Let’s Go Camping: ProductCamp Explained & 3 Reasons to Go

Contributed by Alicia Dixon

Did you ever go camping when you were young?

I was member of the Girl Scouts for several years so I spent many summers camping. One of the things that I remember fondly about camping is that it seemed that there was a perfect role for everybody, so all could join in the fun. There were the kids who were brave enough to forge into the wild so they would lead the pack at the front of the hiking trail. Others were natural performers so they keep us entertained with songs while we hiked or skits in the mess hall. Kids who had a talent for science and nature helped us stay away from dangers such as poison ivy and snakes or helped build and light the fires at night.  And so on.  We all made a contribution, so everyone fit in. At summer camp everyone participated and there were no bystanders.

Now that I am much older, I still enjoy camping, but it is camping of a different sort. I am talking about the popular professional unconferences called ProductCamp, or PCamp for short.

How Does PCamp Work?

PCamp is what’s known as an “unconference.” While the concept of unconferences is not completely new, over the last few years they have become popular because of a format that caters to those in attendance rather than pushing the agenda of a sole conference organizer. Key tenets of unconferences are attendee driven content, active participation by all attendees (no bystanders), and little or no registration fees.

Most PCamps have adopted these same tenets to host community organized events that are thrown for people who build products. However, PCamps are locally run and operated, so there is some variation from one city to the next. PCamps are frequently organized by volunteers, including the speakers.  During PCamp you’ll regularly hear that ‘every participant is a volunteer’ because a lot of work goes into hosting an event and everyone is asked to contribute in some manner. So just like at summer camp when I was young, there are plenty of roles to fill to make an event successful.

How Is PCamp Funded?

Funding for the events usually comes from sponsors. Sponsors typically make cash contributions which helps cover event expenses, such as the venue or meals. In return for their dollars, sponsors are given the opportunity to promote themselves in a non-intrusive manner at the event. These promotional efforts vary in form but include acknowledgement during the event kick-off or at the start of each session, handouts for all attendees, and prize giveaways. Soliciting sponsors makes it possible to allow participants to register at little or no charge.

Why Should I Go?productcamp

PCamp is an awesome networking opportunity. A common thread across cities is that PCamp attendees come from diverse roles including product management, product marketing, user experience design, sales engineering, technical engineering, business analysis, project management, and entrepreneurship. A broad spectrum of seniority, spanning from current students to business owners and CEO’s, is also commonly found at PCamp. All of these people come together, usually on a Saturday, to share in a community-based gathering aimed at helping everyone create better products.

You’re going to learn a lot. At PCamp you’ll regularly find practitioners, who work in product-related roles, leading sessions to share their knowledge or facilitate a discussion on a topic of interest. Sessions take the form of presentations, workshops, and round table discussions that focus on peer-to-peer learning. Unlike at traditional conferences where the organizing committee chooses the speakers, sessions are suggested and selected by the attendees. Also, session topics range from entry-level to advanced subjects. If you are looking to learn something new, PCamp can be a great source of information.

You can guide the topics and teach others. Anyone can pitch a topic that they would like to see on the agenda. Pitching means that you are responsible for the session, but if you aren’t comfortable with public speaking you can recruit others to help you run it. Many session leaders like to plan out formal sessions, with slide presentations, in advance.  Alternatively, others come up with an impromptu idea and speak extemporaneously (in my opinion these dynamic topics sometimes turn out to be some of the best sessions). If you are looking to become more comfortable with public speaking, presenting a session at PCamp a great way to get practice in a low-threat environment.

Where’s the Next PCamp?

Last year there were ProductCamps in over 35 cities.  I haven’t been able to make it to all of them.  However, over the last few years I’ve had the pleasure of attending ProductCamp in many cities including Boston, New York, Austin, Atlanta, San Francisco and San Jose, CA. I also have had the experience of working on the organizing team for PCamp in Washington, DC for the last four events. Thus, I can confidently say that if you have not attended a ProductCamp in your local area yet, I highly recommend that you go. ProductCamp is a great way to make connections to other people who work in product roles and to supplement any formal training that you’ve taken.

Check out productcamp.org to see if there is a PCamp coming to an area near you.

[Editor’s note: ProductCamp Boston was in May 2014 and is slated for spring again in 2015. Watch this blog or the ProductCamp website for more updates. Last year’s Boston event had over 400 attendees and some amazing presentations. Here’s where I’ll make a personal pitch: go to PCamp. It’s the best conference – or should I say, unconference? – you’ll attend all year. Especially if you go to the one here in Boston.]

Photo from Ross Vernal found via flickr creative commons.

307cb85As head of Product Management for The Sheridan Group’s Tech Lab, Alicia Dixon leads efforts to convert clients to digital solutions. Previously she spent 5 years working as a Product Manager for Roadnet Technologies, a spin-off from UPS. Prior to Roadnet, Alicia spent 9 years in brand & product management roles with Dell, Fruit of the Loom, and Toys “R” Us.


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