Wed Jul 04 2012

Roughly 2 years ago a few of us decided to embark on a new journey here in the Midwest. This journey became later called That Conference. I am hoping by now, you have at least heard of That Conference and know it's a technology conference for software geeks. But do you know why we got here or what our vision is for it?

First and foremost, I am not an event organizer. It's not at all a career goal of mine. Ironically, I have planned a few events in my time and it's really isn't much different than planning any software product. So why, take on something of this size?

One of the greatest things I get to do in my daily job is travel to the surrounding communities. Sure travel gets old, but it affords me the ability to get out of my own distortion field and experience other communities and cultures. Like it or not our industry is really small but regardless it's very diverse with different cultures and communities everywhere.

I've been fortunate enough to have been involved in someway with CodeMash, from attending, speaking, to just bothering Jim and the other founding members for their guidance. For me, CodeMash ( and there are others too ) is one of the best examples of everything coming together in a perfect storm. So what is this "everything"? I think I can sum up everything in 6 statements:

  • People. IMHO this is the most important and it set's the overall tone of the event. I personally want to be surrounded by great people and not just some negative asshole who knows it all. I want to be inspired, meet new people, and learn from others along the way.
  • Content. Content is clearly at the center of the conference but it's really behind the people that deliver it. You come to see the content but come-on, with today's internet you are clearly a couple of clicks away too. What you want is the perspective of the person who is talking about it and their experience.
  • Community Driven. Hey we know what we want, why not just do it ourselves. Community events are the best place to see the broadest set of people and their experiences.  It also helps build new friendships, business relationships, and a has input into a larger ecosystem.
  • Diversity. Like all the points above, what good is it if you can get a diverse look at things. From people, to content it all matters. Our industry suffers from "there is only one right answer and it's not yours" way to much. At the end of the day we're all developers ( or pick x ) in the same industry.  
  • Fun. We all work hard, learning shouldn't feel like work. It should just be all around fun.
  • Friendly. If it's not friendly then the rest of it was for nothing.

And yes, That Conference was inspired from CodeMash ( and others ) but we're also not CodeMash and we will never be CodeMash. We do and will continue to work pretty closely with the CodeMash guys and all of the other conferences around who want to work with us. It's not about copying one or competing with another, but coming together as a larger community and feeding into each other for a larger success. We can't thank them enough ( CodeMash, StirTrek and a number of other conferences ) for all the help they have provided us.

Why?

I won't lie, I was jealous of what the Heartland community created. The density ( # of people who come together ), friendships, passion, and more; I wanted it here too. I grew up hearing, you can either be part of the problem or part of the solution. So I choose the latter...

Now I am not saying there was or is a problem here in the Midwest, I just wanted something that seemed to be missing. We have a lot of awesome stuff going on but we need to come up for air for longer than a day and share with one another.

We set out to create a multi-day event, driven by the community, for the community for a price anyone could afford.

I also don't think "the conference" is dead. The internet is great, virtual training is great, BUT nothing can actually replace meeting someone and talking to them face to face. I know we have Skype and Google hangout with 1080p webcams but that can't replace actually talking to someone in real life and shaking hands. Having said that, it means things like That Conference are just as much about the content as they are the people who attend. One way you will see this is by us having longer times between sessions so people have the ability to actually talk to one another.

What?

So what really is That Conference? Well first and foremost it's a community volunteer technology conference. No one is getting paid and to be totally transparent peoples houses are on the line to try and pull this off.. There are roughly 25 people working daily on That Conference to make it a success.

That Conference is a multi-day technology conference centered around software development. We have well over 100 sessions from speakers across the industry. We tried to center things around a few themes, Cloud, Mobile, Web and Other. We also tried to balance things across all technology sets but that's was also dependent on who submitted sessions. We had over 400 sessions across roughly 200 speakers and I think we did a pretty solid job of picking our sessions this first year. This will continue to get better year over year and more diverse as communities come together.

