FUDCon, where friends meet
The madness is over. FUDCon Pune 2015 happened between 26-28 June 2015, and we successfully hosted a large number of people at MIT College of Engineering. This was not without challenges though and we met yesterday to understand what went well for us (i.e. the FUDCon volunteer team) and what could have been better. This post however is not just a summary of that discussion, since it is heavily coloured by my own impression of how we planned and executed the event.
Our bid was pretty easy to get together because we had a pretty strong organizer group at the outset and we more or less knew exactly what we wanted to do. We wanted to do a developer focussed conference that users could attend and hopefully become contributors to the Fedora project. The definition of developer is a bit liberal here, to mean any contributor who can pitch in to the Fedora project in any capacity. The only competing bid was from Phnom Penh and it wasn’t a serious competition by any stretch of imagination since its only opposition to our bid was “India has had many FUDCons before”. That combined with some serious problems with their bid (primarily cash management related) meant that Pune was the obvious choice. We had trouble getting an official verdict on the bid due to Christmas vacations in the West, but we finally had a positive verdict in January.
The call for participants went out almost immediately after the bid verdict was announced. We gave about a month for people to submit their proposals and once we did that, a lot of us set out pinging individuals and organizations within the Open Source community. This worked because we got 142 proposals, much more than we had imagined.
We had set out with the idea of doing just 3 parallel tracks because some of us were of the opinion that more tracks would simply reduce what an individual could take away from the conference. This also meant that we had at most 40 slots with workshops taking up 2 slots instead of 1.
The website took up most of my time and in hindsight, it was time that I could have put elsewhere. We struggled with Drupal as none of us knew how to wrangle it. I took the brave (foolhardy?) task of upgrading the Drupal instance and migrating all of the content, only to find out that the schedule view was terrible and incredibly non-intuitive. I don’t blame Drupal or COD for it though; I am pretty sure I missed something obvious. SaniSoft came to the rescue though and we were able to host our schedule at shdlr.com.
After the amazing response in the CfP, we were tempted to increase the number of tracks since a lot of submissions looked very promising. However, we held on tight and went about making a short list. After a lot of discussions, we finally gave in to the idea of making a separate workshop track and after even more discussions, we separated out a Container track, a Distributed Storage track and an OpenStack track. So all of a sudden, we now had 5 tracks in a day instead of 3!
Sankarshan continually reminded me to reach out to speakers at the event to make sure that their talk fit in with our goals. I could not do that, mainly because we did not have the bandwidth but also because I realize that in hindsight, our goal wasn’t refined beyond the fact that we wanted a more technical event. The result was that we made a couple of poor choices, the most notable being the opening keynote of the conference. The talk about Delivering Fedora for everyone was an excellent submission, but all of us misunderstood the content of the talk. The talk was a lot more focussed than we had thought it would be and it ended up being the wrong beginning for the conference since it seemed to scare away a lot of students.
The content profile overall however was pretty strong and most individual talks had almost full rooms. The auditorium looked empty for a lot of talks, but that was because each row of the massive auditorium could house 26 people, so even a hundred people in the auditorium filled in only the first few rows. The kernel talks had full houses and the Container, OpenStack and Storage tracks were packed. It was heartening to see some talks where many in the audience followed the speaker out to discuss the topic further with them.
One clear failure on the content front was the Barcamp idea. We did a poor job of planning it and an even poorer job of executing it.
Travel, Accommodation and Commute
We did a great job on travel and accommodation planning and execution. Travel subsidy arrangements were well planned and announced and we had regular meetings to decide on them. Accommodation was negotiated and booked well in advance and we had little issues on that front except occasionally overloaded network at the hotel. We had excellent support for visa applications as well as making sure that speakers were picked up and dropped to the airport on time. The venue was far from the hotel, so we had buses to ferry everyone across. Although that was tiring, it was done with perfect precision and we had no unpleasant surprises in the end.
Materials, Goodies and SWAG
We had over 2 months from the close of CfP to conference day, and we wasted a lot of that time when we should have been ordering and readying swag. This is probably the biggest mistake we had made in planning and it bit us quite hard near the closing weeks. We had a vendor bailing on us near the end, leading to a scramble to Raviwar Peth to try and get people to make us stuff in just over a week. We were lucky to find such vendors, but we ended up making some compromises in quality. Not in t-shirts though, since that was an old reliable vendor that we had forgotten about during the original quote-collection. He worked night and day and delivered the t-shirts and socks despite the heavy Mumbai rains.
