The Inside Track on Running Your Own Conference

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The Inside Track on Running Your Own Conference

· Java Zone ·
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October 14th sees the second annual Strange Loop conference in St. Louis, organized again by Alex Miller.  Developers organizing local conferences is something that I find very exciting, and I believe we need to see more of this. So, if you've been thinking about starting up your own conference, you'll find the following interview with Alex interesting.

DZone: What's the core principle of StrangeLoop? What inspired you to do this?

Alex: The short answer is that I enjoy going to tech conferences and I thought it would be a great thing for St. Louis to host a conference I'd like to see right here where I live.  The St. Louis developer community is surprisingly deep and I knew from my work with local user groups like the Lambda Lounge, that there would be a local audience large enough to support a conference, even if it took the national audience a while to find it.

A longer answer can be found in this recent blog post.

DZone: How did you come up with the name?

Alex: The Strange Loop name comes from three sources.  The first is Douglas Hofstadter's book "I Am a Strange Loop", which defines the concept of a "strange loop" as a self-referential hierarchical system and postulates that a strange loop in the brain is the essence of consciousness.  The second is the area where the conference takes place, known in St. Louis as "the Loop", which was at one time the loop at the end of a streetcar line.  And finally, the third ties in with the common programming language concept of a loop.  

DZone: This is the second year of the event, what did you learn from last year?

Alex: Last year, every single thing that I did was the first time I was doing it, so it was a continuous learning experience.  That included putting together a web site, finding speakers, finding sponsors, catering, A/V, equipment rental, printing design, etc.  This year, I was doing most of those things for the second time so that was comforting. 

What I should have learned last year, but didn't, is that I don't scale very well.  Strange Loop is intentionally a low-cost conference.  One of the primary ways that is possible is that I personally do 95% of the work behind the scenes to reduce operational costs.  In 2009, with 300 attendees and 20 speakers, that was busy.  This year with 500 attendees and 50+ speakers, it's nigh impossible for me to keep up while also managing to squeeze some sleep here or there (not to mention family and my real job).  Next year, things will be organized differently to make this a more sane proposition.

DZone: What are the big draws for this year?

Alex: I think the schedule is insanely great.  Over all, it is a good mix of leading edge technologies like emerging languages, nosql, mobile, web, and big data while focusing on that balance point between computer science research and production level application.  

I think people are usually first grabbed by the keynote speakers

  • Guy Steele, who invented or formalized a healthy chunk of the languages we use today
  • Douglas Crockford, known for his work in JavaScript and JSON at Yahoo
  • Hilary Mason, chief scientist at bit.ly and machine learning expert
  • Billy Newport, expert on data and grid technologies at IBM

DZone: Voting for "The Strange Passions" talks starts next week. Can you give us an idea of some of the talks that have been submitted for this section?

Alex: The idea behind Strange Passions is to get attendees to do 10 minute talks on non-technical topics in a party atmosphere.  I wasn't quite sure what to expect but I was blown away by all the great topics  that were suggested.  I don't want to turn down any of them!  Talks included subjects as varied as architecture, history, juggling, music, lock picking, beer, bees, meditation, Dance Dance Revolution, coffee, robots, photography, solipsism, math, calligraphy, and politics. Crazy good stuff.

DZone: What advice would you give to anyone thinking of starting their own conference?

Alex: Running a conference is a fantastic experience.  I love connecting with smart people and finding just the right speakers to round out a program.  It is of course also a lot of work.  I would recommend finding a core group of people to manage the load and making sure that all of them have "skin in the game" - either financially or through some other connection.  

By far the best resources I've found are other conference organizers.  If you can track one down, they are invaluable.  The organizers of the many unique regional Ruby conference organizers are amazingly open and helpful, as you would expect in the Ruby community.  I have greatly appreciated their advice many times in the last two years.  If you have questions about organizing conferences, I'm happy to answer them as best I can - feel free to ping me at contact at puredanger.com.  

DZone: How do you go about getting speakers for the conference?

Alex: Strange Loop uses a mix of invited talks and an open call for presentations.  For invited talks, I use a mixture of top-down "who would be awesome" and bottom-up "who is giving great talks in the community".  I actively watch the schedules of many conferences, review conference videos, attend conferences, and ask people in the tech community who is doing great stuff.  I also run an open call for presentations to find people doing great stuff that I've somehow missed.  

DZone: Has sponsorship been difficult, especially considering the current economic situation?

Alex: Luckily, the sponsorship response has been strong this year.  Many sponsors are repeats from last year building on those relationships and I actively sought out some sponsors that I thought were a great match for the Strange Loop audience, like GitHub and Opscode.  

In general, I think sponsors want to market to a particular audience and if they see that audience as attracted to topics at the conference, it's a natural fit for them to sponsor.

DZone: Will the sessions or slides be available online afterwards?

Alex: Yes, slides will be available and some of the sessions will be recorded and released as video on InfoQ.


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