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How did ProductCamps originate?

ProductCamps are based on the concept of BarCamps, first held in 2005 in Palo Alto, California. It’s a reference to the hacker slang term, foobar. BarCamp arose as a tongue-in-cheek spin-off of Foo Camp, an annual invitation-only, participant-driven conference hosted by open source publishing luminary Tim O’Reilly. Where FooCamp was by invitation only, BarCamp was designed to be democratic and open to all. BarCamps have been held in over 350 cities around the world, and virtually over the Internet.

The first ProductCamp (aka P-CAMP) was held on March 15, 2008 in Mountain View, California. Word-of-mouth spread fast about this “unconference” (no registration fee, no agenda, no selling) and about 170 people showed up on a Saturday to discuss topics of interest to product managers, product marketers, and a variety of related roles.

Following this event, many participants commented via blogs, wikis, and tweets. The idea went viral, and several other cities started ProductCamps of their own. Austin was first out of the gate with others following over subsequent months in 2008, 2009 and into 2010.

Given the proliferation of ProductCamps, we thought it would be useful to summarize some best practices and hopefully these guidelines will help you organize or participate in an unconference in your local area.

Why Attend ProductCamp?

Has your travel budget been cut? Do you want to learn from peers outside your company? Are you looking for informal ways to “meet-and-greet” others? Do you enjoy presenting or leading roundtable discussions on timely industry topics? Are you unemployed or under-employed, and want to increase your network? Do you want to meet others who are passionate about product management and marketing? If the answer is “yes” to any of these, you should participate in ProductCamp.

ProductCamp guidelines

Several common themes have emerged from ProductCamps held to date, though the flow and tenor may change from city to city. Since it’s an unconference, there are very few rules. The general guidelines (adapted from BarCamp) are:

  • ProductCamps are free, but there is a “cost” to attend. There are no passive “attendees”. Instead, everyone is referred to as a “participant” and expected to contribute in some way: presenting a session, coordinating sponsors, managing the venue, volunteering for setup and tear-down, or sitting on a discussion panel. There are many ways for people to participate.
  • Information sharing is expected and encouraged. Everyone is urged to share information and experiences, both live and after the fact, via blogging, photo sharing, social bookmarking, tweeting, and wiki-ing. This open encouragement is in deliberate contrast to the “off-the-record” and “no recording” rules at many conferences.
  • The “2-foot” rule applies: ProductCamp there are typically features concurrent sessions. If you feel you’ll get more out of a different session, use your own “two feet” to move – no one should feel tied down.
  • Networking is good! ProductCamps are held on a weekend and go all day, so participating is a commitment. The time and energy means only those who are really interested attend.

Tag @ProductCampSD and #PCampSD18

What the day looks like

A typical day begins with registration and breakfast. Then participants are led to a “main-tent” session that explains the format, rules, and introduction of ProductCamp planners – but more importantly, the opening session sets the tone that ProductCamp is by and for attendees, open and discussion-oriented, and, most importantly, fun.

ProductCamps use an “Open Grid” to set the agenda. Presenters and roundtable facilitators submit topics prior to the event, or sometimes even on the morning before the event starts. A final agenda is created real-time, by and for the attendees. Session leaders are sometimes given 30 seconds in the welcome session to introduce themselves and their topic. Then it’s time to vote! One popular technique is to give each participant 3 sticky notes when they arrive. Volunteers post the session topics in a central area and ask everyone to place the sticky notes under their top three choices. Sessions receiving the most votes are plotted on an “agenda sheet” in such a way to minimize topic conflicts. Based on interest level and available time slots, some topics may not make the agenda. It’s open, it’s participant driven, and it really works!

Sessions usually run 45-50 minutes with a break for lunch and plenty of “slack time” for informal networking. Most ProductCamps reserve a few meeting rooms for parallel sessions and list four to six time slots. The best ProductCamp sessions are the facilitated roundtable discussions – leveraging participant knowledge. Notes, videos, and photos are posted or linked to the ProductCamp website.

It’s always fun to bring everyone together at the end of the day for a quick summary and to award prizes for best sessions. By this time, the group is comfortable and can get rather lively celebrating the hard work and start planning the next ProductCamp.

ProductCamp around the world

Get to know the ProductCamp concept with these videos from Poland, Atlanta, Hyderabad, Los Angeles, Vancouver, Boston, Ukraine, Provo, and Orange County.

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