I’m happy to bring forward an inspiring story about knowledge sharing and community building, via Florin Cardasim – Software Architect, community builder at Codecamp, co-founder at Strongbytes, and cherished RomSoft Alumni.
In his relaxed conversational style, he shared valuable insights on how Codecamp grew from 25 to thousands of participants, on what he learned during the pandemic, and how the IT landscape has changed in the last 20 years.
Florin, too many times we tend to use the word “community”, but what does it mean? And where do you start building?
I would like to start from the story of how we built the community that is closest to my heart, Codecamp.
I’ve always had sort of a restlessness wanting to try new things, to meet new people, to learn and to share what I know. 15 years ago, I was working at RomSoft, and the good thing was that I found there this context where I could experiment a lot. For example, I remember the first time .NET and C# technologies came out and I was the first to say that I wanted to do something in that area. I started learning and experimenting with them, and after a while we were able to start a first project based on these technologies.
In the same period I was experimenting with a technology called WCF (Windows Communication Foundation), on one of the projects we were developing for Sysmex. And being a new technology and all, you couldn’t find many people who had experience with it. I didn’t have a lot of experience either, but I compensated with being a motivated learner. And I was invited to make a speech at this thing called the MSDN RoadShow, one of the few tech conferences that existed at that time. It wasn’t my greatest presentation but I enjoyed making it a lot. Then I started to be invited at various Microsoft community events and that, for me, was the moment when it all clicked together. I started to understand what community means and how it can transform an entire city or region.
I was very much into it. And was lucky to find these two friends, Dan and Gabriel, who were working in other IT companies in Iasi as well. And with the support I found in RomSoft, and along with my colleagues at the time who were also interested to take part in this movement, we did a first Codecamp edition. I remember we were 25 people at Ramada Hotel, and we literally camped there for three days and three nights, doing presentations, workshops and getting high on ideas.
After that, the word spread and we started having more and more participants. So we upgraded to a conference format. And I see that as my personal contribution to the local IT community, as a thank you for all the help and support I received. This community helped me grow, I made a lot of friends and I learned a lot. I had access to information that I wouldn’t have dreamed otherwise.
Knowledge sharing and a bunch of other common values with RomSoft, is it not?
I want to believe that in RomSoft, also, I was one of the promotors of the sharing knowledge philosophy. Being few people in the company at that time, I tried to challenge anyone who would listen to be better, to want more. Many times I was exigent, maybe heard a few protests here and there, but I was applying the same scrutiny on myself. And in the end, we came through, as we were also good friends and all the beers and basketball sessions we shared helped as well.
We were doing a lot of presentations in the company, we were doing the so called learning groups. If I was running Codecamp outside of RomSoft, I felt bound to do all sorts of learning activities inside the company, too.
Looking back, I hope that nobody felt I was pushing. Or at least I think it is sometimes useful to have somebody encouraging you to do something that takes you out of your comfort zone. And beyond the pain and the struggle, you may discover that you like the experience. Or maybe not, but it is important to find out.
What is the biggest blocker for somebody to come in front of an audience and make a presentation? It’s not about knowledge I guess…
At least that’s what I found out for myself, that you can never know everything. And nobody does. And that many of us, willingly or not, live with that impostor syndrome. Especially in our world in tech where things evolve so rapidly, there’s no physical time to catch up with everything. And the impostor syndrome can block you, and you have to become aware of it.
But you will always find an audience, or you can choose an audience with less experience, that can benefit from what you know. You can bring value to someone. So it’s a process to recalibrate your expectations. This will also reduce the anxiety. Then you have to be aware that you are scared. If you want to do this, you have to wonder “why do you have to?”, and “why do you want to?”
Only after you answer these questions and the answer is different from “no, you definitely do not want to do it”, then, you must realize that this anxiety, this fear of speaking in front of others, is like any other phobia. It can only be “treated” with exposure. And what you also need to know is that the most important thing in these interactions is preparation.
