What to Expect When You’re Expecting to Organize a Small Conference in the Woods

For those who may not know (or muted my incessant tweets somewhere along the way), &:conf is an intersectional feminist unconference and code retreat that took place a month ago in Occidental California. Together with my co-organizers, Lillie Chilen and Emily Nakashima, we brought together 80 engineers from literally all over the world, with folks joining us from as far as Mexico and Berlin.

The foundations for &:conf were laid on Castro Street, where the three of us stood outside the Lesbians Who Tech conference. At that time, Lillie and Emily had plenty of prior experience running tech events and I was foolhardy enough to believe I could try. There are a million little things I learned through this process- but the biggest takeaways would probably be:

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Talk about your diversity goals from day one

We talked about diversity at almost every organizer meeting. For us, a “successful” conference without diverse voices wouldn’t be a success at all. WOC in Tech shared some great advice on diversity outreach in their Open Letter on the State of Women of Color in Technology. We reached out to organizations like Code2040, LOL Hackerspace, and WOC in Tech with dedicated scholarship tickets. With the help of these groups, an open scholarship application process, and our sponsors, we were able to provide 30% of the attendees with scholarship tickets, which covered admission, food, lodging, and transportation from San Francisco. I say this not to pat ourselves on the back, but to reiterate that if you’re running a conference, please make diversity an early and ongoing part of the conversation. It doesn’t happen magically and if your diversity outreach plan is a tweet to @CallbackWomen, you should broaden your reach (and still tweet about your conference to @CallbackWomen. :D)

Could we have done more? Yes! We’d love to be able to offer childcare stipends for parents and more travel stipends for attendees next year. We've also had &:conf attendees graciously volunteer to reach out to their own networks next year. We're also incorporating attendee feedback about what would make the conference a more welcoming place.


Learn from Distributed Teams

Even before one of the organizers moved to Hawaii, it was tough to get three busy software engineers consistently in the same room. The organization process was basically held together by a trifecta of Google Hangouts, Pivotal Tracker, and Slack. Regular synchronous live/hangout check-ins kept us in touch but asynchronous efforts were often the most effective and efficient. Assigning Tracker Stories helped keep track of who was doing what. A private organizer slack channel meant that if someone wasn’t immediately participating, they could scroll back to read what they missed.

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Know Your Own Limits- Co-organizers are Your Greatest Gift

Find co-organizers who can offset your weaknesses and benefit from your strengths. Know who's not afraid to make the phone calls, who isn't afraid to ask strangers for money, and who isn't afraid to push just one more pixel to the left so the sponsor logos look *JUST* right. You don’t have to be all those people, but make sure someone else can be.

In the months leading up to &:conf, each of us co-organizers simultaneously juggled major life events, full time engineering jobs, and our (unpaid) part time jobs as conference organizers. A little real talk time- my grandmother was diagnosed with cancer just two weeks before the conference. Suddenly, it was a challenge to even get up for work, much less check one more story off the conference Tracker. Having Lillie and Emily take things off my plate was an incredible life raft. I never worried that things would slip through the cracks because I had two incredible co-organizers who I trusted with both my life and coordinating housing arrangements.


Be prepared to be overwhelmed by the kindness of friends and strangers...

We had some truly incredible sponsors (see them all on the &:conf website) who believed in this event even though at the time, it was just a hope, a dream, and a contract with a venue. So many people pitched in to help us make the conference a success that I can’t even name them all. People manned the check-in tables, served as bartenders and bus monitors, and organized lightning talks. On a personal note, I found out in the middle of the conference that my grandma’s health had taken a drastic turn for the worst. One of the conference attendees, Michael Glass, drove 5 hours to San Francisco and back so I could immediately catch a flight back home to Alabama. Next year we’d like to formalize the volunteer process so we can be sure to give our volunteers the recognition they deserve.


...and be prepared for the unexpected

This should be a given for any conference but we had a Code of Conduct in place. Before the conference, the organizers talked through our anticipated course of action with any issues. The GeekFeminism Wiki Code of Conduct and AdaCamp’s Toolkit were essential for this process.


Interested in Learning More?

Check out Ana Castro’s excellent writeup about her experience at &:conf

The Ada Initiative released their AdaCamp toolkit with incredibly detailed advice on how to run your own feminist code retreat and unconference. I wish we’d had this from the very beginning! 

Want to attend &:conf 2016? Sign up for the mailing list or follow us on twitter. We’ll let you know when registration opens next year.

Want to sponsor &:conf 2016? Email us at info@andconf.io and we’ll send you an updated prospectus when it’s available.