I spent all of last weekend at Barcamp Manchester 9.
Now, I know you might have a couple of questions.
- What is a Barcamp Manchester 9?
- Why weren’t you spending the weekend with your family?
I’ll answer the second one first – because they’re really annoying.
I’m only joking, they’re lovely and literally my favourite people in the world to spend time with. But Barcamp is so amazing that I chose to spend the weekend with a bunch of geeks instead.
So what is Barcamp? It’s described as an “unconference” – which in laymen’s terms is a conference but one that is actually good. Everything is free – the venue, the food, the t-shirts and the stickers. It’s organised entirely by volunteers. And everyone who attends has the opportunity to speak (although they don’t have to).
There are several different rooms, and time slots throughout the day. It’s all laid out on a lovely big grid. You decide what you want to talk about (or you might have a talk prepared), write it on an index card, choose a room and time slot, and stick your card on the right place in the grid. Then you can look at what everyone else is talking about and decide for each session what you’re going to go and learn about. If you don’t like it, you just get up and leave, and can go to a different talk, or have a chat in the corridor or just go and stare out of the window. It’s really up to you.
If you’ve ever met someone who’s been to Barcamp, they will bang on about how great it is, and this is why:
- Although a lot of it is tech-oriented, you can literally talk about anything – and learn about anything. I’ve been to a session on learning jujitsu moves, and another one about how to rob a bank.
- Anyone can speak and it’s a great place to practice public speaking if you’ve never done it.
- It’s free.
- The rule of two feet – that you can get up and leave a talk if you want – means that you’re not stuck listening to something you realise isn’t for you when there’s another talk you’d rather go and see.
- The vibe. This is by far the most important thing for me at Barcamp. Everyone strives to make it a safe space so you can learn and talk and express yourself without fear of being judged. It’s a true meritocracy – people come to learn from each other and don’t really care about anything like what you wear or what your qualifications are, or if you take more than your share of Kit-Kats (an obvious advantage for me).
So that’s Barcamp. This one is was in Manchester, and it’s the 9th one that’s happened, hence the name Barcamp Manchester 9. And this was my experience of it.
It started on Saturday morning. The venue was at Auto Trader (which is on First Street, opposite Home, if you know Manchester). There are lots of different rooms for giving talks in, plus nice common areas like the lobby, the cafe and a quiet zone. I got there for the end of the opening plenary, which was given by Chris Northwood and Luce Carter. I’ve sort of seen Chris develop through various Barcamps – he’s gone from live-tweeting one of my talks, to giving his own (on Chernobyl, still amongst my favourites), to organising the whole shebang.
I spent the first session of the day tucked away in the quiet area instead of going to a talk. I wanted to check the timing of my own talk and make sure I remembered everything (I always present without notes).
I chose the second session of the day to do my talk because I wanted to get it over with. It was “What accessibility really is, and how you can be truly accessible” which regular listeners may remember I did at Upfront earlier this year. I was helped with the set-up by Ether Alak who managed to hide his disgust that I didn’t know how to press “Fn + F1” and rescued from embarrassment by Colette Weston, who fished an HDMI adaptor out of her bag just in time. The lovely Luce provided me with a clicker. (I love a clicker, it makes me feel like a proper grown-up speaker). Lorna Mitchell filmed a bit of the talk for me. Here is a still:
It seemed to go down pretty well – people laughed in the right places and I didn’t trip over my own feet. I got some decent feedback after it. As well as the “I enjoyed that – thank you”, a couple of people had some ideas I’m going to incorporate for next time. Caddi pointed out that I’d missed chronic pain in my list of disabilities and conditions which was kind of stupid of me, as it’s an obvious one. And Colette made a really good point about diversity as not being like a pie. It’s not like there’s not enough to go round – if you take a slice of something, that doesn’t mean there’s less for other people.
Next, I joined Ether’s discussion which was called “Ally or Activist?” He led the group but loads of people joined in with some great points about how and when a person can be an ally of a group they’re not a part of. I love that Barcamp gives you a space to talk about that – as a straight, white person I don’t always feel qualified to have an opinion on some of the issues that others might face. So this kind of thing is really educational because people can speak freely.
Then it was lunchtime and I had a cheese and apple coleslaw sandwich. I am greedy so I must have scoffed it in, like, 5 minutes, but I literally can’t remember anything else about the lunch hour.
Afterwards, I went to Steve Hilton‘s talk on “Will AI take our jobs?”. It was a really good talk – he had some great graphs which engaged my love of social history, showing how technology has changed the world of work. By the way, the answer was “no”. You can see his slides here.
