Missoula BarCamp: A vibrant web developer community

This was both my first barcamp and my first visit to Missoula. Boy, was I in for a treat on both accounts. Missoula, a picturesque valley town, is home to the University of Montana's main campus. As a result, the event was filled with folks who had a pretty high level of enthusiasm for what all the sessions and sidebars held in store.

The Missoula BarCamp was filled with a number of passionate developers, artists, and thinkers who compose a quite vibrant community. As a result, a great collection of event photos are available in a Flickr photo pool.

The event was kickstarted with intro talks by Wendy Keilin (an artist change agent visiting from New Jersey), Don Collins (co-founder of the Missoula Children's Theater), and John Engen (mayor of Missoula).

Following this, the crowd was ready to start posting sessions and participate! There were roughly 40 sessions posted ranging from technology fare, social media use, photography, environment, co-working/remote working, and one session was even a hike in the local foothills. The grid was posted on a series of windows — interestingly, with a vista onto those same foothills — that served as a great central hub and an easy excuse to bump into folks and sidebar on previous or upcoming sessions.

Windows at BarCamp Missoula
Photo courtesy of Opegasus1

Using Open Source in Business (Chris Ott & Monte Jewel)

By far, this opening session was the one that was all too short. More of an interactive discussion than a presentation, there were a plethora of opinions and experiences to go around. Primarily, the issue of seeking and utilizing open-source replacements for commercially-licensed products and systems was the main theme.

Among various topics/experiences that came up were the minefield of open source licenses, setup and administration costs on small scale versus large scale (and at what point does open source administration cost more than a commerically-licensed and supported product), and how to guesstimate the longevity of a project and whether it will continue to be maintained by the community.

The hour expired all too quickly and I was able to have a number of sidebar conversations with Chris and others on various aspects of this very meaty topic.

Operating a team of satellite (Gary MacDonald)

In this session, I initially presented the BrowserPlus team and our geographic separation. Given this, there are a number of tools (social and technical) we have developed to help create a highly productive environment where the team is able to interact heavily with each other, other corporate Yahoo teams, and the open-source community at large.

At heart, the team attempts to create analogs for all the critical "team" tools that traditional geo-centralized teams utilize. This includes adapting internet communication media to support iterative development processes. For instance, to replace a traditional stand-up meeting, utilize Skype group calls and have a Skup (as we affectionately refer to it).

Or, to replace organic/spontaneous cube/bullpen conversations, utilize IRC. After presenting the initial information, the group steered the remainder of the session around how to utilize the tools without becoming overwhelmed with information and/or communication. We also talked about the benefits of moving to a Scrum/Agile process for project management.

Social Media with Monica and Nathan (Monica Ray and Nathan Stephens)

Monica and Nathan put on a great display of how to utilize Facebook and Twitter for more than just catching up with old friends. Much of the audience were interested in establishing a presence for their business or cooperative.

Technical points touched on use of meta-tags to enhance Facebook links from personal media or web page anchors. The crowd was relentless on this point, digging and digging until some real-world examples were up on the screen. Monica displayed a cornucopia of tips/tricks to manage the information overload that is Twitter: How to use it to reach out as a broadcast medium, how to use it for personal (or personalized) communication, and how to ingest the flow of non-stop information flowing at you.

Additionally, Monica spent some time discussing GenBook, an online scheduling and feedback system. Combining this tool with the social media conduits can often have the effect of reducing scheduling overhead into a formidable recommendation and self-appointment system.

Frameworks - love 'em or leave 'em :) (Jason Lengstorf)

Jason started off by listing a nearly endless stream of various web frameworks available (the good, the bad, and the ugly). He followed this up with horror stories of project cleanup when bad or restrictive frameworks had been previously been employed. Some tips/tricks were passed on for managing/refactoring framework transitions (otherwise known as "bad choices") in these situations, as well as knowing when to throw in the towel and rewrite the legacy code in more sustainable fashions.

He raised the importance of understanding how to write similar code without the use of frameworks — at least as a training exercise &mdash: to better understand how to make more sustainable and manageable design decisions in future projects. Improving the maintainability of applications leads directly to being able to perform future work more efficiently (and thus with much fewer gray hairs).

In many ways the session reminded me of learning how to code various assemblers in order to better understand how to write more efficient and maintainable code in higher level languages.

An interesting sidebar in this session was the number of folks writing on top of Drupal and who also were unfamiliar with AJAX development. As a member of an open source project at Yahoo that has a JavaScript front-end, this was particularly useful information.

Technology and the Environment (Derrick Coston)

In this discussion, Derrick raised the issue of how to improve the green ratings of business. This intimate group followed a array of proposals and points (particularly with respect to accomplishing these goals in Missoula). Among the more obvious and simple changes were modifying energy-saving settings on electronic equipment and utilizing automated HVAC.

I took a moment to share the Yahoo! Green initiative and the various topics, guides, and resources it provides.

Don Collins raised some interesting tangential points by citing studies that children who have one hour of unstructured play, per day, were more likely to be removed off mood stabilization medications within three months. Additionally, children who are afforded this simple opportunity are more likely to be rooted in their environment and understand their place in it. This translates to adults who are more conscious of their own ecological footprint and are more willing to make changes to support this endeavor.

Interestingly, Missoula is considered by many to be the mecca of bicycle travel — this is proven anecdotally by simply walking around campus or town for only a few minutes, or stopping by the headquarters of the Adventure Cycling Association downtown.

In conclusion

Following the final sessions, all the BarCampers met back in the main hall to each share their individual experience about the day's happenings. Interestingly enough, I was the final person to share and will express the same sentiments that I did then.

The entire BarCamp experience in Missoula was run to perfection. The sidebars were as enthralling as the sessions themselves, and I appreciated the chance to connect with what is a very vibrant web developer community. Thanks to all the organizers for their tireless work and to all the campers for their perspectives and willingness to share them.

I spent quite a bit of time discussing with folks about the BrowserPlus project and YUI (my two favorite open-source projects!) and look forward to continuing to connect and collaborate with those folks.