t An Issue: Adam Bachman (originally a philosopher and theologian by training) led a brave, deeply resonant conversation about the things we’d do if money weren’t an issue, or if failure weren’t an option. Pausing to think and openly discuss what we really want to be doing with our lives is not something I’d expected to participate in, but I’m so glad I did.

JRuby with Hiro Asahi: I learned more about JRuby, having used it for work in the past, but I was more struck with Hiro. He’s an example of the best of Ruby’s MINASWAN culture, and I was delighted to learn from him. (MINASWAN, for the uninitiated, stands for Matz [Ruby's creator] Is Nice And So We Are Nice.)

Visualizing code: Avdi Grimm posed an open question about how programmers visualize concepts in software, and it developed into a rich conversation complete with drawings by people in the group. Sandi Metz showed how she uses Keynote to create a sort of animation to take a complex refactor and explain it to people in a simple, accessible way. I am passionate about using drawings to communicate, and this made me want to really develop those skills.

Spreading the wealth: Another Avdi-led session, he shared how he believes that every software developer can define and create jobs. We may not be a part of the “one percent”, but our responsibility is to share some of the prosperity of software development by looking at parts of our work that can and should be hired out to (real, not virtual) assistants, and start defining new roles and jobs that may not even have been invented yet.

DCamp’s mission

A lot of conferences put together a vision or mission statement. Some craft a nice explanation about how it’s the “conference for people who X”. All of these are great, but DCamp couldn’t possibly do that, because its mission and ideals largely emerge from the community that shows up to participate.

But what makes DCamp so difficult to emulate is that it is very much Evan’s baby. Its soul is found in his gifts, dreams, frailties, and flaws. It simply would not exist without the combination of his love, stubbornness, desire to include and be included, and his deeply-held idealism.

DCamp is Evan’s dream of what utopia might be like, and he cultivates it carefully. And for a few days a year, a few of us get together and sample it. And for two consecutive years, it rang my psyche like a gong.

Thanks to Evan and the attendees for another great DCamp, and I hope to see old and new friends there again next year.