R Collaborative Conference: tips to make the most of it

On the weekend April 18 -19 we had the second Chicago R Collaborative Conference, previously called Chicago R Unconference. The in-person meeting had to be canceled because of the pandemic situation so the organizers Angela Li, Emily Riederer and Will Bonnel made an incredible work moving the event online.

I certainly can’t do a better job than Jim Gruman on explaining what is this event and how it was structured and developed through the weekend; you should definitely take a look at his post about it. This was my first collaborative coding event so I think that the best contribution I can give is sharing some thoughts on how to make the most of this kind of event, specially if you are a newbie.

Before the event


Get familiar with the potencial projects

Even before the in-person event was cancelled the organizers created a slack community and a github repository for participants to introduce themselves and brainstorm possible projects, tutorials and discussion groups. This was a good opportunity to get to know each other and get familiar with the potential projects.

I felt a bit overwhelmed at first because until this event I’ve mainly used R for research, data analysis and teaching, and never really worked with the development side of the language. Two things that you should have in mind if it happens to you: first, there will probably be mentors or experienced programmers that will offer tutorials and more guided, supportive set of projects; second, you will always have something to give, independent of your experience level. Just free yourself from the impostor syndrome! We’ll be back to this point later.

If it’s your first collaborative event I suggest you to start with one project. There’s a lot going on these events: talks, tutorials, discussions, dozens of interesting projects. It’s easy to get lost; you’ll just feel like doing everything all at once. Deciding for at least one project and committing to a group in advance will give you some north. When you get a better idea of how the schedule will look like you can balance your time among all the activities you’ll want to participate. You won’t need to work only on this project for the whole conference; you can give your piece of contribution to this and move to another one. It’s totally up to you.

If you feel comfortable enough to work on more projects, go for it. It will depend on your experience with the language, but if it’s your first time on a collaborative event it’s better don’t push yourself too hard. Take your time to get used to format of the event; it can be really fast paced.

After deciding on which project you wanna work, share your interest with the owner of the project and/or the group. If it’s a work in progress take some time to familiarize yourself with what has been already done and think of ways to move it forward. It will give you a better idea of how you can collaborate.

Be sure you have git and GitHub up and running

The title is self-explanatory. I already had it on my machine and was pretty familiar with it. However, I was working through the shell and never took the time to see how to version control with RStudio. That was a good opportunity to learn it.

The week before the event the organizers sent us an email with instructions and additional resources to set up everything we would need for the it, including git and github. The book Happy Git and Github for the useR by Jennifer Bryan was really helpful. During the conference John Blischak and Mauro Lepore gave us an in-depth tutorial that helped me clarify some issues I still had.

During the event


Don’t forget to keep checking all the platforms

It was a remote event, so this suggestion makes all sense. The schedule was in a Google Sheet, announcements and group discussions were on Slack, we were working on projects on Github and the video talks and discussions were held on Zoom. You have to be really disciplined to keep an eye on all the platforms every once in a while and keep track of time.

At some point I was so absorbed on the project I was working on that I lost the time for a discussion group that I wanted to attend. This is probably not a problem on an in-person conference since you’ll probably have the organizers calling your attention for the schedule and doing live announcements all the time. In an online event you have to push yourself to keep track of everything that is going on.

Write down everything that is new to you

You learn so much on these conferences! I heard about so many new packages and functionalities that I didn’t know. I’m not a good note taker; I learn things better if I read or hear it. My strategy was to write down all these new things for further research after the event so I could pay complete attention to what was being said. I usually have a good memory and can easily recall when and where I heard something and who said it. If you are not like me I suggest you to write down the name of the person who mentioned the feature you are interested so you can reach her later. It’s also a good way to keep in touch with people you’ve met at the event.

Be creative with what you have and get rid of the impostor syndrome

Everybody has something to give, and that includes you. Even if you just started learning R or just use it to run some statistics and do some visualizations every once in a while. Independently of your level of experience you have something to offer, you just have to be creative with what you have.

You may be fast at finding stuff on stackoverflow; probably know a website, book or manual that have a solution to a problem; maybe you have an old script that can be helpful. You may not know how to actually code a solution, but have good eyes to find bugs and analytical thinking to propose solutions. I do believe you are able to help with some coding but your imposter syndrome may be pushing you back. Just get rid of it!

If you are a newbie the best thing you can do is to ask a lot of questions and ask for help. But don’t belittle yourself in the process; don’t apologize if you need to ask to go slower, to repeat something, to ask for clarification or help. However, do it gently and always thanks.

I know it sounds common sense but sometimes people avoid asking anything because they are afraid of looking unprepared or stupid or, to the contrary, they keep interrupting and taking over the conversation without care for the other participants. The Chicago R Collaborative was great in this sense; it felt like a very supportive environment and everybody was really respectful in our interactions. That’s why I emphasize that we should always be gentle and thankful for all the patience and help, because that’s the best way to strengthen and amplify this kind of initiatives. If you are kind and supportive it’s likely that the organizers will feel motivated to keep organizing more events like this. Remember that in most collaborative events organizares are volunteers; the best way to “pay” them is by showing your excitement and appreciation!

One last note about asking questions: every time a speaker or mentor has to answer a question they are reinforcing their knowledge. They have to reevaluate their thinking and translate it in more comprehensible words. Also, there are things that are easy or not important for an expert and she just figures out they are not with the audience feedback. In other words, in a collaborative community everybody is learning, including learning how to better teach peers to develop their skills.

After the event


Evaluate what you’ve learned and share with the community

It’s time for you to give back. Read your notes, do some further research, write down your thoughts and share with the community. Write blog posts, tweet about the event and the projects you’ve worked on. That’s a good way to reinforce what you’ve learned and aggregate value to the community.

Keep in touch

I know it sounds like I’m a stalker but it’s so fun to search other participants around the internet! I started following them on twitter, took a look on their websites, read some of their blog posts… I like it because it’s a way to know their work better and to find some more study references. Also, next time you get trapped on one of your projects you’ll know who works with something related to reach for some advice.

I strongly encourage you to join future R Collaborative/Unconference events and hope this post can give you some guide of how to make the most of it.

Natalia Block
Natalia Block

Research and Data Analyst, Social Scientist & Civic Hacker.