Chicago Tech Fun Field Day Success!

It’s been 3 days since we completed our first Devoxx4Kids event in Chicago.  This will be the first in a series of posts covering our lessons learned running our first event in Chicago.  I want to start off with just a recap of what we accomplished.  The Devoxx4Kids Chicagoland Tech Fun Field Day included over 80 kids, 20 volunteers, and 15 hours of instruction.  The event included 4 kids participating in the instruction and covered labs in conductive playdough, Scratch, Lego Mindstorms, and Minecraft Modding.  Volunteers stepped up from a number of different technical communities in Chicago including Java, .NET, JavaScript, and many more.  And last but certainly not least we enjoyed support from 3 sponsors Loyola University Chicago, GE Capital Bank, and Spantree Technology Group LLC.  Feedback is still coming in from parents, but early feedback indicates the event was a big success and I’m really proud of how Chicago’s technical communities stepped up to the challenge.

So like any technical project at the end you should do a retrospective in order to reflect on what went well and what could go better.  This retrospective is as much for you as it is for the folks in Chicago.  I’m going to cover our entire journey starting from inception to walking out the door of the event last Sunday.  My goal is that you – my inspired reader – will see what goes on behind the scenes of one of these events and hope that you will want to run, participate in, or instruct at your own event.  I plan on covering our motivation, the process of planning the event, and executing the event in a series of 3 posts.

So where to start…

The beginning

The idea of opening a Chicago chapter occurred to a group of us at the end of 2013.  We had heard about Devoxx4Kids at JavaOne from Aditya Gupta in the Community Keynote.  I had already been showing my kids Scratch and Alice, but after seeing Aditya hack Minecraft it clicked that the key was connecting technology and programming to things the kids were already interested in.  So at the beginning of 2014, Freddy Guime and I reached out to Arun Gupta to find out how to get started.  We wanted to go big for a first event to grab people’s attention.  More importantly we wanted to run an event where we could provide PCs for the attendees since most 6 – 18 year olds do not have access to a computer.  We had run fairly large events through the Chicago Java User Group (CJUG) so we figured we were pros and would have no problem pulling it off.  And with a ton of enthusiasm we started reaching out to a number of area high schools and … crickets.  Every so often we’d get a response, but often we ended up getting blocked before we could lock down the event.

Which brings me to my first lesson…

1) Even though STEM is on every school’s radar if, you don’t know someone with the right connections it’s hard to get their attention.

At the end of 2014 we got rebooted and we picked up Tim Steele who became a Co-Organizer.  Tim got us more organized by creating a budget and working out some of the vendors for a number of the conference materials. Tim also introduced us to Scott Steele who ended up being our marketing guru.  Having a truly cross functional team helped us tremendously because while most of us were pretty familiar with code the task of creating T-Shirts, fliers, solicitation emails, and posters was not our specialty.

2) Seek organizers and volunteers with different skill sets than your own.  More hands makes the work lighter.  More specialized hands make the work higher quality.

But we still didn’t have a venue.  We caught our first break when Freddy reached out to some of our friends at Loyola University Chicago who help run the Chicago ACM.  Dr Ronald Greenberg was able to reserve 3 labs in the Crown Center on campus.  Suddenly we had 3 labs, over 80 computers, and the backing of a major Chicago institution.  This is the point when we knew this was finally going to happen.  I don’t know how many Devoxx4Kids events partnered with colleges before but it seemed like a good fit.  Many colleges already teach Computer Science so they have labs and equipment.  Additionally they do not have a captive audience since students must choose to go there, so they have more reasons to want to support programs that bring prospective students on campus.

3) Use your community connections to find space.  If you don’t have community connections, start building them by attending User Groups and Meetups.  Cold calling schools takes a lot of effort and without a promoter within things will often fizzle.  It helps having someone on the inside that will get things done.

With a venue and a cross functional core team we set out to plan the event.  We still needed instructors, sponsors, and attendees. Stay tuned for next time when we talk about how we pulled the event together in the months leading up to it!

– Bob Paulin, Devoxx4Kids Chicagoland Organizer