I remember when we were preparing the first Codecamp editions. One or two months ahead we started preparations and rehearsals, we took turns in helping each other with our presentations. Often times, we stayed up until 2 a.m. in the RomSoft meeting rooms.
So being there a long time, in the trenches, having been through all the sweats and pains, I realized that I can use this experience to teach public speaking, in a manner that I think is as friendly and as human as possible. And I think I can unblock some reticence in this area.
I remember you encouraging me to do a presentation on photography. I was really surprised as I didn’t believe the subject fit the interests of an IT company.
I always thought that, whatever you do for a living, you have to fit that activity into your life as a whole. You cannot separate your professional life 100% from who you are in your day to day life. I don’t wake up in the morning thinking OK, this is when I go to the office and submit a number of bytes and code lines and then 5 p.m. comes along and I get completely disconnected. I need a larger context where I have space to evolve, to learn new things, to be exposed to new ideas. I may learn something from you while I’m teaching you something. You have to keep an open mind.
And people picked up on this approach, and many of them got involved. And the best thing was that after they did their training in this micro-community that was very familiar and friendly in the company, they took the step outside, to present at Codecamp or other events and achieve their next growth level.
Let’s say I want to build this kind of micro-community, where people feel more at ease to express themselves and share what they think is important for our common growth. Where do I start?
Do you know what I think is most important? A thing that I also applied with my colleagues in RomSoft and elsewhere?
You need to keep running at all times a few small engines, or energy sources, that can engage others. The more the better. They can come up spontaneously, but if not, you have to find them and prepare them.
That means to come out of your shell and talk to people. To engage in conversations, to convince them to get involved. To build from within, with people who are interested in doing this. It is important to have these multiple engines, because sometimes people get tired or encounter a problem and have to concentrate their attention elsewhere. And the other ones will take over and fill in and take the movement forward.
This is a minimalist structure that can unblock energies. And yes, people need to be supported, trained, and mentored.
As a motivation, the biggest advantage in this way of doing things is that it is an amazing learning source. You know how it is: you go to a presentation and maybe go home with 10% of the information. Then, you go to a workshop and your impact grows to 50-60%. But when you come in front of your peers and you want to make a presentation, you must go in 90% for sure. You have to go deep into the subject, you have to understand it and be able to verbalize it. When you put on this hat and you realize that you can’t explain a certain subject, this means you didn’t understand it yourself well enough, and you need to dig deeper, to double check, to do more research.
How did Codecamp grow from 25 to thousands participants?
For me, community is an open organism. It shouldn’t belong to one company, it has to belong to everybody, or it won’t grow. And then, slowly, we tried to see how we could partner more companies and reach more people. In RomSoft we always found an open door. We had the liberty to experiment, we were gathering 5-10 people to rehearse our presentations.
One thing you should know, whoever is a speaker is first and foremost a person like you and me. Nothing is achieved without effort and hard work. So we put in the work and the hours. There were no gurus or pros among us. Sometimes we started to prepare a month or two in advance. And we tried to repeat the same schedule to more companies, more diverse. It was quite the roadshow. We went everywhere people let us in. Sure, not everybody did, and it’s normal. But RomSoft did, and many others, too.
In 14-15 years we held 100 big conferences. They grew as the industry got bigger. In Iasi, we had up to 2000 participants per edition, and then we extended to Timisoara, Cluj, Bucharest, Bacau, Suceava, Baia Mare, and Chisinau (Moldova).
And now? How did you adapt to the “new normal”?
Now, with the pandemic crisis, everything is online, and already, in the last months we held up to 20 conferences, with international participation. We had to narrow down the content, because it is difficult to manage more than 10 different topics in 2 days of online conferences. For live conferences you can go deeper. For example we had 10 to 12 conference rooms where we could organize separate tracks for different interest areas like .NET, Java, AI, down to the soft skills and project management zone, the entire IT related spectrum of learning.
