Founders Talk – Episode #65
What are you optimizing for?
featuring Saron Yitbarek
Saron Yitbarek is the founder and CEO of CodeNewbie — one of the most supportive community of programmers and people learning to code. Saron hosts the CodeNewbie podcast, Command Line Heroes from Red Hat, and she’s also the creator of Codeland Conference taking place on July 22 this year in New York City. We talk through getting started, lessons learned, mental health, developing and running a conference…but our conversation begins with a pivotal question asked of Saron…“What are you optimizing for?”
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Notes & Links
In the latter part of the show, Adam mentioned to Saron that we will buy five “Pay it forward” tickets to Codeland, so that we here at Changelog can help support 5 people to attend the conference who otherwise could not afford to attend. Learn more about “Pay it forward” tickets to Codeland.
Also, listen to the end of the show for a special preview of our newest podcast BRAIN SCIENCE!!
- The one question that will change your life
- Codeland Conference
- Learn more about “Pay it forward” tickets to Codeland
- CodeNewbie podcast
- Command Line Heroes
- The Changelog #176: CROSSOVER — CodeNewbie and Community with Saron Yitbarek
- Our newest podcast ~> BRAIN SCIENCE!!
- [Book] Essentialism - The Disciplined Pursuit of Less
Click here to listen along while you enjoy the transcript. 🎧
I love this post you wrote about a question that changed your life. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about, because it seems very pivotal to you. The question was “What are you optimizing for?”
And I think as a founder, as somebody who’s a creator, a starter, and you kind of get lost in the minutiae sometimes of doing all the things, all the ideas, and you almost have a real difficult time finding focus… That seems to be what you talked about here - the struggle finding your focus. Can you talk about that question for you and maybe how it’s played a role in your journey?
Sure. When you’re managing any community, but specifically our community of code newbies, it is very tempting to be everything for everyone, all the time. For us, it means being a support system, being a resource, doing a little bit of teaching, a little bit of guiding, and there are so many different needs and so many different possible solutions in the community, and it’s really hard to feel comfortable focusing on any one thing.
So for us, we have a handful of projects that we do - we have our two podcasts and our annual conference, so within each of those it’s been really important for me to just go “What am I optimizing for?” For example with our conference, it is the newbie conference experience - making that as accessible and as enjoyable as possible. Okay, now that’s our focus, what does that actually look like? What does that mean? What does that mean for the food? What does that mean for the conference badges? What does that mean for the booklet?
Once you have that overarching, that North Star basically, and you know that you’re optimizing for comfort, for feeling included, then from there every other decision gets so much easier. And even with the conference, I remember before I got to that point of optimization, I was all over the place; I had a bunch of different ideas I wanted to do, I shared them with people, and it wasn’t until I talked to a friend of mine who basically said “Look, what is the journey of the user experience for this conference? Until you nail that, everything isn’t really gonna work.” And I said “Okay, I need to buckle down and I need to focus.” So it can be really hard to figure out what you’re optimizing for, it can be hard to think in terms of optimization, but once you get there, a lot of other things fall into place.
[04:21] This conference, in particular Codeland, coming up in July (July 22nd in New York City), back in your stomping grounds - I know you’re not there now, but it’s probably a goal for you to get there…
But the fact that you’re trying to optimize for something, it means that you’ve gotta think about the user experience of something… How did you get there? This person that you mentioned, this friend of yours that gave you this advice - was that during the initial planning of the first annual version of it, or was it sort of after in some sort of retrospective?
No, it was the first one it was Dwayne O’Brian [04:50] and I told him “Hey, I have all these ideas… I wanna talk about careers, and I wanna talk about technical concepts, and I wanna have a career station… I wanna do all these things”, and he said “Okay, stop. Wait. What is the journey? What does the experience look like?” And once he asked that question, I basically said to myself “Okay, I want people to feel welcome and excited and safe, so what does that mean at every single step of that journey?
I basically did a user flow, but for a conference attendee. You walk into the building, what’s the first thing you see? You see a sign that says “Codeland”. Great. Next you see an arrow that says “Go to the left.” Wonderful. Now you see a table with badges. Is there one line, or are there three lines? How do you get your badge? How quickly do you get your badge? How much time do you spend in that line? Okay, now you get your badge, now you go to the elevators. How do you know which elevator to get into? Every single step of the way has to be intentional and has to be thought out.
