Community, conferences, and donuts: do you really want to know how they are made?

By Tracy Hinds and Catherine Lopez

How do we grow communities? So much of our experiences have been through powerful, meaningful, repeated interactions online and in-person. Communities need a way to voice themselves. It can be intentional or accidental. This can be on stage, presenting our opinions of cultural norms and code commonalities. This can be in the values we move forward in project governance. How we engage.

So much of our learnings have been through the trials and tribulations of A/B testing experiences within EmpireJS, EmpireNode, JSConfCO, Cascadia, ScaleConf, and code projects.

At some point we realized that there was something unique about the way we approached conferences, and it can prove difficult to copy/paste. Much like the JavaScript frameworks many of us use now, our work is built off of the prior lessons of the giants before us. The thought and genuine care we try to apply to communities, along with understanding the nuances of converting this into implementation of conferences with real world budgets and consequences, led us to create our non-profit, GatherScript, with Charlie Robbins. And much of these lessons have been codifed over the years into our open source organizer handbook.

We have no interest in running every conference. There are many incredible, humble people running conferences. Different geographies and cultures allowed for experimentation, risks, failures and successes. We want folks to feel the responsibility of what they are doing, avoid the pitfalls, and help contribute to a legacy of heartfelt experiences that can truly be life-changing.

Why do in-person tech events matter in the age of online and distributed collaboration?

Let’s walk it back a premise. Why do in-person tech events matter in the age of online and distributed collaboration? The experience and connection. Decisions get made, inspiration is discovered, new connections are forged. These experiences build careers, confidence, unique opportunities, and whole communities. They can help codify the really powerful reasons of why folks get into programming and stay in it. Ever tried to pull request a code project you consume, and end up having to walk away from that work because the maintainers aren’t fluent in managing OSS contribution practices(i.e. They were maybe a jerk)?

So, we run conferences because we want to be the change we want to see in our world–community builders. Even if that’s to some degree technology changes. Cultural changes. Some folks do this because they see gaps in what is being covered in content. Others start them because they feel a sense of community lacking in the circles they participate in.

So why did we start?

Catherine’s path

I sort of fell into it. Juan Pablo asked me to help out with the first JSConf Colombia as we had had previously worked on Coderise together. CodeRise, an in-person event series teaching kids to code through identifying a real-life problem and exploring a tech solution for it concluding with a demo.

We were all talking about how we wanted to help teach kids to code. Why not? Let’s do it. Set up a campaign. Juan Pablo, Camilo, and Julian set up the curriculum. We did the financial logistics, indiego campaign, the applications, marketing.

We jumped into JSConfCO with only one of the organizer having prior conference running experience. The money stress with sales and sponsorships was a huge challenge, even with fellow organizers being experienced meetup organizers. We will talk more about this later on.

Through JSconf Colombia, I met Charlie Robbins, who was already running EmpireJS, and asked me to join his organizing team and have been working together on EmpireJS/Node since 2013, where I met Tracy.

CodeRise students and organizers programming arduinos using scratch on One Laptop per Child

Then came Scaleconf Colombia, a language agnostic event focused on distributed systems, inspired by the growing communities in Colombia, an increased interested in devops, distributed systems, and the best (and most importantly) a super motivated co-organizing team, that I’d felt confident enough in trying a new event with despite all the challenges of starting a new event, which we will touch later on.

I love to mesh education and tech, let it be through the conferences, teaching kids or supporting foundations, like the Marina Orth Foundation, that works with low-income schools in Medellin to learn english and other core curriculums usings computers and has an incredibly strong robotics program.

Tracy feels useful

I’m a career-transitioner. My first engineer gig was in Portland, Oregon. There was a new meetup started every week. People were chomping at the bit for the latest and greatest technology and happy to share it with others. I found a group was starting that I had been keenly interested in starting myself — I offered support. Well, I emailed and messaged those I knew who were forming the group. No response. Hrm. Message on meetup. No response. After sharing how excited I was to help out(I had been recommended to do so by a mentor — that a newbie may have a hard time starting a group themselves), I thought I’d have it in the bag. After all, who turns down help?

They did. I attended all the meetups and helped out peripherally. In fact, it took me insisting on there needing to be a familiar face at the weekly hacktime in order to be added as an event organizer. So I was there pretty much every weekend that year except when away at conferences.

