RobotsConf: The Future of Tech Events
“You should never, never doubt something that no one is sure of.”
Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
It is rare for me to want to write a blog post after an event that I have helped organize, but with RobotsConf I am beyond compelled to do so. This event was much more than a standard technology conference and that includes it predecessor, JSConf (any and all of them). When I first had the crazy idea of running a full conference around bridging the web and software world with the wide world of hardware and making, many thought I was crazy -- hell I thought I was crazy. Laura was possibly the only person who had complete faith in me and kept the idea alive when I would have otherwise let it pass. The event became a massively different and better thing than I originally envisioned and that is a great thing. I wanted to detail some of the finer points that the attendees, speakers, and organizers may have witnessed, but others not at the event might have missed.
Leading up to the event, I was very proud that we had accidentally created a first-time event with greater than 35% speakers that were non-male. Most conference organizers complain that getting a single non-male speaker is “impossible”, especially for a first time event, but with RobotsConf I can confidently say that it is not impossible and to be honest not even that hard. We derived our speaker list through an open call for makers followed by a blind selection process and it was admittedly accidental that we came to the ratio we did. I have no evidence or knowledge as to why this happened, but wanted to report that it had.
More awesome and impressive still, our attendee ratio of self-specified "women" shirt size to "unisex" shirt size was 25% to 75%, respectively. We did not attempt to count at the event, but we did note that a handful of non-male attendees did select unisex shirts, which was only known at time of registration. This gave the audience an incredibly unique atmosphere from every other tech event I have been part of. We did not want to focus on that leading up to or during the event, because this is how things should be, or better still, how they should be at worst case. I wanted to highlight several tweets from the event that encapsulate the atmosphere.
Been to a lot of confsso far, and I'm pretty sure @RobotsConf has the highest ratio of non-male attendees I've ever see for a tech event.— Angelina Fabbro (@angelinamagnum) December 6, 2013
my favorite part of @robotsconf by far was the incredible diversity among speakers/attendees/domain experts.— Andrew Stewart (@andrewstwrt) December 9, 2013
@voodootikigod No one at this conference has been disrespectful, rude, or demeaning. It's (honestly, but unfortunately) a first. Thanks :)— Paige Bailey (@DynamicWebPaige) December 7, 2013
Even more awesome still was the wide range of diverse ethnic and geographical locations of our attendees for this very new and very unknown event. Our attendees made the journey to Amelia Island, FL from Denmark, Columbia, Canada, Brazil, Guatemala, Mexico, Myanmar, and Australia and almost all of the 50 states. Despite the wide spread of distance and differences that the attendees came from, once they arrived at RobotsConf there was an immediate sense of community and family. Every attendee was present with the same intent, whether explicit or implicit, and here is the best part, that intent had nothing to do with robots, but rather to make friends building robots. This intent was best exemplified by how many people worked throughout the night -- many well past the 1:30AM closing time of the actual hackerspace in their own hotel rooms.
I couldn’t be more proud of the attendees that made this event so magical.
That said, one thing I wanted to mention, mainly because of all the trite and useless in-fighting that does take place on the internet, was the diversity of programming languages and experiences. Our audience was not tailored or focused to a single language as most events do (XRubyConf or Y.JS or ZPyCon) but embraced, welcomed, and was better served by the presence of all languages. The most surprising occurrence, after the fact, for me, was the complete lack of language or platform religious battle or fighting. Teams were made of individuals, using all/any editor, fluent in a variety of languages, and from wide disparities of experience — but none of that mattered as they all created amazing things in under 16 hours of effort. It did not matter one bit whether you preferred Windows to Linux to Mac or Sublime Text to VIM to Emacs, everyone was focused on one single thing — doing epic stuff. For me, this one of of the happiest, most awesome things from RobotsConf and filled me with hope for our ‘tech community’. There is a better world where bickering about language, editor, or other non-sensical details does not matter, and that world is coming -- fast.
