Friday, June 19, 2009

People Behind GoGaRuCo, Josh Susser

I didn't get a Questions Five Ways discussion done this week, hopefully I'll get that back on track next week. I did finish up another project I've been working on for far too long though, an interview with Josh Susser (@hasmanyjosh), one of the GoGaRuCo organizers. Josh is a longtime member of the Ruby community, and a very smart guy. I'm grateful that he took a the time to talk with me, I hope you enjoy this interview too.

What motivated you to organize a regional Ruby conference?

Josh I started joking last month that if you don't think you're getting enough email, you should organize a conference.

Actually, I got the idea for doing a Ruby conf in SF about two years ago. We've had some other Ruby events in the area, but with all the stuff we have going on here in SF it seemed there was a huge community that was being under-served. It was almost embarrassing that all these other cities had awesome local confs, but we didn't. I also wanted to do something to help energize the local Rubyists. I think I felt like I wasn't getting enough out of the local community, and I feel that the best way to change that is to put more into it yourself.

Who else is/has been involved in organizing GoGaRuCo?

Josh Leah Silber has done most of the heavy lifting for organizing the conference, dealing with sponsors and logistics. I've been focusing on the technical program and wrangling speakers. We're a pretty good team. We've also had a lot of support from our employers, Pivotal Labs and Engine Yard - while they aren't technically producing the conference, they are doing a lot more than sponsors usually do for a conference. And we had a great team of volunteers too - without them we would have had the lamest conference ever.

Now that you've recovered from the first go-round, are you ready to get back on the horse and hold GoGaRuCo 2010?

Josh Sure, both Leah and I are up for that. We're really happy with how our first year went, but already have ideas for how to make next year even better. We'll probably expand from 200 to about 250 people because you can do more that way, but we want to stay intimate and single-track.

Who's the target audience for GoGaRuCo? How are you reaching out to them?

Josh We are definitely focused on people who write Ruby code for their living, or at least for a lot of their hobby time. Some shows have a lot of content for managers, VCs, and business people, but that's not us. If you're not a programmer, you might find this conference boring. But if you are a programmer who loves writing Ruby code, this is the conference you don't want to miss. We also assume that by now we don't have to have a lot of introductory content. There's a place for that kind of material, but we felt for what people were paying they deserved to see advanced material, and stuff that hasn't been seen anywhere else.

Reaching out has been pretty easy. We marketed the conference with blogs, Twitter, announcements at local meet-ups, and posting to email lists. Basically word of mouth and social networking tools.

A lot of regional Ruby conference organizers tout something unique about their conference. What makes the GoGaRuCo special?

Josh I think San Francisco is pretty special! And we tried hard to put together a program that represents that SF character. It's not just about improving your technical skills, but also what you use those skills in service of. So we had a couple of talks that weren't as much about the technology as they were about what you can use all this amazingly powerful technology to accomplish, and what kind of impact that can have on people's lives.

We also tried a few experiments with how we ran the conference. Things we'd always thought we'd like to see, improvements we wanted to try out. One of them was how we put together the program. We didn't do the typical CFP then have a couple people select from the proposals. I knew from the start there were certain people I wanted to present, so I just invited them to speak. That filled up half the program. The other half was selected from proposals through voting by registered attendees. I think that got us some speakers that otherwise might not have submitted proposals or had them chosen by a small committee. People really liked that idea and the program seems to have benefitted from it. We did get some surprises in the voted talks, which can be good or bad depending on what you were expecting. So far, the feedback has been mainly positive. We rushed the whole voting thing, but with a little preparation I'm sure we can make it work much better next year.

I loved the GoGaRuCo Wrap ... Where did the idea come from? Has it had the payoff/impact that you were hoping for?

Josh Thanks. The idea for the Golden Gate Ruby Wrap came when we were thinking about doing color printed programs, which everyone seems to do but costs a lot and has low value for both attendees and advertisers. You don't really need a program for a single-track conference anyway. But you do need some place to put the sponsors' ads! So we thought we should do a PDF zine to save paper and also create something of lasting value. It's good for everyone, including the advertisers. Instead of 200 people looking at a program for 30 seconds then throwing it on the floor, many more people get to spend a while reading the zine and will keep it around for reference, maybe for a long time. We got some very good write-ups for the talks, have some great photos taken by Andy Delcambre, and kept the focus on the community by including interviews with a number of attendees. So far we've had over a thousand downloads, so I think the impact is already pretty good. We didn't really get to include everything we wanted to, but next year we'll know how to do it better. I'm also hoping the idea catches on and we see more conferences produce what amounts to proceedings-in-brief. We don't mind folks copying here us at all.

It seems like the regional Ruby conference field is getting congested. What, if anything, should we be doing about it?

Josh That seems like asking what we should do about there being so many reality TV shows. I don't think there is a "we", and there isn't anything to do either. The field of regional conferences is an ecosystem, and those things tend to take care of themselves. Rubyists will go to the conferences they like, sponsors will help fund the conferences that are worth their support to them, and those conferences will continue to be produced. The others won't. We've seen that happen already. I think it's a positive thing, evolution selects the ones people want to see continue.

What other language(s) would you like to see have a presence at regional Ruby conferences? (Or should we be soley focused on Ruby?)

Josh I think keeping the main focus on Ruby is what people want in a Ruby conference, but there are certainly complementary languages and other technologies that can add to the value people get from Ruby. Nathan Sobo's talk on Unison and June was a great example of how Ruby and JavaScript frameworks can work together to overcome a difficult problem. Ruby doesn't exist in a vacuum, so it makes sense to show things that can help you use Ruby better.

If someone wants to get a regional conference started, what advice would you give them?

Josh The thing nobody ever tells you about running a conference is how hard it is on your body. I've said that to other organizers and they all smile painfully and nod. It's also demanding on your personal life, and can be really hard to work out with your job too. So I'd say you really have to want to do it, and you have to be ready to make a few sacrifices and deal with a lot of stress to make it happen. But it's also really worth it, so I'm not complaining.

The most important advice is that, like anything worth doing, you can not do it alone. It's crucial to have a good core team of two or three people who can keep things moving, and a larger team of people who can help get things done.

And lastly, make sure you have fun or you're not doing it right. Leah and I took this on to create the conference we ourselves always wanted to go to. If you're going to do something this big, it has to be an expression of yourself and what you're passionate about. Don't just try to be like everyone else, but use your own perspective and creativity to make something that is your own. Otherwise, you might as well go to someone else's conference.

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