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Why is the TC Camp Unconference format so popular? Interview with Liz Fraley, TC Camp Founder

Jan 6, 2016 • general

Liz Fraley started the TC Camp Unconference out of a growing dissatisfaction with other conferences. She modeled TC Camp after another camp that was low-cost, run by a non-profit, and intended to better the community. TC Camp's popularity arises from its unconference format — it places more focus on the attendees instead of juried presentations. As long as you participate, vote, and interact in the discussions, you're guaranteed to connect.

About the TC Camp Unconference

The TC Camp Unconference is just around the corner. Held January 22-23, 2016, in Santa Clara, California, this conference has been growing in popularity due to its unique unconference format.

The TC Camp Unconference doesn’t include any pre-scheduled sessions or speakers. (Although there are some morning workshops available, these aren’t part of the unconference format.)

For the unconference, attendees cast their votes on a wide range of topics. The organizers tally up the votes and list out the most popular topics. These popular topics are assigned to sessions at different time slots.

At the appointed times, you go to the session you’re interested in learning about. Session attendees circle their chairs and discuss the topic in an informal, interactive way. There’s usually a discussion facilitator and scribe.

You hope there’s an expert or two in the session, but even without experts to interact with, the individual sharing of experiences and insights usually makes the sessions worthwhile.

Interview with Liz Fraley, Founder of TC Camp Unconference

I decided to ask Liz Fraley, the TC Camp Unconference founder, a little more about the story behind TC Camp, particularly its unconference format.

Why did you decide to start this unconference?

I’d been growing disappointed in the conference circuit for techcomm. Many conferences had folded over the years. Most had moved towards being feeders for a specific consultant’s services or a specific company’s product (even if masquerading as something else). I’m not saying that’s wrong. It just wasn’t what I was looking for.

A year or so earlier, I started attending both the STC Summit again and discovered LavaCon. Both are great events, but neither had exactly what I was looking for.

LavaCon is great because it changes dramatically from year to year, both the audience and the program. The Summit has grown up too and has started incorporating a greater depth of sessions. But both conferences operate at opposite ends of the scale. On the whole, LavaCon is at the high business level and the Summit is at the individual, professional level.

And I’m a bit of an odd duck, I suppose. I touch a lot of different levels, a lot of different skill sets, a lot of different groups and individuals in what I do. I needed somewhere that fostered wider collaboration and allowed for possibilities and creativity.

During all of this, I’d been a regular volunteer for the San Francisco Bay ACM’s Annual Data Science Camp. I’d seen the variety of subjects covered, the wide array of people attending, and the excitement and sheer satisfaction in the attendees year after year. It was low-cost, run by a non-profit, intended for the betterment of the community and the people in it, and wildly successful.

I wondered if the format would work for tech comm folks. I really wasn’t sure it would work out. I floated the idea past several people in different positions, and, in the end, figured it was worth finding out.

I say this as if it all worked out. But we’d pondered the idea for a couple of years before we decided to give it a try. That first year, it was an experiment. It would work or it wouldn’t. Luckily, it did. In fact, the response was overwhelming.

At the TC Camp happening in two weeks, we’ll be celebrating our fourth year, our second as a non-profit.

Why do you think so many attendees find the unconference format appealing?

For one thing, the conference is self-correcting: Topics are chosen the day of the event by the people present. That uncertainty about attending — whether any of the sessions will be interesting, whether you’ll get anything out of it — is completely gone with an unconference. As long as you participate — vote on the topics, collaborate in the discussions — you’re guaranteed to connect.

For another, because there are no juried presentations, the conference is all about the attendees and not the presenters. We are all trying to do something new and improve our lives and our companies and the resources available to our customers. We read about new technology, new strategies, new tools, new techniques. We go to webinars. We watch videos. We take training. But in the end, very few of us have a large group of collaborators around us who are helping us do whatever it is that we’re trying to figure out how to do.

At an unconference, you have the opportunity to do just that. Sessions are discussions between people who are trying to wrap their arms around a topic. Sessions allow you to collaborate with others who have been there … or who are simply in the same boat. It’s a chance to learn from each other in a live, interactive way. To ask questions and get real individualized attention and feedback.

