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March 14th, 2012

Version 1.0

© Michael Dexter

The BSDCons are the lifeblood of the BSDs

I wrote this in Tessera the day after OpenCON 2007 wrapped up with the intention of presenting it as a BSDTalk monolog and have added some advice to speakers and a story that is dear to my heart:

The rule number one of events is to GO. Get out and attend events both big and small and near and far. Events can range in size from a few people at a BUG (BSD User Group) meeting to a conference with hundreds of people from around the world.

Do however forget everything you know about conferences. A "conference" is usually something typically put on by the marketing department of a large software vendor with the purpose of retaining you as a customer. Their presentations rarely involve true problem solving and their booths are manned by junior to mid-level marketing people. Sometimes you will meet someone from support or recruiting but in the rare instance you meet an actual developer, they will be under strict orders of what they can and cannot discuss. Software vendors have user bases while BSD has a community. It’s all about the people. Even CeBIT is nearly a week long so that people with complex schedules can all find some overlapping time together.

If you have spent any time on the mailing lists of your favorite BSD, I guarantee you will have a magic moment when you find yourself talking to someone whom you have perhaps solved a problem with but only know as a weird account name. Forgive me, but I thought Dru was short for Andrew. One of my best community magic moments came just after I conducted my first interview for BSDTalk: Not twenty minutes after I had finished with Marko Zec did I received an email from a sysjail user suggesting I e-mail Marko and ask him about his project. I had never heard of Marko's work and I have a conference organizer to thank for also suggesting that I talk to him.

I have been fortunate to attend several large BSD events and they each have their unique qualities:

EuroBSDCon 2006 in Milan had some organizational issues but they are all promptly forgotten when the first lunch arrived. The food and city center were unbelievable. The talks and people were obviously great.

NYCBSDCon 2006 introduced me to a different crowd including Will Backman, who by all accounts is the nicest guy in the business.

2007's EuroBSDCon just may have been in the perfect city for such a conference, expensive as it was: You have probably heard about Danish design but I never knew how truly pervasive it was. Native Dane PHK explained that Denmark never had the timber supply of Sweden or Iron supply of England, and therefore you will not find giant structures such as railroad stations made of either all-wood or all-iron. Metal in Denmark is by circumstance a precious commodity and is used in an unusually disciplined and meticulous manner. As a result, the road signs, street lamps and fire hydrants are beautiful. The hinges, vents and sewer grates are beautiful. The plumbing is beautiful, even if out of sight under the counter. Even mechanisms that are rusting and graffiti covered are reliably performing their duty thanks to their elegant design and solid construction. This is what you get when finite resources are combined with quality craftsmanship to meet pedestrian needs. Sound familiar? An operating system should demonstrate the exact same qualities and be an elegant work of art both on the surface and under the hood.

The rule number two of events is to HELP! Just as it is people that provide the magic of an event, it is people that make it happen. There is no events man page but you can start by helping your local BUG. If one doesn’t exist, start one. All you need is a time and a place to meet. Everything beyond that is optional and if you add features such as food, those same features are probably applicable to an event of any size.

Cafés and pubs are popular venues for small events. Some form of advertisement of your event is a plus and your venue and food budget can be zero if everyone buys his or her own food. Places with private rooms are always a plus but sometimes need to be reserved in advance. If they ask for a fee other than food and drink orders, find an alternative.

A great model I have seen around the world is to use a conference room or lecture hall at a company or school for the evening's presentation and then to proceed to the café or pub. Most schools will provide space with a projector free of charge if requested by a student for a good and educational cause. This strategy will add some complexity to the scheduling and the hardest part is navigating people to the right room on an unfamiliar campus. Be prepared for if the room is rescheduled thirty minutes before the even starting. Prepare to have signs and to correct them if necessary.

Speakers at your presentation can simply be the users themselves talking about what they are doing with BSD and taking questions. Embrace the fact that the speaker may have as many technical questions for the audience as the audience has for him or her. This is a community and interactivity is what builds it and its software.

From here you can invite speakers from local schools, companies and organizations and if lucky, you will find that a big name speaker who wants to beta test a presentation before performing it before a larger crowd. Such peer review is mutually beneficial and arguably an essential part of computer science. If you announce the presence of your group, you will find that some speakers can visit your BUG and present as part of a larger tour or local business meeting. A ride from the airport plus a spare bedroom and a tour of some local attractions in exchange for a presentation is a proven win-win proposition. I can assure you that presenters generally want an idiot-proof experience getting to and from their venue and seeing a few sights. The help of someone with local knowledge and perhaps a car is always appreciated by a presenter and could save them significant time and money.

The same goes for visiting attendees.

If you and the members of your BUG can reliably and affordably schedule an event plus receive, house, feed and entertain a visiting presenter, you will be making one of the greatest contributions to the BSDs possible for two simple reasons: those skills are appreciated at every event you attend and the only difference between your event and a conference with hundreds of people from around the world is the scale.

