Two years ago I blogged about having attended a conference completely outside the 'geek crowd' and how much of an eye-opening experience it was. Since then, not only have the marketers' forecasts become reality (Twitter going big and them taking advantage of it) but I've also been fortunate to attend Higher Ed Camp Philly.
Higher Ed Philly was a great experience. I was really surprised at the great blend of technical folks and educators (from both public schools and universities) in attendance. The effect this had on the sessions was tremendous and has completely changed what I want to get out of attending a conference. In short, it was nothing like what I expected...it was way better!
From the perspective of a tech person who generally attends tech conferences, the interaction among the attendees was totally different. Instead of constant hardcore technical discussion, there was a balance of talk about tools and practical application. The educators' minds worked quite differently from ours but in a really valuable, interesting way. I found myself wanting to attend more of the educator-focused sessions simply to further understand their way of looking at the things we create as the starting point for their work to take off.
Consider this: we create, sometimes in a vacuum, but always with limited feedback. The educator must somehow translate the practical utility of whatever it is we created into something that the average human can understand and then apply to their own want or need. Their entire job is to act as our forgotten intermediary; a good number of them spend most of their time trying to keep other teachers up to speed on what's possible. Their (presumptive) reason for attending was to get a head start on that process.
Every session I attended included elements of show and tell, the educators talking about what they see as useful, and the techies trying to offer suggestions on the spot. We live to solve problems, and the challenges put forward by our fellow attendees were some of the most creative, interesting ones I got to think about all week. I think that's awesome and should stand as a strong message to all of us that we have to get out of our niche and spend more conference (unguarded, relaxed, non-work) time in a similarly blended community.
I bet we could have taught some of those teachers and instructional technology people at Higher Ed Philly a couple lines of CFML and made them dangerously powerful. I bet they could teach us a few things about how to understand methods of learning and made us dangerously effective communicators and trainers. Together we were kicking around ideas that wouldn't have naturally evolved from either camp alone and improved ourselves in ways we never expected.
Later today, the final CFUNITED conference will get underway. I'll miss it for all of the reasons that the attendees from any year share. But in retrospect, and through the lens of this new outlook on conference participation, I realize that the best learning I ever did there was from the informal chatter of people talking about their challenges, their daily realities, in a group of people we'd all like to consider colleagues. We talk about problems that are technical (solvable) and political (not always). We bring differing skills but a common understanding of CFML to the table and have a great time learning from one another.
CFUNITED has served us well as the table around which we gather, but tables also make us focus inward. In its absence next year, I hope to see the regional events (like CF.Objective, RIA Unleashed, NCDevCon and BFlex/BFusion to name a few) continue their excellent growth right alongside unconferences and meetups that blend our technical proficiency with people from other disciplines in the same space. We can't lock ourselves up in our own tech-specific shows all the time and expect to grow our community and grow our skills in a career-savvy way. The ColdFusion community, while awesome, will need to look outside the realm of those who work with competing technologies and instead turn towards people with complementary skills and interests to evangelize CFML as a platform.
Use the end of CFUNITED as a reason to expand your participation in new directions. Show off what your CF skills can do while scratching someone else's itch. And once you've done it, come back and share with everyone else. It's a big world, and we're all students of everyone else.
See you in Virginia!