By our count, nearly 350 geeks and “geeks at heart” converged on the Railroader building in downtown Saint Paul this past Saturday and I think most everyone has been very positive about the result. I believe that number (or any number over 300) would make minnēbar the largest barcamp outside of India (Barcamp Bangalore 3 — just a couple weeks ago — drew over 500 people!). I know that barcamps are supposed to be about local community and ours was no exception, but it was still nice (and a little amazing) that we had quite a few people drive or fly in from New York (at least 2), South Dakota (at least 2), Wisconsin (6 or more), and Chicago (at least 1). Knowing that this event is worth someone’s Saturday is one thing, but also worth a six-hour drive, or several hundred dollar plane ticket? That is awesome.

I am very happy with the way the event turned out. I think the sessions, by and large, were first-rate. The special guests such as William Gurstelle and his excitement for making things that go Whoosh, Boom, Splat as well as the Scout Robots from the University of Minnesota gave a nice real-life tech component to the day. Of course, David Heinemeier Hansson was a highlight as he was his usual witty and charming self. I have had lunch with him before (at Etech last year) and have seen him present, but he seemed even better in this setting. All his answers came very freely and he didn’t really seem to struggle with any of the questions. I am sure he had been asked about such things time and time again. Even so, I thought Jamie Thingelstad did a very good job with his side of the interview, as well.

I was very worried that the size of the crowds would really take away from the intimacy and sense of participation that is crucial to barcamps, but I don’t think these fears turned out to be warranted. Plenty of people talked between sessions or headed off to an “ad hoc session room” to discuss this or that and the sessions (with a few exceptions) never got too full. I still believe that the 50-minute session length is good. It is not so much that it can get too detailed so people really have to know their stuff. I spoke with Shourya Sarcar, one of the planners of barcamp Bangalore, and he said that one of the differences between the Minnesota and Bangalore barcamps was that their sessions are 30 minutes and that they “vote with their feet” meaning they leave a session if it is no good, or not what they had hoped. Minnesota “nice” retards that practice a bit, but there was still some wandering between sessions.

Even the after-party, reception was better attended this year — plus there was a rooftop party that lasted into Sunday morning. All in all, I cannot complain about how the event turned out. That said, I do have some things I am already looking to improve for next year (and maybe even bring into some of the MinneDemo events.) Here are a few:

It would be nice to have a better way to estimate participation. Some ways I was thinking about doing this would be to offer t-shirts or something special to those who signed up before a certain date. Or maybe sign-ups after a certain date cannot be guaranteed pizza. It was a bummer this year when some folks took 3, 4, 5 or more slices of pizza on their way through the line and then some people didn’t get any. People 2 slices is adequate for any person’s daily caloric needs.

We screwed up on the coffee. 10 gallons is about enough for 20 minutes. Techies drink more coffee than Mountain Dew these days.

Part of the reason we were struggling a bit this year is we didn’t plan for 391 people to sign up. We had hoped for 300 but because we got off to a bit of a late start with the venue we were planning on about 250. We would have needed to add another sponsor to really make 350 work well. As it was, we ended up “going over a bit” so we will have to see how to work that situation out.

The venue wish list would include windows that can open, a bit more space between sessions, and maybe another bathroom or two.

In an effort to try to get people to stick it out for the entire day, we tried enticing them with sweet t-shirts (designed by local illustrator Bill Ferenc) but still many left before the end (and without a shirt).

How can we get people to stay the whole day? Do we want to try? Is it even possible? It is a long day 8:30 or 9 to 5:30 or 6. I am open to suggestions. I like to have a lot of sessions. Diversity and choice is good. We had, more or less, 5 session time slots with 6 or 7 at each slot this year. We could work some things out to have fewer sessions or time slots. One thing I was thinking about would be to eliminate the structured time for demos (10 minutes) and have those spill over into ad hoc sessions (which I really want to encourage anyway). With the advent of quarterly MinneDemo events, perhaps we don’t need to highlight demos at minnēbar. More organic demos would also feel a bit less “corporate” to me.

After a rest of a month or two, I plan on starting a couple things very early for next year’s event:

  1. I am going to start looking for venues soon that can accommodate roughly the same number of attendees yet still be somewhat hip and cool.
  2. I am going to be encouraging people do sessions if I think they would be good — especially designer types as I promise there will be a larger percentage of design-related topics next year.
  3. I am going to attempt to make some in-roads with competent press and media types who understand what it is we are doing.
  4. I continue to be disappointed with the press coverage we have been getting that always needs “an angle” or something sensational (like a piece on a Ruby on Rail “rockstar” coming to town by a guy who has no clue what Ruby or Rails is and can mean). The media isn’t satisfied with the fact that we have a burgeoning tech and design community here and that after each one of these events, there is a surge of productivity and creativity — startups launch, new products are hatched, and people are energized. Events like these tend to live on far past their sessions and conversations. But I guess the real story is about the color of David’s shoes.

Some photos did you say?