Changing The Next Generation
If you have been within shouting distance of me for the last 3 years, you probably know of my firm belief that we have to invest in http://stemtosteam.org/ education programs for the next generation. Furthermore, I would contend, that we should improve education by way of actually becoming mentors and friends with the next generation so as to provide them a broader, more robust, and often times more fun vision of the real world than what current educational systems provides.
RobotsConf was the perfect canvas to not just present, but actually highlight people who are living this dream. We kicked off the conference with two talks, the second of which was Sylvia (@MakerSylvia) and James Todd (techninja42), a father-daughter team of awesome beyond belief talent. If I could pinpoint three people that truly made and embodied RobotsConf, it would be them and Pawel Szymczykowski (more about him later). The pair had built a watercolorbot that was presented before the President of the United States and actually kickstarted the idea of RobotsConf due to a ticket they filled against node-serialport. They were not unique at the event, though, as we had at least four other family teams at the event which made it extra special for us, since the event was organized by a family. Douglas Campos and his son not only attended, but walked away as winners of RobotsConf with their Leap Motion controller robotic finger. Our hope is next year we have even more family teams.
At the close of RobotsConf focused on how attendees can take from here and give back to their world (Kawandeep Virdee), their work (Marc Goodner), and the next generation (Wei Lau) through actions. Following suit, we donated $2,000 USD to the US STEM Foundation to truly put our money where our mouth, but more importantly our hearts, are. We encourage you to do the same and either donate time, money, hardware, or some combination of those to your local community. Help mentor individuals whether through a formal program like the US STEM Foundation or just informally with your neighbors. Go out, build, and share.
As with JSConf, we set out to build a tech event not just for technology's sake, but for the blend of human social and deep technical aspects. RobotsConf was a fresh space to attempt crazy ideas and see how they would work, but we were bound by budget constraints (as are nearly all first-time community events). We had to be creative with ideas, while rekindling older, established, "sure-win" ideas. Our opening party was much like many first run conferences, hold the event at a restaurant, provide appetizers and a drink and let people mingle. We weren't happy with that idea on its own -- it is used everywhere, so we added a RobotsConf spin by providing each attendee with a LittleBit upon entering. This unique idea set the tone for the entire event -- we are all here to share, experiment, and make friends. It turned a "typical bar" into a wonderful, contextually appropriate circuit building event as people would match up and build crazy things, all the while meeting one another.
Every last detail of RobotsConf was focused on making bridges between programming languages, between people, and between electrical components. We left little to no idea unexplored and tried from the very start to make it abundantly clear that the only failure at RobotsConf is not even trying. That applied to not just robot building, but to everything. Angelina Fabbro captured our sentiment perfectly with this tweet:
"Rules" for @RobotsConf: 1. Experiment 2. Imagination first 3. No failure, only learning + iteration 4. Get outside your comfort zone— Angelina Fabbro (@angelinamagnum) December 6, 2013
The science fair was designed to provide everyone a platform to stand up and present -- successful construction or otherwise -- what they had accomplished. The campfires allowed people to talk about anything in an intimate, welcoming, and open environment. The sumobot competitions ended up being even more humorous than we could possibly have imagined. Our sponsors that provided hardware got a once in a lifetime chance to see people use, and in some cases break, their components -- only to together help build them even better. In every aspect there was an ethos of experimentation and friendship -- the combination of which produced an event the likes of which I have never experienced until RobotsConf. This was not passive information dissemination, this was active future creation and challenging of expectations.
More Human Than A Human
RobotsConf was far more about doing than it was about passively hearing lectures. While we did open and close the event with lectures, we placed the highest burden on our workshop guides and domain experts. They deserve a tremendous degree of appreciation from all of us as their dedication, drive, and patience was what made the event possible. Our speakers and guides pitched in from the very start and helped at every single turn, pitfall, and moment of doubt. They were a huge support to us throughout the entire process and I hope we retain that spirit for every RobotsConf we attempt. If you have ever run or been near someone running a first time conference, you know it can be a daunting task. Income from tickets and sponsors rarely matches the targeted expenses to create the event you envision, and we were only able to do so because of 1) awesome sponsors that stepped up (seriously much love for each of you) and 2) our speakers offered to help out in many ways including getting their own companies to cover travel and lodging expenses (and even more). I have had a huge smile on my face since the first day speaker acceptances came in due of outpouring of dedication and help that came from our speakers and guides.
