A punk rock guide to conference organizing

DIY lessons from planning JSConf Colombia for anyone, anywhere who wants to plan accessible, sustainable developer events.

Part of
Issue 9 May 2019

Open Source

It would be naive of me to pretend that, when you hear the wordColombia,” you don’t think about my country’s dark past and muggy present. You know what I’m talking about: a story of narcos, drugs, and violence that’s not yet over. It’s a story I was born into, and it’s one I am immediately associated with whenever I tell someone where I’m from. But I’m here to change that.

Did you know that Colombia has one of the biggest Spanish-speaking JavaScript communities in the world? BogotáJS and MedellínJS are among the largest JS groups on Meetup in all of Latin America, with over 3,200 and 4,500 members, respectively. Since 2010, I’ve been part of a small group of developers on a mission to build up this community in Colombia. We work to share techniques, tools, processes, and technologies that power the open web via meetups, workshops, and international conferencesincluding JSConf Colombia.

When I helped found BogotáJS in 2011, there was only one other software meetup around, BogoDev. Today, we know of almost 100 groups centered on a multitude of open-source languages and technologies, which collectively have more than 50,000 members. This didn’t happen on its own: Our communities grew thanks to the efforts of hundreds of volunteers, and their desire to learn and teach.

We can’t take credit for all the groups that exist today, but we are responsible for starting at least 20 of them, as well as a few pretty well-known conferences, such as JSConf Colombia and RubyConf Colombia. We’ve also been developing a playbook for others to use to start their own meetups or conferences. In doing so, we have mirrored developed tech ecosystems, despite inadequate infrastructure, and we’ve made diversity and inclusion part of our plan from day one. We’ve built a community of communities, Colombia Dev, and use it to support others looking to start their own groups. This work hasn’t been easy, but it’s replicable in developing nations and cities around the world.

The challenges

I’ve found that community-run meetup groups, workshops, and events are the main sources of knowledge and training on modern tools and frameworks in Colombia, and the main vehicles by which this knowledge makes it back to the local tech industry. Otherwise, learning the latest in software development requires opportunities for practical experience, and the jobs that provide those kinds of experiences are concentrated in technology hubs such as San Francisco and New York. Outside of cities like these, when community members share what they learn, they expose others to experiences they wouldn’t otherwise haveespecially in places where English is not the primary spoken language.

Conferences are really just bigger meetup groups. I consider community-organized open-source conferences to be indicators of healthy open-source communities and an important component of any thriving tech ecosystem. These events demonstrate that there is a high concentration of technically minded folks who are interested in a specific language or technology and are motivated to learn and meet others who feel the same way.

But it’s very differentand more difficultto organize a conference in a developing nation. It may surprise you to learn that the cost of organizing a conference in Colombia is about the same as it would be in a developed nation like the United States, and is sometimes even more expensive.

Below are some stats, based on our experience organizing JSConf Colombia. (All values are in U.S. dollars.)

  • Each international speaker costs us between $1,500 and $2,500.
    • We cover flights, hotels, meals, and transportation.
    • If you’re a new parent, we offer the above for a significant other or family member as well.
    • Last year, JSConf Colombia spent $37,000 on speakers alone.
  • Venue and A/V costs can range from $0 to $15,000 per day.
  • The cost of lunch would increase ticket prices by almost 10 percent, so we don’t offer it.
  • We spend between $5,000 and $7,000 on Spanish-English interpretation for speakers and attendees.
  • We reserve 20 to 30 percent of our tickets for opportunity scholarships in Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Peru.
  • We try really, really hard to keep ticket prices under $150. (Before the collapse of the Colombian peso in 2015, we tried to keep tickets under $75.)
  • Organizers and staff are not paid.

These figures might look relatively normal to you, but in the context of the economic realities of Colombia, the numbers can start getting tricky.

In 2016, we surveyed 1,298 Colombian developers and found that wages ranged from $450 to $1,190 per month. The average salary was $900 per month. For reference, the minimum wage in Colombia in 2016 was a little over $200 per month.

The main challenge we face is covering internationally priced expenses with local incomes. Charging the equivalent of one month’s salary (or more) for a one-day event was and is counter to our aim of fostering a community that provides broad access to knowledge.

