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[personal profile] joshua0
Okay! So a few weeks or so ago, I spoke at !!Con, and before I forget (even more), I wanted to write down a few of the things that were particularly notable to me about it. In general, I liked the !!Con experience, and the biggest negative (that I arrived on a redeye at 7am, but that my AirBnB didn't exist until 3pm...) was mostly the fault of my own incompetency; but I wanted to take a moment to write down in a little more detail what some of the things that !!Con did really right were. This is all somewhat train-of-thought, so you'll have to forgive me if there are incoherencies... But without further ado:

Things that I liked about !!Con:
  • Building an inclusive space. One of the things that really struck me about !!Con was that the organizers went *way* out of their way to build a space that was inclusive. This shined, I think, from the moment attendees walked in the door: attendees were asked to fill out their own nametags, and the sample nametag had on it not just a name and Twitter handle, but also a preferred set of pronouns. The vast majority of attendees had pronouns written on their nametags, which I imagine must have been very valuable to nonbinary participants (or participants who otherwise cannot be readily gendered from their appearance); it made it the norm, rather than an unusual case, for attendees to announce what they'd prefer to be referred to as.

    This also set the tone for the space in general. I think that having pronouns on nametags by default sends a powerful message that "this space is designed to be inclusive", and that "all participants are welcome in this space". The fact that the Code of Conduct was explicitly brought into the light and discussed during the opening remarks was also valuable; participants could feel like their attendance and safety were valued by the organizers by intent, not just by happenstance.

    The physical space, by itself, had other welcoming properties. All restrooms were all-gender; although multi-occupancy, they were explicitly marked as being available for everybody to use, with the direct reasoning that gendering restrooms provided an environment in which only a subset of genders had any restroom at all to use. (This was set up by NYU MAGNET, as I understand, and was not only for !!Con.)

    The interesting result, by the way, is that a rising tide really does lift all boats in this case. Nominally, much of the space that !!Con worked to build does not directly benefit me; I am lucky enough that in a usual conference space, I would be unlikely to be asked whether I was "with somebody", I would be gendered as I wish without having to ask for it, and I would have a bathroom that I could visit without worry. But the space that the !!Con organizers was somehow more comfortable for me, too, even still; by welcoming everyone else who doesn't look like me, I felt that I was more welcome, too. I didn't feel the usual sense of unease as to whether I was going to witness the next awful thing that comes out of a conference right next to me, because I knew that the expectations for attendees like me were very clear; the sense of ease from the rest of the attendees transferred to me, too. An inclusive space really is beneficial for everyone.

  • Successful diversity outreach. Along the same lines, !!Con did an excellent job building both a diverse speaker lineup and a diverse audience. I have spoken at a few other events before, and I quite dislike the concept of being part of a homogeneous cloud of speakers. (DEFCON was particularly bad in this regard.) There are many other people out there who have written as to why diversity is an important thing, and why representing people other than white men on panels is crucial, so I will not rehash those arguments; I'm pretty sure that I cannot do justice to them, anyway!

    I did want to call out that a diversity of backgrounds brings a better diversity of knowledge to the table, though. I had a couple of interesting conversations, and saw a couple of talks that really exemplified this, that I'll talk about below. I think that the lottery registration system for attendees was particularly valuable for bringing attendees along that would otherwise feel like they did not "belong" at the con; the lottery really meant that everyone had as much of a right to listen, and learn, and participate as everyone else, and I have to imagine that that helped to attract a way more diverse audience.

  • Live stenography. I'm really glad that Stanley Sakai was there to provide a live transcription. I learn best with a combination of visual and auditory information, and tend to tune out auditory-only data; when I got lost in a train of thought of my own, or couldn't hear what the speaker was saying, or even if I got distracted!, the live transcription helped me catch up and pick up the bits that I was missing. Someone said this about !!Con 2014, but I also believe that "every conference should really have stenography"! It's just such a huge benefit, even if everyone in your audience has perfect hearing.

