The PyDX Post-Mortem

We spent over a year planning PyDX. From my perspective, the result was worth every bit of stress. I’ve been thinking about what I want to say about the conference now that it’s over. I’ve stopped and started this post a dozen times so far. Several versions have been downright sappy.

Instead, here’s the top five things that stuck out for me during PyDX.

1. Bake Diversity in from the Start; It’s Not Something to Add Later

I have no shame when it comes to talking about diversity numbers in order to drum up sponsors, but I actually feel good about how we PyDX organizers handled questions of how to make our conference more diverse. We focused on what real people needed to feel comfortable showing up to a conference — providing a safe environment, offering child care, even small group opportunities.

  • We came within four tickets of selling out.
  • We provided full scholarships to more than 90 percent of applicants, and were able to offer free tickets to the rest through our volunteer program.
  • We didn’t keep official numbers on diversity, but I made some informal counts. About half our attendees and speakers were diverse on some axis.

We didn’t have to focus on creating diversity when we already had a space that welcomed diversity in — and we responded directly to what people told us they needed to be able to attend. Remember, you can’t assume you know what anyone else needs.

Given that I attended a conference earlier this year that was exceedingly proud that 15 percent of attendees were women, I feel great about PyDX on this front.

2. Technical Talks Don’t Get All That Much Love, Surprisingly

I was obnoxiously proud of our speaker line-up, but I was surprised by what attendees responded to most enthusiastically. Looking at social media during the conference and talking to attendees afterwards, everyone was excited by talks that focused less on code — talks about topics like how to learn and how to build culture did really well.

The exceptions — the technical talks that got rave reviews — all had one of two key characteristics. Either they were workshops, where attendees participated and left with code of their own, or they were doing something far outside of typical Python projects, like making music,

Just about all of the talks went well, by the way. I’m not critiquing any of our speakers here. I’m speaking solely about what attendees were most excited by.

3. Not Screwing Up Codes of Conduct Requires Planning

I strongly believe that having a code of conduct is a minimum requirement for a conference (as well as smaller events and even occasional meetups). Having one sets expectations and creates a safer environment for every single attendee.

Organizing PyDX has only solidified my belief. The experience also highlighted some areas where we can make setting up and enforcing codes of conduct much easier — PyDX was a learning experience, because I’ve usually only been in a position to think about codes of conduct for smaller events.

These are my key takeaways:

  • Create an incident response plan in advance. You never want to be trying to figure out how to deal with a specific issue in the moment, especially when you’re already stressed out of your mind about whether the keynote speaker’s laptop is going to work properly with the A/V equipment.
  • Talk to an expert when creating your incident response plan. We actually didn’t write our own plan — instead, Audrey Eschright sat down with us and went over potential issues and how we wanted to handle them. She put that information together into a document we could refer to during the conference and that had enough detail that we could hand it to a volunteer if need be. Budget the money for that sort of expertise; it’s far cheaper than a lawyer after the fact.
  • Every single organizer and volunteer is on duty for code of conduct issues. You should absolutely have a point person, but any attendee facing a problem will talk first with the staff member they most trust who they can catch alone. And those conversations are going to come up unexpectedly — no matter the events I’ve attended, restrooms are de facto meeting rooms because most people feel they can safely talk about anything there.

4. Venues Control So Many Things and They Could Use Their Power for Good

Our venue was our single largest expense. Our venue was also the most constraining factor in planning PyDX. Until we’d found a venue, we couldn’t figure out food, childcare, or even the actual dates of the conference.

First off, the UO White Stag Block was a great venue to work with. They were able to meet most of our requirements right away and there was really only one request we made that couldn’t be met, due to the classes that were in session in the building during our conference.

That said, any venue winds up controlling a lot of how a given conference runs. We had to work within our venue’s constraints:

  • We could only use specific tape for hanging anything on the walls.
  • We could only use catering that had already been approved by the building.
  • We had to have insurance for the event.

That last constraint has kept me thinking: Insurance is required in order to fix any problem that occurs during the conference, including legal dilemmas. Why don’t venues have similar expectations for tools that mitigate risk, like codes of conduct? Isn’t requiring events to do more work to avoid any problems or negative attention more cost effective for venues?

5. The Amount of Help People Offer is Amazing

PyDX is truly a community conference. We had two larger sponsors: MailChimp and Anaconda, both of whom made a major difference in our ability to put on the conference. But around 80 percent of our funding came either directly from ticket sales or from local companies supporting the conference (including a lot of consultants and other small businesses!).

I feel like everyone I spoke to in the weeks leading up to PyDX offered to help in some way. The whole experience has been an important lesson in gratitude for me — a reminder that people will help if you just remember to ask. A few will even go out of their way to help without the request.

Thank you to everyone who made PyDX a reality.

And for those inquiring minds who want to know, we were four tickets short of selling out, so I’m not getting the tattoo. At least, I’m not getting it this year.

