Early Thoughts on MobilIT@Y 2012

Hey kids, let’s put on an unconference!

Such was, essentially, my mindset when I saw on the Yammer stream at Yale in December 2011 a post about an IT unconference at Stanford. (If you don’t know it, Yammer is much like an internal-only Twitter, though “internal” means anyone with a yale.edu email address. Here, the heaviest public use comes from IT personnel, predominantly, erm, me and eight or ten others.) The news item went up, three or four people commented favorably, and I was feeling particularly feisty, so I replied:

Rubber, meet road: https://www.yammer.com/yale.edu/groups/ityunconference2012#/messages/inGroup?type=in_group&feedId=324340 [protected link] It’s not an unconference, it’s a YUnconference! (Heh.) I’d like to aim for having it during spring break or thereabouts. Who’s on board? [Thread link, also protected]

After a few days of repeated nudging — which served to bolster my resolve as much as anything else — I took my own medicine and set a date and place for a meeting. Though my original ambition was to have the event by or during Spring Break, it became clear that that wasn’t going to happen, and I’m glad it didn’t. Others of the core organizers were frustrated with the number of meetings we had, and it’s a sign of the strength of the group that they felt good being able to kvetch about that. But me? I enjoyed being able to have the space to cover everything, to make sure that nothing major was going to fall between the cracks.

Early meetings were a lot of noodling and sharing experiences with unconferences. We also took a good deal of time talking about our expectations for the event. Though this was spinning our wheels in some ways, it also had the effect of getting us on the same page or at least in the same pamphlet about what this thing was supposed to do for us and others. We got so into it that we came to the consensus (I believe) that having a day of just the organizers talking about things would have been a success. As it was, however, we blew through our initial registrant limit (60) within 24 hours of opening online registration, and at one point had almost 75 confirmed participants. Commitment being what it is these days, there were rather many dropouts in the week leading up to the event, with something like 7 in just the preceding day. Some of those slots were filled by the 25-deep waitlist, but not all. Official attendee count for the day (including organizers) was 61, and I recall one crasher, so there may have been more. Not too shabby, all things considered.

I’ll do a quick rundown of some things I think didn’t go fabulously and then discuss in follow-on posts some of the positives, some possible changes for next time, and participants’ own words:

  • No womens’ tshirt styles. I might as well start with something that is on my shoulders and with a big one. This was inexcusable, and I deserve all the rotten fruit thrown at me. While tshirts are not the be-all end-all, good swag makes a difference. When you see people around campus wearing the tshirt from the unconference, you recognize one of your people. If all the people wearing the tshirts are men, that’s a problem. This, leaving aside the more general rectitude of getting a mix of styles.
  • Session proposing process. In the registration form, we asked people to say what they would like to have talked about at the unconference. Some people clearly understood what we meant, which was more along the lines of what registrants’ session proposals would be. Next time we have to be clearer about when participants are brainstorming and when they are proposing sessions; at least one participant mentioned in formal feedback some discomfort and surprise at finding that a suggestion transmogrified into facilitation. Better handling of this would also keep down the number of unusably vague responses like, “Anything mobile.” Conversely, we also need to be clearer that every attendee must propose at least one session.
  • Voting as it ties into the above. Another outgrowth of the way we did things was that there was significant overlap in some discussion areas. We managed to get sessions for most of our timeslots (and were comfortable leaving the slot open that we did) but some participants were confused during the voting process. One participant very helpfully annotated the proposals to indicate which were like each other. We also gave participants the opportunity to propose a session when they arrived at the unconference, but we had already started the voting, so the two onsite proposals were doomed to low vote counts from the outset. Finally, I didn’t do a great job of laying out the proposals for public viewing, so some sessions may have lost expressions of interest because they were somewhat outside of the same presentation space as others.
  • Visible diversity. Ignoring the true shadings of gender and sex, I can condense our attendees to a 35%/65% female/male split by walking the registrant list. Interestingly, we were also roughly 70% from outside the central IT department, though that is not unequivocally a problem. (Conventional wisdom has the IT work at Yale divided roughly equally between those who work for ITS and those who do not.) We did not track race/ethnicity, but my eyeballing suggests we can do better here as well.

[EDIT: Changed lead-in text to fail list, as by the time I published this post I had indeed skimmed the evals and expanded what I want to do in follow-ups.]