On being a conference organizer and a mother

[I hit publish and then realized that I made a political error with this post. I don’t think the challenges are so much about being a mother, as they are about being a primary caretaker, a parent and a conference organizer + entrepreneur. I’m sure my co-founder, who at home (and sometimes at work) is my daughter’s dad and my husband, has his share of frustrations and angst as a co-conference organizer and techie. So read this post written by a primary caretaker and a parent, not as a mother which can be a gendered role (and can result in stereotyping). Thank you for your patience and understanding.]

It is 3:02 AM right now.

My one-year old daughter woke up at 12:30 AM, crying for a reason known only to her.

I breastfed her in an effort to calm her, but it took about half an hour till she finally went off to sleep.

I have been battling with a stomach upset since the past two days. It decided to get worse last evening. Just after she slept, my stomach growled and hurt. Until I relieved myself, I wasn’t able to sleep.

And just when I was about to fall asleep, I got an email alert from one of our international speakers who’s visa application to India for a conference due next week was not even acknowledged.

I raced to check procedures about visa-on-arrival to India, cursed the Indian embassy on Twitter, decided that my next mission in life is to have a passport-free world, and got a barrage (or what I think is a barrage) of responses and support on Twitter.

Hopefully, at some hour, I’ll be able to sleep and wake up to deal with one more day before my conference next week.

So what was I thinking when I signed up to be an uber conference organizer, a mother and a breastfeeding one too, and an entrepreneur? I wasn’t thinking. I guess I was just going over one ‘phase’ of life to the next, hoping that things will get better as time goes by.

For starters, I am not only a breastfeeding mom. I have also chosen not to have a full-time or an eight-hour nanny for my daughter. I deliberately chose this path because I was afraid that the seduction of work will keep me in office for long hours, and I’d be back home each evening just in time to ‘force’ my child to eat her dinner and go to sleep so that I could have ‘some’ ‘time’ ‘to’ ‘myself’. I was afraid that I’ll get into the habit of ‘quality time tomorrow, work now’ (because that really is entrepreneurial life) if I were to place my child with a full time carer.

I do have a three-five hour caretaker for my daughter because I realized eventually that she needed someone to help meet her eating, sleeping and entertainment needs when I was going to continue work in my role as co-founder and conference organizer.

Now that we have this much air cleared up, let’s get on to my job.

I am a conference organizer. I organize at least four to five technology conferences a year. I run a company named HasGeek with my co-founder. We believe conferences are spaces for creating discussions and sparking collaborations between developers to advance the state of the art in technology. Jesus Christ, such a world-changing mission!

I interface with at least four kinds of stakeholders required for any conference to run: participants (paying customers), speakers, sponsors and vendors.

Organizing a conference means sitting on a time bomb, literally. Each day you have to have a piece of your conference moving if you are to have a conference eventually.

Conference organizing means a heck of a lot of collaborations with your team members — getting designs and illustrations done, putting out the right messaging about the conference on social media, putting a floor plan in place which satisfies sponsors and participants alike and does not disturb the flow of the catering staff and their gigantic utensils, getting the tech in place to ensure that there is contact exchange without violation of the individual’s privacy, etc. There are many minute details which require collaboration and work if you care about a creating a seamless conference experience.

In our world of HasGeek conferences, organizing also involves a lot of collaboration with people who are not part of the core team, but who are fundamental to the conference because they do things like laying down cables for WiFi, helping with the video recording setup, organizing the check-in counter, running with microphones in the hall, etc. These acts make the conference experience as seamless as possible. In short, we have a lot of volunteers who collaborate to help us service the communities our conferences are intended for.

At every step in conference organizing, I interface with people — people of all kinds, dimensions, shapes, sizes, orientations, and yes, temperaments. Temperaments is the key because this is what conference organizing essentially is — managing temperaments and ensuring collaboration so that we have an outcome that makes everyone happy and enriched.

I have hated my job and loved it — ironically and equally.