Community-Run Conferences: The Most Bang for Your Conference Buck

Unconference Scheduling

I recently had the pleasure of attending Open Source Bridge and noticed several factors that made it an incredibly useful and enjoyable conference to attend. Open Source Bridge is an annual conference that takes place in Portland, Oregon (just like OSCON). It covers a variety of topics related to open source software, also similarly to OSCON. But while a full-access pass to OSCON runs about $2,000, a ticket to Open Source Bridge is $300. I love community-run conferences!

Full disclosure, I received a press pass for Open Source Bridge. (I’ve also received free passes in the past to other conferences I might reference in this post through volunteering, sponsorships, or client relationships.)

Community-run conferences are a much better opportunity for many people than many other types of events. Don’t get me wrong; there’s plenty of value to be had at mega-conferences and other types of events, as well. But considering the lower prices associated with community-run conferences, I always come away feeling like I’ve gotten so much for my money. Here’s why.

Community-Run Conferences Have More Room for Dissenting Opinions

The voices you hear at big conferences are often those speakers who are well-established authorities within their specialties. Obviously, big events need speakers who the widest possible audience will recognize in order to sell tickets. But when you have the ‘official’ opinion up on the stage, it’s harder for a speaker with a dissenting opinion to get on the schedule. The decision may be as simple as "We’re covering that topic already, so why should we have a second speaker discussing the same material?"

But that process does mean that different points of view are automatically excluded. The same doesn’t hold true at a community-run conference. Because a community-run conference almost always looks to the community first to choose speakers, there are more opportunities for diverse opinions:

  • Community-run conferences are generally more welcoming to newer speakers, including those with very different perspectives from the status quo.
  • Community-run conferences don’t have to toe the sort of party lines that a company-run conference must. This might explain why all the major hacker conferences are actually community-run events. Even big sponsors only have a limited impact on what can be said at a community-run conference.
  • Community-run conferences can afford to take risks on niche topics that may only appeal to ten or twenty people out of the entire set of attendees. Big conferences have to fill rooms to make economic sense.
  • Attendees at community-run conferences are more likely to pay for their own tickets out of pocket, so they don’t have to justify a particular event to a manager who controls the company budget for conferences. In turn, that means that community-run conferences can afford to offer more sessions on non-business topics.

The sort of variety that a community-run conference offers is more fun (at least for me). I’m far more likely to wind up at a session covering something I know very little about but that will dramatically change the way I see a particular issue. One of the first sessions I attended at Open Source Bridge, for instance, was on OpenMRS — an open source software project I was entirely unfamiliar with — which offers open source medical record management software. I chose the talk because I’m interested technology and health, but I learned a great deal about the problems international open source projects face, how a project can create software that’s usable in places with limited power and internet access, and even the unexpected localization issues that a hospital in Somalia might have as opposed to a hospital in Kenya. Perhaps more importantly, I got a very different perspective on open source technology as a whole that I can already tell will influence my own work.

Community-Run Conferences Have More Opportunity for New Connections

The argument that smaller conferences are easier to meet people at than their larger counterparts seems counter-intuitive. But large conferences are overwhelming even for the most outgoing people. We’re more likely to find a few people to hang out with at a time, to provide a buffer against the thousands of attendees at a conference like OSCON. It’s a paralysis caused by too many people. Personally, at particularly large conferences, I tend to find a "conference buddy" who I cling to to make sure I don’t get washed away in the sea of humanity.

At smaller conferences, however, I’m more likely to go around and introduce myself. I noticed at Open Source Bridge that I knew a large number of attendees and, as a result, I felt very comfortable and was better able to introduce myself to new people. After all, if I were to encounter a problem, I could always retreat to talk with people who I already knew.

Those connections occur outside of the actual length of the conference, as well. Conference organizers have varying levels of passion for the events they create. On the less passionate end of the spectrum, those individuals who are paid to organize particular conferences probably care about the events they manage, but not to the point where they’re talking about their next conference constantly. In contrast, someone organizing a conference out of sheer passion is going to tell everyone they know about the next event. Even the problems will be more visible, because that organizer’s friends will get to hear every last detail about the argument with the venue staff (whether anyone wants to or not).

The community is more long-lived as a result. Rather than moving on to the next conference at their employer, the organizer of a community-run conference’s next event is likely to be either next year’s conference or a closely related event. The organizers can pull the community along, maintaining excitement throughout the year between conferences.

Community-Run Conferences Have More Room to Experiment with New Improvements

A code of conduct seems like such a simple thing. And, yet, many large conferences of every type seem to struggle with implementing such codes.

Of course, there are community-run conferences without codes of conduct still. But many are more open to the idea of adding on a code of conduct — and seem more willing to adopting an existing, proven code without feeling that they need to develop a new code entirely from scratch. Those communities who aren’t willing to add such codes, well, that information can be valuable, too.

Because a community-run conference has the ability to quickly evolve from event to event, such conferences have more opportunities to experiment with better practices. As a for instance, when attendees registered for this year’s Open Source Bridge, they each had the opportunity to choose between three colors of badge lanyards: blue, yellow, and red.