There were also insufficient local and international sponsorship opportunities to make up for the budgetary gap. When we started in 2010, Colombia was not yet an attractive destination for talent. (This has changed significantly.) Those familiar with credit scores in the United States will relate: You can’t get a credit card if you have no credit score, and vice versa. Companies would not invest in the creation of a community that did not yet exist. Finally, the practice of employer-sponsored conference tickets was (and is) uncommon in Colombia.

Somehow, we had to find a way to bootstrap an international event and earn some credibility, all so that we could put on more international events. This is when we faced our second-biggest challenge: finding motivated co-organizers who shared our vision, mission, and values.

In 2011, I was organizing my first-ever open-source community conference in Bogotá from New York: BogotaConf. This was only possible thanks to a few amazing people (including Giovanny Beltran and Carlos Rozo) who were bold enough to jump in on a project with some random dude who lived thousands of miles away. But four months into planning and three months before the event, the difficulties of coordinating local logistics seemed insurmountable without anyone on the ground. I sent a desperate email to BogoDev, the only developer meetup that existed at the time, trying to get some help:

Tengo los conferencistas, y tengo presupuesto disponible, pero necesito ayuda en cuanto a logística y no sé si en estos 2 meses que quedan sea posible organizar todo.
I have confirmed speakers, and I have a budget, but I need help with logistics and I do not know if two months is enough time to organize everything.

It was possibleand with the help of Carlos and Giovanny, the conference’s closing keynote by Tom Preston-Werner is still remembered by many attendees as one of the best talks they’ve ever heard.

In 2013, after assisting with JSConf US, I transformed BogotaConf into JSConf Colombia. We also moved the event to Medellín to help decentralize knowledge beyond the capital city. This is when my partners in crimeCatherine Lopez, Julián Duque, Adrián Estrada, and David Avellanedatook ownership of the opportunity. They became the founders of Colombia Dev and helped set in motion one of the most magical transformations I’ve ever witnessed. Novelist Gabriel García Márquez (Gabo), the father of magical realism, would be proud.

Fortunately, open-source communities are filled with awesome people willing to step in and help move everyone forward. Usually, finding awesome organizers is much easier than getting sponsorship money.

The lessons

Since that first conference in 2011, we’ve learned some important lessons about organizing open-source communities outside of traditional tech hubs.

First, use your privilege as a bridge. I was able to organize my first event because I was in a position to connect the community in the United States, where I worked, to the one in Colombia, where I’m from. I had already organized hardcore punk shows in Bogotá, so I wasn’t afraid of emailing strangers to try to convince them to come to a strange land. I also used some of my personal funds to finance the first few events and was in a position to devote some of my time to organizing them.

Next, focus on your priorities. You’ll have to make some hard choices, so knowing what’s most importantfor instance, diversity, inclusivity, and accessibilitywill help you know what you can cut.

Remember:

  • Affordable tickets > food
  • Interpretation > fancy party
  • Sponsors > mentoring (Give people a framework and money, have their back, and back off.)

Draft a code of conduct (CoC) from day one. Establishing ground rules of expected behavior for your event will help you build a safe environment for everyone. Make sure you give your attendees clear instructions on how to report CoC violations, and have a process to enforce your rules. (AlterConf has a greatCode of Conduct 101” article.) A CoC is like a package.json. Enforce it.

Start with a small team. Once your event is sustainable, you can start training the future generation of organizers.

One or two well-known speakers make all the difference when you’re just starting out. For my first event, I invited Sebastian Delmont to speak. I had been following him on Twitter for a while, and he was the only other South American developer in NYC who I knew of. When I sent him a message about my event in Colombia, not only did he accept, but he also offered to help convince other established speakers to come along. Awesome pals such as Jenn Schiffer, Raquel Vélez, Mariko Kosaka, and many others have since become ambassadors of our community and events.

Don’t ignore locals. Be mindful to not over-index on international speakers. Even better is when you can count on locals who are moving their fields forward and who want to support your mission. (Elizabeth Ramirez has done this for us.) Yes, many folks who are pushing open-source technologies forward come from places like the U.S. or Europe, but you should also give the stage to local talent and aspire to a future where folks from your community are the keynote speakers.