Next was Alina Apine‘s talk on “Queer history: whose story is it?”. One of those talks where you go “I never knew [famous historical figure] was gay!”. I loved the story of Billie Holiday (bisexual, appaz) and Tallulah Bankhead, who had an affair. The latter denied it in her autobiography, saying only that Holiday used to come round occasionally “for spaghetti” which is my new favourite euphemism.
Next was my favourite talk of the day. “8 things I’ve learnt being a freelancer”. I’m not freelance but I do run my own business so I was hoping to pick up a few useful tips. The talk was by Drew Forsyth, a commercial photographer, and he was incredibly funny. I will ‘fess up here – I am sometimes put off by what I see as an over-confident young guy, but Drew was so honest and engaging that I found I could relate to him. I got a lot out of his talk too. Some of it was the “Oh, it’s not just me who experiences that” which is very comforting, but I also got some public speaking inspiration as well, because he’s much more expressive than me and I could do with a little more of that in my talks.
By the way, I spoke to him later and he told me he was really nervous before his talk. So I was wrong about the over-confident thing.
Session 7 had a few options I was interested in but I chose to miss the talk on computing in Malawi in favour of a lesson on “How to draw faces” because I fancied something interactive. Two teenagers, Samantha and Jess, handed out squared paper and pencils and then talked us through the process. This is one of very few sessions I went to that was a pure “how to” and all the better for keeping us focused. Despite the excellent instruction, my picture was crap and the face looked like the sort of thing that would come alive and murder me in my sleep.
Next was “Flavours of Anxiety” by Chad. Chad (who uses the pronouns they/them) was brilliant at creating a safe space for us all, and talking honestly about their anxiety. I was really interested in how their anxiety works – we are all used to the “fight or flight” response, but they told us there are 3 more – “flop”, where you just collapse, “freeze” (which Chad does sometimes and it can easily go unnoticed) and “friend” where you have to pony up to someone to literally or figuratively hold your hand until the panic’s over.
I wasn’t sure what to do in session 9, so I headed over to a demonstration of “How to memorise a 52-card deck”. This was given by Mark Kirschstein, who is a strong contender for the highly-competitive “Best hair at Barcamp”. But I remembered that I know the mnemonic device he was using, so I wandered off to the library for “Being a better public speaker”, presented by Dan. I’m fairly experienced in public speaking but there’s always room for improvement.
I had to go home then – well, to Currys/PC World to buy the bits of kit I should have already had – and then home. As well as the talks listed above, I had some brilliant chats in hallways with lots of people about a ton of different things. I was particularly grateful to Chad for taking the time to explain non-binaryness to me because I knew piss all about it and was very keen to understand it, mainly so I could make sure I use the right words. That makes me sound about a hundred years old (which, to be fair, is how I feel sometimes).
I rocked up late, as usual. I was feeling quite rough – I hadn’t been sleeping well because of the stress of doing the talk I had planned for the day. I’d done the same one in Liverpool on Thursday and I’d only had Friday to recover (it can take me a while to recover from an event where I have to do a lot) so by Sunday I was feeling a bit grim. I was nearly sick with nerves, in fact, and could barely eat (which is when you know it’s serious because I am a very greedy girl).
For the first session, I went to Jon Spriggs‘ talk on “How the internet works.” I thought it was going to be a fairly simple explanation but it turned out to be quite complicated because – guess what? The internet is complicated. Most of it went over my head but I don’t mind that because at least I understand the level of complexity involved when something goes wrong. You can see Jon’s slides here.
I spent session 2 preparing for my talk. I found Ether in the lobby and asked him how to press “Fn + F1” again because I’d already forgotten. Seriously, the guy has the patience of a saint. Not only did he say he’d help me set up, he said we could go into an empty room and check all my new bits of kit worked properly. Not that I don’t trust the highly trained and qualified staff at Currys/PC World but… well, you know. We got it sorted so I just had time to pop into the end of Hugo‘s talk on “Usability, writing and cooking.” But I missed everything except his gougere recipe.
Next was my turn. I presented my talk on “The Power of Change: Learning to live as a weirdo”, in which I tell my story about living with neurodiversity and being a mentalist. I am really sorry but I can’t remember the name of the nice man who filmed me. I’ve got face blindness and there were a lot of white men with beards there and I can’t tell them apart. He did an excellent job though, so I really appreciate it! I’m also grateful to Drew, because he graciously agreed to be my stooge for the opening bit.
The reason I get nervous about telling my story is because it goes against my natural instincts to Batmobile (you know, when the Batmobile automatically covers itself in armour when people are shooting at it). It’s so far out of my comfort zone it’s like climbing a mountain. Made of jelly. On the moon.
But I do it partly because I genuinely enjoy it once I get going, I’m passionate about the subject, and I find the experience cathartic. I also feel there’s a real need for this – I’ve only done it twice but both times I’ve been completely overwhelmed by the number of people who come up to me afterwards, not just to say they enjoyed it, or it was great (thanks for that by the way), but also to say how much they needed to hear it. So yeah, that’s why I do it.
