Unconference chair circle

The Open Source CMS Unconference

October 10, 2018| by Peter Sohal

Have you heard of unconferences? No set speakers. No set topics. Organic discussion. Attendees as speakers and group-sourced topics, and also, and quite importantly, fun, free-flowing and non-judgemental interaction.

This weekend marks the first-ever The Twin Cities Open Source CMS Unconference. It is the brainchild of two local Drupal web developers, Tim Erickson of Triplo and Electric Citizen's Wilbur Ince.

It is a genuine attempt to bring together open source CMS groups to find common ground and collaborate and communicate. Their enthusiasm for the idea is quite infectious. This is what they have to say about it:

Unconference photo 1
Tell us a little bit about yourselves

Tim: We have both been active members of the Twin Cities Drupal User group for a while. However, between us, Wilbur is the elder statesman. He has been around much longer than me. I’ve been doing Drupal since about 2011 and Wilbur since about 2008. We’ve both been working together on the Twin Cities Drupal Camp planning committee for at least the last 5-6 years. Prior to connecting in the Drupal community, Wilbur and I were both involved in an online civic engagement group called Outside of our tech lives, both Wilbur and I share a passion for biking.

Wilbur: I started building websites with HTML code. I migrated through Dreamweaver and other build tools before finding Drupal. It was the Drupal community that really helped me become a successful web developer and that is what keeps me giving back to the Open Web and participating in events like this.  

Wilbur and Tim
Wilbur Ince and Tim Erickson
Please explain the "unconference" format for those of us who are unfamiliar with the concept

An unconference is a conference where the agenda is totally driven by who shows up on the day of the event. There is no prepared schedule in advance, instead participants are invited to suggest and facilitate topics on the day of the event. We lay out a grid of timeslots and locations and anyone can put their idea on the board and then facilitate a discussion with whomever shows up.

One way to think about an unconference is to envision an entire conference built around the kinds of conversations that you often have in the hallway at more structured conferences.

Why does the world need this event and what are you hoping to achieve?

Wilbur: I’m not sure that the world needs this event, BUT this has been a great format for an event that we had in the past and we want to see if we can replicate that. We attend a lot of events, but this is a chance to do something a little bit different and that feels like it’s needed.

Tim: I think the world does need more events like this, because this is the kind of event that is about digging deep and talking about the questions and topics that are most important to you. Too often I come way from conferences feeling like about 30% of what I heard was really relevant to me. At an unconference, the expectation is that if you are in a session or conversation in which you are neither contributing anything meaningful or nor getting anything back, it is your responsibility to move to different conversation or just spend a little time by yourself reflecting on what is important to you.

Do you have a mission for this event?

Tim: For us, this is about encouraging and facilitating cross community collaboration and lesson sharing. We are trying to build connections across open source communities. We would like to see ongoing communication and collaboration between open source communities or meetup groups. 

Wilbur: We know all the people in the Drupal community, but we know there are other people in other communities that are dealing with the same things and this is a chance for us to learn together.

Unconference photo 2
What makes the Twin Cities a good choice for this kind of meeting?

The Twin Cities already has a number of user group meetups for the various open source CMS’s, but in the past these events have been very specialized. We think it’s time to bring these various communities together for sharing and collaboration.  

Do you have any advice for attendees on how to prepare for an unconference?

Wilbur: They could take a little time to read about unconferences in advance, but this is probably not necessary because we’ll cover most of the essentials at the start of the event. What would be more valuable is to figure out what you want to know from developers using other CMS's. How does what you are doing compare to what they are doing? What do you struggle with? Let’s share.

Tim: I agree, the most important thing to do is to decide what your burning questions are. At an unconference it’s your responsibility to come prepared with ideas about what you want to talk about and add to the agenda.  

What's the biggest challenge setting this up?

Tim: The biggest challenges in setting up an unconference are selecting a suitable venue and marketing the event. Marketing an unconference is challenging because many people are unfamiliar with the concept and are confounded by the fact that there is no schedule of sessions in advance.

Wilbur: What’s hardest about this event is starting to make connections with other communities. We’re not used that. We’ve been planning our own Drupal events for years, and we know how to reach our local community.  It’s been much harder for us to reach other communities that would be interested in this event. We’re just not doing that right now.

Unconference photo 3
Are there any plans for future events or is it a one-off?

Tim: I would like to see future events. One outcome of the conference I would like to see is to know what people from all the communities would like to do in the future events. One possibility could be an “Open Web" monthly meetup that is not specific to any CMS. That seems really interesting to me. 

Wilbur: I’m hoping this will be the cornerstone event that will create a brand identity which surpasses all CMS groups in the region, and fund my early retirement! But, seriously, I'd like to get through this event and see how things develop. Based on our experience I think we will continue to have more unconference events in the future because it’s a format that makes events successful and interesting.  Perhaps we can learn and tweak.  

Unconference chair circle

Best of luck for your event, and here's the EventBrite invitation again for anyone who wants to join…

We hope to see you there, and stop back here for an addendum to this post that will give a short update on how the event went.

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About the Author:

Peter is a creative digital marketing strategist with an advanced degree in Business Communications. He helps advise our clients on strategies for building and maintaining effective websites. Amongst other things, he loves to icefish and paint watercolors. View team members »