Another thing that we lose in online is the ability to bring speakers of all magnitudes. We have to concentrate on high-level speakers over beginner speakers from the local community, which is a great loss, from my perspective. We hope to be able to win back some field in this area when we’ll go into a hybrid format, whenever that will be possible. Because this is what made us unique, in the end, the ability to help people from our community to grow this particular set of skills.
What have the last 18 months taught you?
I learned a lot in this period. In March 2020, when the first wave hit, we had the plan outlined for the entire year. After the lockdown period we had to change perspective. In about 2 weeks we regrouped, and I can honestly say we barely dodged bankruptcy. As much as we are not here for profit, we still need to be organized as a company, with balance sheets and all. And we were at risk. Everything was blocked. Our system is that participation is free, but we sustain ourselves through our sponsors. For about 6 months, we had to make it with the reserve fund we had from the previous years. And since autumn 2020, little by little, things started to pick up. Now, after 18 months, I can honestly say that we are doing fine.
There were conferences where we had 1000 people participating. Others have two or three hundreds. We have to admit that in online there is an abundance of content and there’s a certain psychical fatigue. The engagement is certainly different when you know that in 2 weeks there’s this big event in your community and everybody will be there.
What are your comeback plans? Is it worth making them?
We have comeback plans for sure, but we have to wait and see how the situation evolves, because we’ve made plans before and had to cancel them. In the optimist scenario, next year, May 19th we want to organize a Codecamp Festival in Bucharest, in order to allow access for more people, from all over the country and the world.
Depending on the success of the festival, we will then see how we continue. But still, I think the future format will be hybrid. Throughout the year we will have online conferences and one or two live, itinerant, summits or festivals.
How hard was it to stick with such a project throughout the almost 15 years?
For me, the Codecamp project was very natural. I cannot think if it was hard or not. For me and the friends who I started this thing with, this was our way of living and learning. It complemented very well our professional lives. Through Codecamp I have access to some things that, for sure, if I stayed in my place, isolated, I wouldn’t have heard of. It leveraged my knowledge and my ability to ask for help where I needed it. At any time I could pick up the phone and ask someone “how do I do this, can you help me”? And instead of hitting my head against the wall for several days, somebody came in and said “this is the problem, and this is how it’s solved”.
How do you see the IT community in Iasi now, as opposed to 20 years ago?
We are in a developing stage, I’d say. It has grown a lot, for sure. The context is different. 20 years ago I was staying in line for a job interview with 50 other people. Now we have this fantastic luxury that 50 recruiters from different companies want to talk to us. In some way we are in a maturing process. We need to relearn, step by step, what the correct ratio between money and value is. But this is also related to this fantastic pressure on the talent market, where there’s little we can do, we just have to face it.
What is clear is that the professional level has grown a lot, with the growing industry, and with the competition. But coming from this community area, I’m more into cooperation and that is also the idea with which we joined the Imago-Mol cluster, with Strongbytes. I honestly believe that we can become stronger together. And this allowed me personally, once again, to reconnect with RomSoft, this time, from a partnership level. I’ve always recognized RomSoft as a breeding ground for entrepreneurship.
And this is the idea that I try to seed wherever I go, in other companies where I have the opportunity to talk to people. That in a community there should be no territorialism. Sure, there’s a balance that you can keep, but community is that neutral space where you should feel safe, where you are not at war with anybody. There, you only contribute. Give and you shall receive. From this point of view, Iasi is very bubbly, companies get involved, and we’ve gone a long way from the times when it was hard work to explain to IT managers in Iasi that they should be present, that they should get involved and contribute to the community.
Thank you so much, Florin! I hope the tips and tricks that you’ve so kindly shared with us will inspire some more of us to make the step forward and do something for the communities we work and live in. And a big cheer from the entire RomSoft crew, we can’t wait for more future projects together!
Thank you! It was a very pleasant throwback, and I’ll use this opportunity to wish my former RomSoft colleagues a very happy 20th anniversary!