Once I did this very long list of literally every single moment, every single point of interaction, from there I was able to say “Okay, if you get your badge, you probably want it to have your Twitter handle, because that’s how people recognize each other from the internet.” Once you are in line to get food, if you’re a vegan you probably wanna be able to quickly identify what that is and maybe even have a section just for yourself. So I literally made a list of, as an attendee, what does this look like? As a volunteer, what does this look like? As a sponsor, what does this look like? As a speaker, what does this look like? After I was able to map out in great detail, I was able to see the holes that I needed to fill and the things that were missing, and then made sure to fill those in.
It’s interesting to sort of put yourself in that position too, because you’re probably using yourself as a version of the attendee, right?
You’ve been on the Changelog before, we’ve heard your story - and we’re gonna link that up in the show notes, but… You’ve been there, so you can sort of come from this position of like “Hey, this is what I would have wanted if I were back in these shoes again.”
So it’s almost like everybody feeling like when they can’t teach, because they’re like “Oh, I’m not smart enough” or “I’m not an expert enough”, or whatever they say they’re not enough of… And all they’re really doing is just sharing what they have learned to the person that’s two steps back. That’s kind of like what you’re talking about here.
Yeah, absolutely. I go to a lot of conferences, I do a lot of speaking, and every conference I go to, I make a little list of the things I love about the conference, and the things I would change about that conference. When I did Codeland, what was my opportunity to go “Okay, I have this long list of things that I’m really excited about and things that I really don’t like, especially from the perspective of a new developer.” Now I can put all that to the test. Now I can see “Okay, do my ideas actually work? Do people appreciate it? Does it make a difference? Does it make an impact?” So yeah, it comes from a lot of just learning from other people’s conference organizing and being able to implement some of the ideas myself.
This conference is two years running now…
…so the first one was obviously a success. What’s that like? What’s it like to be a conference organizer?
[07:52] It’s so hard… It is so freakin’ hard! Oh, my goodness. And it’s hard for all the reasons I didn’t think it would be hard. The coming up with the program for me is a lot of fun. I do one-on-one coaching with all of our speakers; that part is one of my favorite things to do. We put together this awesome booklet, which I love – I love designing; any chance I get to design something, it’s a lot of fun for me… So a lot of the big projects frankly I really enjoyed. The parts that were hard were figuring out or keeping track of the details. There’s so many little things that don’t feel urgent, but if you mess them up, they’re detrimental.
For example, booking hotels for all of the speakers - we cover travel costs for all of our speakers, so when we’re booking hotels, we might get an email from one person that says “Hey, actually I need an extra night. Can you add that to my booking information?” And if I forget to do that, that’s kind of it. The person shows up at the hotel - they have no place to stay, the hotel is booked, what are they gonna do? That’s one little email, one little detail out of a long list of stuff that I have to do, that if I don’t do, makes a really big difference.
And because it’s a conference, it’s a real-life event, if you mess up, that’s it. There’s no second chance. You can’t redeploy a build of a conference you know what I mean?
Right. No Cmd + Z.
Yeah, that’s it. That’s all you can do. There are just so many of those little details, little things that can slip through the cracks. That was the thing that brought me frankly a lot of stress throughout organizing the conference.
Do you find it enjoyable then? I almost feel like you have a love/hate relationship with the process.
Oh yeah, love/hate is exactly it. There are times that I’m like “I hate this conference. I’m never doing this again. Why am I doing this to myself?” And then there are times like “Oh, let’s do this again and again!” So yeah, it definitely goes up and down, and I think especially this year, I’m really lucky to be working with Abby Phoenix, who is the executive administrator for Ruby Central. She organizes RubyConf and RailsConf… She’s amazing, and she’s been taking over a lot of the things that I find really stressful, so that I can focus on the things I really like. So this year it’s been a lot more love than hate, because I have someone kind of taking on a lot of that work for me… But yeah, it’s really stressful.
Someone asked me recently “Hey, I have a friend of mine who really loves conferences, and so she’s thinking about organizing conferences on the side, as like a side gig”, and I wanted to say “No, no, no, no… This is not a side gig type of thing. This is like an all-in, really stressful, really intense type of thing.” So… Yeah. Overall it’s a net love, for sure.
