I've been attending LinuxFest Northwest for well over a decade. I make no secret of it: It is my favorite tech conference. Hands down. Takes place every spring in Bellingham, WA (north of Seattle) and is a true gem.
Family friendly. Super nerdy and supportive. Like a super-sized version of the computer clubs of the 80s. If you're ever feeling like the Linux and Open Source world has lost its way... LinuxFest NW will restore your hope for the future.
I know. That sounds over the top. But, truly, there's no event like it.
Nowadays, the "Conductor" of the conference is one of the gosh-darned sweetest guys you'll ever meet... James Mason (who some of you will know as an openSUSE community member and Architect at SUSE -- and that one adorably nerdy guy rocking the Kenny Rogers facial hair).
With the call for presentation submissions open, and the conference coming next April, I cornered James Mason in a dark alley of the Internet and forced him -- by threat of interpretive dance -- to answer some questions.
This is that conversation.
Lunduke: What exactly does the "Conductor" of a big Linux conference... do?
Mason: That's a funny story... when I gave myself that title, I meant it as an orchestra conductor: setting the tempo, keeping all the players starting (and stopping) at the right time. The rest of the crew interpreted it as a railroad conductor: keeping the trains running on time so the passengers (LFNW attendees in this metaphor) enjoy the ride.
I gavel the meetings (when I remember my gavel), I act as taskmaster setting due dates and following up on due dates, I encourage volunteers to take on right-sized tasks, and in general try to make sure everyone, including the staff, have a good time.
Planning a Fest starts a few weeks after we do a Fest, and it takes all year for our all-volunteer crew to put it together. So, if we don't time things well, and stay on schedule, it gets very stressful very quickly.
Lunduke: How many engineers and/or musicians are working in your train station and/or orchestra to make LinuxFest NW happen?
Mason: The planning group that meets year round is a dozen at most, usually eight to ten. We also have a larger group of student and community volunteers that help during the Fest. We try not to make anyone responsible for too much of the work, and allow everyone to do the thing they enjoy and are good at.
Lunduke: How many volunteers does it take to keep a conference of your size running during the event? Keeping a few thousand nerds from breaking everything sounds like a fairly massive undertaking. 😉
Mason: A lot! :D
The teachers in the IT Dept. at Bellingham Technical College (where LFNW is hosted) usually require students to "volunteer" as part of their grade. We make every effort to put the students in roles where they can learn some "real life" IT skills: building and maintaining the Fest networks; multimedia production and coordination skills working with our Video Team; customer service/human interface skills working on registration or conducting surveys. That accounts for up to 100 students being volunteered, although the actual FTE is about 25, all things considered.
In addition, we usually have about half a dozen members from our local LUG who work in various tasks including helping with badging, running the yard sale, and, well, anything that comes up.
But... that's just logistics. Every speaker at LinuxFest Northwest is also volunteering their time and skills - about 100 professionals who prepare a presentation, then travel to Bellingham to share with our audience. We can't pay speaker stipends - they're all volunteers too!
Lunduke: And the total attendance is around 2 thousand or so, right?
Mason: We think it's just short of 2000. LFNW is free to attend in as many ways as we can make it so. There is no fee for attending the Fest. Registration and badges are optional - attendees are welcome to remain anonymous.
As a result, we make an educated guess based on as many data points as we can: the number of registrations; the total count of attendees in sessions at any point in time (including how many have badges); counts on the number of people in the expo hall; lunch sales; survey data; network clients; etc.
We spent a long time trying to grow attendance, in that time we were more aggressive about registration. At our scale now, though, we're about as big as we can be without making big structural changes to the Fest... so it's more a matter of just giving people an idea of what to expect, and giving sponsors a reasonable expectation of how many people will visit their booths.
Lunduke: Maintaining some semblance of order with a few thousand enthusiastic Linux nerds... no small feat! In some ways, sounds almost harder than having 2,000 toddlers running around. 😉 On that note: How do you handle keeping the WiFi up and running? That's a heck of a lot of connections --- and a huge potential bandwidth load!
Mason: Bellingham Technical College has a fiber optic connection to a local ISP - CSS Communications ( http://www.cssnw.com/ ) who graciously provide LFNW with unmetered service during the Fest. The College itself has a well planned wifi network which is partially repurposed to provide dedicated vendor, video, and attendee networks... the biggest issue is just all the noise from having so many wifi devices in one space.
Lunduke: I'm always impressed when I go to an event and the WiFi works reliably. It's amazing how often it doesn't work even in 2019. 😉 Changing topics a little, let's talk about something that differentiates LFNW from most conferences... there's no keynotes. Not one. Every presenter is, more or less, on equal footing. No company can come in an "buy a keynote" like with most conferences nowadays. I really dig that!
Mason: Thanks, but it's not entirely intentional. Our session rooms are classrooms and lecture halls - our biggest room has a combined seating of 200, most seat 30 - 40. The only place on campus we could do a keynote is outside, and the weather just isn't reliable enough for that ;-) As far as "buying" a keynote - we usually have the opposite problem - every year we push our sponsors to bring more technical people, to run more sessions. Our attendees want to connect, and our sponsors understand that the Fest is a community event, not a corporate event or a sales retreat.
