A conference on two continents: Reflections from a Prague and Portland Write the Docs attendee

Catherine Heath | May 18, 2018

I’m now a two-time conference-goer to Write the Docs and I wanted to share my experiences of being part of this wonderful community. I went to Write the Docs Prague 2017 in Czech Republic, and Write the Docs Portland 2018 in the United States.

My previous perception of conferences was that they were dry and boring, perhaps sprinkled with a liberal dose of excruciating networking. This all changed with Write the Docs. You could even say it’s more like festival than a conference.

I was aware of Write the Docs through Twitter, the Write the Docs website, and Slack, but experiencing the real-life community was far better than you could imagine.

Plus, I had never been to the US before. Once I got past the TSA, it was all fun from there!

Making such an inclusive conference

As a conference targeted at writers, Write the Docs is also a conference mindful of introverts. This means they’ve created a space that takes pains to recognize that not everyone thrives in the typical conference environment – loud, busy, intense, pressured.

The most striking feature about this conference is how caring the organizers are, and how they go to every length imaginable to make attendees feel comfortable.

Not only do they signpost absolutely everything and share helpful updates on a variety of channels (including announcements on stage), they have also fostered an environment where people feel encouraged to make new friends.

Eric Holscher, one of the Write the Docs co-founders, describes this as giving people permission to talk to new folks.

He does it himself, and has set a rule that for every year you have attended the conference, you must meet that number of new people per DAY! This prevents in-groups excluding newcomers, and makes the conference more inclusive over time. He calls this rule Community++

The Pac-Man rule

Even better, he has also come up with a new rule: the Pac-Man rule. The Pac-Man rule means:

“When standing as a group of people, always leave room for 1 person to join your group.”

This means you have to stand in a Pac-Man shape so that new people are always able to enter the group. It’s a lot less intimidating than trying to join a closed group, and sets the mindset that we should be consciously welcoming to new people. This atmosphere makes it really easy to make friends.

And as a fellow attendee in Portland said, “I thought it became part of my personality to just go up to new people. So I tried it at another conference and realized, oh no, it’s only at Write the Docs I feel like this.”

I am also pleased by the relative diversity at the conference. There are all sorts of ages, gender identities, abilities, subcultures and nationalities, united under the umbrella of documentation.

Write the Docs Portland was so inclusive as to even have a dog, Milo, in attendance.

Of course, it's crucial that we all need to do even more to encourage a diverse range of folks to attend conferences like this. Write the Docs is making really positive headway. 

The Code of Conduct

Write the Docs also has a really strong Code of Conduct – which is a set of rules to guide behavior at the conference. No one will be 100% happy with any rules, but they set the stage well for common decency:

  • Be friendly and welcoming
  • Be respectful
  • Be careful in the words that you choose

They expand more on these principles on the website, but by distilling them down they avoid getting caught up in unnecessary rules. They’re placing the responsibility on the community to understand what being a decent human means.

The organizers have a genuine openness and willingness to learn, which means Write the Docs is a living, breathing thing that can evolve over time. They’re not perfect and they will make mistakes, but they want to listen to the community and take on feedback.

Annual hike

On the first day of Write the Docs Portland, there is a hike which has become an annual tradition. On the hike you can take advantage of the breathtaking nature trails that are a feature of Portland.

Portland hike

It’s not an easy hike and it’s made more difficult by the constant conversations you’re having with all the new people on the hike. I combined it with trying to take photographs at the same time.

The views are spectacular and it’s a great way to get stuck into socializing with other people at the conference. Marybeth (CEO of KnowledgeOwl) and I ended up going home for a rest that night, and came back for Writing Day on Sunday.

Writing Day

Writing Day is a day of documentation sprints where attendees can contribute to a number of open source documentation projects. I’m happy to say this enabled me to make my first contribution to an open source project – one of my personal goals.

I had a pull request accepted on GitHub for the Write the Docs meetup documentation. It was possible because I had support from the organisers and was surrounded by other people with the same goal.

The conference

The actual conference was two days of action-packed talks, unconference and job fair. I must admit I didn’t really move from my seat because I didn't want to miss the talks. I managed to meet many new faces and made friends with a few folks, who I’m now mutually following on Twitter.

