MidCamp: Chicago and my first time camp organizing

Chicago holds a special place in my heart for a few reasons. It is improv Mecca and I have lost a few friends to her stages over the years and continue to do so. It is also the home of Rock n Roll McDonalds, my favorite Wesley Willis song. And now it is home of the first DrupalCamp I ever helped organize, MidCamp 2017 at DePaul University Lincoln PARK campus.

This 4 day long event offered a full day of training on Thursday, two full days of sessions and a Sunday sprint day. I had volunteered to organize the last part. Having not ever done this before, I entered this trip with a bit of unusually nervous energy. Very fortunately for me the rest of the organizers made me feel very safe and supported and once again my MidCamp experience was awesome.

The Food And The Fun!

Thursday was trainings, but as with all Drupal events, there was room to Sprint as well. We had some simple box lunches with meat and cheese on wheat bread wrapped in plastic wrap. It has actually been a while since I had such a sandwich and it brought back memories of high school cafeteria lunches and vending machines at the factory I used to work at. Not unpleasant but a tad pedestrian given that the sprint room was in the student center and the air was thick with many varied food service options that ranged from BBQ pork sliders to teriyaki chicken bowls, soup bars to deli counter, sushi to pizza.

A small store with many types of food options, both hot and cold
DePaul’s Student Center Food Options

At the end of the Thursday Training/Sprint day, I was honored to attend the Speaker/Sponsor dinner held at The Red Lion Pub. This delightful English pub offered very charming decor with many books and WWII era posters on very high shelves and dark wood paneling to give it a homey study feel. The bar had my favorite vodka, a locally crafted one. This one was made from the same potatoes they used in the kitchen to make the french fries, Chipperbec. And speaking of the kitchen, there was a delightful assortment of food options, from fish and chips, to a vegan thai curry. Everything was top notch.
The food was only topped by the camaraderie I felt seeing many of my Drupal friends in person for the first time in many months. I left feeling stuffed and feeling really ready for the busy days still ahead.

Tired as I was, I still made time to go see an improv show that night over at The Annoyance. If I am envious of my Chicago friends for anything, it is their proximity to this theater. Given the nature of my talk, I thought it wholly appropriate to do some field research in the improv motherland.The Annoyance THeater sign, it is orange neon.

Friday morning brought the standard coffee, muffins, fruits, yogurt breakfast selections that are the common fare at so many conventions. I drank liberally from the coffee spigot. A brick morning pace had us at lunch before we knew it. Awesome wraps with many, many options for special/restricted diets. At every catered meal at the venue there was a cookie option for dessert. I am very proud to say that I resisted these at every turn.

At the end of the packed day capped by the lightning talks, we started Game Night, sponsored by Palantir.net. They even hired the Döner Men food truck to bring us some of the best döner I can remember having. It was hard to not go back for a second serving. I played a few rounds of Zombie Dice and before there was a movement to go to HopCat, a local diner themed bar with 140 beers on tap.

HopCat is where I met Malort. Take a second and go look at “Malort face“. That is exactly how it tastes and it is a Chicago staple liquor. Coming from the city that drinks 35% of the Fernet consumed in the USA, I totally get having a terrible tasting but worth it for the memorable experience drink. I am glad I drank it, but I do not plan to repeat the feat. HopCat also served up a dish they call Crack Fries. These are just seasoned french fries served with a white cheese dipping sauce. I have no idea what was on the, but I could not stop eating them.

Luckily I was able to tear myself away with a small group to go find karaoke a few blocks away at Harrigan’s.   As most people who know me know, I love karaoke and I am especially in love with small dive bar karaoke. This place was dead as we arrived around 10, but by midnight you could not move around at all it was so crowded. One thing that made this place really stand out was the DJ took pics and posted them on their FB wall in near real time. Really had a blast singing with my fellow Drupal family.

Saturday brought more muffins, fruit, coffee and even hardboiled eggs. This was also the day that one of the organizers brought us donuts. While I successfully avoided all cookies on this trip, I did befall to the temptation of these locally baked delights. The sugar rush made the morning speed by extra quick and crash landed me at the nacho bar for lunch. Many nacho chips, mystery meat scoops and jalapeños later I was sated and ready to give my session.