Lunduke: Honestly, intentional or not, that really does a lot for the atmosphere. The whole of the fest just feels so... genuine. Nerds. Hanging out. Talking about nerdy things. Bringing families. Bringing friends. I've never experienced a conference quite like it (and, boy howdy, have I been to more than my fair share of conferences). A lot of people talk about the "hallway track" at a conference (where people talk about unplanned things while hanging out in the hallways) being some of the best stuff at bigger conferences -- but LinuxFest NW goes beyond that. The whole conference has that vibe... it's so... friendly.
We've had a few issues over the years, but in general I agree. We do what we can to keep things upbeat, interesting, inviting. We're always looking to have some 1st time presenters, and we make a point of highlighting them when we can, to help grow the community. We've gone out of our way the past few years to try and make the social events more inviting to different parts of our audience, for example adding the movie night option instead of nerd trivia. Our Code of Conduct is about being conciliatory, not punitive. All of this helps build a place where, we hope, people do feel welcome.
Lunduke: It works! I mean, heck, I cut my teeth on speaking at conferences up at your fest. I, without a doubt, would not have the career I have if it weren't for you crazy kids. Which, depending on a persons view of me, either makes LinuxFest NW an amazing incubator of awesomeness... or a trainer of villains. 😉
Mason: Well, you can't please everyone. I'd say around by best villainous laugh, we're doing both, and hope to keep doing so for a good long time.
Lunduke: On that note, let's talk about the theme for this years event. "Be Excellent To Each Other." What brought that theme about?
Mason: Last year we had a strong interest in doing a community-based theme, but we decided to go with the "Past, Present, Future" to tie in with the 20th anniversary, and promised ourselves we come back around to it. This year, we were trying themes out, and couldn't quite put our finger on it... then Ashley, our social media guru, just put it out there, and most everyone emphatically said "YES!"
We want to hear from people how their communities work, how they are being excellent to each other. We want to be invited to new communities of excellence. We want to hear where excellence is missing, and we can improve. And yes, we will be sneaking in as much Bill and Ted as we possibly can ;-)
Lunduke: Most non-heinous! Maybe I'm just a tad bit biased, though -- "Be Excellent to Each Other" being my personal code of conduct and all.
I absolutely love the focus on positivity. So many conferences and organizations seem to be focusing on negatives (what people do wrong, how bad some groups of people are, etc.)... it's down right refreshing to see your emphasis on being excellent. I feel like the Linux world needs that right now.
Mason: I concur. If you want to have some good clean nerdy fun, LFNW2020 is where it's at. If you don't, well... maybe we'll do a curmudgeon track next year ;-)
Lunduke: Ok, ok. Let's take a step back for a moment.
Obviously putting together a conference like this is a huge undertaking -- for quite a lot of people. Why do you do it? What drives you and the rest of the LinuxFest NW crew to make this happen, year after year? Kinda makes me exhausted just thinking about it.
Mason: I attended LFNW for years, meeting friends and learning a ton. At some point I just decided it was time to give back, and started attending the organizational meetings. What I found was completely unexpected. This small group of people gathered once or twice a month, and built a conference. Whoever was there made decisions for the event - I remember being shocked that I could vote on things at my first meeting. While the people in the "dot-org" group (as we call ourselves) has changed over the years, we've maintained that spirit that decisions are made by people who show up. It's very empowering.
Why do I keep doing it? The Fest is becoming a well-oiled machine. Every year for the past few years, we've picked a specific issue to tackle, and try to make better. We're holding on to a lot of institutional knowledge, and building a formula that keeps things fun - even on the organizational side. I like the the people I volunteer with, and I'll keep participating as long as we keep improving, and making things more fun.
The final run-up is always exhausting, but the Fest itself makes up for it. Seeing all the people that I only see at LFNW, and hearing that they are enjoying the Fest, makes it worthwhile.
Lunduke: What issue did you and the rest of the crew tackle this year?
Mason: We're overhauling registration (again). The process of getting people into the event, and invited to our parties, is always a struggle. We've been working on it for a few years now, but this year we have an active point person, and some concrete targets, so I'm hoping we've finally found a formula that will get rid of the dreaded registration line!
Lunduke: Get nerdy with me. What did you build your registration system with?
Mason: The lfnw.org application runs a fork of OSEM, the open source event manager. It's a Ruby on Rails application, hosted on Heroku, and monitored with Rollbar, Matomo, and Skylight. I use Gitlab as our source repository.
One of the big changes we're making this year, is to get rid of user accounts as a requirement for registration. For LFNW2020, you'll only need a user account if your presenting, or sponsoring. We'll handle getting you on the party invite list, and designing your badge, without needing you to sign up for an account; and with the exception of what we need for legal compliance at our parties, your data will all be stored locally through your browser's local storage, instead of in our database. I think this is a huge privacy improvement, and I'm excited to be implementing it.
In addition, we're going back to printing badges on-site, instead of pre-printing. While we really liked the idea of the compostable badges, they made problems of their own. We'll also offer a mobile-phone version of your badge, so you won't need a physical badge at all - even for party attendance.
Lunduke: Dude! Fancy!
Anything you want to make sure folks know before I unceremoniously end this interview?
Mason: We want new presenters! Please submit a proposal at https://lfnw.org ! You've got plenty of time to work out the details, just submit your idea NOW.
If your company has an interest in reaching a very enthusiastic audience of open source nerds, please email us at [email protected] !
I'm looking forward to seeing lots of friendly faces next April! (Man that was a lot of exclamation marks!!!)
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