Sponsors may, at first, offer partnerships of little value. They’d love to be amedia partner” and help with your conference’s visibility. But you can’t pay airline tickets or hotels with favors. Ask for cash, or have them pay for expenses directly.

If you can, tap friends at big companies with sponsorship budgets. No one in Colombia wanted to give us a single cent for an event that had never happened before. Still, we needed to find sponsors to make ticket prices affordable. When my friends at U.S.-based companies introduced me to their coworkers in charge of company sponsorship budgets, these companies offered funding because they believed in the work and because there was a personal relationship in place, not because they saw our city or country as an interesting market. Regardless, their funds made a crucial difference.

Finally, make sure you can afford it. Your dream may be a three-day multitrack event, but don’t start there or you’ll end up severely in debt. Iterating toward a better future is better than going broke. It is very likely you will lose money on the first event, and the second, and the third. But running a not-for-profit community doesn’t mean you’re running a charity. Draft an operating budget that comfortably covers your expenses and allows you to build an emergency fund in the long run.

The rewards

Starting and maintaining open-source communities outside of tech hubs is difficult, goes mostly unrecognized, and is a ton of work. You won’t make any money, and will likely lose some. But you will set off a chain of events that will benefit everyone.

JSConf Colombia 2017 (Photo courtesy of Juan Pablo Buriticá)JSConf Colombia 2017 (Photo courtesy of Juan Pablo Buriticá)

I had many insecurities that I had acquired thanks to a ‘macho’ boss,” Bogotá-based developer Claudia Lagos recalls. Being a speaker at JSConf Colombia, she says,allowed me to overcome the fears completely.

That’s why I love the community. You can change lives,” says Laura Ciro, a software developer at Yuxi Global and a co-organizer of Pioneras Dev in Medellín.

And the community keeps growing. Recipients of conference scholarships become conference speakers become conference organizers. Samuel Burbano was 16 when he spoke at JSConf Colombia in 2015. (He remains our youngest speaker ever.)I was able to generate a vast network of contacts,” he says. Today, he’s a frontend developer at Knowbly Learning Systems.

It was very exciting to see people donate their time,” says Alejandra Giraldo, a full-stack engineer at Bunny Inc.I felt very inspired to follow that path.” She now co-organizes She Codes Angular and NodeConf Colombia.

My favorite story of all is that of Ana María Sosa. When Sosa was 16, she was one of the first attendees of Coderise, a pilot program we ran in Medellín in 2012 that focused on teaching kids from underprivileged backgrounds how to code. She graduated from the University of Medellín as a systems engineer in 2019 and, along with some other very inspiring women, cofounded Pioneras Developers, a community focused on supporting women who are software engineers or who want to become them. The community spun off from a NodeSchool initiative by MedellínJS, one of the meetups we helped start in Medellín. (Today, they have more than 1,000 members!) Sosa is also a co-organizer of JSConf Colombia, and led the sponsorship team for our 2018 event. With her team, she beat all of the sponsorship records we’ve ever had. I can’t wait for the day she becomes my boss.

The event framework we’ve built has been successfully replicated by other tech events in Colombia, including ScaleConf Colombia, Hackdó Conf, and more. But this change shouldn’t be limited to Colombia: We want these communities to spread. We’re working on producing an open-source organizers’ playbook so that others can have a community framework to build upon in their localities. If you’d like to support this initiative, buy a shirt from support.colombia-dev.org and help us tell the world that Colombia is moving forward, powered by the open web. The proceeds from these shirts will help fund the illustration and production of our organizers’ playbook.

I could write a whole article about every single person who has contributed to the development of our fantastic community. I can’t mention you all, but this piece is dedicated to you and the awesome work you do. You know who you are.

We will only increase representation in the tech industry by expanding access to opportunities and knowledge. If you are in a position to support communities by speaking, organizing, or sponsoring: Do so. You might change someone’s life.

This piece is a follow-up toHow we’re changing Colombia through open-source communities,” originally published on Medium.

About the author

Juan Pablo Buriticá builds effective distributed engineering teams and Latin American open-source software communities. He was born in Bogotá, lives in New York, and loves empanadas.

@buritica

Keep in touch

Sign up for occasional email updates from Increment.

Thank you!

We’ll be in touch.

Continue Reading

Explore Topics

All Issues