I’ve just about recovered now from Over The Air 2011. This merry gathering of mobile phone developers chose Bletchley Park as their base for this year’s conference. It’s a free event, deliberately so as to avoid any conflicts of interest. On this occasion they asked for £5 per ticket, all of which went straight to the Park.
Over The Air 2011; A Volunteer’s Perspective
Within minutes of arriving (I’d been asked to provide a tour) I knew I was going to have a good day. I recognised the vibe from other tech conferences I had been to. Not the dry ones where everyone is in suits and taking it oh-so-seriously. Oh, no. This was kind of conference where the attendees know that what they do is more of an art than a science and act accordingly. Geek heaven awaited.
After nosing in on a couple of talks and chatting with some of the attendees I was bowled over with the passion and enthusiasm emanating from them. These people loved what they did and were driven my a desire to share ideas and create new things. From my standpoint, egos and professional competitiveness/jealousy had been left in the corporate world.
In his opening speech, one of the organisers of OTA, Matthew Cashmore, stated that the attendees could ‘change the world’. ‘Hyperbole’ I thought, wary of the quasi-preacher style we see too much of at other events. However, I am very pleased to admit my initial reservations were completely wrong; these people were more than capable of changing the world and many of them probably will.
The weather could not have been better and attendees were invited to camp the night on the ‘oval’ lawn, something no volunteer I spoke too could recall ever happening before. As our Indian summer continued, tents appeared, generators were deployed and the lack of wifi complained about (a staple of every tech conference).
At about 2pm I found myself standing and staring at what was going on around me. People were sitting on the grass, in circles, laptops open, furiously typing between bouts of laughter. Inside the mansion, people rushed about as if they had just leapt from Aristotle’s bath. Taking pause, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was the closest Bletchley Park had come in over 65 years to it’s wartime purpose. Bright young things, grouped together, solving problems and relishing the challenge. You could feel the energy of the thinking.
At the start of the conference, Dr Sue Black, Bletchley supporter par excellence, talked about the Park’s ‘vision’ and what that should be. Well, I found myself looking at the answer to that very question. Bletchley is, and always should be, a museum of Worldwide importance where people can come and hear the stories behind the remarkable achievements of those who worked there during the war, but it has potential to be so much more.
Our friends at The National Museum of Computing often bemoan the state of ICT education in our schools and rightly so. Kids are not being taught to code anyone, plain and simple. What if Bletchley Park became synonymous with education and expertise in the IT ‘arts’. Not just an educational facility (although TNMoC already do excellent work in that area) but also as a place the IT/tech community know as a great venue to hold conferences such as OTA. There are many other conferences and meetups in this field and I can’t imagine one that wouldn’t be willing to help Bletchley Park in some way. Could the Park become an epicentre for UK’s brightest tech entrepreneurs and developers? That’s the future I saw. I thought of FOWA/D, Barcamp, Unconference and many other events I would love to see at the Park.
It was gratifying at the end of OTA when Matthew said ‘same place next year?’ to the crowd. He was met by cheers and applause. In fact I later learnt that the ‘drop off’ in attendance they expected as the conference was outside of London simply had not materialised. They had underestimated how popular Bletchley Park would be.
Bletchley Park needs to have one foot in the future as well as one firmly in the past. What better way to pay tribute to the World War II codebreakers than to continue the enterprises of intellectual problem-solving and technical innovation that they so brilliantly started?