The parts of my job I love are:

  1. Coordinating content for every conference which helps me understand the role and nuances of technology so much more better. I have been super driven to learn everything on my job. I coordinate with some excellent persons (all mostly volunteers) to produce content for the conference — just like you produce an edition of a magazine every two months. I view these curators as mentors which enables me to learn fast and move quick on timelines. I interface with potential speakers and learn more and more on what it takes to deliver a successful talk — content-wise, presentation-wise and intent-wise.
  2. I love helping people meet each other. I was once waiting at a municipal school in Mumbai for an interviewee to do an ethnographic interview. A poster on the classroom door said something to the effect of: “The world changes when people meet each other.” This was such a profound statement because ‘meeting’ is not only a physical act of introduction; it is also a meeting of minds and ideas. Conferences are some of the best places to make such meetings happen.
  3. I am a networker. If there is anything that my life, ethnography, my incomplete PhD and my family have taught me, it is to be a networker and to be resourceful all the time. My favourite essay is by Abdou-Malique-Simone who talks about how people are infrastructure, and how families and communities in Nigeria and cities in Africa have leveraged people and networks — in uncanny and unusual ways — to become socially and economically mobile. This resonates with me and my role as a conference organizer + entrepreneur.

What I find amusing about my job:

  1. Everyone asking for discounts – I have started to humor this aspect of my work. From HR personnel to ticket buyers, to friends of friends, to procurement managers, to random strangers — everyone wants a discount on tickets and sponsorships. As a company, our policy is to stick to the list price and not negotiate rates. We have stuck to this policy right from the start and have managed to make some dent into the mindsets of some of our customers. But the headway is small and there are enough people who have to learn to deal with us in our way of doing things. So, hello world, there is no discount on the price!
  2. People – I find people amusing and very amusing. I entertain myself with people so that I don’t give up. I recently encountered a procurement manager who was desperate to get a discount so that he’d justify his job role, his position in the company and his ‘value’ by extracting a pound of my flesh and some discount. I sent him a marriage proposal on email and mentioned at the end that he’d do great service to his company, me and humanity by releasing the purchase order for invoicing. We all had a great laugh, and some revelations of how we each work. Thank you, world.

What I detest about my job:

  1. Large companies and their bureaucracies — yes, I hate them. I hate this because decision-makers who approve sponsorships and participation have visions, ambitions and plans. Those executing have no clue of these visions, ambitions and plans. The executioners wake up each morning, wanting to get their job done. If they don’t understand why they have to act in a certain way, they throw their hands up in the air. I then handhold them to the desired (and sometimes unexpected) outcomes. This is not a position of self-importance. I’d trade this with anyone who wants my job. In my earlier studies of government organizations and political parties, I became aware of how aspirations and ambitions are never aligned in organizations. This was wonderful to theorize from an academic point of view. In reality, this is frustrating to deal with. I don’t think this will really change. We only have to find workarounds (and a little sense of humour + thinking on the feet).
  2. People — I hate interacting with more and more people. I dislike seeing people closer to the conference dates, and at least one week after. Dealing with so many people in so many roles and issuing the same instructions again and again is both tiring and exasperating, beyond a point. Moreso as a mother. I don’t have much patience left for people. I have a kid to go back home to each evening. She is at a stage in life when she is unable to communicate her basic needs in a clear manner. She can cry and fuss, and it is my job to be patient with her because I’m really THE person she can fuss with. Closer to every conference, I am so full up with people that I only wish someone would relieve me by taking over the people making demands on me all the time. And really, it is also my cross to bear because I believe in responding immediately. So I am only calling for more requests and demands at unearthly hours (and sometimes from grossly insensitive people).
  3. Conflict resolution — Yes, I am a self-glorified and usually unknown mediator. I have to constantly resolve conflicts between maintaining neutrality of content at our conferences and coaxing a person or a company to see our perspective. I mediate between departments and personnel of the same company (and this time around between companies which acquired one another without for once checking with me) on goals and fulfillments. I mediate between engineers and executioners, acknowledging each one of their justified and unjustified positions, and trying to achieve an outcome. On many days, I feel I don’t do a good job. Actually, I am just lending a shoulder and a ear on most days — not so self-important — or rather being a messenger. On other days, I shout or clearly state a non-negotiable position with the possibility of compliance or outright rejection.
  4. Sense of entitlement — Everyone has a sense of entitlement. Everyone feels they are entitled to something by virtue of their position — sponsors who have usually bought their way onto speaking at stage, company personnel who believe that by virtue of being a top line sponsor they must get contact database of participants or some other ROI, customers who believe they must get a response at any hour if an online transaction has failed, vendors who expect to be paid even when they have delivered turd for a service, and company staff who believe they are entitled to t-shirts and swag. I am here to either fulfil their perceived or real entitlements, or show them the mirror of a world that does not believe in always fulfilling what they are asking for. Sometimes the sense of entitlement reaches limits when it gets to the point of irritation and frustration. But whoever said it was easy to run a business? Whoever said it was easy to make the world bend over your policies and way of doing things? Whoever said people are easy cookies? No one did. And yet, I have signed up for this job.