As hinted at before, one of our guides went above and beyond even our wildest expectations and definitely deserves a huge amount of gratitude, Pawel Szymczykowski (@makenai). Pawel had laser cut a slew (like 20+) Sumobot Jr. kits so that when the doors opened, he would be right there ready to help people build sumobots. He did this on his own time and money, but he didn’t even stop there. He went ahead and laser cut horns, antlers, arms, heads, and other various additives to allow people to truly make their sumobot as crazy as they may desire.
If that wasn’t enough, he notified the week leading up to RobotsConf that he had cut his thumb clean off and was in the hospital. Most others, myself included, would have thrown the hat in and said that flying across country with a literally fresh reattached thumb would be insane - Pawel did not hesitate. Not once did Pawel let his massive hand wrap prevent him from doing anything and, more importantly, help anyone in their quest to build robots. Throughout the event, I would try to run over and help whenever I could, but he would have nothing of it. If there ever was a heart of this event, it would, without a doubt, be Pawel.
Thank you everyone that attended, sponsored, and/or helped with RobotsConf. There was so many great things that happened over such a short period of time from the swarm of impromptu flying copters to the energy and dedication of the speakers and guides to the unsure-if-autonomous-or-not roaming robot to the amazing science fair and sumo bot competitions — we cannot wait for RobotsConf 2014.
I started this post with a quote from one of the most whimsical and fascinating pieces of literature that to this day still inspires me when trying to organize tech events. The quote has great meaning for this event specifically as there were, admittedly, moments of doubt, but in the end those seem silly. Have faith in your dreams, especially those no one is sure of. Robot Onward!
Our Culture of Change
Or How Conference Organizers Can Be The Agents of Change
tl;dr: Here is a new model for an amazing conference that is very inclusive of all individuals, take from it and make your events better.
Near the end of JSConf US 2012, a blog post painted the world of tech conferences as nothing more than lightly veiled binge drinking events analogous to fraternity parties. The post went so far as to specifically name individuals, including myself, and contort statements and extract quotes without context to make it fit the intention of the post. While I, and many others, strongly disagree with that portrayal and many of the items levied against the conference scene and community at large, I believe that all feedback has some amount of truth to it. Some organizers took it as an insult and sought to prove it wrong by adding more alcohol; others chose to ignore it completely. With JSConf US I took a different route and would like to share our efforts in order to help others not just in this scenario, but as model for any seemingly painful feedback to a organizer.
Handling Difficult Feedback
The technology community is one of constant upheaval and revolution with battles and drama drawn out across public channels almost every day. While this specific topic (alcohol at tech events) is at the forefront of discussion, I know it won't be the last for us or for any conference. As such, I wanted to share our experience in the hopes that others can learn from our trials and faults and do better. Please bear in mind, these are not assertions or best practices only a sharing of experience, your mileage will definitely vary just as your path varies drastically from ours.
Before proceeding, I want to make it abundantly clear that I was disappointed and hurt by the manner in which the original feedback was provided. Despite that pain, I did directly reach out to the author and apologized for hosting an event at which they felt any level of exclusion. I did attempt to clarify many of the invalid accusations and claims in the blog post and requested that the author make it known that we had spoken. It is unfortunate that, to date, such notice has not been made known anywhere on the blog post. I fear that continuing this trend of exaggerated, one-sided, public "call-out" criticism will create a culture of fear for conference organizers, ultimately resulting in a community lacking physical meetup opportunities – at which point, everyone is excluded. I would like to encourage you, the reader, to think about ways they can better provide and respond to feedback in all forms and eventually we can improve this for all, including ourselves.