You can find background information on this talk here. I’ve also included some places to go if you need help with your mental health.
I had unusually planned my talk quite well, in that it was the last one before lunch, so I could go and decompress over a sandwich (this one was chicken and tarragon).
On my way back from the bins, I stopped to say hi to Paul Waring, one of the event sponsors. Paul is an uber-geek. I know him from Manlug (Manchester Linux User Group) and even though he knows everything there is to know about computery stuff, he never ever patronises you or makes you feel stupid for not knowing as much as he does. Which gives people like me the encouragement to learn. He introduced me to Martin Brooks, who is a fellow geek. He kindly agreed to have a look at my package dependencies (not a euphemism) and, like the guys at Manlug, talked me through it all so I could start to gain some understanding about how to use my computer. That I’ve had for ten years.
In the morning, Ben Grubert had asked if I’d do a Q&A with him in the afternoon. I’ve never done a Q&A as the interviewer before, and there aren’t many sessions like this at Barcamp, so I thought it would be fun. The topic was “Surprising lessons you can learn from disabled entrepreneurship”. My first question was “What’s with the stick?” (Ben uses a walking stick). It might have seemed insensitive but I’d cleared the questions with him over lunch, and he liked it because he said he hardly ever gets asked that! We talked about his experience of both physical and neurodiverse disability (he’s got autism and ADHD like me, plus he’s dyslexic) and about his work. We got some interesting questions and feedback at the end, particularly from Caddi (fellow stick user) and Hugo (fellow dyslexic) and it really helped my understanding of visible and invisible disabilities.
For the second session of the afternoon, I tootled off to another talk by Drew. I sort of asked him the day before to do another one so I felt kind of obliged to go and see it! The title was “How to photograph a professional ballerina”. There was a lot to be jealous of in this talk – from the photos of the lithe and talented dancers, to Drew’s stories of travelling to meet these beautiful people, and of course, his amazing skill. I found it really inspirational though – not in the sense that I would lay off the cupcakes long enough to become a professional dancer, but in a “determination to do my best work” kind of way.
Where are we up to? Session 6. As with so many sessions throughout the day, I found it hard to pick one, but finally settled on “How do I start a business?” from teenager and aspiring calligrapher Tia Mistry. This is a not uncommon session at Barcamp, where the person doing it isn’t really speaking but instead asking for advice from others. Having set up a couple of businesses, and having worked with a number of creatives, I thought I might have a pearl of wisdom I could share with her. It was a really nice relaxed session – lots of people sharing ideas and info they thought could help her. You can see Tia’s work on Instagram.
For the last session of the day, I returned to the library where Viv was sharing “Lessons learned from having depression and anxiety.” She shared various things she’s picked up to help her manage her conditions. I already knew most of them but I did find the tip to cut back on caffeine and sugar really useful and I’ve already cut back on coffee because of her suggestion. The room was full so I sat on the floor, facing the windows. We were 6 storeys up so the view was amazing. I stretched out my legs, drifting in and out of the conversation, and watched the sun emerging from behind the clouds, as Barcamp drew to a close.
There was just the closing session to wrap everything up. I sat with Emanuil – Bulgarian, sponsor, and another strong contender for the best hair prize. There isn’t actually a best hair prize by the way, just raffle prizes which were given out to the winners in the closing plenary. There was also lots of thank yous: to the sponsors, Autotrader and the organisers, Chris, Luce and Claire McDonald. Some of the attendees headed over to Home to wrap up with a few drinks, but I went to my actual home.
So what did I get out of Barcamp?
For a start, I got to connect with lots of really cool, interesting people. Out of all the people I’ve mentioned in this post, I’d met maybe one or two before. The rest were all new. It’s always been an immense challenge for me to connect with people – I mean, I can fake small talk for long enough if I have to, but it’s hard for me to start to understand people on a personal level. As I mentioned at the beginning, Barcamp is a place where people take you as you are, so there’s less pressure to perform (either as a presenter or socially).
I also got to practice two of my talks again. No matter how many times I do them, I always find it useful to practice, especially the second one. I’m aiming to get to a place where I can do it without feeling like I want to throw up, and Barcamp is a safe place to do that (they’ve got nice toilets, for one thing).
Also, I got 2 sandwiches, a KitKat and a jolly yellow t-shirt that I wore for my run this morning. It takes me a while to “come down” from an event – even good stress needs an outlet. So I went for a long run to de-stress, clear my head and calm down. Except I ended up thinking of things I could put in my next talk…
Massive thank you to everyone involved in Barcamp. See you next year.