Monday, September 26, 2011

BarCamp Tampa Bay 2011

Creative Brainstorming Session
On Saturday I went to my first BarCamp Tampa Bay. I'd seen them pop up for a couple years but I hadn't made time to go to one. This year I finally made it.

One of the distinguishing features of BarCamps is that there is no set schedule or speaker list before the event. Potential speakers sort of offer up their talk topics and people shuffle the talks around on the wall until a schedule is worked out. I have mixed feelings about how well this works. I would have loved for attendees to have more input into what talks sounded more interesting and adjust the schedule accordingly, especially to avoid overlapping talks that might appeal to the same audience.

As a side note, I tweeted photos of the current talk schedule. It's a little frustrating that there was no other way to get to the schedule online, especially since talks were spread over two buildings with quite a hike between them. It's complicated by the fact that the schedule can change throughout the day. Maybe next year we can set up a quick webcam or something to make it easy to check the schedule online.

The mayor of Tampa, Bob Buckhorn, came out to help kick off the event. It was great to see him there for what sounds like more than just a token demonstration of his support for technology startups in the area. He mentioned his daughters going off to college and said something along the lines of "My daughters won't come back to Tampa for jobs at a call center but for the jobs you guys create." He hung around for a while and got to meet a lot of attendees.

My first talk was by Marvin Scaff of Gazelle Lab, a fairly new incubator / mentoring company in Tampa. The talk started a little late so it was unfortunately cut a bit short, but it was still interesting. He introduced Gazelle Lab and ran through some tips for dealing with a mentor and making the most effective use of their time. Gazelle Lab follows the TechStars model and Marvin really recommended that people read their Do More Faster book. I've been following Paul Graham's YCombinator and techie-oriented Hacker News, so I'm really excited for Tampa Bay to have something like this started here locally. I've seen what a difference ATDC and other programs make for Atlanta and Georgia Tech even though they're Not The Valley.

My next talk was from Fritz Eichelberger from HotSpaces. It was theoretically a talk about "crowdsourcing" design of the new HotSpaces website, but it was pretty self-promoting. I'm not saying I'm opposed to that. I like Fritz and his Pure and Shameless Tech Socials and a lot of people in the room had apparently never heard of them. But I started to get frustrated that all people seemed to care about is the placement of design elements on his (admittedly rough looking) landing page. Fritz even said "I only update my site every three to four months." It was another reminder of what a struggle companies are having with finding tech talent in Tampa and what a seller's market it is for developers.

I tried to catch a talk about the relaunch of We Are Tampa Bay but the room was packed beyond standing room only. We definitely need to watch their relaunch this week.

Then I went over to a Creative Think Tank / Brainstorming session with Nathan Schwagler. I had vaguely known Nathan through TEDx Tampa Bay but I didn't realize what his day job is. Nathan's session served a dual purpose. He showed a creative brainstorming session while at the same time collecting a lot of ideas for how to promote the Tampa Bay area to convention attendees. Nathan mentioned IDEO which reminded me of this video that I've used with the kids on our FIRST Tech Challenge team. I got to talk to Jeff Baird from Kngroo for a while. I'm a little nervous for them that Gowalla essentially pivoted right into their space, but Kngroo is targeting more of the small/local business market than Gowalla. I hope them the best.

I caught a session by Giovanni DiFeterici on digital painting. It was pretty fun to watch. I dabble in graphic design, drawing, Photoshop, painting, etc. mostly for fun and to help friends and non-profits. I got to catch up with him at the after party and talk digital art and drawing geek stuff for a while, which was cool. If anyone feels like they can't draw, they really should check out Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards. Even as someone that's had a few art classes, I still got a lot out of the book and Giovanni said he has all of his students use it. If you want to learn to draw digitally, you've got to start with a Wacom tablet, even if it's a smaller Bamboo.

I had to catch the session by Antony Francis on social media. It was encouraging to see that I already follow much of his advice on my handful of tiny side projects and non-profits, just not at the same scale that Head of Lettuce Media does. One thing I don't do is use interactive Twitter bots. I've seen plenty of Twitter accounts feeding RSS feeds to Twitter accounts - and admittedly do it myself - but I hadn't really considered going full-on interactive bot. I just thought it was too spammy and not that useful of a technique. But even an obvious bot on Twitter can still provide value to followers. That's an interesting idea that I'll have to consider.

Next was a talk on Node.js and by Jim Hoskins. It was a good talk and a great presenter but even thought I haven't done a project with it yet, I've already been through a few Node talks and played with it before so a 30 minute overview ultimately wasn't that interesting to me. I'll definitely have to check out Jim's content though. He did a great job.

My next session was one by Ryan Magin on affiliate marketing and SEO. We didn't get to see everything Ryan does, but I'm pretty sure that the basic idea behind what Ryan does is to target niche markets, throw up SEO-friendly Wordpress blogs to win a single search term, and funnel all that traffic to buying either an info product like an ebook or a product sold by a third party that pays affiliates for sending them sales. It wasn't a new concept to me, but clearly it was new to quite a few people in the audience.  He really hammered home the value when he mentioned that he made about $75k last year and was hoping to break six figures this year. Ryan credited Tim Ferriss's Four Hour Work Week for inspiration to get started. It was pretty fun to hear the questions from the audience. It was hard for them to understand that each individual blog has almost no value, but when you combine hundreds of blogs, that drives a lot of traffic. So that's why he only makes a few posts on a blog then moves on, doesn't care about the design, disables visitor comments, and doesn't even back up the blogs. During the talk, I tweeted a mention of Ed Dale's Challenge which is a decent, free introduction to internet marketing. The Challenge is a little more about testing niche markets before investing in developing and launching a full product but some of the same techniques apply.

Then I went over to see Joe Healy, Microsoft Developer Evangelist, show off the Kinect SDK. It was a two hour talk compressed into thirty minutes but he still covered an impressive amount of stuff. I don't think I've ever heard Joe talk that fast. He got me to "dance" for a Kinect demo, which partly made up for me telling him that I just ordered my first MacBook. I still need to keep it out of his sight though since it's not waterproof.

By then I was burned out and mostly caught up with a few people before heading out to the after party at The Roosevelt 2.0, a sort of flex space, art gallery, creative space, not sure what to call it, etc.

Overall, it was a pretty good event. I like some aspects of the chaos and free-formedness of the schedule but overall I think I'd rather have a schedule ahead of time to research speakers and plan my day. All the side conversations and people I met made me wish that I was in a spot that I was ready to act on my Moleskine full of startup ideas. Maybe next year?

KForce was awesome to host it and there are a lot of other people and companies that deserve thanks. I really should list them all here but they're all on the BarCamp Tampa Bay site.

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