Feedback for conferences generally come in a single format, that of an armchair quarterback throwing "sage wisdom" from never having executed an event, but, with the power of Twitter, is able to express what seems like the voice of many. It is very easy to discount such feedback because it is littered with enough partial truths, hyperbole, or completely wrong information that many simply discount it as all wrong. I would suggest the best action is:
- Take the feedback for what it is, an individual's evaluation of your event.
- Remove the wrong or misguided components and, if there is any, any hostile or overly aggressive terms or insults.
- Finally, determine how you can address the core concern to make your event even better.
Through this process, I created an incredibly more fulfilling and inclusive event as part of an effort to address this concern. One of the important things that the blog post identified to me was that from the time from when I first started out JSConf to now, I had helped create, establish, and influenced many events in our own image. The uniqueness of our event had dissolved away in our constant effort to improve the model that determines the experience for our attendees not only at our events, but at technology conference everywhere. Until that point in time, our only feedback was "how will you make this even better" every single time. This echo chamber needed to be shattered, because as an event organizer OR a sponsor of events, you respond to the feedback that is made known and as such continue down the same track for not just us, but for many events.
Our initial response, like many was to resist the urge to change and hold strong. This didn't sit well with me; I firmly believe challenges like this, even those that hurt deeply, are the chance for conference and event organizers to shine. It is in these moments that our culture of change becomes very apparent, because unlike other industries we share openly and willingly. We strive constantly to improve and make better for all. The technology community, flawed though it may be, has a strong ability to address and, often through trial and error, fix and eventually optimize issues.
A New Model For Conferences
Much like we do with source code, I would like to openly offer the conference model utilized for JSConf US 2013 as a way to address and eventually reduce any exclusionary culture (alcohol or otherwise) present at technical conferences and, in doing so, create a safer and more inclusive environment.
To start, we retained evening events because we absolutely and firmly believe that conferences are not just about lectures or information dissemination, but about the social aspects of meeting and talking face-to-face with other members of the community. That said, we distilled the feedback provided that loud, alcohol heavy social scenarios are not conducive for the original intention of the evening events -- just talking. We refocused on that idea of "just talking" and created events that would far better afford that intention. For us, we put forth a beach dinner, a family block party, and a southern-style BBQ festival. All of these events were open to family members, both young and old, and really created an atmosphere of togetherness and of open social communication without the crutch of alcohol. That is not to say there wasn't alcohol, but rather that alcohol wasn't the focus or feature of the event. It was merely available much like all other beverages and was available in a situation that actually put pressure on people that do drink to behave properly, unlike a bar which has the tendency to do the opposite.
The model was a huge success and everyone who attended provided incredibly positive feedback, but the most important thing for me was that it finally felt sustainable and fulfilling. There was no constant push of "one-upping" ourselves, because the real magic was not in the additives to the event itself, but in attendees of the event themselves. We are using this change for the upcoming RobotsConf and will continue to embrace and grow this model for as long as we do conferences.
I do not want to put forth a new a model without examples of events that other organizers can use, so here are some of my suggestions:
- A movie night that can be done at a theater OR (as we are doing for RobotsConf) outside in a field using nothing more than a laptop, projector, speakers, and screen -- all of which a conference will have by default. Organizers can provide popcorn, candy bars, hot cocoa, and blankets to sit on in order to recreate the feel and excitement of a movie theater (if not at an actual theater).
- A block party with hot dogs, hamburgers, and veggie burgers (for our vegan/veggie friends -- cooked on a seperate grill, please). You can enhance this with whatever accoutrements are appropriate for your area (boiled peanuts, sweet potato fries, etc.)
- An ice cream party with gallons of various ice cream and toppings (again, please remember to have alternatives for our lactose-intolerant, paleo, or vegan friends).
- A dinner style event, whether all at once in a large family style as JSConf US did, or as the amazing, but now over Realtime Conference did in letting people decide from a handful of recommended places with a Prix fixe menu of different levels to accommodate all attendees.