That Conference is backed by a not for profit company we created to help facilitate efforts like these. The company "That Conference NFP" has aided efforts like, HTML5.tx, Chicago Code Camp, Give Camp, Hackathons etc. Like it or not, even a 15k event still needs things like a bank account, credit card, w9 and so on. It's the ugly side of things you never want to think about but when it costs hundreds of thousands to pull off something like That Conference. I would also like to keep my house in the process.

Price

$349. You can't imagine the number of people who rail on me about how expensive it is and shame on me as to why it's not free.  Honestly that hurts, remember it's all volunteer? Guess what, this year all of the volunteers have agreed to buy a ticket - including myself. We all want to see this succeed and in a big way.

Bottom line, it costs money. Our goal was to come up with a conference that was cheap enough you wouldn't mind paying for yourself. Better yet, what if you could take your family along and create a vacation out of it too.

We couldn't do this without our great sponsors. No doubt we're a first year conference and the third year will be even more amazing than the first but you have to start somewhere. Our sponsors have not only invested in us but in you. Their sponsorship proves they feel this is just important to them as it is to the community who surrounds us. Because of that, THANK THEM. Flat out, just say thank you.

So what does $349 get you? Well every ticket is basically broken down into a number of costs:

  • Food, Breakfast, Lunch, Happy Hour, Soda, Coffee, Etc - By far this is the biggest expense. For a 1k people this if roughly 300k. Rough numbers of course but it's crazy expensive. Want to help us save on costs? Drink the entire soda, cause we're paying for every ounce.
  • Swag: Yes, you want something to remember your investment. As an example 1k shirts at $8 a piece is 8k.
  • Operating Costs: this is, Wifi, Projectors, Mic's, Power, and on and on.
  • Conference Center: Well there are two parts to getting a conference center like the Kalahari. One you have some minimal costs just to have it. More importantly, you have to fill rooms in their venue. Double edge sword I guess, on one hand we're not on the "hook" for the cash, but if we don't rent out the rooms - well we're on the hook.
  • Lawyers: unfortunately you have to be protected no matter how good your intentions are. We now have a layer on retainer and have used them a number of times.
  • Company Overhead: paper work, taxes and so on.
  • Marketing. Twitter and Facebook aren't enough. Hopefully over the years to come, this reduces as every attendee will be the voice of That Conference.

Of course there are other costs but this represents the biggest amount and food is clearly the winner. The more people who come, the more we can do.  We have structured the ticket price such that at 1k to 1500 geeks we can put on an amazing show and relieve a little of the pressure on the volunteers in the years to come.

The Speakers

Our speakers are all volunteer as well. Like sponsors, we could not do this without them, so please thank them. As a speaker we cover their ticket cost as a way to say thank you, and hopefully in the years to come, we'll be able to do more.

A lot of our speakers live in your backyard. You might be amazed by the level of talent here.

The Schedule

I'm working on it. Right now you can see the initial cut of the schedule and it's activities here: http://www.thatconference.com/schedule. The conference is more than just the sessions. From breakfast, to renting out the waterpark we're planning for fun. GiveCamp, WaterPark, Code Retreat, Parties, Live Podcasts, Battle Decks etc.

One thing that we can't represent on the schedule and we hope everyone will participate in, is our open spaces. Open spaces is a great way to spin up "sessions" that we're never on the schedule in the first place.  We are dedicating a couple thousand square feet to have a great open spaces experience.

How can you help?

The best thing you can do for us, is spread the word. There are over 60k developers here in the Midwest and we haven't even come close to telling everyone. We need your help. Tell your boss, you're communities, peers, friends,  whatever. We can't do this without help from the community at large. You may think the guy next to you knows about it, but chances are he or she doesn't. There is just no magical way to reach everyone and say, "hey man have you heard..".

Please Help us, help you. Make some noise about That Conference.

Thank you, and I can't wait to see you there. I promise you, this is just getting started.