  • A red lanyard indicates that the wearer does not want their photo taken at all.
  • A yellow lanyard indicates that would-be photographers need to ask before taking the wearer’s photo.
  • A blue lanyard indicates that the wearer is comfortable with having their photograph taken at the conference.

It’s a simple visual cue that can make a world of difference in making a wider variety of attendees comfortable with a particular event. There are a whole host of reasons that people may not wish to be photographed even if they’re at a public event. The default for most events is that everyone who happens to be carrying a camera (which you can read as all of us) can take photos and even recordings of anyone who happens to be at the event. I’m not entirely sure how this became the norm, but it’s not actually a reasonable approach. Event organizers may ask for a bulk permission to photograph or otherwise record attendees, but other attendees don’t usually take any steps to make sure that their photography subjects are comfortable with the situation.

This year’s lanyards aren’t Open Source Bridge’s first experiment in providing visual cues about appropriate behavior. Last year, the conference offered stickers for people to place on their name badges to express photography preferences

I can’t categorically state that lanyards are the best way to communicate these sorts of preferences; the only way to figure out such factors is to run an experiment or two. Community-run events seem more willing to do so, if only because the logistics of testing a new approach with a few hundred attendees is far easier than with a few thousand. Even better, most community-run events are put together by passionate people — and passion is rarely exclusive. If you are willing to do the hard work to bring information about your topic of choice to a wider audience, perhaps you’re also more willing to figure out the mechanics of running inclusive events.

Support Your Local Community-Run Conferences

I’ve always been lucky to be parts of communities where community-run conferences happen regularly. I grew up going to conventions for various bits of science fiction and fantasy fandoms. I used my student status in college to get cheap passes to all sorts of conferences (including a ton of writing events). When I started learning more about technology (especially programming), I went to BarCamps and other unconferences, as well as other small community-run conferences of a more traditional nature.

I’m happy to pay money for these sorts of conferences, but it’s also important to support them in other ways. Even small conferences take a ton of work, especially when they’re first starting up. Helping on even basic tasks like setting up chairs in a conference space is good. Open Source Bridge ran smoothly because around 70 volunteers put in their time. Some of those volunteers worked for months to handle every detail of the conference; some put in a few hours of work in exchange for a free ticket. Either way, they made the conference possible.

Especially if you come from a community that doesn’t have a strong tradition of organizing its own conferences, consider what you can do to volunteer. You never know — you might wind up organizing one of those community-run conferences yourself.

Image by Flickr user Reid Beels

PodCamp DC, and more on writing and networking

On a similar theme to last week’s post on why freelance writers need to create relationships with new people, I’d like to talk about the great people that I met this weekend.

I went to PodCamp DC on Saturday: one day’s worth of sessions about new media (podcasting, blogging, etc.) and I had an amazing time! I came home with an unbelievable stack of business cards and — almost more important in my mind — notes on the things I want to talk to each person about.

I found a whole slew of people I want to interview down the road, a ton of ideas for new projects and stories and learned some new techniques. I attended the following sessions:

  • “Generations and Social Media” led by Jessie Newburn. Beyond the implications for social media, the way that different generations respond to different messages seems to have a huge level impact on how a freelance writer plans a project.
  • “Finding a Place for Social Media” led by Joel Mark Witt. Joel spoke about his experiences with an organization used to using traditional marketing methods — and how he brought that oranization around to podcasting and other social media.
  • “The Business of New Media” led by Paul Vogelzang. This session was one of the clearest explanations of what social media makers need to be thinking about if they aren’t interested in starving.
  • “Social Media and New Journalism” led by Jim Long and Andy Carvin. These two men are probably among the most forward thinking journalists online today: they’re helping to bring, respectively, NBC and NPR into the 21st century.
  • A live recording of “District of Corruption.” For DC-media types, I have to recommend tuning into District of Corruption regularly. It’s always interesting.

Even more important than the time I spent in sessions, though, is the time I spent meeting people. I met more people this weekend than I think I have in the past month. I think these sorts of events are crucial for writers — they keep us stimulated, thinking and creating. While the act of writing is solitary, the profession of writing can’t be.

Where can a freelancer hold a meeting?

Just because you are a freelance writer doesn’t mean that you’ll never need to meet with clients. But, for most people, the living room just doesn’t work as a conference room. So what other options are there?

  • Coffee shops and cafes. Starbucks, Panera and your locally-owned coffee shop down the street will welcome your meeting with open arms, provided you buy something (which can be tax deductible). Most of them even offer wireless internet if you need to haul a laptop along. The only drawback is that there are often plenty of other people around.
  • The public library. Many libraries offer rooms for public use, although you may need to call in advance to reserve a room. Smaller libraries are less likely to have this option, so you may need to hunt around a bit to find an option.
  • Office buildings. Many office buildings with shared conference rooms will rent them out on an hourly basis if none of their tenants need them. You’ll often need to get in touch with some sort of management company in order to arrange it.
  • Hotels. If you’re on a project with a big budget (the kind that someone else is paying for), you may be able to just slap down the cash to rent a conference room at a hotel. This i, by far, the easiest and most expensive option.