PDXNode, Cascadia, and Empire

But then! I attended the inaugural PDXNode meetup. Ben Acker had announced the event to be hosted at Walmart Labs and I went. I had just started writing JavaScript at work full-time after having learned Python to start this new coder life. The energy was incredible. The attendees were inviting, so friendly. As I do, I followed up with the organizers about how many great things we had to look forward to as a group, and Ben asked if I’d be interested in helping organize. You mean someone actually wants me to help? Yes. Yes I will. I ran with it. I helped make sure there were speakers. I attended and announced the meetups. I worked up the courage to give my first conference talk at the NodePDX conf. I went on to run JavaScript conferences as a hobby while working full time as an engineer. I shared with attendees the fun times we were having and how Node is an awesome space to participate in. This was all because BEN ASKED. He asked. Do you know what feels more welcoming to a new programmer than to be asked to help in some capacity? Nothing. That’s the answer. Nothing.

The power of asking for help and making space(or getting barriers out of the way) for those who have the energy and enthusiasm to help, that’s the power of community. We went on to run NodeBots where I met Carter Rabasa. He asked me to run Cascadia after I self-organized a HackerTrain. I went on to run EmpireJS and found EmpireNode when I relocated to NYC, where Catherine and I got to hone our work together.

Cascadia, JSConfCO, EmpireJS, EmpireNode, ScaleConfco, meetups. These events are all run by incredibly large-hearted people who care about the big picture. Small teaching moments of the value in doing the right thing, educating people and raising them up to being warriors of niceness while improving their professional skills. But, the conferences themselves have the same challenges that so many people do in opensource–

So many organizers have been struggling to build and keep to good practices, maintain teams, avoid burnout, and stay in the black.

We run conferences. We have organizer friends who were also all asking for support and guidance. A way to give events a chance at a healthier future. Building support networks. So, we founded GatherScript.

We empower communities that prioritize inclusivity, transparency, and people over business through mentorship and finances for technology gatherings around the world.

What we’ll talk about next is the lost sleep, gray hairs, and the drive behind the founding of GatherScript. We’ll share our hard earned lessons so you can keep your beauty sleep and hair.

Avoiding the pitfalls —

The How of events running and the trouble with maintaining them. Figuring out whether they live on. Figuring out a way to do that. What does it mean to maintain a conference? What does it mean to the organizers, and also the community it benefited, to retire one?

Lack of experience

How to start a conf when you have no idea. Trying to run community events? Many have the energy and heart, almost none have event experience. Walk through strength of roles, values, bandwidth, or perspective.

Surprise Company

Reality check: YOU JUST STARTED A COMPANY, YO.

Who does that? Who just says over drinks, let’s do this little thing that costs $XX, 000, will take up endless hours of our life, cause us heartburn and lost sleep, and likely pays you nothing? That sounds like fun, right?

You need an entity to sign contract agreements, get insurance, pay taxes, establish bank accounts, and sell tickets/get sponsors to provide you money.

Oh, and then there’s the matter of whether you want to operate as a non-profit entity. A lesser known fact of most community conferences in and outside of JavaScript is that they are not non-profits. This isn’t a bad thing, just be aware. Most are bolstered by a consulting company, at the very least, allowing them to use their marketing budget and have flexibility on financial losses–which are not uncommon. And this brings us to….Money!

Money

I was completely lost and blind when organizing my first event in 2013, which was JSConf Colombia. I had overall logistic experience, which was helpful but I was not familiar with the tech conference world. However, the hardest and most stressful part was making sure we had enough money. Sponsorships and sales are hard for events, even more for a new event. JSConfCO didn’t have the audience or the community following to easily sell tickets. Getting sponsorships was even worse as a new event, and to make it even harder US companies weren’t/aren’t interested geographically in non-US or non-European markets, while the colombian companies at this point in 2013 did not see the benefit to sponsoring. This eliminated a very expected revenue stream for the conference budget.

Due to our first-year success and influence in the growth of the community throughout the years, the Colombian companies have learned to appreciate this value and approaching sponsorships has eased in challenge. Not only for the conferences, but for local meetups. This sheds light on one of the big organizing challenges–a first year conference often means you establish precedence — or get to be the guinea pig of these painpoints.

Throughout the years, we have struggled on getting sponsorships from local companies, but a few local companies are starting to understand the benefits of connecting their brand to strong communities events and are beginning to support not only the conferences but local meetups. This has come about after years of frustration in trying to get these companies to understand, and I believe that time along with a strong growing local community has changed.

Ever since the first event, tickets for JSConfCO sell out at least a month early, and this is thanks to the work of local meetup organizers through the country and region, who work hard to have a strong local communities.