If fact, a developer's friend or sibling who happens to be a great wedding planner could do as much or more for the BSDs as the developer’s source code commits by organizing one event: a well-attended, affordable and stress-free event can result in key architectural decisions and software improvements that exceed the abilities of any individual and have sweeping benefits for years if not decades to come.

Here are some of the factors to consider when planning an event:

Timing

Some events are appropriate at any convenient time while others should be timed with a particular software release. Any internal scheduling constraints will usually be dwarfed by the dozens of possible external factors such as competing events, public holidays, the schedules of key participants and the high and low travel seasons.

Location

A local user group meeting has an obvious location but a EuroBSDCon has almost thirty countries and hundreds of cities to consider when choosing a location. Transport and political accessibility should be top considerations: attendees should have a choice of affordable air, sea and land transportation to the city and country of choice, and as few visa restrictions as possible. For better or for worse, English has emerged as the de facto international language and any event in English should be considered an international event open to an international audience.

Transportation

The available international transportation to a given location should be a strong factor in its selection. Locations should be considered both for the relative cost to access them and the journey time required both by air and once on the ground. Unless a given location has excellent, idiot-proof public transportation, you should plan for charter transportation such as an airport shuttle or bus to evening and tourist events at a reasonable and predictable cost. One unexpected and avoidable taxi ride can cost as much as a whole day of stay if one is not aware of how to navigate a city.

Venue

Universities and hotels with conference facilities have emerged as the venues of choice for large events but any large community space will do such as a lodge, château, castle or campground if the Internet bandwidth is adequate.

Infrastructure

Internet access and presentation technologies should be the top infrastructure concerns for an event of any size. A purpose-built conference facility will typically include everything you might need but an event at a campground will require significant infrastructure to be obtained ranging from tents and toilets to pallets and beer bottles for an ad hoc fashion catwalk (true story).

Accommodations

A local event will only need additional accommodations if there is a visiting speaker but a large event may require accommodations for everyone involved. An event at a hotel conference center will typically allow for people to stay on-site at a discounted rate but that is not always within the budget of all attendees. Speakers are typically provided their accommodations and transportation.

Food

Food is obviously not an issue at a small event that takes place at a restaurant or brewpub but becomes a significant planning and budget factor at larger events. The traditional schedule is generally coffee break-lunch-coffee break and a walk or drive-to dinner with people either paying for their own dinner or pre-paying for a set menu. As events can be intense and dynamic, it is a plus if the food can be accommodating. An always-ready table of coffee and snacks is good if people can bring food into the auditorium. If a presentation turns into a discussion that will continue through lunch, it is a plus if people can grab food boxes and return eat it while the dialog continues. Some effort should be put into accommodating special diets and be warned that venue-provided coffee can be stunningly expensive.

Entertainment

Some locations are rich with things to do and see while others require the organizers to provide all activities at all hours of the day. A 24-hour bar is a good way to keep participants with a gathering place and I can confirm from experience that an attendee may want to stay up all night to catch an early flight. Others will never quite get used to the time change. A post-event tourist trip to a "must see" local attraction is a plus and again, an ideal big event is intense during the presentations but otherwise a holiday.

Scheduling

For large events, a program committee usually issues a call for papers and decides what papers will be given at what times. If you plan to have multiple presentations simultaneously, you should categorize and sequence them based on your best understanding of your audience. Beginning and advanced topics should be separated and scheduled sequentially rather than simultaneously to prevent an attendee from having to choose between two topics of similar nature and level that are sure to interest them.

Flexibility

Small events can be generally be moved or cancelled with a small note taped to a door and not have any repercussions but any changes to a large event can have incur serious costs to an attendee, the organizers or both. Attendees and speakers might not show up because of transportation, health or personal reasons. Any given infrastructure component such as the Internet access may fail. The local transportation workers may go on strike, as they did during OpenCon 2007. A presentation may run long. Lunch might not show up. The beer might run out. A tsunami may hit. Any number of things can go wrong and redundancy plans should be made for as many factors as possible. Be sure to ask hotels and venues about their cancellation policies. Do everything you can to maintain as accurate head count as to much or too few of anything can create problems. This is the single greatest challenge of organizing after sponsorships and leading an event and is made even more difficult if the organizer is not familiar with the event location and venue.

Publications

A conference traditionally has at least a printed schedule for each participant and a book of the talks that were given. For EuroBSDCon 2007, it turned out that it was cheaper to give 1GB USB memory sticks to each participant than to print books and this had the additional advantage of the materials being updatable during the conference. Considering that books are often announced at events, it has proven helpful to publish prototype books to be sold or auctioned off.