- Campfires are an incredibly easy to accomplish, cost-effective, and high value addition to events that really encourage people to talk and does not rely on more than firewood, graham crackers, marshmallows, and chocolate.
- Host an arcade night with multicade or other video game cabinets which allow attendees to enjoy the beauty of 8-bit gaming once again. This could be coupled with other traditional board games to create a full game night.
The general working theory I have with these new events is to recreate experiences from my younger self that are most likely similar shared experiences for others. To focus attendees' attention on something that all can enjoy is an incredibly positive influence for avoiding potentially problematic or hazardous situations. It almost goes unrecognized, unnoticed, and possibly unappreciated except that the huge smile on everyone's face paired with the incredible conversations and friendships clearly happening make it very apparent, this is a much better existence. Please note, this does not mean an organizer has to create an environment devoid of legal adult substances, rather just not focused or centered around those substances.
The irony for me is that with this model we actually had to do exactly what the feedback had falsely accused us of doing with parties - using a substantial portion of the attendee ticket fee to pay for the evening event. The new events have the potential to cost substantially more than traditional bar events, which can easily have a capped total amount that rarely exceeds the amount of a sponsoring donation. I want to make this abundantly clear: for an organizer to produce these more inclusive events, it will most likely require more time, effort, and money to accomplish. In my opinion, for both an organizer and attendee, it is a worthwhile trade-off.
A Middle Day of Breakouts
In our quest to form a new model, we decided to revisit our "during the day" model as well. This change is a drastic change that I only put forth in full disclosure and it was incredibly beneficial to creating intimate experiences within a bigger event context. We added a day full of various activities from golf to Segway tours to beach relaxation to NodeCopters and robot building. Attendees were able to select the activities that appealed most to them which has the added benefit of grouping similar preferences (outdoor vs. indoor) and provided a naturally fitting base of discussion.
Unlike other events that add a similar day to the beginning or end, we added it directly in the middle providing a much needed break between lecture tracks to allow attendees to internalize, discuss, and utilize the information from the talks. Of course, some questioned this workflow at first, arguing that the focus should be strictly on the named technology, but all the feedback we received after the event was resoundingly positive. The ability to breakout while everyone is present and accessible was a huge win and really helped both the speakers from the first day discuss and finalize the perspectives. Meanwhile, the breakout day afforded speakers of the second day a chance to refine their presentations based on the experience of the first day, which is incredibly powerful to the overall event.
We ensured that for those that wanted to continually learn, that opportunities were made available (NodeCopter and NodeBots). For those that wanted to experience nature or to get a workout, opportunities were plentiful (segway tours, kayak trips, etc.). There were also plenty of opportunities for those that wanted to chat with pre-existing or new friends (golf, scavenger hunts, etc.). We did not require individuals to attend specific events so that they could work on their own business or personal projects in isolation or in the company of others at the pool deck or beach. Our goal with the middle days was to create an exciting opportunity for everyone and let them, if they wanted, take advantage of that opportunity.
The middle, choose-your-own-adventure day was without a doubt one of the greatest improvements to JSConf US and will henceforth always be part of our conference model.
A Word About Sponsors
I want to make a point to provide a different perspective about one of the other groups enumerated in the post, event sponsors and specifically GitHub. Sponsors provide the financial base for conferences and most meetups to even exist. Much like conference organizers, sponsors are trying to accommodate the audience based on the feedback they are receiving in order accomplish their own goals (brand recognition, community support, product launch, hiring, etc). Unfortunately, sponsors are not able to adjust as quickly to change in feedback as conference organizers since their efforts must work within the framework of the event. I want to strongly recommend that we, as a community, evaluate the influence of sponsors based on their willingness to react and support alternatives more so than their previous endeavors which had to fit in the definition of the events. I mention GitHub specifically, because for both JSConf US 2013 (golf tournament) and RobotsConf (evening drive-in theater) they were one of the first to support our modifications without question. And while they do drinkups, they have many other event formats (e.g. Passion Projects, Dodgeball Tournament, workshops, etc.) and have been working to put forth even more entertaining and inclusive alternatives.