Expectations of attendees and sponsors

Speaking of sponsors, let’s remind ourselves that this is a business. Customer service is a THING regardless of whether you are getting paid to provide it. Sponsors, speakers, and attendees have all invested their time or money to be at our conference. So make sure you show some love to those who sponsored this event. And be mindful of the painpoints we’ve shared to you as attendees because it’s hard out there for an organizer such as…

Practical stuff–logistics

  • What to spend when you’re on a tight budget.
  • When to compromise and spend a little more(AV is a big one here, videos, streaming, childcare, transcription, etc)
  • Venue (contract negotiations, getting your preferred dates)
  • Parties (space, everyone is enjoying themselves that doesn’t revolve around alcohol)
  • Swag (making sure they do not end up in the donation bin, size t-shirts)
  • Timeline
  • Call for talks management, speaker declines, and speaker experience
  • Marketing
  • Website
  • People gotta eat
  • Accommodations
  • ….this is not comprehensive. We provide a few detailed recommendations to be wary of here.

People being human

Competing personalities, egos, regions with different cultural behaviors for being welcoming. Organizers can disagree. Sponsors have expectations. Attendees aren’t all besties. Even speakers, sharing their expertise, can have massive philosophical differences. We get to juggle all of this while being pretty imperfect ourselves behind the scenes. Without a doubt, there is always something unexpected happening. Being open to learning and laughing about all of it helps.

Learning how to execute on a Code of Conduct

Legal funtimes, friendship treading, physically dangerous conduct–all of these will happen at events. Having a code of conduct is vital. It should be as common as guidelines in the workplace for behavior. We are combining work and social environments and this is likely combustible, so establishing expectations is important. We train our organizing team with a reporting and execution guideline so they don’t have to make moral or legal decisions on their own. It’s always multiple organizers. These organizes are also vetted from the beginning of planning to ensure they are confident and willing to enforce the rules. This is probably one of the least fun things to do ever. We do not enjoy this despite how much people talk about codes of conduct.

Some good practices here:

  • Organizer group number that goes to the whole team and emails(and if email is an alias you need to list out who that alias actually goes to for safety’s sake)
  • A reporting app(watch out for no signal if this uses SMS lol)
  • Code of Conduct agreement that gates a purchase for registration to attend
  • Execution guidelines. Recommend that a lawyer review these.(we are not lawyers)
  • Open Twitter DMs
  • Identifiable clothing and badges for organizers– identify them throughout the conference as safety crew to talk to
  • All volunteers should be educated in who they should walk someone to(an organizer) in order to escalate a report. Volunteers should be instructed to not handle this on their own, and to not dismiss it ever.(even keep an eye out for behavior that isn’t being reported)
  • Having an incredibly diverse organizing crew because people will report to who they feel safest around.
  • Review the code of conduct and reporting guidelines before the conference with all organizers and volunteers together.

Organizers and volunteers

“Everyone’s got a plan until they get punch in the face.” –Mike Tyson

There’s always going to be something unexpected. People get angry. Organizers mess up. Big bad gnarly things happen. Gotta roll with the punches.

Let’s play The game of Guess Which Conference This Happened At?

  • Crappy/crashed wifi
  • Protesters, police with teargas
  • Food poisoning
  • Hurricanes
  • Intense, unseasonable heat during an outdoor event
  • Power outage
  • Last minute speaker cancellations

So anything can happen, building the team is the single most important thing that you will do. We strongly advise for your conference that you have a minimum support of three organizers which we require this of our own conferences. We have found it useful to break the roles down as much as is sustainable because these organizers are volunteering. A diverse team of individuals(demographic, background, industry, age, etc.) who are excited to tackle these roles is beneficial to the conference outcome and experience.

So first, we look at the producers.

We believe that in order to maximize the success of an event that someone MUST be in charge. These people are ultimately accountable for everything that happens. These are often the same people who are financially on the hook for the event. Responsible for overseeing organizers, intersections of work, and overall project management. Producers agree to the Code of Conduct and execute on any reports of violation.

What we’re currently viewing as producer roles:

  • Accounting/Sponsor experience(budget, reimbursements, payments, invoices)
  • Logistics/Venue coordinator(vendors, hotel, transportation)

This time commitment is roughly 5 hours/week when the conference is at least 4 months away and ramps up to 10 hours/week leading up to the conference. The week before the conference is essentially full-time (40+ hours).

Then we have the organizers,

We’ve broken up the roles of organizers based off of vital tasks that have come up over the years. Work is managed by a producer but an organizer could potentially manage others, such as volunteers. Much like the producers, organizers agree to the Code of Conduct and execute on any reports of violation with guidance of a Producer. Such roles include:

  • Marketing/copy/social media(influences ticket sales through managing these)
  • Speaker experience(cfp, acceptance/decline)
  • Website
  • Content and Program Curator
  • Workshop Curator
  • Artist/designer/branding

Time commitment for organizers time can vary by the responsibility, but 50% of the time commitment of the producer is a good estimate. Some of these roles will be compensated.

