On April 10th, I hosted The Daily WTF: Live! in Pittsburgh. It was a blast. We had a great crowd, and some great performances.

Today's installment investigates exactly how a conference comes into being, told from the inside of Steel City Ruby Con.

Direct Link (mp3).

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Transcript

We'll elide the boiler-plate of your host and get straight to the story

Hi, everyone! Hey, my name is Jean. Hi, everyone!

For the last 3 Augusts, we’ve held a community-run Ruby (the programming language) conference in Pittsburgh called Steel City Ruby Conference. Has anyone here heard of SCR? Yeah? How about attended? Yeah, me too! I got more deeply involved every year, from being a privileged attendee at the first to speaking at, MC-ing, & organizing last year’s. It wasn’t the biggest or most famous conference in the world - people outside of the coding community probably never knew about it, and we never invited the creator of Ruby to speak (though we thought about it!) - but it wasn’t just a few local schmucks hanging out together, either. It was a thing. I say ‘was’ because it’s not a thing this year - we’re not putting on SCR this summer. And that’s ok! It might happen again someday, but it might not, too. So I want to tell you about what it was like to bring life to this one local conference, what it was like to help stand it up and lay it back down. Of course, I was just one of many people involved with this one conference, and had a limited view - I might even get some things wrong. I have specifically invited Carol to heckle me as necessary - I extend that invitation to anyone else who saw things differently from how I tell them!

Here’s your first chance: This is how it started: this is the first piece of lore about conference. There was an irc channel where a bunch of Pittsburgh Rubyists hung out. A bunch of them were from my company because we’d recently started doing Ruby together and wanted to get with the community a little. So one day, Carol there, she says in chat: “Let’s have a ruby conference!” and a slew of people basically said “yeah, we’ll help!”

And that’s how it worked from beginning to end. Organizing SCR has always been a matter of a prime mover, a bunch of people stepping up to do their parts, and a great informality, a kind of “worry? hurry? why?”.

Carol has been the conference’s prime mover throughout its life, although she was later joined in this role by Justin. She (and then they) set some expectation and tone that gave SCR the feel that it had. They were the heart of the organizing group, the secret heart of the conference. One of the first things Carol led the organizing group to determining is that they weren’t going to be able to please everyone, so they’d focus on one group and make that focus absolutely clear, let it guide the rest of their decisions. And so the first year of SCRC was all about people who’d never been to a conference before. They tried to make it the “best first conference”. And this focus absolutely shaped the conference, in size (small enough to not be overwhelming), price (not a huge commitment), format (single track, so no one has to figure out how to choose what to go to), half of the time given to the hallway track (this is one of the most valuable parts of conferences for many people, and we wanted to emphasize it), and which talks were given (first one was about how to get the most out of a conference, talks encouraging community orientation).

SCR1 was awesome. It set off a buzz in the Ruby world about this conference that was about people, not just code. And attending it made me so jealous of the organizing group, who were largely my friends and coworkers. I wanted to be up on that stage! I wanted to have helped make this amazing thing happen! I wanted to be part of that close-knit circle of people working together!

I joined the organizing group for the first time at the after-conference potluck and retrospective at the end of that summer, in Carol’s back yard. It was this huge group of people who’d been working together for a year to make the conference happen, and while I knew 2/3 of them, I didn’t know them in this new capacity, didn’t know about the skills and dedication they had that had made this conference appear out of nothingness. I felt a little shy (unusual!), and a little like an outsider, pretending to remember the names I didn’t know, voicing my opinions about what they’d done right and wrong. We retrospected in the time honored fashion - with hundreds of stickies and sharpies, talking about what went well, what hurt us, and what could grow to be something beautiful next year. The posterboards spilled out over the edges of the folding tables, covered with sticky notes and citronella candles, and the talking went on and on, until we couldn’t read the stickies anymore in the dark.

The thing that was most unnecessarily awful about the first SCRC, as clearly shown in the retrospective, was registration. I remember running out of things to say to the people around me in line as we waited for an hour and the whole conference starting late, which impacted the whole day’s schedule. So the second year, we fixed that by putting swag bags together the night before registration so people just had to say their last name and pick up their bag to register. What an amazing swag bag party. It was three hours of fun? drudgery?, with about 20 people crowded around some long tables at the office (near to our venue) of some of the organizers. Jenny ordered the weirdest, awesomest pizza I’ve ever had (it had plums on it), we plundered the drink fridges, we over-logic’d our way through alphabetically organizing 400 nametags and folding 400 tshirts, then matching the sizes to the nametags and making sure everything stayed alphabetized as it moved to the venue. We iterated into this efficient machine of making everything work so that all our lives would be easier at 8am the next day - and registration didn’t have a line the second year. We were so triumphant!

