It’s hard to believe it’s been just a few months since more than 400 coders, designers, collaborators and learners from a diverse range of public and private organizations gathered in Ottawa and Charlottetown to participate in Web Experience Toolkit (WxT) CodeFest 2013, an open, free and collaborative event centered around the government of Canada’s WxT project.
What’s WxT, you might ask? It’s an award-winning, flexible, open-source set of tools for building usable, mobile-friendly, accessible websites, built and supported by a community of dedicated people from across government as well as the private sector. It’s a way to build websites fast, and, amazingly, it’s free for anyone to use.
WxT is an awesome example of community engagement and collaboration. Here are some lessons learned that can be applied regardless of field or industry.
There is power in diversity. Part of CodeFest’s magic was the potent mix of people that it attracted, all with varied skills, interests and backgrounds. Some were technical wizards; others newbies. Some were public servants, but many were not. What they all had in common was the diversity of their experience. They learned from each other while working on common tasks. CodeFesters were able to play off of each other’s strengths to create stronger work than each would have produced in isolation.
Work openly wherever possible. Taking a cue from open-source culture, CodeFest was planned openly using a variety of social collaboration tools, such as GitHub and Twitter. Working together online allowed volunteers to cut across organizations and geographic boundaries; it also produced a living public record of the planning process, avoiding reinventing the wheel for similar projects. It allowed us to learn from the experience of others and provided a blueprint to build on. Open-source principles don’t just apply to coding; they can improve many other types of work by enabling greater collaboration, participation and cross-pollination.
Technology is awesome (when it works). Thanks to webcasting technology, this year’s CodeFest featured a satellite event in Prince Edward Island. CodeFesters were able to collaborate not just locally but across provinces thanks to the power of the web. However, even as technology gets easier and easier to use, it still has its hiccups, and CodeFest was no exception. Whether it’s a laptop battery dying, wifi getting overloaded or some other technical issue, it’s always a good idea to plan for low-tech alternatives. Paper, pens, markers and stickies were in no short supply at CodeFest, a smart move to provide both a fallback option in case of tech failure as well as an additional tool for participants to use in their work.
Communication is essential (but challenging). Whenever you try to choreograph an event with 400 people, it’s bound to get a little bit chaotic. Communicating frequently in as many ways as possible was the key to keeping things creative and focused. Friendly, easily identifiable volunteers supplemented email, Twitter, GitHub issues, the CodeFest website and on-site signage. While some methods worked better than others, the time and attention spent on communicating helped keep participants focused on working together instead of wondering where to go next.
Build on success. This year’s CodeFest was double the size of last year’s event, thanks in no small part to the passionate community that has formed around the event and WxT. As more people hear about and contribute to this open-source project, it improves the toolkit and the community grows. WxT continues to benefit from CodeFest, from gaining new participants to being featured on the newly launched GitHub for Government site. And thanks to Fast Company and Mashable, the fire will keep burning until the next event. Keeping the CodeFest spirit alive, work continues through codesprints, training and outreach efforts. Momentum is powerful, and great things can happen when you make efforts to build on your own success and let others do the same.
The passionate volunteers that made CodeFest happen are already looking forward to making the third edition of CodeFest even better than the last two. If you or someone you know might be interested in attending the next edition of CodeFest, contact the Web Standards Office, Treasury Board Secretariat at firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about WxT or get involved, check out the toolkit’s GitHub space at http://wet-boew.github.io