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Veronica Ford

2018 marks the first-ever ProductCamp San Diego, the unconference for product people! Organizer Veronica Ford has written an introduction to unconferences to help San Diego participants get oriented.

What is an unconference?

An ‘unconference’ is typically a user-driven, collaborative experience. It has no agenda, no keynote speakers; the participants get to decide on the topics on the day. Unconferences can generate community, foster deeper connections between participants, and unleash innovation by allowing attendees to decide on the topics that they will hear, and also by redefining who is an expert. Sessions are more likely to be interactive, discussion-oriented, and focused on solving problems.

The emphasis on participant choice extends to the sessions throughout the day in the form of the “two-foot rule,” also called the Law of Two Feet. The law was described by Harrison Owen at Open Space Technology, which advocates a model for meetings based on open participation.  The rule is simply: “if at any time you find yourself in any situation where you are neither learning nor contributing – use your two feet and move to some place more to you liking. Such a place might be another group, or even outside into the sunshine. No matter what, don’t sit there feeling miserable.”

Dr. Seuss said it best...

You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself in any direction you choose.

What is it like to attend an unconference?

To find out what it is like to attend an unconference, we spoke to Athea Merredyth, who works in Library and Information Sciences. Her profession hosts lots of unconferences, and to date she has attended about fifteen. What she enjoys about the format is that it allows her to engage with the other attendees and have deeper conversations. “Listening to a presentation at a typical conference can be valuable, but you don’t get at the underbelly of everything that happened, and the learnings, and how they arrived at their conclusions,” she says.

She attended her first unconference while in graduate school at the University of Washington. The conference was open to the entire student body, which was great, because the attendees were from a variety of disciplines, from law to biology, computer science to art history, and library sciences to political science. Attendees broke into groups and chose a topic, and then spent the morning engaging with members of the group and preparing a presentation on that topic. In the afternoon, each group presented. She found the experience so much more valuable than a typical conference. “This format recognized the diversity and work experience of everyone. It was fun to mash-up our knowledge and see the results resonate with the audience.” The experience was so valuable that it led to a job opportunity for her.

What makes an unconference special?

Athea says that one of the most rewarding aspects is getting to see and hear people with seemingly divergent experiences and points of view talk about approaches to common issues that her industry faces. One of her favorite ‘unconferences’ was one that she helped plan that brought together technologists, artists, and library scientists, in a ‘speed dating’ format. It was very rewarding to watch the attendees realize that they had a lot to learn from one another. “Seeing people in action and seeing them realize that they were doing similar things was really exciting. This type of cross-pollination, which can be really very insightful for the attendees, does not usually happen at a typical conference.

Greg White was the organizer of ProductCamp SoCal in Orange County.  He says, “one of the cool aspects of the unconference format is it allows things to develop organically.” He recalls that one of the most popular sessions at ProductCamp SoCal formed spontaneously. “Two presenters met on a break and thought they had good synergy. One of them had a time slot later in the day and used it to bring in the other presenter to co-present a topic from two different perspectives. People used the two foot rule to fill the room spilling out the door.

Intrigued about the unconference format?

Experience it first-hand at San Diego’s first ever ProductCamp on Saturday, October 20! ProductCamp San Diego will bring together product people—managers, marketers, designers, founders—across a wide variety of products, companies, and industries. ProductCamp’s open source format is based on the unconference model, where participants will vote on the day’s topics during registration and breakfast in the morning.  Be prepared for topics to develop throughout the day!

See what cool, interesting, & insightful sessions develop at ProductCamp San Diego on Saturday, October 20!