The design team was amazing with their quick responses to our requests and made sure we had the artwork we needed. They worked with some unreasonable deadlines and demands and came out on top on all of them. The best part was getting the opportunity to host all of them together on the final day of the conference and doing a Design track where they did sessions on Inkscape, Blender and GIMP.
We struggled with some basic things with the print vendor like sizes and colours, but we were able to fix most of those problems in time.
We settled on MIT College of Engineering as the venue after considering 2 other colleges. We did not want to do the event at COEP again since they hosted the event in 2011. They had done really well, but we wanted to give another college the opportunity to host the event. I had been to MIT weeks earlier as a speaker at their technical event call Teknothon and found their students to be pretty involved in Open Source and technology in general, so it seemed natural to refer them as potential hosts. MITCOE were very positive and were willing to become hosts. With a large auditorium and acceptably good facilities, we finalized MITCOE as our venue of choice.
One of the major issues with the venue though was the layout of the session rooms. We had an auditorium, classrooms on the second floor of another building and classrooms on the 4th floor of the same building. The biggest trouble was getting from the auditorium to that other building and back. The passages were confusing and a lot of people struggled to get from one section to the other. We had put up signs, but they clearly weren’t good enough and some people just gave up and sat wherever they were. I don’t know if people left out of frustration; I hope they didn’t.
The facilities were pretty basic, but the volunteers and staff did their best to work around that. WiFi did not work on the first two days, but the internet connection for streaming talks from the main tracks worked and there were a number of people following the conference remotely.
HasGeek pitched in with videography for the main tracks and they were amazing throughout the 3 days. There were some issues on the first day in the auditorium, but they were fixed and the remainder of the conference went pretty smoothly. We also had a couple of laptops to record (but not stream) talks in other tracks. We haven’t reviewed their quality yet, so the jury is still out on how useful they were.
Volunteers and Outreach
While our CfP outreach was active and got good results, our outreach in general left a lot to be desired. Our efforts to engage student volunteers and the college were more or less non-existent until the last days of the conference. We spoke to our volunteers the first time only a couple of days before the conference and as expected, many of the volunteers did not even know what to expect from us or the conference. This meant that there was barely any connect between us.
Likewise, our media efforts were very weak. Our presence in social media was not worth talking about and we only reached out to other colleges and organizations in the last weeks of the conference. Again, we did not invest any efforts in engaging organizations to try and form a community around us. We did have a twitter outreach campaign in the last weeks, but the content of the tweets actually ended up annoying more people than making a positive difference. We failed to engage speakers to talk about their content or share teasers to build interest for their sessions.
Best. FUDPub. Ever.
After looking at some conventional venues (i.e. typical dinner and drinks places) for dinner and FUDPub, we finally settled for the idea of having the social event at a bowling arcade. Our hosts were Blu’O at the Phoenix Market City mall. The venue had everything from bowling to pool tables, from karaoke rooms to a dance floor. It had everything for everyone and everyone seemed to enjoy it immensely. I know I did, despite my arm almost falling off the next day :)
We had an approval for up to $15,000 from the Fedora budget and we got support from a couple of other Red Hat departments for $5,000 each, giving us a total room of $25,000. The final picture on the budget consumption is still work in progress as we sort out all of the bills and make reimbursements in the coming weeks. I will write another blog post describing that in detail, and also how we managed and monitored the budget over the course of the execution.
We did a pretty decent event this time and it seemed like a lot of attendees enjoyed the content a lot. We could have done a lot better on the venue front, but the efforts from the staff and volunteers were commendable. Would I do this again? maybe not, but that has more to do with wanting to get back to programming again than with the event organization itself. Setting up such a major conference is a lot of work and things only get better with practice. Occasional organizers like yours truly cannot do justice to a conference of this size if they were to do it just once every five years. This probably calls for a dedicated team that does such events.
There were also questions of whether such large conferences were relevant anymore. Some stated their preference for micro-conferences that focussed on a specific subset of the technology landscape, but others argued that having 10 conferences for 10 different technologies was taxing for budgets since it is not uncommon for an individual to be interested in more than 1 technology. In any case, this will shape the future of FUDCon and maybe even Flock, since with such a concentration of focus, Flock could end up becoming a meetup where contributors talk only about governance issues and matters specific to the Fedora project and not the broader technology spectrum that makes Fedora products.
In the end though, FUDCon is where I made friends in 2011 and again, it was the same in 2015. The conference brought people from different projects together and I got to know a lot of very interesting people. But most of all, the friends I made within our volunteer team were the biggest takeaway from the event. We did everything together, we fought and we supported each other when it mattered. There may be things I would have done differently if I did this again, but I would not have asked for a different set of people to work with.