RobotsConf: The Future of Tech Events

“You should never, never doubt something that no one is sure of.”
Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

It is rare for me to want to write a blog post after an event that I have helped organize, but with RobotsConf I am beyond compelled to do so. This event was much more than a standard technology conference and that includes it predecessor, JSConf (any and all of them). When I first had the crazy idea of running a full conference around bridging the web and software world with the wide world of hardware and making, many thought I was crazy -- hell I thought I was crazy. Laura was possibly the only person who had complete faith in me and kept the idea alive when I would have otherwise let it pass. The event became a massively different and better thing than I originally envisioned and that is a great thing. I wanted to detail some of the finer points that the attendees, speakers, and organizers may have witnessed, but others not at the event might have missed.


Leading up to the event, I was very proud that we had accidentally created a first-time event with greater than 35% speakers that were non-male. Most conference organizers complain that getting a single non-male speaker is “impossible”, especially for a first time event, but with RobotsConf I can confidently say that it is not impossible and to be honest not even that hard. We derived our speaker list through an open call for makers followed by a blind selection process and it was admittedly accidental that we came to the ratio we did. I have no evidence or knowledge as to why this happened, but wanted to report that it had.

More awesome and impressive still, our attendee ratio of self-specified "women" shirt size to "unisex" shirt size was 25% to 75%, respectively. We did not attempt to count at the event, but we did note that a handful of non-male attendees did select unisex shirts, which was only known at time of registration. This gave the audience an incredibly unique atmosphere from every other tech event I have been part of. We did not want to focus on that leading up to or during the event, because this is how things should be, or better still, how they should be at worst case. I wanted to highlight several tweets from the event that encapsulate the atmosphere.

Even more awesome still was the wide range of diverse ethnic and geographical locations of our attendees for this very new and very unknown event. Our attendees made the journey to Amelia Island, FL from Denmark, Columbia, Canada, Brazil, Guatemala, Mexico, Myanmar, and Australia and almost all of the 50 states. Despite the wide spread of distance and differences that the attendees came from, once they arrived at RobotsConf there was an immediate sense of community and family. Every attendee was present with the same intent, whether explicit or implicit, and here is the best part, that intent had nothing to do with robots, but rather to make friends building robots. This intent was best exemplified by how many people worked throughout the night -- many well past the 1:30AM closing time of the actual hackerspace in their own hotel rooms.

I couldn’t be more proud of the attendees that made this event so magical.

That said, one thing I wanted to mention, mainly because of all the trite and useless in-fighting that does take place on the internet, was the diversity of programming languages and experiences. Our audience was not tailored or focused to a single language as most events do (XRubyConf or Y.JS or ZPyCon) but embraced, welcomed, and was better served by the presence of all languages. The most surprising occurrence, after the fact, for me, was the complete lack of language or platform religious battle or fighting. Teams were made of individuals, using all/any editor, fluent in a variety of languages, and from wide disparities of experience — but none of that mattered as they all created amazing things in under 16 hours of effort. It did not matter one bit whether you preferred Windows to Linux to Mac or Sublime Text to VIM to Emacs, everyone was focused on one single thing — doing epic stuff. For me, this one of of the happiest, most awesome things from RobotsConf and filled me with hope for our ‘tech community’. There is a better world where bickering about language, editor, or other non-sensical details does not matter, and that world is coming -- fast.

Changing The Next Generation

If you have been within shouting distance of me for the last 3 years, you probably know of my firm belief that we have to invest in education programs for the next generation. Furthermore, I would contend, that we should improve education by way of actually becoming mentors and friends with the next generation so as to provide them a broader, more robust, and often times more fun vision of the real world than what current educational systems provides.

RobotsConf was the perfect canvas to not just present, but actually highlight people who are living this dream. We kicked off the conference with two talks, the second of which was Sylvia (@MakerSylvia) and James Todd (techninja42), a father-daughter team of awesome beyond belief talent. If I could pinpoint three people that truly made and embodied RobotsConf, it would be them and Pawel Szymczykowski (more about him later). The pair had built a watercolorbot that was presented before the President of the United States and actually kickstarted the idea of RobotsConf due to a ticket they filled against node-serialport. They were not unique at the event, though, as we had at least four other family teams at the event which made it extra special for us, since the event was organized by a family. Douglas Campos and his son not only attended, but walked away as winners of RobotsConf with their Leap Motion controller robotic finger. Our hope is next year we have even more family teams.