  • Unconferencing. I really liked not having Q&A; I think Lindsey (or was it Chris?) at some point recently posted a link on Twitter to an article that summed up all Q&A questions in a handful of unflattering buckets ("attempt to share an anecdote"; "attempt to upstage the speaker"; "hey, can you repeat the last five minutes"; etc.). Being able to take half an hour after a talk, and talk to the speaker about what they presented, was way more fun, and way more interactive of an environment than Q&A. It really is everything that Q&A wanted to be but couldn't.

Things I would change (maybe?):
  • Talk lengths. For talks that require a decent amount of background, 10 minutes is on the short side. I think speakers could get quite a lot more done with 15 minutes!

  • Photo lanyard definitions. I really liked the photo lanyard concept (each attendee wore their namecard on a colored lanyard: green means "take photos as you like", yellow means "ask first", red means "no photos at all"). But, from the perspective of someone who was asked to take candid photos for the event, "ask first" and "no photos at all" are basically the same thing; if I didn't notice that a speaker was going to be wearing a yellow lanyard before they spoke, I could not take any photos of them at all. One of the participants that I asked who was wearing a yellow lanyard said that they chose it so that they could ask to see any pictures of themselves before they were published; I imagine that this is probably not an uncommon reason for choosing a yellow lanyard! So I'd propose redefining yellow as "provide copies before uploading".

  • Side of the country! I really wish there was a !!Con West. Like, so much that I'd help to organize one if the organizers were as well interested... !!Con was really cool, but New York was also something of a schlep to get to.

People I'm really glad I met and talks I'm really glad I saw:
  • Kiran Bhattaram's talk on Wi-Fi. I picked up a few tidbits that I didn't already know, but mostly, the body of the talk helped to solidify in my mind how it all fit together. The thing that I really am glad for was hearing that there exist other people in the world who are excited about signals and hardware! Many hardware people, I've found, seem to do it as an interesting job, but as a job nonetheless; Kiran's talk brought the "joy, excitement, and surprise" to hardware, too.

  • Kevin Lynagh's talk about building a cell phone. I think the amazing thing about Kevin's work is that if you asked someone with loads of experience in any individual step of what he did, they'd say "that's totally unreasonable, and why bother wasting your time". But Kevin obviously didn't waste his time, and somehow managed to do the impossible many times over! The result is super cool, the motivation was super cool, and I really liked the idea of just trying impossible things and seeing where you get.

  • A lunch-time conversation with Bonnie Eisenman and a handful of other folks about computer music. I think the kind of spontaneous conversations that !!Con is prone to provoking is a solid argument were some of the most fun that I've had in a while. Many of the attendees had very, very different backgrounds, but the event was structured so that everyone was welcome to learn from anyone else on a wide variety of skill levels. Great fun.

  • Allison Kaptur's talk about Python bytecode introspection. I'm not sure if I have any one thing to point out about it, but in general, it was a very engaging talk, and I just had no clue about like 80% of it, but came out feeling like I had a solid grasp of how the Python bytecode world fit together. I highly recommend listening to the recording when it comes out.

  • Watching Julia Evans learn. If you've never read any of Julia (@b0rk)'s blog posts, you should stop reading this right now and go read all of her blog. Julia has an infectious curiosity. If you were going to ask the question, "is Julia in real life exactly like she is in her blog?", the answer you would get is "basically, yes". The biggest thing that I was impressed about with how Julia learns is that she is absolutely fearless about stopping you and asking questions if she doesn't understand something. Instead of getting lost if you skip a crucial step in a discussion of something (for instance, if you're explaining hardware, and you've been around flip-flops all your life, and forget that that's not actually true for everyone...), Julia stops you in the most disarming possible way to make sure that she understands. I think everyone could use to take a lesson from Julia in how to put one's ego aside in learning new stuff; if everyone was willing to teach and learn like she does, then there would be so much more knowledge in the world.

Anyway. That was quite a lot longer than I had planned on. But, hopefully, that gives you a flavor of things that made !!Con special. If you're planning a conference of your own, you should absolutely look to !!Con as a role model in a lot of ways.

(and, of course, photos)
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