Thursday, September 20, 2012

SpaceUp Founder: Chris Radcliff


I had the pleasure of attending SpaceUp San Francisco this past April, and this weekend, I'm so lucky to be attending the very first SpaceUp Europe at the Genk Cosmodrome in Belgium! In between, I kept up via Twitter with the SpaceUp Unconferences in Houston, San Diego (their third!), and Los Angeles; and I hear even more were or will be held in Washington DC, Canada, and Germany!

Session Grid
There are no spectators at SpaceUp, only participants.
Put a topic on the Session Grid!

The founder of the SpaceUp Unconference, Chris Radcliff, wasn't at all what I expected. You know, you expect founders to be running around… running things. But, true to his signature format, the soft-spoken, self described "software engineer, space advocate, citizen scientist, & geek dad" was far more of a willing participant than the an "owner" of the new forum style now delighting the space industry on multiple continents.

After he and many others treated us to a "T-5 talk" at the SF gathering, I resolved to make my own T-5 slides for whatever unconf I next attended, and hopefully sometime corner Chris for an interview!

Chris RadcliffPhoto by Kevin Baird

How did you first get the idea for an "UNConference" and what does it mean to you?
I've been a software engineer for over a decade, so I've gone to lots of tech conferences, both as an attendee and as a speaker. They get old, and the topics are always stale compared to conversations with friends or on the Internet. In 2006, I attended my first unconferences, Mashup Camp and MashPit, based on the popular BarCamp format, which was in turn based on an unconference called Foo Camp. They were both amazing. Attendees had so much more to say than any one speaker could! Every unconference I attended left my brain full of wondrous ideas.

To me, the most important part of an unconference is trusting the attendees (who you invited because they're awesome, right?) to decide what they'd like to talk about. There's no way an overworked conference organizer can predict hot topics months in advance, which is traditionally when speakers are chosen. (Imagine a smartphone conference the week after the iPhone was introduced. All the talks about slide-out keyboards and web browsing on a tiny screen. Awk-ward!)

When I got involved in the space community in 2008, I went to conferences to get a sense of what was new and fun. I noticed the most interesting conversations were happening in the hallways, and kept saying, "the space community should have a BarCamp." Blank stares every time; apparently, unconferences hadn't made the leap from the tech world yet. After describing unconferences half a dozen times, I finally worked with Jesse Clark of SD Space to put one on in San Diego. It was hard work – I'm a programmer, not an event organizer – but the result was amazing. All my space heroes in one place talking to each other – and to me!

Hardy spacetweeps Remmco & Eico are planning for the first SpaceUp in Europe this week. Are you surprised your idea crossed state lines and now an ocean? Will you be there?
I can't say I'm surprised that SpaceUp is going global – it's based on other global unconference ideas – but it has been heating up much faster than I figured it would. At last year's SD Space strategy meeting, I set a 5-year goal of six SpaceUps a year. We've had 7 so far in 2012, and there might be a dozen before the year is over!

I've been to all the California ones – San Diego, LA, and San Francisco so far. It's wonderful to see what other people do with the format; each one is different, but they're always exhilarating. I'd love to go to all of them, but I also have a day job. :)

As it turns out, I was already planning a trip abroad with my family when SpaceUp Europe was announced, but two weeks afterward. My wife and our geeklet take school with them wherever they go, so they're going early so they can attend. It should be exciting, and I look forward to hearing all about it from them and watching it online!

Chris Radcliff at SpaceUp San Francisco Californian @Joi_the_Artist re-captioned this Calvin & Hobbes cartoon to describe SpaceUps; what did you think of it?
As usual, Joi gets it exactly right. SpaceUp is a whirlwind in two days: Finding old friends (or online friends) and meeting new ones, talking about a zillion crazy ideas and sharing your own, talking until you're hoarse, and then crashing when you get home. People have asked for more time at SpaceUp, but I think it would be completely exhausting if it was any longer. There's one aspect that isn't in Joi's poster, though: working like a fiend between SpaceUps to make something that was suggested at one, to show off at the next.

You've been to a lot of SpaceUps now; what was the most interesting thing you saw, developed, created or talked about that stands out in your memory?
There are two moments that really stick out in my mind. One is something I look for at every SpaceUp I attend; it's my own "measure of success" for the event. SpaceUps are usually a mix of industry insiders, enthusiasts, and students, so seeing a student and an insider talk about things as equals can be amazing. For example, at the most recent SpaceUp LA I overheard a VP at a space company with a household name talking to a high-school student who was there as part of a robotics club. She mentioned the college she was attending, and he gave her three names (off the top of his head!) of interns at his company that had come from that university, and told her to contact them (and him) when she decided to be an intern herself. Her eyes bugged out and her jaw dropped. That's just awesome.

The other one I get to crow about because I'm a dad as well as an organizer. My eight-year-old geeklet has hosted four sessions at SpaceUps so far, and each one has been well-attended, with thoughtful and honestly interesting conversations. What traditional conference would ever gamble on an eight-year-old speaker?

Not too many! But that is the beauty of SpaceUp, and we're all so excited it's coming to Europe! Watch the live stream of SpaceUp Europe 2012 at SpaceLiveCast.DE!