As proven over and over again on the Internet, negativity and hyperbole unfortunately dominate as the manner in which feedback is provided. The manner that we express critique directly affects how most people will react to the feedback itself. It is important to take all feedback, no matter how deconstructive or critical, and determine how best to improve based on it. I, personally, look at these moments as a time to rebuild when others fight to maintain the status quo and would encourage you to do the same. Technical conferences can be simultaneously a fun, inclusive, and welcoming experience for all -- yes, it is possible to make everyone happy. I am happy to offer my notes, experiences, anything to help others not have to go through the trials I have, so if you have questions, please don't hesitate to reach out directly to me. By embracing our culture of change and, hopefully someday, improving our methods for providing feedback, we can all work together to positively improve our world.
With the launch of the JSConf US 2013 website, we (Laura and I) announced that we were setting up a new conference series called RobotsConf that would help ease and acclerate the connection between the software world and the maker movement. The two worlds stand almost at odds with one another with amazingly deep technical events like JSConf, RubyConf, and PyCon on one side and Maker Faire on the other. Attending a Maker Faire (or any hardware event for that matter, even NodeBots Day) is a scary proposition for someone who is entrenched in a higher level programming language. Somewhere along the way, we became myopic and focused on the higher levels of abstraction afforded us by previous generations.
This became all to clear to me as I watched the resurgence of hardware hacking due in large part to Rick Waldron's fantastic Johnny-Five Node.js library. Simultaneously one could witness the sheer giddiness of hands-on development battling with the internal panic and fear of erupting into electrical flames from shorting a 9V battery. Questions flew threw the air by some of the greatest software developers that to a hardware developer would seem almost insulting or annoying. It was in this moment that I felt much like I had back in 2008 when we first started JSConf.
At SaferAging, my current place of work, I have the luxury and benefit of having a foot firmly planted in both the high level, big data, buzzword-laden client and server development world and the up-and-coming Internet of Things hardware space. On a daily basis, I am juggling callbacks and git commits with bench power supply leads and spec sheets. So for me, personally, it became readily apparent that I was a rare bird that can witness and live in both sides of the equation. It also became very obvious to me that the rising trend within software to dabble with hardware dovetails perfectly with the rising trend to Internet-ify hardware through either 802.11, Bluetooth LT, or other similar protocols.
Software developers, myself included, pride ourselves on our ability to create amazing things in a short period of time and with continually increasing ease. That said, when you "ship it" the thrill and excitement of the moment tapers to zero overtime because (almost) everything in software is ephemeral and fleeting. One of the greatest joys I have experienced is soldering an internet-connected baby mobile to fill a very much need of my own. It is a joy that continues to give (every sleep filled night) and we can see, touch, and use every day. There is something far more cathartic, for me at least, in creating hardware devices than I ever had with software. I wanted to share this feeling with other developers.
The event is designed to be a perfect introduction to hardware not for a specific programming language, but for all programming languages. We are purposefully inviting language and platform specific experts to the event to ensure that attendees can build the hardware of their design and connect it up to Internet services all without leaving the safety and comfort of their preferred programming language. The event is designed to be a great welcoming event and survey to the entire Maker Movement from 3D printers to quadcopters to Arduino hacking and the Intenet of Things. The sheer volume of items introduced and presented at RobotsConf far outpaces anything we have ever attempt previously, but we are doing it so you, the attendee, can get the perfect sample of all things in order to determine which best fits you.
RobotsConf is about bringing software developers together to experience the joy of making real-world things. It is not yet an event that employers will necessarily be ready to send you to, much like the original JSConf was, but it will be - I promise you. Once developers are able to step outside of the digital world and affect change, show status, or creating things in the real world, development and development options are forever changed.
We are heading forward to a more exciting world in the developer space, one that is no longer confined to servers or laptops, one that is real, one that is RobotsConf. Come join us.
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