Super Mondays Barcamp-tastic Whiteboard Skills Atrocious

Tuesday, October 27, 2009 7:20 | Filed in Local Interest, Technology

Yes, as you might have guessed, SuperMondays, which I attended last month have had another event, and it has had a barcamp kind of a feel to it, with three different breakout sessions, each offering the chance to take in one of three different discussions (well, in theory).

There was a little introduction to the event and a mini-presentation, and a summing up session at the end. Oh, and I bumped into someone I used to work with (Hi, again!). So here’s the bits I went to, in chronological order.

The Secret Bit

I’m not sure what exactly I can tell you about this one, as we were specifically asked not to talk about it for another week to ten days until there has been some form of official announcement. You may therefore notice my description of this is missing one or two details…

This presentation was made by [redacted] who first got up and asked us not to talk about it. Basically it is a venture capital kind of thing which has been put together by [redacted] with [redacted], [redacted] and [redacted]. It will be running in [redacted] over a [redacted] period. The idea is that [redacted] will submit their proposals to [redacted] and these will then be looked at in more detail, with the best being offered [redacted], [redacted] and [redacted] and probably being based [redacted].

Hope this clarifies the situation for y’all.

A Note To The Organisers

When arranging future bar camp type events, there are certain things you may wish to consider…

Post-it Notes

While it’s all very well taking notes for potential sessions on a whiteboard, there is one key problem with a whiteboard. When it comes to wanting to group information (e.g. “these three sessions seem similar, so we’ll run all of them in room three”) or re-ordering sessions (“I can’t speak about google wave if I’m presenting startups at the same time”), there’s not much you can do with a whiteboard (particularly if you can’t write “encryption” legibly — see the post title) or flip-chart other than drawing a lot of lines and crossing stuff out.

I’d therefore recommend the use of post-it notes (the larger the better, and write BIG), which can be easily moved about, grouped, and re-ordered to suit. I felt this was something which had worked particularly well at localgovcamp.


Again, to draw reference from localgovcamp, when sorting out which sessions you are going to run, there are two things to consider. The first is the relative level of interest in the room, which can be gauged by a show of hands, but the second is equally important.

Whether or not anyone is willing to lead on a particular topic. Particularly when people haven’t been to these events before, many people will be interested in a topic, but not necessarily know enough about it to be comfortable leading a session. I would therefore suggest that the audience (and/or the organisers) should propose the topics, and that the person proposing the topic has to be willing to speak for 10-15 of the 25 minutes on a given topic, just to get the session started.

Then you look to see which sessions are the most popular, once you know what people are willing to run. This avoids what I’ll describe later as the “Branding” problem…

The Audience

One of the things about the audience at the previous event I attended was that they were all from, or relating to, local government. This made it easier to choose topics which would appeal across the audience as a whole. The problem here for SuperMondays is that the audience is particularly diverse, so there were probably too many people, with too many different interests, to give the camp a tight enough focus.

I would maybe suggest that in future they look at applying a certain focus to barcamp events, such as “SuperMondays: Social Media Barcamp” or “SuperMondays: Databases Barcamp”

Google Wave

Okay, there was an ulterior motive which attracted a certain number of people to this session. The organiser had a certain number of Google Wave invites to give away, so I suspect there were two main reasons which people had for attending: those who were just interested in getting an invite, and couldn’t care about the rest of it; and those who were interested in getting an invite, but were at least vaguely interested in the rest of it.

So, anyway, this session:

Blah, blah, blah, etc, chattered on for a bit, blah, blah, filled in my email address to get a google wave invite, the end.

Only joking…

Google Wave was described in a number of different ways:

  • a wave account is like gmail, but for wave rather than email…
  • a mashup between mail, instant messaging, wikis and other things…
  • very like google document files — a shared document
  • brilliant for collaborative working and collaborative writing

What else? Well, it needs a browser which will support HTML 5 in order to run. In other words, you can’t run it in IE (or you can, but you need the google chrome plug in, which is even more of an accessibility black hole than google wave itself), and you instead need Firefox 3, Safari or something similar.

There was also some discussion over the reasoning behind Google’s invite roll-out policy. One of the ideas put forward is that it helps to keep the numbers down during the roll-out procedure so they get a chance to test it with progressively increasing numbers rather than a sudden explosion of signups. However, the most widely believed reason seems to be that the idea of it being “exclusive” is the thing which generates an enormous amount of interest and hype.

This is doubly true because we’re dealing mostly with techies, and to techies it’s a new toy and I wants it, my preciousss…

The demonstration looked at what could be done with it, and more specifically how the SuperMondays organisers have done with it — in terms of allocating tasks to people, collaborating on writing the event documentation together and so on. You can have numerous people editing the same document at once, and updates appear on your screen almost immediately. You can also allow different people have different permissions to your documents (e.g. some may have full permissions, some may be review only).

It’s like viewing a page on a wiki where you keep the F5 key pressed down

Again, like wiki type of things, it is very useful for tracking changes in a document — you can see what changes have been made, by whom, and when. There was a suggestion that this makes some legal departments particularly nervous…

At the moment, it was described also as “not too feature rich” and there was an acknowledgement that “it does crash from time to time”, which caused a few grins and nods from others — suggesting that it’s possibly not that uncommon an experience. It was also noted that performance drops the more people you have in a specific ‘Wave’, and as few as 5 people can bring the thing grinding to a halt.