But that was at the end, right before the conference. Before that was a whole year of occasional organizing. The first meeting, Carol projected the list of things that had needed to be done last year and started putting names next to them: “Well, who will take care of this this year?”. Social media. Finances. Venue negotiation. Party venue. Food & drink. Speaker proposals. Sponsor solicitation. Carol was head delegator and taker-care-of-the-leftovers. I grabbed up the jobs of MC and speaker liason.

Who was there? Some of the same people from last year, who knew what they wanted to do (either the same thing as last year, or emphatically not the same thing). Some of them had quit working at my company, started somewhere else, and brought new coworkers. Some new folks from our company. It was a bigger group then than it was at the swag bag party, and the people who stayed were the people who claimed things to do.

We met maybe once a month, with lots of emailing in between, and people doing work on their own. At meetings, we’d talk about what needed to be done next, make group decisions based on research, and ask for opinions and help as needed. Carol and Justin would run the meetings and give opinions about what the conference /was/ when we needed help deciding. I took notes, including writing down a lot of action items, and organized the Google drive folder. We never reviewed the action items from past meetings - people did what they’d signed up to do. It turns out that nothing that we did was magic - all that it was was doing it, doing the work. Each person was choosing to dedicate their time to this thing we were doing together… and seeing things get done, progress get made, it engendered trust and confidence in each other.

There were a few topics that weren’t owned by any one person or small group, but decided by the entire group, most notably the speaker selection process. That was another thing we decided to do differently the second year, and the thing that was most awful about organizing that year. Here’s what made it awful: we decided to do a CFP for the first time, and we didn’t know or didn’t think about how much time we’d have to review the talks so we could announce the speakers in time for ticket sales. We got 200? submissions, which we needed to cut down to the final 12 that would make it into the conference next to our 4 invited speakers - in 2 weeks. And we had no infrastructure for doing this. There was this awful spreadsheet and blinding and voting process, and it took forever, and we had really low participation in the process because it was so bad. I was out of state at my cousin’s wedding during round 3 of the process, and I remember just ignoring it. I was glad I had a good excuse not to participate in round 4, where they were locked in a room until they came out with a schedule.

But we ended up with a great round of speakers that year, and another excellent conference. And we fixed the speaker selection process the next year with some tooling.

We also kept the swag bag party that third year, and it was similarly bonding. Again, another office of some of the organizers. Again, folding a million tshirts whose design we loved. Again, a lot of M&Ms and Swedish fish. You know, the minutia of finding the paper cutter to cut apart sheets of stickers and deliver them to the bag packers, then switch to folding the local restaurant listings so that they didn’t run out of that stack. I came home full of triumph and excitement for the next morning.

We never did manage to fix the problem that it is apparently impossible to provide enough coffee for a conference full of programmers. Our attendees and speakers managed to forgive us somehow. At the end of the third SCR, all the yellowshirts emerged from the audience and the lobby and backstage and everywhere they’d been working and came together as a group to be acknowledged and to thank everyone for coming, and my heart swelled with pride to be part of that.

That’s how organizing SCRC worked - an informal group of people splitting up the work that needed to be done, clustering around a heart and driving force, coming together to make one amazing thing. That division of labor was, like in a bad interview question, both the strength and the weakness of our organizing group. When Carol and Justin let us know that they needed to not be SC this next year because they wanted to move on to other things in their life, no one was willing to step up and say ‘I am SCRC, I devote myself to this.’ We were all willing to take on parts, but not to be the conference, the motive force behind it, the opinion that made the decisions that were unsure.

SCR was famous as a conference for being about community just as much as technology. And organizing it was about community, too, I think. Not just the community that actually happened at the conference itself, but mostly the smaller community that formed around making the conference happen.

We became friends & part of the same thing. We started out as unknowns, and through sharing work and boring awful things and tough things and triumphant things, we ended up as trusting partners who could put on an awesome conference and decide together that it was ok to not do it again.

That’s what it was like for me to work on SCRC. Thanks for listening!


Tune in next week for the thrilling tale of Mark Bowytz's first WTF!
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