Founding, running, maintaining...conferences! What does it mean to maintain a conference? What does it mean to the organizers, and also the community it benefited, to retire one? Different geographies and cultures allow for experimentation, risks, failures and successes on the human-centered projects that Catherine Lopez and Tracy Hinds have been working on for years. An ever-expanding story of growing more caring communities through the trials and tribulations of A/B testing experiences within Cascadia, EmpireJS/Node, JSConfCO, ScaleConf, and code project communities such as Node.js.
do you really want to know how they are made?
How do you 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 Cascadia, EmpireJS/Node, JSConfCO, ScaleConfco,
and code projects. Founding them, running them, maintaining them. What does it mean to maintain a conference? What does it mean to the organizers, and
also the community it benefited, to retire one?
The three of us as donut people, chatting about confs in talk bubbles with
faded smaller donuts in the background
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
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
Donut people on screen, maybe grouped to infer different communities
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.
The donuts with laptops, some by themselves looking unsure, others in
Tracy: Feel the responsibility of what they are doing, The why of what we do with communities/confs
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. We all just want to learn and maybe enjoy our work, too.
The Catherine as Donut, with other donut groups around
Catherine: So why did we start? 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.
The sprinkles template slide, so we can feature CodeRise/Colombia
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.
(programming arudinos using scratch on One Laptop per Child)
(We’ll come back to these and tell lessons learned in another section)
The Tracy as Donut, with other donut groups around
Tracy: 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.
The sprinkles template slide, so we can feature pics of community photos from Tracy
Tracy: 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
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
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. Pretty much nothing is more welcoming to a new programmer than to be asked to help in some capacity.
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, I felt that 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.
In between slide?(maybe this can be a slide of Catherine and I as
donuts falling down a rabbithole)
Thus our fall down the event organizing rabbit hole
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–
We empower communities that prioritize
inclusivity, transparency, and people over
business through mentorship and finances
for technology gatherings around the
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.
The Donut Catherine, thinking face and maybe question marks around
Catherine: Avoiding the pitfalls--How to run events 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
Catherine: How to start a conf when you have no idea. Trying to run a community event? Many have the energy and heart, almost none have event
experience. We’re going to walk through the strength of roles, values, bandwidth, and perspective.
The Donut Tracy, on a pile of paperwork with some dollars
laying around, thinking face
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
to use their marketing budget and have flexibility on financial losses–which are common. And this brings us to….Money!
The Donut Catherine, looking worried, with some
community donuts in the background(maybe some
mountains to indicate Medellin)
Catherine’s story: 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.
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...
Donut Tracy with planning clipboard(put this list on
clipboard), on the phone and somehow have
spreadsheets up on laptop
• What to spend money on 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)
• Call for talks management, speaker declines, and speaker experience
• People gotta eat
Catherine: 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
Donuts with muscles looking to start a fight
Tracy: Learning how to execute on a CoC
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.
Donuts in staff shirts, listening to Catherine and Tracy
Catherine: So over the years, these are some of the best practices we’ve found:
• 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
• 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– identifies 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.
“Everyone’s got a
plan until they get
punched in the face.”
Tracy: “Everyone’s got a plan until they get punched in the face.”
There’s always going to be something unexpected. People get angry. Organizers mess up. Big bad gnarly things happen. Gotta roll with the punches.
Donut Catherine as gameshow host and list these out as
wild colors that look like prizes
•Protesters, police with teargas
•Intense, unseasonable heat during an outdoor event
•Last minute speaker cancellations
Catherine: Let’s play The game of Guess Which Conference This Happened At?
• Crappy/crashed wifi
• Protesters, police with teargas
• Food poisoning
• 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 of our own conferences. We have found it useful to break the roles down. 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.
Donut Catherine and Tracy, looking bossy or spinning lots
Tracy: 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)
Anything that requires financial access and signing ability.
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,
and this is a conservative estimate. The week before the conference is essentially full-time (40+ hours).
Donuts of a variety with talk bubbles asking questions
Catherine: 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)
• Content and Program Curator
• Workshop Curator
Time commitment for organizers time can vary by the responsibility, but 50% of the time commitment of the producer is a good estimate.
Donuts Catherine and Tracy Donuts as unicorns
Tracy: 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
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 YOU become a producer or organizer?
That leads us back to volunteers.
Catherine: 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.
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 is important. It can be valuable for networking for your work. It can help establish skills and trust to become a producer or organizer down the
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.
Donut Catherine and Tracy donuts talking to each other
through tin cans and string
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?
A donut with steam coming out of its ears, shouting at
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
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 list started(yet
alone finished). Feeling bitter endlessly towards your community and organizing team despite them being a good force. Avoidance? Feeling the burden of
obligation to the community?
A donut on the beach, with sunnies
Tracy: 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.
Donuts laughing together
You have to PLAN FOR BURNOUT. 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.
Sprinkle template slide with pics of the JS family photos from our different confs
Tracy: 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 on.
Donut that is knitting
Catherine: 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.
CATHERINE TELL Claudia and Mariko story. Mariko’s first conference speaking was at EmpireJS. She’s an incredible force in our community now in code
Donuts shaking hands with one saying ‘You’re hired!’
As organizers, you get the flexibility to choose what you’re working on. This can be a path towards learning a completely different skillset than your dayjob,
and one that can certainly help accelerate your own career velocity.
Donuts with the logos chatting in groups
Catherine: Inspiration to build other communities
series of meetups(Boro.js) that has broken far out of the boroughs. JSConf Colombia helped transform a region into a vital tech scene.
Donuts all over the world, happy and saying hi in different
Tracy: 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.
Catherine: We’re building upon a support network for those running events. Support the support to help one another thrive through the communities we’re
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
organizers, mentors, volunteers, informal advisors
and all of those we forgot…