Promotion

The best-planned event is pointless if no one hears about it. Some events might have a narrow participant target while others might want to attract any member of the general public. BSD events are unique in that they often go deep into topics that could be of interest of any user or administrator. Begin by identifying your target audience and communicating with them as you see appropriate. Each BSD project generally has an event calendar and you probably know what BUG's you should contact in search of your target audience. Word of mouth is often the best means of promoting events but it has its obvious limitations. Some open source portals offer calendars and may be willing to publish a small article about the event.

Sponsorship

A great event need not be expensive but a budget sure widens your options at every step. The minimum budget requirements are typically for promotion, the venue and refreshments. Promotion of a small event could be as little as some e-mail and a flyer while the venue and refreshments may come as a pair in the case of a restaurant with a separate conference room. The minimum large event expenses expand quickly to include the venue, accommodations and travel for the speakers plus perhaps Internet access. Beyond that, expenses can include: a publication, SWAG (shirts, hats, toys), entertainment, transportation, group dinners, fireworks and whatever else might be appropriate for your target audience. Some conferences require an entrance fee while others do not. Registration is always helpful regardless of the fee as it builds a channel of communications with the participants and helps maintain the anticipated head count. In some cases, contacting local and international companies, schools and organizations to sponsor an event will yield good results. The more information you can provide to potential sponsors about the event and its expected participants the better.

While there are many possible sources of funding, saving money is generally easier than finding additional sources. The biggest savings can typically be on the venue considering that filling a room that would otherwise go empty in exchange for some P.R. is generally easy for any venue manager to understand. Community-contributed food is also an option as is the coordination of transportation.

2012 Addenda

When I originally wrote this, I was never, ever going to be a presenter. Ever. I now find myself organizing speakers for the local nearly 20-year-old Unix group and frantically preparing for talks at AsiaBSDCon, NLUUG, BSDCan and a few others I am waiting to hear back from. What does it take to present? As I see it, a great presentation involves nothing more than your passionately stating the obvious about a given subject that isn't yet obvious to the audience. If successful, you will engage in a brain dump not unlike the effortless transfer of knowledge in the movie "The Matrix." Writing a paper however will give you flashbacks to college all-nighters.

This is also a good opportunity to tell the story of a conference moment that changed my life:

If I were to wish one experience upon every wandering soul on Earth, it would one like that I had one night in a Milan hotel lobby.

I actually have Jono Bacon to thank for helping me recognize the significance of this several years after it happened. I started reading his book the Art of Community and was completely derailed on page four where he wrote:

"The essence of community is belonging."

As obvious as this revelation is in retrospect, this is the simple but profound conclusion he drew after telling his story of attending a Linux meeting late one night in Bristol. My experience was quite similar.

I had used computers since around 1980 and Berkeley Unix since 1991 but never considered myself a serious user or contributor. I went on to study computer science in college but never quite clicked as a developer, ever empowered to command the box to do what I pleased. The web was refreshingly enabling and introduced me to software freedom when I pursued an Internet hosting solution that I could both afford and manipulate. That experience led to the obligatory short-lived dot com job, which in my case was on the MandrakeSoft SA internal support team. When that wrapped up I explored other fields for a few years but I soon found myself back on a quest for the ultimate hosting solution. I rediscovered the BSDs and eventually found myself at EuroBSDCon 2006 in Milan, Italy, where it happened...

This was my second "real" conference and I was starting to grasp the fact that just as much, if not more happened in the "hallway track" of a conference as did in the sessions. With the family asleep, I thought I would hang out in the hotel lobby where various people were quietly working. I sat down at a coffee table with three bearded gentlemen tapping away on their laptops: brown beard, black beard and red beard. Not wanting to interrupt, I eventually shyly asked, "So I donated some equipment that was on the hardware want list. How do I find out if it was actually useful?" Without taking his eyes off his screen, black beard asked in a charming voice, "do you recall which @ you sent it to?" "Come again?" I asked. "Which user "at" freebsd.org did you send it to?" "Uy, um, let me think. I think it was "des". Without lifting his eyes of his keyboard, red beard nodded towards brown beard across the table, "that's des."

With those two words it all clicked. Suddenly, a smart card reader I bought at Conrad in Germany during CeBIT and sent to a developer while in living Riga in response to a request on a want list was the topic of face to keyboard conversation in Milan. Of course black beard and red beard were Robert Watson and Poul-Henning Kamp. It took two more years until the infamous page 4 of Jono's book put it all into perspective but 37 years into my life, I finally found my tribe.

Conclusions

I highly recommend you get involved in BSD events in your area and to organize them if they do not yet exist. Attending an out-of-town conference is the next step and may be the perfect way of choosing your next vacation spot. If you or someone you knows loves the BSDs and is a great event planner, ask what upcoming events are in need of a location and venue. Your town might be perfect and you can count on some degree of help from the local and international community.

CFT

Copyright © 2011 – 2014 Michael Dexter unless specified otherwise. Feedback and corrections welcome.