Thoughts on CarpentryCon: the Value of Community

Belinda Weaver has already given a great overview of CarpentryCon, praising both the program and the atmosphere of the conference. One of the most important lessons that I learned during the conference was how great it is to keep quiet and hear someone else say what I think (yes, it took me 33 years to learn this), so I’ll try not to repeat much of what she already said so well. I would like to echo her praise of the organising committee though, and applaud their determination to provide assistance with travel costs. It was wonderful to see the global Carpentries community so well represented at our inaugural conference.

Community is a word that you’ll read a lot in this blogpost. Since I first started to dabble in computing ten years ago, I’ve tried to get involved in several open source projects. The Carpentries is the first one that “stuck” and it was the community of people involved that made the difference for me. Joining my first instructor discussion sessions, I was struck by what I consider to be the defining characteristics of Carpentries’ community members: positivity, optimism, enthusiasm, and altruism. Sure, there’s a wealth of talent and technical knowledge within our community, but it’s the determination for self-improvement, to help other people, and to discuss and overcome obstacles to learning, that made the Carpentries stand out to me. Or, as someone else put it during the closing Q&A session at the conference, we are a community of

“Nerdy people who want to help others.”

I got excited about the prospect of CarpentryCon from the first time that I heard about it, back in 2016. Most of that excitement stemmed from the potential to meet so many of the inspiring folks that I’d met online, or whose name I knew from Twitter, threads on our Discuss mailing list, and so on. Sure enough, one of the highlights of last week was meeting so many of these people in the flesh. But once that initial rush was over, I was delighted to discover that the rest of the conference had so much more to offer me. Several of the skill-up and breakout sessions were extremely useful - stay tuned for my write-ups of Francois’ breakout on lesson infrastructure, and the session that Kari and I ran on mentoring.

But I particularly want to talk about community building. We had a whole breakout session devoted to the topic, run by Belinda Weaver and Malvika Sharan. Even with the help of Belinda’s “talking stick”*, we still didn’t have time to discuss everything that people had to contribute to the session, but we touched on the value of regular local meetups e.g. Hacky Hours, ResBaz, Mozilla Science Lab Study Groups, and the the University of Edinburgh’s Coding Club, and the existence of the Carpentries’ Community Cookbook, which is not as disturbing as the name might make it sound ;) If you know of other programs and resources that might be relevant, contributions to the Cookbook are welcome!

Beyond that dedicated breakout, so much of the conference was about building and expanding our community: from the Australian Marsupials (plus one reptile) Story Circle, through “thank you” and “ask/offer” sticky note activities, to the many connections made in individual and group conversations enabled by intentionally long coffee and lunch breaks. This all worked to ensure that, rather than being an event only for the “hard core” of the established community, CarpentryCon was a welcoming and useful event for newcomers too. I like to think that this is a reflection of our community as a whole.

In a world that seems to bend increasingly towards the interests of privileged groups and individuals, I find inspiration in the positivity and supportiveness of my discussions with Carpentries community members. CarpentryCon was no exception to this: three full days of genuine and encouraging interaction with like-minded people who want to make a difference by using their expertise to benefit others. I left Dublin feeling reinvigorated and inspired to work harder to bring this spirit into the rest of my life.

I hope you’ll forgive me if I finish with a pitch, to those of you who work in community building or are interested in the topic. You’re warmly invited to join a series of community calls that a group of us are setting up, based on discussions that began at the RSE conference in Manchester in 2017. These calls will provide an opportunity to share experience and resources around community building, so that we can all benefit from what others have learned and tried in this area. Each will begin with discussion around a specific topic, followed by an opportunity for more general discussion. Our first session, focussing on connecting geographically isolated community members, will take place at 14:00 UTC on Thursday 14th June 2018. For more details, and to let us know that you plan to attend, sign up here: https://bio-it-embl.piratenpad.de/building-communities

Thanks for reading. I look forward to seeing you all at the next CarpentryCon! :)

*If you’re not holding the stick, you shouldn’t be talking!

Note: this version has been modified from the original blogpost. A quote was removed from the beginning of the post, after the author was made aware that language in the quote could be offensive to some groups.

Dialogue & Discussion