Not an ordinary summer camp.


A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend my first summer camp. But it wasn’t an ordinary camp. This was &:conf.

I knew about it from Rachel Myers, who sent me an email and explained me what was it about: an intersectional feminist code retreat and unconference in the middle of the woods.

I live in Mexico where summer camps are not as common as in the U.S. That’s why when I knew about &:conf, it immediately caught my attention. The idea of spending a weekend camping and coding far away from the city and the daily routine, was too exciting. Fortunately I got a scholarship and could attend (thanks sponsors!).

Day one: the arrival and registration.

The journey started on Friday afternoon, traveling by bus from San Francisco to Camp Meeker in Sonoma County, the home of St. Dorothy’s Rest.

The first thing I noticed was the beautiful place surrounded by these huge trees named coastal redwoods: the tallest trees in the world.

Photo by Stella Cotton

When I arrived to the main house I got my badge and one of the organizers asked me what lanyard color I wanted; the color indicated whether or not you were allowing to be photographed. Personally, this small detail was pleasantly thoughtful for me: some of us just don’t want our pictures to be on the Internet randomly. And this to be taken into account by the organizers was an excellent way of promoting respect on other’s people boundaries and privacy.

After the check-in and housing accommodations, the event started out with a delicious dinner, offering different meals and options, specially for people with dietary restrictions: vegetarian, gluten-free, lactose-free, etc. An extra point for the event’s inclusivity.

Later on, the organizing team formed by Stella Cotton, Lillie Chilen and Emily Nakashima, gave us a warm welcome and explained us what the event was about. The lightning talks session started out right away; the presented topics were about accessibility, open source contributions, Ruby gems, Outreachy, among many others. That’s when I realized the amazing people I was surrounded by.

Day two: code retreat!

I have to confess that on Saturday I woke up a bit anxious because of the code retreat. The idea of doing pair programming with a complete stranger for almost the whole day was making me feel uncomfortable. Until then, I hadn’t had any good experiences with pair programming, so there was my impostor syndrome making its appearance. Even so I decided to participate and have fun.

Lillie started out the activity by explaining the general rules and gave us an insight into the exercise we were about to start working on: Conway’s Game of Life.

If you don’t know what a Code Retreat is, here’s a brief explanation: it’s a day dedicated to intensively practice programming techniques. It’s divided into 45-minute sessions in which the attendees program in pairs and each iteration has different constraints adding complexity and encouraging people to think in a different and creative way of solving problems.

Another interesting thing about the iterations it’s that probably we end up pairing with someone who doesn’t use or know the same programming language than us, or even, that has a different expertise level. So, there’s always something new to learn from our peers.

Luckily my first pair was Courteney Ervin. We both are Ruby developers and that could make start coding easier. Pairing with her was exciting since I attended her talk on open source contributions some months ago at RailsConf. It was pleasant how the course of events led us to meet again and make some coding together.

We started with TDD (yay!) and although we couldn’t make much progress due to the limited time, it helped us to establish a basis to break down the problem into smaller parts and have a detailed and modular perspective of it.

As the day went on, I began to feel more comfortable working with different persons and all the time I felt confident about my skills and about using the keyboard. That was really surprising in comparison to my previous (and bad) experiences with pair programming. But this time it was all about learning and having fun,I wasn’t even aware of the clock.

Never thought I could have so much fun and good experiences in a code retreat. Can’t wait for the next!

That day changed many of my thoughts and preconceptions about pairing. And my impostor syndrome disappeared for a while. I met awesome human beings and learned something new about Java and Python.

Saturday night ended up with many of us having endless conversations around the fire pit and, of course, s’mores! ❤ That’s when I had the chance to talk to Cindy Pallares. We had a nice and long conversation about our interest in OSS and how we both want to increase the diversity in tech communities of Latin America. (If you’re interested too, please check this out!)

By the way, our Internet bandwidth was limited at Camp Meeker, but instead of making us feel anxious, it helped us having real conversations and to be fully present in the moment, instead of being aware of messages and social networks.

Day three: the unconference

Sunday was the unconference day. Until then, the unconference concept was totally new to me. I had no idea what it was about and how could I fit in there.

Basically it’s a participant-driven meeting where the agenda is created by the attendees before it starts. The proposed topics were super interesting: DevOps for Babies, Technology in Activism, Functional Programming, T-shirt Hacking, Code in Astrophysics (omg), Agile Maintainable CSS, Feminism and Extreme Programming, etc.

Photo by Nora Alvarado

During the sessions, we all discussed about the topics, expressing our own opinions and sometimes our own experience, unlike a conference talk format, where there’s just one person speaking in front of everyone.

Let me briefly talk to you about the sessions I enjoyed the most:

How to stop seeing yourself as a Junior developer

We spoke on how the companies have standards and bulleted lists to classify expertise levels. We all agreed the seniority level is beyond technical skills, and it’s more about team work ability, communication skills, the way of solving problems, dealing with challenges and difficulties, knowing how to ask for help, projects ownership, etc. I really enjoyed the meeting, especially because we had the chance to hear Sarah Mei’s thoughts on that.

T-shirt Hacking

With scissors in hand we could hack some t-shirts to make them more suitable for our own type of body and shape. As many other women in this field, I constantly get disappointed when I get a “unisex” t-shirt that hardly fits on me. It was super cool to learn new techniques and styles.

Many companies and organizers are now starting to pay attention to this. And I understand that women’s t-shirt styles can be hard to get in the marketplace sometimes. There’s not enough production to supply the demand. Is it that women’s t-shirts are not a profitable market yet? Anyhow, kudos to the people who put an extra effort on getting them for their events.

Agile Maintainable CSS

I’m particularly interested in this topic and wanted to hear about the other’s experiences and advice. But most of all, I wanted to meet people who is as passionate about CSS as I am.

We talked about the wide set of tools and techniques we can use nowadays: Bootstrap, Materialize, SMACSS, CSS testing frameworks, PostCSS, etc. We also went over the challenges we have faced while working with large teams and legacy code. I really enjoyed this session.

Closing and departure

The day ended up with a closing speech by the organizers and a quick retrospective about the event. We all talked about the things we enjoyed most, the things we learned about and how all those experiences changed something inside of us. The closing was by far, touching and emotive.

That night I packed up my stuff to came back to San Francisco.

Photo by Isabel Palomar

When I said good bye, I noticed this weekend changed a lot of things inside me, especially in the way I see myself from the technical and social side as well.

I reaffirmed that a supportive, inclusive and free of criticism environment is a key for professional and personal growth. That the way we look, our beliefs or preferences don’t define our quality as a person. And how to successfully run a tech event while promoting respect with personal boundaries, encouraging people to speak and express their thoughts, and making them feel included and important.

Now I can say that, at least for me, &:conf was a life-changing and eye-opening event due to all the rad people I met that weekend, and because I got to know myself better.

I can’t thank Lillie, Stella and Emily enough for organizing and running this camp, and most of all, I’m thankful because of the scholarship they offered me.

If you are organizing a tech event or conference, please consider in offering scholarships for people who can’t easily attend other way. It’s not just about increasing diversity, but having the opportunity to positively impact on people and probably change someone’s life.

I also want to thank the company I work for, which made my flight possible from Mexico to San Francisco.

I really hope &:conf happens again next year, so that even more people can attend and live such a wonderful experience as I did.

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