Our Culture of Change

Or How Conference Organizers Can Be The Agents of Change

tl;dr: Here is a new model for an amazing conference that is very inclusive of all individuals, take from it and make your events better.

Near the end of JSConf US 2012, a blog post painted the world of tech conferences as nothing more than lightly veiled binge drinking events analogous to fraternity parties. The post went so far as to specifically name individuals, including myself, and contort statements and extract quotes without context to make it fit the intention of the post. While I, and many others, strongly disagree with that portrayal and many of the items levied against the conference scene and community at large, I believe that all feedback has some amount of truth to it. Some organizers took it as an insult and sought to prove it wrong by adding more alcohol; others chose to ignore it completely. With JSConf US I took a different route and would like to share our efforts in order to help others not just in this scenario, but as model for any seemingly painful feedback to a organizer.

Handling Difficult Feedback

The technology community is one of constant upheaval and revolution with battles and drama drawn out across public channels almost every day. While this specific topic (alcohol at tech events) is at the forefront of discussion, I know it won't be the last for us or for any conference. As such, I wanted to share our experience in the hopes that others can learn from our trials and faults and do better. Please bear in mind, these are not assertions or best practices only a sharing of experience, your mileage will definitely vary just as your path varies drastically from ours.

Before proceeding, I want to make it abundantly clear that I was disappointed and hurt by the manner in which the original feedback was provided. Despite that pain, I did directly reach out to the author and apologized for hosting an event at which they felt any level of exclusion. I did attempt to clarify many of the invalid accusations and claims in the blog post and requested that the author make it known that we had spoken. It is unfortunate that, to date, such notice has not been made known anywhere on the blog post. I fear that continuing this trend of exaggerated, one-sided, public "call-out" criticism will create a culture of fear for conference organizers, ultimately resulting in a community lacking physical meetup opportunities – at which point, everyone is excluded. I would like to encourage you, the reader, to think about ways they can better provide and respond to feedback in all forms and eventually we can improve this for all, including ourselves.

Feedback for conferences generally come in a single format, that of an armchair quarterback throwing "sage wisdom" from never having executed an event, but, with the power of Twitter, is able to express what seems like the voice of many. It is very easy to discount such feedback because it is littered with enough partial truths, hyperbole, or completely wrong information that many simply discount it as all wrong. I would suggest the best action is:

  1. Take the feedback for what it is, an individual's evaluation of your event.
  2. Remove the wrong or misguided components and, if there is any, any hostile or overly aggressive terms or insults.
  3. Finally, determine how you can address the core concern to make your event even better.

Through this process, I created an incredibly more fulfilling and inclusive event as part of an effort to address this concern. One of the important things that the blog post identified to me was that from the time from when I first started out JSConf to now, I had helped create, establish, and influenced many events in our own image. The uniqueness of our event had dissolved away in our constant effort to improve the model that determines the experience for our attendees not only at our events, but at technology conference everywhere. Until that point in time, our only feedback was "how will you make this even better" every single time. This echo chamber needed to be shattered, because as an event organizer OR a sponsor of events, you respond to the feedback that is made known and as such continue down the same track for not just us, but for many events.

Our initial response, like many was to resist the urge to change and hold strong. This didn't sit well with me; I firmly believe challenges like this, even those that hurt deeply, are the chance for conference and event organizers to shine. It is in these moments that our culture of change becomes very apparent, because unlike other industries we share openly and willingly. We strive constantly to improve and make better for all. The technology community, flawed though it may be, has a strong ability to address and, often through trial and error, fix and eventually optimize issues.

A New Model For Conferences

Much like we do with source code, I would like to openly offer the conference model utilized for JSConf US 2013 as a way to address and eventually reduce any exclusionary culture (alcohol or otherwise) present at technical conferences and, in doing so, create a safer and more inclusive environment.

Evening Socials

To start, we retained evening events because we absolutely and firmly believe that conferences are not just about lectures or information dissemination, but about the social aspects of meeting and talking face-to-face with other members of the community. That said, we distilled the feedback provided that loud, alcohol heavy social scenarios are not conducive for the original intention of the evening events -- just talking. We refocused on that idea of "just talking" and created events that would far better afford that intention. For us, we put forth a beach dinner, a family block party, and a southern-style BBQ festival. All of these events were open to family members, both young and old, and really created an atmosphere of togetherness and of open social communication without the crutch of alcohol. That is not to say there wasn't alcohol, but rather that alcohol wasn't the focus or feature of the event. It was merely available much like all other beverages and was available in a situation that actually put pressure on people that do drink to behave properly, unlike a bar which has the tendency to do the opposite.

The model was a huge success and everyone who attended provided incredibly positive feedback, but the most important thing for me was that it finally felt sustainable and fulfilling. There was no constant push of "one-upping" ourselves, because the real magic was not in the additives to the event itself, but in attendees of the event themselves. We are using this change for the upcoming RobotsConf and will continue to embrace and grow this model for as long as we do conferences.