Saturday night was the platform.sh afterparty at one of the loudest bars I have ever entered. The ‘March Madness’ and the population of the venue assured that the roar was deafening in the main room. Luckily we had a back room reserved for us at far more reasonable volumes. Again I found a ‘semi local’ vodka, Prairie, which is made in the midwest over in Minnesota. Delightful stuff.  I had expected the food to be sports bar quality greasy bites and some of it for sure was, but there was very well executed teriyaki chicken and the best crab cakes I maybe have ever eaten. I was actually extremely glad that I left when I did, not only because the party’s tab had closed and the party was moving on to a karaoke place, but really because I could not stop myself from constantly returning for ‘just one more’ of those crab cakes.

Shoe’s Pub is where the party found itself next and this place was just great. Cheap drinks, many locals and students, and a pair of bullet style mics. The whole evening it was far more common to see duos or even small groups sing than solo performers. This gave the karaoke an extra special ‘we are all doing this together’ kind of vibe.

By midnight, karaoke was overflowing, too crowded to even breathe comfortably, so a motion was made to go see some legendary Chicago blues over at Kingston Mines. Once we arrived we realized that the line would not permit us to enter any time soon, so we went across the street to the slightly less famous but equally as entertaining BLUES bar. It was a night to remember for sure! It was also a great way to officially end the party for MidCamp, leaving only the Sunday Sprint to check off the list.

Thursday Sprints:

As I mentioned, Thursday was the main training day but it also gave room for folks to Sprint.  There was no formal plan or focus for the day, which gave rise to many people working on their own projects and getting help and feedback from their peers.  It was also time for the Organizers to finish many last minute tasks and get set up.  This was a great warm up to the camp days that followed.

Sunday Sprints:

This was not just the first time I organized a Drupal Sprint, this was also the first time I ever attended a formal one. I have attended contributor days on the WP side of the world and I have hacked at many a thing on Drupal, but this was my first real, on the books, official involvement with a Sprint. I loved it! I will at least be volunteering at future Sprint days as often as I can moving ahead.

Huge shout out to the folks who did the real heavy lifting of the day, the Sprint Leads!

First up, by coworker and friend David Needham, lead the first time sprinters on a ‘how to sprint’ session. This session introduced folks to how tickets worked, how to set up their local environments, and the many varied ways they might be able to contribute to the project.

We focused on three main areas for this sprint. Core, Drupal Commerce and Documentation:

The core team was lead by Adam Bergstein, who is not just a nice guy but also a security and best practice expert. I can’t name many other people I would have wanted leading that effort.

Drupal Commerce is a passion of Matt Glaman and it really showed, as he was the first to arrive at sprint day. If you want to contribute to Drupal Commerce, you can find the well organized queue here.

We had the dynamic duo from Drupalize.me: Joe Shindelar and Blake Hall focused on Documentation. This is such a crucial part of the project and one that is entirely accessible to all skill levels, making it very welcoming in general. While I tend to think of this as the ‘go to’ for new contributors, and some new folks for sure focused their energies here, we had newbies at all the tables. It gave me a great sense of hope for the future of the project seeing these new faces make their first contribution and leaving with so much done.

The Sessions

Keynote:
Emma talked about her story of going from feeling like an outsider to being a project lead in a very short stretch of time. Besides focusing on the ‘why it is important’ message that is critical to communicate to new and seasoned folks alike, she also focused on how one can contribute. There are so many ways beyond just writing PHP code to make Drupal move forward. You can write docs, you can volunteer your time, you can team new people things you learned along the way and too many others to list here. Fortunately, thanks to some speedy internet access and the dedication of Kevin Thull you can see her slides and hear this keynote yourself here!

Sessions I saw:

I was very fortunate to have had several members of the Pantheon team with me at MidCamp so I was able to go to many sessions. If you want to see any of these at home, they are all online and available now on the individual MidCamp schedule pages.

I was immediately drawn to this session not for the Project Management or the Yoga, but because it was applying the lessons from one of the speakers’ passions to their tech related work.  This is something I have tried to do with several of my talks.  It turns out that both yoga and project management both use the concept of flows and there are some direct comparisons you can draw.  Agile methodology is analogous Bikram, where Waterfall is more akin to Ashtanga.  Ideas like ‘sticking to the plan’ and ‘internal communication being critical’ are mirrors of ‘practice the poses’ and ‘listen to your body’.  There was even a participatory section where we all learned some poses and stretched out.  I felt more limber and very encouraged about the idea of mapping divergent skills overall.

