Making ‘n Mixing at #FITCWMM (Part 1)

Part 1: Thoughts on organizing conference social events.

Pearl Chen
May 12, 2014 · 5 min read

On April 26, about fifty women gathered in Toronto for an afternoon of mingling, lightning talks, and making. As co-organizer of the event, I was floored by the enthusiasm and camaraderie of these woman in my industry. As I packed up at the end of the day, I knew that something special had happened.

If you’re an event organizer, or simply someone who wants to build community, here’s a recap of the event. Feel free to build on any of these ideas for your own conference, organization, or user group.

It was January when I first met with FITC Events to talk about ideas for this year’s FITC Toronto. Every year FITC runs a women’s initiative and gives away free conference tickets to qualifying women. They also actively try to get more women up on the speaker’s stage.

I applaud the effort as this is not easy work. Rather than simply speaking at the conference this year, I wanted to help out in a different way so I pitched the idea of a women-only pre-event mixer. I was inspired to organize this event having attended the Google Developers Women Techmakers Social at Google I/O 2013.

Google I/O is a huge conference. It attracts over 5,000 developers to Moscone Centre in San Francisco. I have met many people via Google I/O by striking up conversations at lunch and saying hello to my seat neighbours before the start of a talk.

However I’ve noticed recently that it’s getting harder and harder to start a conversation with other attendees (at any conference, not just I/O) because they are looking at their phone or laptop. It’s hard enough to say hi to a stranger and it’s doublely hard when that stranger’s attention is already directed elsewhere. Are they working? Or just pretending to work?

FITC Toronto also attracts a fair number of attendees. For a newcomer, it may be a very overwhelming experience. On the flip side, since this is an event that I’ve been attending for over 10 years, every year feels like a mini-reunion of old friends. So while I never feel alone, I also don’t feel compelled to strike up conversations with my seat neighbours like I do when I’m at an out-of-town conference.

The Women Techmakers Social turned out to be my favourite time at Google I/O and it wasn’t because it was a women-only event. I loved the social since it was a smaller event (about 200 people) and made more intimate after we were placed into groups of 6. Each group got a littleBits kit and we were left to drink wine and build stuff. It was amazing. Far better than trying to shout at someone at a loud bar.

So in the spirit of Women Techmakers, I revolved the event around the MaKey MaKey. The barrier to entry for the MaKey MaKey is very low; it mostly involves poking everyday objects with alligator clips to send keyboard presses to a computer. You can use any pre-existing software program, video game, or website that accepts keyboard commands like up, down, left, right, space bar, or mouse click. Or you can build your own software or game.

I got the thumbs up from FITC and so Caroline McGregor (of FITC, and also of Geek Girls Toronto) jumped on board as my fabulous co-organizer.

We settled on having the event the day before the official conference start date since there were social events already booked in the evenings. Here’s how the afternoon went down:

  • 3 lightning talks (by myself, Kate Hudson, and Alex Leitch)
  • a short intro to the MaKey MaKey (delivered by Nadine Lessio)
  • introduce the project theme and organize into groups
  • hack!
  • show & tell

Here’s a highlight of some of the amazing projects produced in a mere 1.5 hours! The project theme was “city living” so there were quite a few Rob Ford appearances ;)

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Blue Jays stadium glove by Team June

As you can imagine, when it came time for show & tell, all the projects got double standing ovations. By this point, everyone was giddy with joy as to what they were able to collaboratively accomplish in such a short period of time. The event hashtag (#FITCWMM) was even trending locally on Twitter.

My favourite part of the event came during closing remarks. As Caroline and I thanked everyone for coming, one woman raised her hand and asked us if they could get a list of everyone who was in attendance. It wasn’t the actual request that stunned me but the hopeful tone in her voice; she might as well have said, “I never want this moment to end.”

Organizing conferences and events shouldn’t just be about inspiring people with presentations and talks. They should also be about creating spaces for attendees to be inspired by each other.

If this sounds like something you would like to run, stay tuned for Part 2 next week!

@PearlChen is not only a Technologist and Educator but a serial workshop organizer. Her company, Karma Laboratory, develops tools and curriculum for technology education.

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