A year of hosting weekend events at IBM's Southbank location culminated last Saturday with the London Java Community Unconference. This was the most successful event so far - all the others were good, but this was the highlight of the year. Have a look at twitter for comments.
Having gained some experience over the past year I thought it was worth writing a few words on hosting unconferences from the point of view of a $BIGCORP. In the future I hope we will see many more companies welcoming technology groups into their offices at weekends.
Here are my suggestions for a successful event:
1. Remember your place
We ($BIGCORP) are really only providing a location - the event is all about the group that wants to run it and about what their members want. The LJC - led by Barry Cranford - has a clear mission, they are passionate about all things Java - all we are doing is providing a place to meet. This is not the sort of event that can be used to promote commercial products - leave that to the marketing teams.
2. Work with a good team
In fact, three good teams in my case. The IBM team that turns up on the day (Robin Fernandes, Cath Hope, Mark Hindess, Ant Phillips) - we are all developers from IBM's labs in Hursley and have worked with each other for a few years; I know I can trust them to do whatever they say they will. The second IBM team, led by the Hursley Innovation Centre, are people you don't see at the event - they work hard in the weeks running up to the event to ensure that we have catering, security, networks, projectors etc. Finally, the user group team. In this case Martijn Verburg and Barry Cranford from the LJC who displayed an exceptional level of trust in our ability to pull this off, especially given Barry's inclination to plan everything.
3. Keep it small
One of the great things about last Saturday was watching people talk to each other over lunch and in breaks. This is something that I feel is sadly missed at big conferences, at least half the point of these events is to encourage people to talk to each other.
4. What not to organise
Resist the temptation to organise the speakers in advance. Whatever happens on the day it will work out right. It really is up to the attendees to provide the content and I have yet to go to an event where there were too few talks. Perversely I also find that the quality of talks is much higher at unconferences than at mainstream conferences - I don't really understand why - perhaps because the audience are involved the atmosphere tends to be friendly and supportive towards presenters.
5. What to organise
Registration, sponsors, badges, projectors, wireless network, flip charts, white boards, pens, food (40% vegetarian, 10% vegan), directions, cleaning equipment, twitter tag, 'the grid'. That's it really. Oh, and some signs:
Thanks to Richard Dallaway for the image.