I was very fortunate to see several of my fellow Pantheors give talks at the camp. The first up was my manager Drew Gorton talking about the very reasons I like working with him. There are many ways to manage a team but it always boils down to some key factors like ‘putting the right person in the right seat.” You can have the most brilliant people on your team but unless they are doing something they feel passionate about and filling a needed function on ‘the bus’ then no one is going to be happy. He also stressed the importance of communication and need for connection beyond what is just on the page of a report data. He fielded some interesting questions as well and I am very glad I attended. Check this one out for sure.

 

 

This was a very fun talk that not only gave a history and ‘how to’ of Mr. Ivy Leadbetter Lee’s priority management strategy, but also how our presenter transformed his life with this method in very short order. The very quick version is “write down the 6 most import things you need to do every day and do them. If any are left at the end of a day, simply move those to the top of tomorrow’s list.” This sounds really simple, and it is, but it is a very powerful tool to get done what needs to get done and feel a sense of success just from marking things off every day. David repeatedly made the point that this always felt amazing to do.
The real take away for me was actually another famous name’s process, Jerry Seinfeld. He was once asked how to be a successful comedian and he answered “write good jokes everyday”. On the surface this sounds like a disingenuous answer, but what he meant was, appy the craft every day and track what you did on a calendar. After a few days there will be a ‘chain’ formed of all the times you did the thing. The funny thing about human beings and these chains, is we do not like to break them once we forge them. I know I will be using this to mark off how I spend some of my time going ahead.

Doug started out this entertaining yet extremely technical talk by explaining that in fact Config Management is not a panacea for all conceivable ways to distribute Db config around the world.  It is for moving config from a dev or stage environment towards a live environment.  This is something I have a good deal of opinion around given where I work.  It is absolutely nor for packaging up config to move between entire projects.  I found it fascinating to hear the reasons why there has been so much love/hate of the Features module and Config Management in general.  Part of this is the gray area that is Content vs Configuration.  Not something I had really thought a lot about before.  My favorite moment came from the Q&A when an audience member lamented that, to him, “features is a hellish solution to a nightmarish problem” but that this talk helped him sort out how to make better use of the concept.

 

Saturday morning sessions kicked off with one of the more fun full length talks of the whole camp, my teammate Steve’s talk about the internet of things.  For this talk he rigged up his great-grandfather’s 150 year old telegraph key (a work of art unto itself) to oranges as a power supply to light up an LED connected to the internet.  While there was a lot of fun and silliness to some of his examples, the core message was actually really powerful, which was “Connect your interests to your workflow” and “Follow the fear”.
The first point is really to start thinking about the tools we use as a part of a larger ecosystem of hooks we can string together to automate all the things.  And by the second point he really was encouraging us to go learn the tech that might intimidate us and trying to do it an a playful way with ‘toys’, maybe silly or childish projects that teach the skills with less pressure.  On that topic he talked about the need for joke modules, which are really meant to show off what a particular hook can do rather than filling production need.  Drupal 7’s Bad Judgment module was the prime example of this.  I am going to be looking into this module moving ahead, as well as all the available webhooks I have in the tools I already use.  If you listen to this recording you will even the infamous FauxAlGore give an intro to the subject.

No one likes having difficult conversations but it is an unavoidable part of life. How to have these conversations is something we also tend to avoid, which I never really thought about until I saw this talk. I have no idea how this topic has not been more widely discussed at camps but can foresee this becoming a much more popular talking point in the future.
The basics are that when people find themselves in uncomfortable discussions they tend to react towards internalizing which results in silence or externalizing, which leads toward violence. You want to stay balanced right in between those extremes in a place of healthy dialogue. This requires some meta conversation sometimes and recognizing that everyone needs to feel safe. If you are in a critical conversation and notice that the other party has shifted to one of these ends, it is OK to ask why and revisit the points that pushed them there in order to find resolution and move ahead.
My favorite part was Chris asking the room if we remembered when we were kids and figured out that adults are not mature? All kids have this moment and it serves to remind us that we should be treating people as people. After all you would not ever say to a toddler ‘they are unfit to lead and are bad people due to their work habits’ but we all too often think things like that of our peers. It is important to turn victims into actors and villains into humans to have constructive dialogue.

