Hug a Conference Organizer: The Outcome

Note: Like many in this series, this has been written over many months - I have no idea what was in it when I finally hit publish. Sorry.

There are many reasons to organize and run a conference, most of the “upfront reasons” are unfortunately bunk. I have experienced this on my own and corroborated with many conference and event organizers that I try to help out, here are a list of things that initially go through your head, depending on what else is going on in your life:

If I can pull this off, …

  • I will have a lot higher visibility in the community!
  • I can use the connections and marketing to help drive business to my consulting/product company!
  • I will make a name for myself!
  • I will be somebody important!
  • I will make bring together people and all will be happy and right with the world!
  • I can change the (world, community, or mindshare) for the better!
  • I can do something amazing that will be self fulfilling.

I can tell you that pretty much everyone of those ends up not happening or quite to the contrary the opposite happens. I will admit that when I started JSConf and NoSQL East I firmly believed every single one of those at some point in the journey. Worse still, I EVEN believed some of these during JSConf 2010, as if the first time around had not taught me anything. So I would like to share with you some of my experiences and thoughts on this matter, especially because going into an event planning with the right foresight is probably the best thing you can do have to prepare you for the “revisionist” hindsight you will undoubtable experience after your event.

Let’s start with the obvious issue, the desire or feeling of wanting to do something that someone else thinks is amazing. Beyond basic instincts (food, water, sex, etc.), human psyche is driven by a burning desire for recognition - it is an annoying facet of life we all deal with and the more you might possibly have, the more you desire it. That just sucks. Worse for the conference organizer is that you are pulling together huge names, massive fame, and organizing amazing things - so your inclination is for that fame limelight to be shed on you. It is nature, there is little you can do about it. Most technical people will attempt to rationalize this desire into a convincing argument that “If I can bring people together for this event, I can figure out a way to benefit”. Right, it is obvious, it is how advertising works.

Step 1. Draw the audience.

Step 2. …

Step 3. Unicorns and Rainbows

But rounding the corner of organizing an event and receiving any degree of fulfillment from said event is, at least in my experience, one of the hardest accomplishments. Ever. Why is it so hard? Well simply put, it is because you are afraid of failing, of essentially throwing a party no one shows up to and so you make it the best damn party. In part it is due to the premature adoption that a conference organizer has with their event, in part it is the desire to make the best damn event ever - either way you are inclined to invest (time, effort, energy, hopes, dreams) way above and beyond what the event itself can ever return. In part, thats the passion of the event that shines through to attendees and makes them happy to have attendeed, but it has a dark side.

After every single conference I have thrown I tell myself “I will never ever do this again, fuck that.” It is a large amount of work from gathering (and herding) speakers, gathering (and also herding) sponsors, and finally herding attendees - it’s insane. Add to the mix vendors who drastically overcharge and then still proceed to nickel and dime you and it is enough to put anyone into an early grave. But this article is not about complaining it is about outcome. There is an inherent problem with conference organizers, they start the journey without knowing the end. Some (/me raises hand) become addicted to the adrenaline rush of actually pulling it off, some forgo the risk and take the profits, still others leverage the conference as a means to catapult themselves into the limelight. I personally have thrashed internally as to why I do JSConf. I hold back and even downplay my own personal efforts with the conference because I think it is what the community needs/deserves, which generally speaking goes according to plan - BUT that means no one notices. Ask any JS person who the top movers and shakers are and I highly doubt I would even be thought of let alone mentioned. Reason why? Simple I make it a point to be more behind the scenes and thus even though I am basically spotlighting the next year of JS (And other language conferences talks) the speakers take the “limelight”, deservedly. My personal ego thrashes constantly about this. I am human after all. My reason tells me it is pretty pointless, we spend all the money making an event memorable and yet I am purposefully circumventing that. WTF. It is just eventuallity and I do tell myself it is for the best in the long term.

What has becoming increasingly worse is the haters who jump all over “risky” items. We make JSConf a place for experimentation and while it is good to see conferences leverage those experiements (I love txjs) it is also tough to see others plunder it out right. Whether it be groups of people looking at JSConf saying.. there is something there, lets figure out how we can “extend” it, all without even emailing me OR bigger more established conferences taking our speakers, event ideas, or even themes and repurposing them. I get that this is a competitive market - I really do - and that I don’t have a trademark on awesome (I tried) but seriously it sucks goat testicles and it is just an eventual outcome of doing something different. You incur the risk, others take it to market cheaper after you’ve proven it. What was very nice the first year of JSConf, which most people completely gloss over is the “OMG THIS WAS THE BEST EVER” articles. I have watched year after year and event after event as those amazingly long and beautiful articles have disappeared. Replaced by “jsconf was great” tweets, which as you can probably guess are nice, but in no way fulfilling. You want to make a conference organizer happy? WRITE A LONG ASS BLOG POST ABOUT HOW THE EVENT WAS EVEN BETTER THAN SEX. That, as best I can tell, is the best and only gold of conference organization. Trust me, you have no idea how awesome it was the three weeks following JSConf 2009 reading those, it is what inspired me to do 2010. 

In the end, I have resolved myself to the outcome for JSConf being a couple great parties I get to attend (at the cost of organizing) and a couple nights in an awesome hotel room. Thats why we pick swanky hotels for JSConf and throw awesome parties. JSConf (or any conference of substance) can’t sustain its organizers and thus they have to return to their 9-to-9s in order to pay the bills. And thus you have it, conferences like JSConf, FunConf, ShnitzelConf, TXJS, etc. are labors of love remember that next conference you attend and hug the hell out of the people organizing it. Especially if you can do it at the most awkward moment (closing speech is best).

Sorry for the dark look on the other side, but hell thats what this series is about. This isn’t meant as a “cry for me”, but more just a peek at the other side, please take it as such.