So then, where are we?

That’s a good question to ask.

I mentioned I am a breastfeeding mom at the start of this post. This was not to glorify breastfeeding and to put myself on a pedestal. It was to communicate how much of an act of physical persistence and stamina it is to breastfeed an infant and then a toddler.

Firstly, it saps you off energy generally, and worse on days when you are exhausted.

Second, there are days when you can’t even button up your nighty or dress because your kid wants to feed at you every other hour. In the very least, such days are filled with empathy for my child. And on many other days, such a state is an invasion of privacy, magnified manifold when all I have done is be on the phone, issue instructions and negotiate conflicts, and eat a cold lunch or some piddly leftovers.

It is the complete or the near complete lack of personal space as a conference organizer that I have now come to despise.

I have to work on many weekends even when there is a window of time. This is because some of the people who volunteer to curate our conferences are only free to do this work on weekends. Some are free only after work which means more hours of work at night when my kiddo is asleep. And more sleep deprivation. Hello, lack of focus and squinted vision.

I also feel overwhelmed on many days because I wonder how much I can do with a kid in one hand and an unending lists of tasks on the other. How much can I do while pacifying my daughter and simultaneously having to pacify a bunch of adults to cooperate? How much can I deal with companies throwing more people at me and expecting me to solve the problems ensuing from their lack of internal communication? How much can I deal with ‘formal procedures and processes’ which actually are a complete waste of time and associated resources?

Overall, it is the time bomb that keeps ticking and overwhelms me because each day of work not done is every next day with more piled up work. And really, only an executive secretary can understand what I am saying here. Or a seasoned conference organizer. Or a frustrated volunteer who has signed up to organize an event. Welcome to my side of the world.

I have been accused of mood swings and pushing people to deliver as per my expectations and timelines. Early on in motherhood, I felt deeply hurt and upset at such accusations. I was sleep deprived on most nights. I was underfed and overworked. I was driving myself to the edge to get things done. And yes, I was driving my co-workers to the edge too. Those who managed to keep up with me, kept up. Those who couldn’t, left. And I was only left feeling more and more overwhelmed. Now I am making peace with myself and the world.

Overall, I think it super hard to be an uber conference organizer (with not many people to delegate tasks to), reconcile with the lack of glory and recognition, live with a job role that is repetitive and is leading to an identity crisis. I don’t think this crisis is making things any better.

Thankfully, on many days, the world does not seem such a devastating place with my daughter around. Her smiles and my recent experiments with time-lessness have made the world slightly more tolerable, and on some days, a place to look forward to be in with her.

P.S. It is 4:04 AM by the time I have finished the first draft of this post. It will be another 30 mins of proof reading and edits before I hit publish. And then the world will wake up in one hour and I will feel overwhelmed with one more passing day and an unending list of tasks.

Psst, psst — what’s that first programme developers write? Hello world?

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