I also got to put a face to the names I previously knew only online, and find out that everyone is incredibly nice in real life. I got some great feedback for some of the work I do for KnowledgeOwl, which is motivating me now I’m back at my desk.

Discovering Portland

In between conference stuff, I managed to sample the local Portland delights such as Blue Star Donuts, Boxer Ramen and the awesome Powell’s bookshop.

And just when we thought the conference was over, Marybeth and I managed to stumble across another group of Write the Docs folks in the Portland Japanese Garden. We had a magical afternoon in this calming, zen paradise which was the perfect end to the conference. Highly recommended.

Once again, it was so easy to start talking and make friends due to Write the Docs.

Portland Japanese Garden

Write the Docs Prague

In 2017, I went to Write the Docs Prague and stayed in the beautiful city for the first time. It’s also on a slightly smaller scale to the Portland conference, so I saw this as a way to prepare myself for attending the next Write the Docs.

The boat tour

On the first day we went on a boat tour and got to experience a really interesting talk about the history of Prague. As I had attended the conference on my own due to my coworker being sick with Fringe Flu, I asked some of the other attendees to go out for a drink.

We ended up going for dinner and that was how I spent the first evening of the Prague conference. The next day was Writing Day where I got to find out about some interesting documentation projects, but at that point I wasn’t ready to contribute yet.

The Prague boat tour

The conference

After Writing Day, I didn’t go out with anyone because I found out just how much effort it takes to go to such an inclusive conference. Everyone is so friendly and welcoming, you end up having a hundred conversations – which is totally exhausting for an introvert like me.

Luckily, Prague is a gorgeous city and relatively cheap compared to the UK, so I was able to have dinner by myself and recharge. This is really important when you’re at a conference that basically spans three days.

Since it was my first conference, I spent most of my time learning about the event, the community, and making notes on the talks.

Discovering Prague

Prague boasts a huge number of eateries at affordable prices, the breathtaking architecture, and the historical Jewish Quarter. I also visited the Prague National Gallery, and drank lots of really good lemonade with real fruit.

Rules for self-care

Write the Docs Prague helped prepare me for the behemoth that is Write the Docs Portland, and I came up with some rules for self-care and participation.

My rules for self-care at Write the Docs are:

  • Leave the conference center at least once a day to get fresh air/grab coffee
  • Find a good base in the conference that you can come back to
  • If you don’t feel like talking, don’t feel bad about introverting for as long as you need to
  • For me, being hungover was ruled out because that strongly affects my ability to concentrate and socialize
  • In busy, loud rooms, feel free to lurk on the edge where it will be less stimulating

And some inspiration for participating:

  • Think of a way to introduce yourself that may be amusing, or think of a funny story to tell
  • When you meet people you like, make an effort to follow up with them
  • Think of good activities ahead of time for group outings and invite people to go with you
  • Sounds weird, but take a prop as a talking point – this could be a book, wearing a certain t-shirt, or a camera
  • Actively look out for other people who may be new or on their own, and reach out to include them 

If you’re worried about overwhelm, following these rules should mean that you take adequate self-care and get to enjoy the conference. The organizers frequently reiterate that anyone can go to the Quiet Room at any time if they find it all getting a bit too much.

Creating the community

The leaders of the conference set the tone for everybody else and create the community.

All attendees will take their cues – not just from the co-founders – but the other organizers and volunteers who are on the ground working to make Write the Docs a success. If the leaders are happy, the attendees are happy.

And this is why I think Write the Docs is so much fun, and everybody loves it.

As I heard someone else say, I wish the whole world was like Write the Docs conference. Which is not something you might hear about many conferences.

Images by Kay SmoljakThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic License.

Head to YouTube to watch the Write the Docs Prague 2017 talks, or the Write the Docs Portland talks

Also check out these write-ups of some of the Portland talks: 

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About the author
Catherine Heath
Catherine Heath

Catherine is the Community Builder for KnowledgeOwl. She is also a freelance writer based in Manchester. She writes blogs, social media, copy, and designs owl-based images. 

You can find out more about Catherine on her personal websites Away With Words and Catherine Heath Studios.


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