Sidenote: we all know how hard it is to recruit good talent. Try adding in the layer of working for free!

What to look for when recruiting an organizer/producer

How do they find Catherines and Tracys?(this has totally been a question and this is what is often asked of us when people say ‘how to find a good producer)

Proactive, energy, goodwill, super organized. Shows up. Some familiarity with their work. A long chat turns into some trust. Then the proving ground. You have to make sure your basic values align or you’ll be frustrated down the road. We’ll visit this more in the ‘heartfelt experiences’ section. You’re trusting someone else with your business.

On the other side of that, how do I become a producer or organizer?

That leads us back to volunteers.

Training and prep for volunteers

Volunteers make up the life blood of the live event. These folks assist during the conference itself, including the set-up and tear-down.

What’s expected: Volunteers must agree to adhere to the Code of Conduct and alert organizers/producers to any reports.

Time commitment: Volunteers should expect to work the duration of the conference plus 1 day on either end for set-up and tear-down.

Volunteering gives back to the community. It can be valuable for networking for your work. It can help establish skills and trust to become a producer or organizer down the road.

Since volunteers step up to the game on the day-of they are not aware of all the logistics. The team is responsible for coordinating volunteers and sharing the playbook for day-of. All volunteers and organizers should be walked through the Code of Conduct together with the producer(s), as they will be supporting players in keeping the conference experience safe and friendly.

Make it clear that the biggest responsibility every team member has is to communicate. You have to help teach folks how to take care of themselves. When they can’t tackle something, all they need to do further is wave their hands and someone else(or multiple) on the team should help pick it up. Supporting one another and making sure people are empathetic to themselves will help you all survive the planning season.

But what if it’s all still too much?

Burnout.

Why does it happen–we don’t get the support we need in the time we need it, we don’t communicate when we need something, and we don’t practice proper self-care.

What does it look like–not caring about things you normally really love. Not being able to force yourself to get the tasks on your conf to-do started(yet alone finished). Feeling bitter endlessly towards your community and/or organizing team despite them being majoritively a good force. Avoidance. Burden of obligation to community.

When to step away

When you notice this about yourself or when a friend is real enough to call you out about it.

And how long do you step away?(this depends…) Some conferences sunset. Others take a break. Some, still, recruit new organizers to take on the charge. Do organizers owe it to a community to see a conf continue? This has caused holes in community experience over the years. But we’re also talking about humans that should not be beholden to that cause forever. Much like those open source projects so near and dear to your hearts. So then what is the burden? To pass it on? You have to build it and transition it in a way that makes this possible–thorough documentation, business accounts separate from your own, a culture of teaching in organizing. So many of the practices we’ve defined for GatherScript were designed to create this–a healthy, sustainable way to continue conferences when you no longer can.

Plan for burnout to happen. Life happens. Serious illness, loss, new families, new jobs. Build your interdisciplinary team from what we’ve recommended, and make sure there’s enough folks to help take over. Trust. Support each other when the world is doing otherwise.

One of the most valuable things we do as teams is to laugh in all of these tough moments. To focus on the good in the chaos. From pitfalls to the true payoff, for us–it is a legacy of heartfelt experiences.

Help contribute to a legacy of heartfelt experiences

You -can- copy and paste an event. The difference in the experience is the level of care. Just like your open source codework, It’s iterating and never taking for granted how teachable you must stay as a responsible caretaker for those consuming your work. It’s the little in-betweens. What works for one geography may not work for another. This is the fuel for which we seemingly, endlessly run.

Scholarships, Speaking: the domino effect for careers.

First time conference attendees, often new in the field or in crappy jobs, get to network and make friends through the gift of scholarship. They learn, build up their skills(commit to OSS project even), and then become first time speakers. This snowballs into being a known expert and a community stronghold. Because we focus on lifting up positivity in the space as well, and that includes in speakers, this pays back in droves when you have more helpful, friendly, knowledgeable people in your community giving back.

Building the community you want to exist in the world

Values, openness, fairness, inclusiveness. Where we saw disparities, we’ve pushed forward to create small worlds of how we hope the larger space will eventually be. We’re establishing a model and precedence for others to feel comfortable to follow, regardless of the pitfalls we might experience short-term.

It’s a lot of work. It’s hard. Once you see the inside, it’s worth it.

We’re building upon a support network for those running events. Support the support to help one another thrive through the communities we’re sustaining.

A lot of the struggles that we see occur are unnecessary and can be avoided with help, however, many of the problems aren’t solved. As community events, we’re pushing the boundaries of what works to nurture delight, curiosity, and camaraderie. Providing this platform helps provide a sustainable future for healthy communities.