A JSConf Reflection

Hi, this is Chris and Laura Williams. We started JSConf as a complete and total accident in the winter months of 2008, just a couple months after our wedding. When we created the first JSConf we had little idea of how to put on a technical conference and we would be the first to admit it. We took stock of all the events, both technical and otherwise, we had been to and listed out what worked and what failed. The most common and important element we noticed was that our favorite items were always personal expressions of the people planning the event. We knew we wanted to curate an experience more than just an event. We wanted to act like hosts more so than organizers. We went through many harrowing things in order to pull off the very first event, things that we have since tried extremely hard to prevent other new conference organizers from repeating our troubles or worse. From the beginning, we wanted one thing as an outcome of JSConf: there to exist a vibrant, positive, and growing family of individuals that use the JS language.

Over the years that have followed, we have pushed the boundaries of what a conference should and could be. We always remained focused on presenting the conference as a personal expression of what we would want to share with our attendees. We selected cities where we had some of our most memorable experiences. We selected social activities that highlighted some of our favorite or most amazing nights, the kind that unless you had led our life you might never have had the opportunity to experience. 

Each year we would put in tireless nights, many heated discussions, and toiled over otherwise mundane details on ways we could share something even more amazing with you. We mention regularly that JSConf is an experiment and we deeply mean this, we have tried our best to never rest on our laurels and test out new possibilities, new ways of creating an event, and new concepts. 

We have always retained some core concepts, the most fundamental of which was to always focus on the human social development aspect of the event. The secondary was to always indulge every attendee well beyond that which they have paid. The third was to always treat attendees, staff, sponsors, and speakers with the utmost of respect and appreciation. These things make a huge difference in how the event runs, obviously, but also about how the experience evolves. Every event has always resulted in attendees, speakers, and sponsors coming up and showing a huge amount of appreciation for our efforts. What is even more striking is that venue staff and vendors we work with even go so far as to make it abundantly known that our group is one of the most kind, considerate, and easy to work with out there. We try to be humble, but this is one of our most proud acheivements in curating JSConf. It makes us even more proud that this respectful curation spirit has carried on in the events that have spawned from JSConf.

So after all of the years and the more than double-digit number of events we have been a part of organizing, we have learned a tremendous amount and have experienced a lifetime’s (or more) worth of joy and frustration in executing these events. At the end of this year’s JSConf US 2012, something happened that rocked our world and our immediate reaction was that all of the effort, complexity, and stress on our growing family wasn’t worth it. The determinal effects of negativity that are not only common, but rampant on the Internet had pretty much put an end to our desire to create anything further for the JS or any other technical community. 

You see, running these conferences isn’t our job, we each run our own successful business as our primary jobs. Also these conferences, while sometimes feeling like our baby, aren’t in fact our baby, we have one that is constantly growing into a wonderful engineer despite being only 2. Over time, we came to terms with what happened in different ways. At first, the terms were to take JSConf down the same path, but even bigger and bolder. We had a grand plan of hosting a JSConf in New York City and going full tilt, nothing held back, making a spectacle using the same core principles that had drawn so much focus over the last 4 years. Then something happened, we found out that we were having another child due right around the normal time we hold JSConf US. 

This changed something in both of us. For Chris it made him realize that the reason JSConf was such a target was its own success and also that the conference model we had helped established had taken root and become widely spread. If you look out at the conference landscape, the number of JS events that are inspired by or simply utilize the JSConf model is astounding, something we had never stepped back and looked at. An unforeseen result of giving everything away and helping others is that things start looking like your event, this is not necessarily a bad thing - just an observation. When we started JSConf, the landscape was tremendously different. We, a conference with a high focus on human social, were a rare breed. The only other conference we know of that did anything close was our inspiration, RubyFringe. There obviously have to be others, but to our knowledge and experience at that time it was a relatively short list. This started our wheels turning and we started thinking of a different concept for what a technical conference could be. Something different that would appeal to and include all interests and preferences. Something that would resolve some of the lingering issues we experience with our own events. A different event that would cure the last remaining complaints about JSConf, something that both took advantage of all the wonderful things we now know AND yet establishes something completely different. A fresh restart.

When looking for venues, we looked to keep the date close to previous years in order to maintain consistency and distance from other JSConf around the world. Since we were having the baby also during that time, it meant we had to do something back in the Washington DC area in order to reduce stress on our family. Unfortunately, all of the venues of size for a current JSConf in the DC area meant we would have to have a hotel room rate of in excess of $300 OR be within 3 weeks of the planned birth of our new baby. Neither of which was an acceptable solution for the event or us. As a chance, we requested a bid from the wonderful resort that Laura’s family spends Christmas and we occassionally spend our summer vacation at, Amelia Island, Florida. To our surprise, they were able to accomodate us at a room rate of $199/night for beach front hotel rooms AND host our event a full 3 months after the planned birth of our child AND provide enough space to pull of our new concept. Impossibly, we had found something that worked for our multivariable equation of a new conference model, while affording our family the space it requires.

We wanted to share all of this, because it is easy to forget when attending a conference that real people with real feelings and real families and friends are running these events. They are doing their hardest to produce something for the community out of good will. Technical conferences are not community events, they are events put on FOR the community by a handful of individuals at their own personal risk. If tickets don’t sell, as happened our first year, they have to put up the house (if they have one), their car (if they have one), and their savings (if they have any) as collateral to make this happen. At best, conferences are an individual or a group of individuals perspective on what they believe would be appreciated by the community at their own personal risk. 

As for what JSConf US 2013 will look like, stay tuned. This year, we are trying to share more about the process we go through in order to make JSConf happen. We hope this helps others in creating different events and allows those of you who don’t run events to see just what it takes to run an event. We are tremendously excited about our new concept for a conference and are pretty sure you will be just as excited as we roll out details.