One of the interesting things is that apparently the standards/tools behind Wave are open source, so just because Google are currently the only ones to be offering the service does not mean that this will always be the case — you could have Microsoft Wave, or even if you can put together the stuff on your own server, you could create your own compatible Waves…

Based on the way Google Wave was demonstrated here, I’d say that it doesn’t look to me as though it will be a replacement for wikis, or documents, or email, or instant messaging, but it does look a useful tool for collaborative work.


To some extent this session went off for fifteen minutes or so on the whole [redacted] thing, which probably meant that the session wasn’t as much use for everyone, because the [redacted] thing has certain conditions attached to it (it’s looking more at scalable products; they are not interested in non-scalable custom services), and also this limits to some extent what I can say about it.

So what else was actually discussed? Well, we learned that there were several people who were onto their second or third business, all of whom mentioned that they had learned “essential” things from the failures (or relative failures) of earlier businesses. Unfortunately, they didn’t actually tell us what these essential things were, so I’ll just have to try and avoid making the mistakes they made first time round without even knowing what they are. Wish me luck!

Then someone was talking about their Web 3.0 startup briefly, although I must admit that while I understand what they are talking about in terms of a semantic web, the entire notion of “Web 3.0″ sets off major alarms on my bullshit detection system, particularly given the propensity of people to talk about this sort of thing because it sounds new, cool, and haz buzzwords without actually understanding what the hell they are talking about.

Otherwise you’ll get clients who think Web 2.0 is rounded corners and pastel colours and web 3.0 will be the same story. Please, just drop the version numbers, okay?

There was a brief sidenote to say that it was the last day of geocities today, which caused a brief wave of nostalgia to ripple across the audience. For anyone particularly feeling in need of some early web geocities “goodness”, please take a look at The Great Duckano’s CSS Zen Garden GeoCities 1996 submission. Please also note that it was not intended seriously.

There was a suggestion that local Business Link services aren’t necessarily the best in terms of advice and coaching (although they may be useful for grants) and a couple of people voiced their scepticism at the idea that any of the business link advisers had ever ran their own business.

Digital Branding

I was expecting this to be a particularly interesting session, full of Dos and Do Nots about what to do with launching your digital brand online, and I had a few things that I was maybe willing to chip into the discussion if people weren’t already aware of them (such as the habitat twitter fail and so on), but here we arrived at the Barcamp Branding Problem.

There were only about five people in the room: all of whom had been there since the end of the previous “Start-ups” session. So they were continuing little conversations about start-ups while we waited for someone to start talking about digital branding.

Only because no-one had actually volunteered to start the session, no-one else came into the room, and no-one volunteered to lead the session. So after about ten minutes of generic chatter during which it became apparent that this session was not actually going to start, I skipped out and instead went to…

Open or Closed

Which was a discussion of open source software versus proprietary technology. Sat in a room full of techies, you generally get very much a consensus…

Open Source = Good; Proprietary = Bad; …oh, and while we’re on, Microsoft = Evil, Apple = Good

…but fortunately while there was a definite leaning towards open source, there were people prepared to put forward counter-arguments (and indeed, if it did ever get as black and white as suggested earlier, they had got past that by the time I joined in). I’m not entirely sure whether I missed some critical bits of the discussion, but the language used was quite interesting (my emphasis):

there are a lot of companies out there which still work on the old model: google and some others are much more up to date

…note how the language used carries certain baggage with it: there’s an automatic implication that closed source technology is not as good; but apart from a few instances of this, there were some very good arguments made on both sides.

Open source tends to be based more on standards: everyone on the software stack is working towards the same standards, so this tends to lead to less tie-in and more quality in code

There was an interesting suggestionn however that open source might stifle creativity. Imagine a situation where a particular open source platform becomes dominant, and everything used is some off-shoot of that. There will inherently be less variation than if (as would be the case with proprietary locked-down code) if companies had built new applications entirely from the ground.

Someone noted that they felt that there are so many different trunk builds that there would be sufficient variation, but to me, this misses the point somewhat. If you’ve got a wheel that works, you don’t scrap it and start again to create a wheel which is only a tiny bit more efficient.

In the natural world, look at convergent evolution (when similar traits are built from different lineages in different ways). This is the equivalent to two separate ground-up builds. The octopus eye and the human eye are convergent: they have the same function, but evolved entirely separately. The human eye evolved off the same “trunk” of builds as other mammalian eyes, but the octopus was an entirely separate build.

And because it was an entirely separate build, it’s wired differently. The octopus eye does not have a blind spot. Whereas for mammals to evolve no blind spot, they would need to dramatically alter the way blood flows into the eye — and any intermediate step would not evolve because vision would have to get worse before it got better.

So sometimes there are advantages in entirely different builds — and I think this analogy can tie neatly into IT as well…


There was then a little wrap up session which tried to summarise every session in thirty seconds or less (which I’m not convinced was entirely feasible, although it might give people a better feel of whether they would want to attend a session on that topic next time).

There was also a brief mention of Barcamp NorthEast 2010 which will apparently be in the Centre for Life in March 2010. Something to keep an eye on…

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