Organising a workshop takes a lot of effort, says Richard Powell, but the benefits make it worthwhile.
David Haywood Smith recently wrote about the golden age of the developer and how every developer should give back. I agree. Sharing our skills is an essential part of being a creative person. It enriches the ecosystem we work in, raises our profiles and it connects us with like-minded people.
I’m going to talk about an often neglected form of giving back: the workshop. Social media has made it easier than ever for every designer, developer, or entrepreneur to run a workshop and I believe that we should take advantage of this.
I’m going to use my own experience running two workshops to tell you a story. It’s a story that I hope will motivate you to run your own workshop. I’ll cover the lessons I’ve learnt and I’ll explain how and why you should run a workshop.
It Starts With a Tweet
A while back I tweeted:
Hey, anyone interested in a workshop on jQuery for beginners?
The response was luke warm. So I tweeted some more, had a tonne of re-tweets, wrote a blog post and in a few weeks there was enough interest to take the idea seriously.
Lesson 1: Talk to your target community where they usually reside. You’ll be amazed at how willing they will be to help.
Due to Twitter’s viral nature my message took on a life of its own. People who I had never spoken to started asking me when I would run the workshop and if they could help. Capitalising on this, I was able to secure workshop space for free.
Lesson 2: Running a workshop should be cheap. You don’t need to pay for space or for advertising.
What is This Workshop?
I was concerned that my workshop would be too hard or too easy for my audience. I was also worried that if tickets were too cheap people would just buy them for the sake of it. I tried to find a sense of what everyone wanted but this was too varied. In the end I concentrated on the statement I wanted to make:
I believe jQuery is most rewarding when developing bespoke solutions rather than hacking plug-ins. In my experience developing jQuery this way saves time and produces a more polished result.
You may not agree, if so, great! Let’s debate it in the comments or on Twitter. However I now knew what my workshop was and what it wasn’t. All that was left was to manage expectations. So, I blogged explaining exactly what the workshop was.
Lesson 3: Clearly define the purpose of your workshop and set people’s expectations for it.
Lesson 4: Provide course material that everyone can take away and complete in their own time.
What surprised me was how long it took to write the course material. I had planned to spend two days doing this, but it took me closer to five. My estimates were wrong because I was not writing code, I was teaching it. I work daily with jQuery and I know it well but I had never had to explain it to complete novices.
Lesson 5: The best way to truly understand something is to teach it.
Give a Man a Fish, Or Give him a Net?
I planned to take everyone through the basics and then let them complete progressively harder tasks on their own. But what were the basics? How hard should the tasks get? And what should I focus on? In the end I decided to teach how to learn jQuery, not how to write jQuery. I decided that if most people left confident that they would know how learn more, I’d be happy.
Lesson 6: You can’t teach everything. Instead focus on the foundations for further learning.
So, how did the workshop go? I created an event on EventBrite with 15 tickets and waited for them to go on sale. This was stressful. Would people actually buy tickets? So I tweeted some more and hoped for the best. Once again, I was amazed by the support of the web design community. It went viral and all 15 tickets sold out.
Did the workshop go without a hitch? No, there were some mistakes in my code, I struggled to explain a few concepts, and some examples could have been clearer. But, everyone came, had fun and learned.
Lesson 7: It won’t be perfect. Embrace that fact.
After the workshop we went for drinks and food. New graduates and industry veterans chatted and everyone shared stories. I got some feedback on the workshop, made some friends and learned some new things. In this way the workshop became the vechile for something very important: like-minded people sharing their knowledge and experience.
Lesson 8: Make it a social event.
The Difficult Second Workshop?
Actually, the second time was easier. During the workshop I made notes and afterwards I asked for formal feedback. This gave me the confidence to improve the workshop and run it a second time. In fact, I made this harder on myself by delaying acting on the feedback.
Lesson 9: Ask for feedback and take notes. Act on this information as quickly as possible.
I wasn’t sure I would run the workshop again but it seemed daft not to as I already had the course material. Had I used up all the interest my Twitter account could yield? Fortunately Codeworks was happy to help and I ran the second workshop in association with them. Codeworks was a great help and posted the event on their twitter account, blog and newsletter. By doing so they advertised the workshop to an entirely new audience.
Lesson 10: You don’t have to go it alone. There are plenty of organisations that will support such events.
Should I Give a Workshop?
Perhaps I can offer some insight to the benefits of running a workshop. Since giving the workshop:
- I’ve been asked to work on projects by people who heard about me through the jQuery workshop;
- I’ve met many talented, enthusiastic, designers looking for employment;
- I’ve learnt more about jQuery; stuff I didn’t know I didn’t understand;
- It is an alternative way of monetising skills you already have.
But I think the biggest benefit is karma. I don’t mean karma in any spiritual sense. I mean that if you do something good, that fulfils a need, you will be rewarded. In that light, even for a profit-focused business person, karma makes sense.
Will I Give Away Trade Secrets?
Isn’t it more valuable to establish yourself as an expert? Besides, the information contained in my workshop was just a Google search away. Was I concerned about giving it away? No. By teaching it I did a good thing and as a result I gained exposure. In crowded markets exposure can be hard to come by. It is one of the reasons why there are so many books, conferences, presentations and blogs in the field of web design. So, don’t worry about trade secrets, be excited by exposure.
But what about having nothing valuable to teach? Maybe you have, may you have not. But consider this. jQuery is not a new technology and it is not an obscure one. It is a common skill for web designers but yet I was able to give two workshops on the subject and I have more planned.
Are you sure you have nothing valuable to teach? Two web designers with five years’ experience can have entirely different skills. Our skills develop for the work we are required to complete and the teams we work in. My career has not required me to learn the finer points of Photoshop, yet for some of my direct peers it has.
A Call to Arms
I hope I’ve demonstrated some of the key benefits of running a workshop, but just in case:
- You, your company, your portfolio and your clients will gain exposure that your competitors will not have;
- You will be using the skills you already have to open up new revenue streams;
- You will be meeting the most enthusiastic people in your industry;
- Your skills will grow and you will be creating demand for the skills that you have.
Imagine a world where skills are so easy to share that what separates individuals is enthusiasm and a desire to be part of something good. I believe web designers already live in that world. So isn’t it better to reap the benefits of sharing our skills and knowledge, rather than to sit on them? Workshops are a perfect way to do that.
With this in mind, if you are interested in running a workshop and would like some advice then please do comment below, or get in touch over Twitter.