How to hack code4lib
by Declan Fleming, Director of IT, UCSD Libraries (BigD in channel)
Budget willing, this year will be my third code4lib, one of my favorite conferences ever. I remember what it was like to be new and wondered if I could write a short piece that would help new people to the community get as much out of the conference as I do.
Hop into the #code4lib IRC channel and listen for a while
The conference back channel on IRC is the most invaluable tool available to help you quickly get the feel for the conference and the people attending. Most technical people have the attention span of a gnat at times, and the channel helps keep a conversation flowing when the presentations get slow. Be warned that the level of discourse on the channel is very similar to how a group of friends would be talking around a table full of drinks. The topics range from in jokes about bacon and sad facial hair to esoteric explorations of the RDF expression of specific pieces of metadata. The channel is also very useful for seeing where groups are going for lunch or dinner.
Listen 90% of the time / Talk 10% of the time
code4lib is jammed with characters who are passionate about some aspect of our profession. Ask a question or two then sit back and bask in the output. Don't worry, you'll have the chance to talk about what you are working on when your companion stops to drink beer.
My dirty little non-secret is that I love code4lib but I'm not a programmer, or even a sysadmin anymore. I'm a manager of these type of folks and I love hearing what's new. I often don't have much to offer in terms of pythons or rubies, but most people can appreciate a sense of humor.
Don't be sexist/racist/*ist
It's great to be funny, maybe even a little blue at times, but be careful about steering into areas that make segments of the world uncomfortable, or even feel attacked. We are in a very interesting niche of the technology world. Our librarian population is primarily female, but our technical aspects of librarianship tend to be more stereotypically white and male. We have a wonderful opportunity to attract and promote equality in our field and there's no reason to make an underrepresented group feel unwanted just to get a couple laughs.
One group that gets beat up on a lot is vendors. There's a healthy debate that comes and goes in the channel about whether it's good to have a place to vent, or if making vendors the butt of jokes limits their interaction in the community. One of the great strengths of the channel is that the norms are constantly in flux and openly discussed and debated.
Don't be too sensitive
Of course, political correctness can sway too far to the conservative, and what fun is that? Don't always assume that the jibe you took in the channel is meant personally. It is usually safest to always give the speaker the benefit of the doubt. So many non-verbal cues are missing in this medium, it is just a virtual conversation after all.
Be willing to laugh at yourself
I've found that making fun of myself is a safe outlet for being bitingly clever. And once you've shown people that you don't mind being a target, they'll let their hair down and pick on you too. Besides, why not beat everyone to the punch.
Don't be intimidated by what looks like the "in crowd"
There is no in crowd. There are people who jump in and participate - both to the conversation and the ongoing work involved in promoting and supporting code4lib. You'll see them as the center of things until you actually get involved - a little at first to learn the social norms of the group, then more and more until you realize that new people are seeing you as part of the in crowd. Now your job is to make the new people feel included.
I never thought I'd stick around in libraries that long. I'm an IT professional, not a librarian. But I tell ya, being in this crowd for very long infects you with the depth and longevity of the problems that need to be addressed. Supporting a profession that has such a long tradition, and helping to bring it into the present and future is more satisfying than I ever thought possible. I have a passion for linked data and making things talk to other things in easy ways. I've shared this a few times in bar conversations and formal talks. Nothing got people talking to me more than this.
Be ready to learn new stuff
Listen to others' passions and see if any of it strikes a chord in you. There are times when I'm listening to a talk, or in channel, and I'll just make word lists of things I've never heard of. Later, I'll start Googling around and end up a little smarter.
Expect 80% of the value of the conference to come from things other than the presentations
I used to feel mightily guilty about spending university money to sit in a presentation and feel like I got nothing from it. Adding the IRC back channel to my stream of awareness either helps me ping the crowd for more depth on the presentation, or helps me see that others are struggling as much as I am. Admittedly, the channel can be quite distracting, but if you let go and get all Zen and let it flow over and through you, you'll be surprised how much you come away with!
Take a sip from the firehose
Code4lib has a blog to stuff in your feed reader. But if you want to see what's going on in code4lib check out the planet aggregator of blogs from code4lib folks. If you have a blog and want it listed there ask jrochkind in irc. You can also follow code4lib on twitter, or consider following code4lib twitter users via code4lib lists from eby or mjgiarlo. There is also a LinkedIn group you can join for more "professional" networking.