Shipping a Developer Week

Last year I wrote a blog post about shipping my first conference. I attended dozens of conferences prior to that and it was shocking how hard it was to put together even a modest 200-person event. I learned that running a good conference was much more than just gathering people together for a series of talks; it was about creating an experience. Based on the feedback I received during and after the conference, I think we succeeded. It was the highlight of my year to work with such an amazing group of volunteers and create an event by developers and for developers in the Pacific Northwest.

A year later, I was excited to ship CascadiaJS 2013 in Vancouver, BC. I figured it would be a great deal easier this year based on everything my co-organizers and I had learned. In many respects this was true, but something happened that I didn’t anticipate.

We were too successful.

Let me explain exactly what I mean by that:

  • We had 135 talk proposals submitted to our CFP
  • We sold out our sponsorship slots months in advance
  • We sold out each ticket batch within 30 minutes of them going on sale

Those things sound like good news to an event organizer. They normally are. But I started to get emails from people who really wanted to be a part of CJS13 and my attitude about those bullet points changed. I started to feel like this:

  • We had to reject 123 proposals (many of which were excellent)
  • We had to say no to companies who wanted to support our event
  • We had to turn away people who wanted to attend

All of these things made me pretty upset, but I didn’t see a solution. CascadiaJS by its design is an intimate conference experience. It does not scale. I felt very stuck.

Then I noticed a meta-event going on in Seattle called Seattle Startup Week. It was 7 days of events showcasing the Seattle startup community. I started to wonder if something similar might be possible up in Vancouver, but focused on developer events. This was the start of my journey towards shipping the first-ever Vancouver Dev Week, a week-long celebration of the developer community in Vancouver. Here’s how I got there:

Make Sure You Start With the “Why”

One of the easiest things to do in life is have a half-baked idea and start running with it. I had an idea about “a week-long series of awesome developer events” and really wanted to start running with it. But I had to step back and really work through why I thought this event was worth doing:

  1. The developer community in Vancouver is amazing with dozens of vibrant and active meetups.
  2. The dev scenes in Seattle, Portland, SF, Austin and other cities seem to get way more buzz – but Vancouver is full of high quality hackers.
  3. Developers from different communities (Python, Ruby, JS, etc) don’t often come in contact with one another. But when they do, it’s amazing to see them share ideas and learn from each other.

It Helps to Have an Anchor

I was lucky that I could use CascadiaJS as an anchor event for VDW. This made it easier to answer the question “What other events are going on during Vancouver Dev Week”. Much like shipping my first conference, people are hesitant to jump on a bandwagon early. I knew I needed a few more events to get the momentum going.

The first event that got locked-down was CouchDB Conf Vancouver. I knew some folks in Seattle who work at Cloudant (a big contributor to the CouchDB community) who had been kicking around the idea of a CouchDB conference on the West Coast. I encouraged them to run their event the day before CascadiaJS at the same venue we were using.

The next event to get the green light was Super VanJS. VanJS is the largest JavaScript meetup in Vancouver and I worked with the organizers to identify some of the best proposals for  CascadiaJS 2013 that didn’t make it into the conference to create a single-day mini conference.

Set up Your Soap Boxes

Now that we had some critical mass, it was time to get the word out about Vancouver Dev Week more broadly to the developer community. I was lucky to have been introduced to Sarah McCredie from Unbounce, a company that builds software for creating beautiful landing pages. They were interested in supporting VDW and offered to build the site and host it on their platform for free. After settling on a name (Vancouver Dev Week) I set-up the following:

  • Registered devweek.org and created vancouver.devweek.org
  • Registered @VanDevWeek on Twitter
  • Created a mailing list for people to signup for

Find People Who Want to Help

If VDW was going to succeed, it was going to be because of the community in Vancouver, not because some guy in Seattle thought it was a good idea. I was lucky during my first trip ever to Vancouver to have met Boris Mann at HackVAN 2012. He’s your standard issue superconnector and was instrumental in helping me find people in Vancouver who might be interested in seeing VDW succeed.

One of those people was Sean Elbe who works at the Vancouver Economic Council. I explained to Sean exactly what VDW was hoping to accomplish and he put me in touch with numerous people and companies who might be interested in getting involved. These introductions led directly to VDW events like the Startups Unite job fair.

Tie the Events Together

The final piece of the puzzle for VDW came in the form of a game. I wanted to encourage people to attend a bunch of the VDW events and really take the time to meet people. Some of the events were language specific (i.e. Python Day) but many of the events were open to all kinds of developers and I wanted to try and find a fun way to get them to meet one another.

The game we settled on was DevWeek Tag. It was an SMS networking game powered by Twilio, Firebase and Google Cloud. When you signed-up for the game you were assigned a unique 4-digit hexadecimal code. When you met someone at a VDW event you simply asked them if they were playing DevWeek Tag. If they were, you would just text their code in and both players would be awarded points for making a connection. At the end of the VDW the player with the most points was crowned the winner.

This turned out to be a huge hit with developers. Over 150 people signed-up and over 380 connections were made. The full source code for this app is available on Github, feel free to check it out:  https://github.com/crabasa/twilio-mms-tag

People Care About Bands, Not The Record Label

The biggest lesson for me, now that VDW is over, is that people cared much more about the events than the platform used to promote them. That is totally ok! Vancouver Dev Week, when you strip away the website, is just a collection of developer-centric events organized by people in the developer community of Vancouver. I’m proud that I was able to build a platform to help all of the event organizers be as successful as possible with their events. Some numbers from the week:

  • 592 registered for updates on VDW
  • 10 events over 7 days
  • 1700+ developers in attendance across all the events

I am deeply grateful to all of the event organizers for their hard work in making Vancouver Developer Week possible. I hope that anyone who made the trek to Vancouver came away seeing just what an amazing developer and startup community they have.