At the close of RobotsConf focused on how attendees can take from here and give back to their world (Kawandeep Virdee), their work (Marc Goodner), and the next generation (Wei Lau) through actions. Following suit, we donated $2,000 USD to the US STEM Foundation to truly put our money where our mouth, but more importantly our hearts, are. We encourage you to do the same and either donate time, money, hardware, or some combination of those to your local community. Help mentor individuals whether through a formal program like the US STEM Foundation or just informally with your neighbors. Go out, build, and share.

Making Circuits

As with JSConf, we set out to build a tech event not just for technology's sake, but for the blend of human social and deep technical aspects. RobotsConf was a fresh space to attempt crazy ideas and see how they would work, but we were bound by budget constraints (as are nearly all first-time community events). We had to be creative with ideas, while rekindling older, established, "sure-win" ideas. Our opening party was much like many first run conferences, hold the event at a restaurant, provide appetizers and a drink and let people mingle. We weren't happy with that idea on its own -- it is used everywhere, so we added a RobotsConf spin by providing each attendee with a LittleBit upon entering. This unique idea set the tone for the entire event -- we are all here to share, experiment, and make friends. It turned a "typical bar" into a wonderful, contextually appropriate circuit building event as people would match up and build crazy things, all the while meeting one another.

Every last detail of RobotsConf was focused on making bridges between programming languages, between people, and between electrical components. We left little to no idea unexplored and tried from the very start to make it abundantly clear that the only failure at RobotsConf is not even trying. That applied to not just robot building, but to everything. Angelina Fabbro captured our sentiment perfectly with this tweet:

The science fair was designed to provide everyone a platform to stand up and present -- successful construction or otherwise -- what they had accomplished. The campfires allowed people to talk about anything in an intimate, welcoming, and open environment. The sumobot competitions ended up being even more humorous than we could possibly have imagined. Our sponsors that provided hardware got a once in a lifetime chance to see people use, and in some cases break, their components -- only to together help build them even better. In every aspect there was an ethos of experimentation and friendship -- the combination of which produced an event the likes of which I have never experienced until RobotsConf. This was not passive information dissemination, this was active future creation and challenging of expectations.

More Human Than A Human

RobotsConf was far more about doing than it was about passively hearing lectures. While we did open and close the event with lectures, we placed the highest burden on our workshop guides and domain experts. They deserve a tremendous degree of appreciation from all of us as their dedication, drive, and patience was what made the event possible. Our speakers and guides pitched in from the very start and helped at every single turn, pitfall, and moment of doubt. They were a huge support to us throughout the entire process and I hope we retain that spirit for every RobotsConf we attempt. If you have ever run or been near someone running a first time conference, you know it can be a daunting task. Income from tickets and sponsors rarely matches the targeted expenses to create the event you envision, and we were only able to do so because of 1) awesome sponsors that stepped up (seriously much love for each of you) and 2) our speakers offered to help out in many ways including getting their own companies to cover travel and lodging expenses (and even more). I have had a huge smile on my face since the first day speaker acceptances came in due of outpouring of dedication and help that came from our speakers and guides.

As hinted at before, one of our guides went above and beyond even our wildest expectations and definitely deserves a huge amount of gratitude, Pawel Szymczykowski (@makenai). Pawel had laser cut a slew (like 20+) Sumobot Jr. kits so that when the doors opened, he would be right there ready to help people build sumobots. He did this on his own time and money, but he didn’t even stop there. He went ahead and laser cut horns, antlers, arms, heads, and other various additives to allow people to truly make their sumobot as crazy as they may desire.

If that wasn’t enough, he notified the week leading up to RobotsConf that he had cut his thumb clean off and was in the hospital. Most others, myself included, would have thrown the hat in and said that flying across country with a literally fresh reattached thumb would be insane - Pawel did not hesitate. Not once did Pawel let his massive hand wrap prevent him from doing anything and, more importantly, help anyone in their quest to build robots. Throughout the event, I would try to run over and help whenever I could, but he would have nothing of it. If there ever was a heart of this event, it would, without a doubt, be Pawel.

Thank you

Thank you everyone that attended, sponsored, and/or helped with RobotsConf. There was so many great things that happened over such a short period of time from the swarm of impromptu flying copters to the energy and dedication of the speakers and guides to the unsure-if-autonomous-or-not roaming robot to the amazing science fair and sumo bot competitions — we cannot wait for RobotsConf 2014.

I started this post with a quote from one of the most whimsical and fascinating pieces of literature that to this day still inspires me when trying to organize tech events. The quote has great meaning for this event specifically as there were, admittedly, moments of doubt, but in the end those seem silly. Have faith in your dreams, especially those no one is sure of. Robot Onward!