I do not want to put forth a new a model without examples of events that other organizers can use, so here are some of my suggestions:

  • A movie night that can be done at a theater OR (as we are doing for RobotsConf) outside in a field using nothing more than a laptop, projector, speakers, and screen -- all of which a conference will have by default. Organizers can provide popcorn, candy bars, hot cocoa, and blankets to sit on in order to recreate the feel and excitement of a movie theater (if not at an actual theater).
  • A block party with hot dogs, hamburgers, and veggie burgers (for our vegan/veggie friends -- cooked on a seperate grill, please). You can enhance this with whatever accoutrements are appropriate for your area (boiled peanuts, sweet potato fries, etc.)
  • An ice cream party with gallons of various ice cream and toppings (again, please remember to have alternatives for our lactose-intolerant, paleo, or vegan friends).
  • A dinner style event, whether all at once in a large family style as JSConf US did, or as the amazing, but now over Realtime Conference did in letting people decide from a handful of recommended places with a Prix fixe menu of different levels to accommodate all attendees.
  • Campfires are an incredibly easy to accomplish, cost-effective, and high value addition to events that really encourage people to talk and does not rely on more than firewood, graham crackers, marshmallows, and chocolate.
  • Host an arcade night with multicade or other video game cabinets which allow attendees to enjoy the beauty of 8-bit gaming once again. This could be coupled with other traditional board games to create a full game night.

The general working theory I have with these new events is to recreate experiences from my younger self that are most likely similar shared experiences for others. To focus attendees' attention on something that all can enjoy is an incredibly positive influence for avoiding potentially problematic or hazardous situations. It almost goes unrecognized, unnoticed, and possibly unappreciated except that the huge smile on everyone's face paired with the incredible conversations and friendships clearly happening make it very apparent, this is a much better existence. Please note, this does not mean an organizer has to create an environment devoid of legal adult substances, rather just not focused or centered around those substances.

The irony for me is that with this model we actually had to do exactly what the feedback had falsely accused us of doing with parties - using a substantial portion of the attendee ticket fee to pay for the evening event. The new events have the potential to cost substantially more than traditional bar events, which can easily have a capped total amount that rarely exceeds the amount of a sponsoring donation. I want to make this abundantly clear: for an organizer to produce these more inclusive events, it will most likely require more time, effort, and money to accomplish. In my opinion, for both an organizer and attendee, it is a worthwhile trade-off.

A Middle Day of Breakouts

In our quest to form a new model, we decided to revisit our "during the day" model as well. This change is a drastic change that I only put forth in full disclosure and it was incredibly beneficial to creating intimate experiences within a bigger event context. We added a day full of various activities from golf to Segway tours to beach relaxation to NodeCopters and robot building. Attendees were able to select the activities that appealed most to them which has the added benefit of grouping similar preferences (outdoor vs. indoor) and provided a naturally fitting base of discussion.

Unlike other events that add a similar day to the beginning or end, we added it directly in the middle providing a much needed break between lecture tracks to allow attendees to internalize, discuss, and utilize the information from the talks. Of course, some questioned this workflow at first, arguing that the focus should be strictly on the named technology, but all the feedback we received after the event was resoundingly positive. The ability to breakout while everyone is present and accessible was a huge win and really helped both the speakers from the first day discuss and finalize the perspectives. Meanwhile, the breakout day afforded speakers of the second day a chance to refine their presentations based on the experience of the first day, which is incredibly powerful to the overall event.

We ensured that for those that wanted to continually learn, that opportunities were made available (NodeCopter and NodeBots). For those that wanted to experience nature or to get a workout, opportunities were plentiful (segway tours, kayak trips, etc.). There were also plenty of opportunities for those that wanted to chat with pre-existing or new friends (golf, scavenger hunts, etc.). We did not require individuals to attend specific events so that they could work on their own business or personal projects in isolation or in the company of others at the pool deck or beach. Our goal with the middle days was to create an exciting opportunity for everyone and let them, if they wanted, take advantage of that opportunity.

The middle, choose-your-own-adventure day was without a doubt one of the greatest improvements to JSConf US and will henceforth always be part of our conference model.

A Word About Sponsors

I want to make a point to provide a different perspective about one of the other groups enumerated in the post, event sponsors and specifically GitHub. Sponsors provide the financial base for conferences and most meetups to even exist. Much like conference organizers, sponsors are trying to accommodate the audience based on the feedback they are receiving in order accomplish their own goals (brand recognition, community support, product launch, hiring, etc). Unfortunately, sponsors are not able to adjust as quickly to change in feedback as conference organizers since their efforts must work within the framework of the event. I want to strongly recommend that we, as a community, evaluate the influence of sponsors based on their willingness to react and support alternatives more so than their previous endeavors which had to fit in the definition of the events. I mention GitHub specifically, because for both JSConf US 2013 (golf tournament) and RobotsConf (evening drive-in theater) they were one of the first to support our modifications without question. And while they do drinkups, they have many other event formats (e.g. Passion Projects, Dodgeball Tournament, workshops, etc.) and have been working to put forth even more entertaining and inclusive alternatives.

Final Thoughts

As proven over and over again on the Internet, negativity and hyperbole unfortunately dominate as the manner in which feedback is provided. The manner that we express critique directly affects how most people will react to the feedback itself. It is important to take all feedback, no matter how deconstructive or critical, and determine how best to improve based on it. I, personally, look at these moments as a time to rebuild when others fight to maintain the status quo and would encourage you to do the same. Technical conferences can be simultaneously a fun, inclusive, and welcoming experience for all -- yes, it is possible to make everyone happy. I am happy to offer my notes, experiences, anything to help others not have to go through the trials I have, so if you have questions, please don't hesitate to reach out directly to me. By embracing our culture of change and, hopefully someday, improving our methods for providing feedback, we can all work together to positively improve our world.