Summer Camp: My days in at the Tampa Code Camp
Tampa held its annual Code Camp over the weekend and Joe Healy, the resident Developer Evangelist, was kind enough to invite me out there. Actually, he invited me to Tallahassee the month before and I had accepted until I realized that my travel day would be on the same day as my fifth wedding anniversary. Fortunately, Joe hooked me up with the Tampa Code Camp, thus saving my marriage from potential ruin. Of course, coming in July had its own punishment with the 100 degree temperatures and ultra-high humidity. I got a haircut before going simply to avoid a bad hair day, but my shirt was soaked with sweat simply by walking to the car. Timingwise, I have already told Joe that he is welcome to invite me back in any month that ends in –uary.
Code Camp is a fascinating concept. The idea is to take a bunch of local people and hold a one day session on Microsoft technologies with several tracks. They are run throughout the country. It’s not trying to be TechEd—in fact, Microsoft speakers and famous speakers are practically discouraged unless they are talking about a unique topic or have a special expertise. Instead, inexperienced speakers that want to share their knowledge get preference. As Joe and I (both baseball fans) joked, it’s kind of a minor league system for the MVP program or VS Live speaking engagements. Tampa ran one successfully last year, so this was their second one. But what made this year’s event so impressive is that it was 100% volunteer-driven. Other than providing loads of encouragement and arranging some giveaways (including GotDotNet and CodePlex schwag) and occasionally doing some menial tasks, Joe was intentionally hands-off. You wouldn’t know he was from Microsoft until he helped close out the festivities and made the final presentations. He completely gets the idea of trusting the community to do the right thing and that was clearly the right move. The passion of the community members that did most of the work was a joy to watch. They arranged for the food, set up the schedules, built up a very cool event web-site (one that they are hoping will be put on CodePlex), and prepped the venue. The preparation was impressive, particularly given the voluntary nature (I’ve seen some VS Lives that weren’t run as well as this).
After taking the red-eye Thursday night and getting settled, I joined Joe and the Code Camp speakers for a pre-Camp event at the local Bennigans. All the fried food you could eat along with plenty of geek talk (yes, redeye flight, intense heat and humidity, free fried food, free beer—this weekend should’ve come with a warning label). To be clear, Florida is a HUGE state. And each of the major cities has a contingent that comes out to support each other for all the code camps. We had representative from Jacksonville, Fort Lauderdale, Tallahassee, and Orlando—some of them driving several hours to show their support and many of them were able to attend the pre-Camp. It was a great chance to chat informally with the local community before they had to focus on the event. I’ve been in many situations where I have to pull teeth to get information out of customers and bring them out of their shell. Hmm, not quite a problem here. The speakers were, well…ready to speak to me. Being from Redmond, I suppose I had an aura of mystery. Or maybe I just looked pathetic and lonely (no comments from the peanut gallery, please). Joe introduced to most people as the CodePlex guy, which set me up with some pretty good credibility. When I shared that I used to be on the patterns & practices team, that boosted credibility even more. You should seen them when I told them practically the entire CodePlex team is p&p alumni.
They were all enthusiastic about .NET and Microsoft. The conversations ranged from technologies (lots of conversations about Atlas, Sharepoint & TFS) to Microsoft’s overall development strategies. They were great customers to listen to—even their complaints weren’t to get a pound of flesh, but rather to share their ideas and give me food for thought. There’s an amazing amount of domain knowledge on DotNetNuke down there and there’s definitely a code gen movement going on (several people were raving about CodeSmith). There was even a buzz about the new .NET Robot SDK. I think they’re looking to do a Battle Bots Code Camp (think about it—code that you want to crash!). I had a great time talking about Atlas and Team Foundation Server with Jim Zimmerman, who is actually working on the Atlas Control Toolkit on CodePlex. It's always great to meet a CodePlexer face-to-face and he was already lobbying me for another project on the site (it's a very cool project and I'm sure you'll be seeing it soon).
But while talking tech was interesting, I obviously appreciated the community aspect of the event more. Joe often referred to my trip as on-line community meeting off-line community. Of course, they do plenty of on-line stuff. David Silverlight, one of the prominent members of the community down there, has even built a site called CommunityCredit.com, where they “give stupid prizes to smart people”. Now THAT's a slogan to be proud of. In understanding what motivates the community to participate, I was having a great conversation with David. He explained that community participation is vital to career growth for developers. He has given several talks on the topic and preaches the power of community participation to support career goals. It establishes credibility with employers as you have an open forum to showcase your knowledge (in other words, show off how smart you are). Another member of the community mentioned to me that he doubled his pay since he joined the local .NET Community and he owed it all to the community activity (both the increased knowledge and networking). Who says community doesn’t pay?
The day of the event was quite a scene. Over 250 poured in from around the Tampa area. They represented all types of developers. I attended several sessions, including a HTTP Modules session (given by a first-timer who did a fine job), software factories talk, a TFS session that included a couple of people asking about CodePlex, a Ruby session that was very entertaining, a Visual Studio tips session, and a session on Virtualization from Andrew Connell (whom I had met at last year's TechEd and has been a great supporter of GDN and now CodePlex). None of these speakers were paid—they did it to support the community and to share their knowledge. I always wonder how many other industries can boast this sort of social dynamic. Probably more than I realize, but I still find this comraderie fascinating and I love being around it.
Of course, all of this activity needs a ringleader to plant ideas, make sure the Microsoft love is felt when necessary, and know when to supply the chicken wings. Joe Healy, the Developer Evangelist, clearly is involved in a labor of love. He surrenders nights and weekends to meet with people, lend support, brainstorm ideas, and generally lend guidance to a good group of people. He was tireless throughout the weekend and I suspect he brings that energy constantly. The members of the community couldn't say enough great things about him. To Joe, I say thanks and I expect to be back again sometime, though preferably when the temperatures are safely down in the double-digits.