The first year we had a topic (mobile apps) that got scheduled at the same time as a really popular topic (API documentation) and the only people who ended up in the mobile apps discussion were all people who hadn’t built them.

So what did they talk about? They talked about what worked for them as app users, and what didn’t. They drew a lot of interesting conclusions by examining the topic from the user perspective. When I went to check on them, they told me they’d been nervous at the start because none of them had done it, but when it was all over, they’d all learned a lot and had some great things to think about.

I just think that’s amazing.

The only topic that has consistently had high-votes and made it into the session matrix year over year has been API documentation. Other topics have appeared one year, disappeared the next, only to reappear again the following year. Others topics with votes that put it in the top 5 one year, never appear again. I think that’s due to the self-correcting nature of the event.

The TC Camp board is working hard to try put on TC Summer Camp in Virginia next summer. I have my doubts that API documentation will even make it into the session matrix. We’ll see. I’m certainly as curious about the answer to this question as you are.

What’s your motive for running an event that surely takes a lot of time to organize?

I have discovered that I’m most satisfied when I am working on community projects and improving the capabilities of the people in my community. I designed TC Camp after the Data Sciences Camp — a low cost, not-for-profit, community service event.

When the first TC Camp experiment came to a close, I got a dozen emails asking me to do it again, even suggesting, “How about quarterly?”

But, you’re right, it’s a lot of work. I told the attendees that it wouldn’t happen more than once a year because it was a big job to put together. So, we came up with TC Dojo community-driven webinars to fill the void between camps and decided to make the camp an singular, annual event.

The second year, when our attendance numbers increased 30%, we knew we couldn’t both keep running it and running Single-Sourcing Solutions at the same time. Costs were too high for essentially what was a non-profit event at for-profit prices. We also knew that we were going to need help. Those first two years, the entire staff was just two people.

So, we planned to spin TC Camp off as its own non-profit and turn it into a community-organized as well as a community-driven event. By year three it was. And, luckily, I’m not in charge anymore.

I am immensely grateful that Scott Prentice took on the CEO slot. Scott’s amazing. He jumped right in and he’s patient and had a lot of great ideas that made the third TC Camp even better than the previous ones.

This year, we expanded the Board to include Alan Houser, Cherie Woodward, Nathaniel Lim, and Josephine Holmes. I am reminded, during every planning call, how great these people are. Each and every one of them has added something special to TC Camp coming up. It’s completely due to them that we’re even able to contemplate taking it to the East Coast this summer.

In the meantime, I can’t give up my community service nature or my experimental one. It’s just part of who I am; and, since I run Single-Sourcing Solutions, I have the flexibility to experiment and try different things out.

What’s going to be different about TC Camp this year?

Two things, with a bonus:

  • Campers will vote on the “Best Commercial.” Think TechComm Superbowl Commercials. We’ve got several entrants this year, one of which came from a company who has an ex-hollywood guy in their marketing department. I think it will be fun.
  • We’re changing up the Camper’s Feud. We’re keeping the feud, but thinking of redesigning it more like NPR’s Intelligence Squared debates. We’re still in the process of figuring this out, but I think people will like it.

The following is mostly a bonus for the volunteers and the board:

  • We’re catering rather than doing all the food ourselves. That ought to lighten the load on the board and the volunteers.

When people go to the conference, should they prepare differently than if they were going to another conference?

Yes. Come to talk. Come to participate. Bring your problems. Bring your ideas. Bring your creativity, instinct, and fun. This is where your brain brings it all together. Heard about something at another conference, webinar, or blog? It’s been gelling in your brain all this time even if you’re not aware of it. Once you’re in conversation on the topic, you’ll be amazed at what you put together and figure out.

You don’t want to miss it.

I want to give a big shout-out to all the TC Camp vendors who are coming to this year’s camp. They are the ones who make it possible for us to put on this nearly-free event that provides so much opportunity to our community!


To register for the TC Camp Unconference, go to tccamp.org.

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer based in the California San Francisco Bay area. Topics I write about on this blog include technical writing, authoring and publishing tools, API documentation, tech comm trends, visual communication, technical writing career advice, information architecture and findability, developer documentation, and more. If you're a professional or aspiring technical writer, be sure to subscribe to email updates using the form above. You can learn more about me here.