Conference Strategies and GORUCO 2013 reflections
I have been a volunteer co-organizer of GORUCO (aka Gotham Ruby Conference) for 5 years in a row now. It's been quite a ride, and every year it's a good checkpoint experience. On a personal level, comparing this year to years past helps me to see my own evolution as a Rubyist and a member of this community. At the first GORUCO I attended, 6 years ago, I remember knowing almost no one and feeling that lots of the talks were well over my head. I was a ruby noob and the experience was intimidating. It's encouraging and rewarding to reflect now and see that over the years I've known more people and felt more comfortable every year. I have similar thoughts when looking at the conference as a whole. Every year it has gotten bigger, and, in my opinion, better. That's hard to do.
One of the things I am particularly proud of this year is the scholarship program we put together with RubyCentral. They had experimented at Mountain West Ruby Conf with paying the way for certain rubyists to attend and pairing them with mentors at the conference (their term was "sherpa"). We were able to continue that program at GORUCO this year. RubyCentral put up the money for 10 tickets that we made available to students who would otherwise have had trouble affording the conference. Our ticket price this year was the highest it has been, and the organizers put a lot of work into mitigating that by making it easier for under-represented groups to attend. This scholarship program was part of that effort. You can read more about the program on GORUCO's blog.
A real credit to the NYC Ruby community is the ease with which we were able to find volunteer mentors, who spent the day of the conference (and also by and large met up pre-conference) with their apprentices/mentees to help them get the most out of the conference. I actually had to turn away a number of volunteer mentors because we ended up with too many. It really is great to see how willing people in this community are to give their own time to help newcomers.
I met a few of the scholarship recipients during the day and it reminded me of myself at my first GORUCO 6 years ago. Having a mentor back then would have gone a long way in making the conference a better experience for me, so I'm happy that we were able to do that for the recipients this year.
At one point I spoke with Sandi Metz, a real Ruby luminary (her book, Practical Object-Oriented Design in Ruby, is the number one Ruby book I would recommend to anyone) and also a mentor, about how things were going with her apprentice. We got to talking about general good strategies for conference attendees. Whether you are at your first conference or your fiftieth, what can you do to make the most out of it? Some ideas:
- Approach people. At a conference I often feel like I did in middle school. Lots of cliques of people talking all around me and no way to break in. It can be hard to do, but striding forward up to a person or group of people and saying hi and introducing yourself is one of the best things you can do at a conference. A conference is a great opportunity to meet a bunch of people in your community in the flesh. If you didn't take advantage of that you might as well just read a bunch of blog posts or watch the videos online later.
- Be approachable. Like I just said, conferences are made up of people. Each of us being there contributes to the conference for everyone else. The better the contribution you can make, the better the conference can be for everyone. Being inclusive goes a long way, and makes point number one above work even better. When someone sidles up to your group, take advantage of a pause in the conversation to bring them into the conversation with a quick introduction. Just turn and introduce yourself, or if you already know them, proactively intro them to the other people nearby and summarize the conversation so far.
- Be ready to learn. The common thread in all these bullet points is: Do the things at a conference that you can only do at a conference. Pay attention to the talks. I know that not all talks are interesting to all people. Some talks can be pretty boring. But still, persevere to avoid using your computer. You can write emails and browse Hacker News anytime; you can only be an attendee at GORUCO once a year. I sometimes keep a laptop open so that I can do complementary research on the speaker's subject while they are talking, or take notes. I think these are worthwhile uses of the computer during a talk, but I still find myself getting distracted and I try to avoid it as much as I can. The best speakers are so dynamic that you can't help but stay focused on them, but for those that aren't, try to follow along anyway. You never know when they'll say something that you can really learn from.The wifi will invariably be spotty anyways, and the internet can wait.
Finally, I wanted to say thank you to: the other organizers. They are great to work with and I'm happy that I've been able to be included; the NYC Ruby community: it's a great community to be a part of, and you are the critical component in making GORUCO a success every year.