 

This was the final talk from a teammate that I got to see. This was a fantastic and very entertaining talk about some basic skills everyone should develop to be more productive.  These were all tips and tricks Tessa learned first hand from being a busy mother and developer and community organizer and many other hats.  The ideas ranged from the importance of journaling to keep yourself focused, on track and motivated on the big picture to the importance of self care and meditation.  Sprinkled in between these meatier subject she sprinkled some great and humorous one liners as Pro Mom Tips.  My favorites where: “Never EVER leave a Sharpie unattended”, “Your keys are always in the other pocket”, and something I can’t use yet in my life, “If you need some alone time, tell your small child to go dress themselves, which we all know is a joke.”

The final session of the camp was more of a group discussion than a lecture on the subject of free speech and free software. Tim reminded us that in fact “Free Software is not the same as Open Source”. That there is a core value to this that goes far beyond the development methodology of sharing the code itself. That there is a responsibility to the freedoms this is build from. It was a great group discussion with topics floating from DRM, desktop linux being a good solution these days and bid data privacy concerns. While energy was overall low due to the timing of the talk and the energy we had already exhausted from the two full days, this was still a very lively discussion with so many great take aways. I know for me, moving ahead, I will be saying I work in Free Software a lot more often.

My Session:

This was the 6th time I have had the opportunity to deliver this session. Each time I do I learn a little more and I find new ways to improve upon it. I hope to have the chance to do this a few more times before I retire the talk. The one thing that stands out the most to me is the extreme shyness and introverted-ness of some of the participants. I give some pretty clear trigger warnings and repeated reassurances that it is OK to sit out the exercises or even leave the room without any judgement if they feel uncomfortable. I absolutely and thoroughly applaud the efforts of these folks who stayed and gave it their all. I left feeling inspired by their courage to try something that outgoing in front of their professional peers.
Afterwards I even learned that in one case former teammates that had a terrible working relationship ended up learning they actually had a lot of things in common as a result of my talk. While it is too late to fix the issues they had as a team in the past this gave them new hope that if they worked together again they would be able to find a common chord and better collaborate. This might be my favorite thing I have ever helped anyone do with improv.

Lightning talks:

Friday ended with everyone regathering in the main hall for a round of Lightning Talks. These are ~5 minute talks on any subject of interest from the speaker. These are not done with a lot of prep time, as the speakers signed up on a sheet that went up 15 minutes before we started the talks. I had the extreme honor of going first and delivered a stripped down version of my “Every Project Is A Story” talk I had given at SANDCamp (link to it). Other talks included “How to convert your sodastream canister to be refillable”, “The time I took my mom to Drupal Northern Lights and she learned what “Drupala” is” and my personal favorite, Jim Birch’s “Theremin” history and demo. This last one will live forever as a giphy, which you can download here.

I almost put this up in the Food and Fun session since it was an absolutely outstanding time, but in the end this really does fall under sessions. If you are organizing a camp and reading this, please consider a lightning talk session at the end of one of the days or over lunch. It was such a great way to connect and get some extra learning out of an event!

Last, on a personal and community note I came into camp with a nervousness stemming from more than just my nervousness as an organizer. If you are reading this then you likely are aware of the Drupal drama going on. If you spend any time on subreddits then it would be easy to think that the wheels were coming off and we were taking sides.  I was more than relieved, I was overjoyed, that when I did see my fellow Drupal folks all together there was the same sense of togetherness and camaraderie that I have come to expect.  Even the subject of the drama showed up and I was proud to interact with him as if there was not anything going on at all.  Put everything in perspective for me and I am feeling much better about the state of D8 and the world.

Also, I could not have been successful as a camp organizer without the seasoned experts on the Organizing team!  Huge love to this wonderful amazing group of people.  Take a moment to go look and see the faces of this tremendous team: https://www.midcamp.org/organizers. While we all did a lot for this camp, a very special shout out to the Camp Lead who kept this ship running and made sure we organized, Mr. Jim Birch!

MidCamp was a blast and there were so many good times. I encourage you to go challenge yourself to learn more, better organize your priorities and become better communicators. I know I will. I can’t wait until next year!

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