How do you keep up then? Let’s go back to your list of the things you do. You do two podcasts, you’ve got a blog, you’ve got weekly chat, you’ve got (I’m sure) an active Slack, you’ve got this conference… What else are you involved in? I know you do Command Line Heroes with Red Hat…
Yeah, that’s about it.
Don’t you have a couple other podcasts as well?
No, I’ve got three podcasts, I host three, and then we produce two of the three. But that’s basically it. I used to do a lot of speaking, now I’m kind of calming down on that, because I don’t have time anymore, and traveling just takes up so much time… But yeah, those are all the things I do.
So how do you keep up then? How do you do all these things for a conference? It sounds like you’re really into details, and maybe year one you had less help, and year two maybe you have more help.
Yeah… A lot of spreadsheets. There are so many spreadsheets involved, oh my goodness. I wish I knew spreadsheets, but Abby is amazing at spreadsheets. She’s the spreadsheets queen. But it’s a lot of spreadsheets and a lot of calendar work. So I live by my calendar, I track literally every waking hour that I have. I put them in a spreadsheet at the end of each month, so I can tell “Here’s how many hours I spent on Codeland, here’s how many hours I spent on the Code Newbie Podcast…” So it’s very meticulous, just keeping track of everything I can, and trying to use that data to be even more efficient the next time I do it.
[11:41] Interesting. One thing I don’t do is track myself to that degree. I give myself hours, like anybody who works for themself or runs their own hour-based process. I have a family, I like to – so when we go back to “What are you optimizing for?”, I optimize for life happiness, life balance. Even though I’m ambitious and I wanna achieve goals and we wanna do really well, I have to keep my perspective of like “You know what, if my son has his last day of school (which was yesterday) and I need to take off the morning…”, which I did, but at the last minute, because I’m a lacking planner. I didn’t know that that was on the calendar. I knew it was the last day, but I didn’t realize that “Hey, I’m the dad who takes the pictures on this last day of school, and I go to the school and I participate in his end-of-year party…” That’s really important to be there for your kids and to be there for your family and loved ones… And I guess what I’m asking you is – I can’t track myself to that degree. We’re different people, obviously; we have different things we’re optimizing for… How did you get to the point where you wanted to track yourself to that point, and then hold yourself accountable?
Two years ago I was really depressed. I was super-depressed. I late found out I was actually bipolar, so I had my ups and my downs… But I was super-depressed, to the point where I was crying every day, I was in bed and I couldn’t get up, couldn’t do any work… It was a really rough time. And I tried to set these little goals for myself; I said “Okay, today I’m gonna get out of bed. That’s it. If I can get out of bed, I’ve won. Today I’m gonna change my clothes. That’s it, that’s the whole thing. I’m going to get up and make a meal for myself. I’m going to get up and sit at my desk. I’m not gonna do any work, but I’m gonna sit at my desk. Now I’m going to open my email, see if I can do just 15 minutes of email. Let’s see how that goes.” And then slowly but surely I was able to get back to my regular self, because I kept tracking all the activities that I was doing, and I could see that a lot of the time I spent being depressed very slowly decreasing. I found myself very slowly increasing my productivity and just my self-care in general.
So that’s where it all started for me - it started from using tracking as a way to feel like I had control over my life, and even though I felt like crap, I could still count hours. If I can count hours, I can do anything. That didn’t cure my depression at all; I’m not on medication, and eating better, and exercising and all these other things, but it helped me get to a place where I could more constructively deal with my mental health, and it kind of got me out of that hole.
So that’s where it started for me, and I kept doing it because it’s just really good data. It’s really helpful to say “Man, I thought I was spending just a little bit of time on Codeland, but this week it took 30 hours. Why did that happen?” Did that happen because I wasn’t being efficient? Did that happen because I just didn’t estimate well? Where did that come from?” But it’s also been a really good way for me to practice self-care. I’m a huge workaholic, I’m very bad at self-care, and so what I’m optimizing for this year is mental health. My mantra now is “If you don’t have time to take care of your mental health, you don’t have time to do the work.” You just don’t. That’s it.
So it’s been a really good way for me to keep tabs on myself and say “Okay, I feel tired. I’m gonna take a nap”, and I can justify that, because I can look at my timesheet and go “You’ve already worked 40 hours this week. That’s enough. You don’t have to push yourself any further. You can pause now.” So it’s been a really good way for me to be productive, but more importantly, it’s been a good way for me to take care of myself.
Have you heard of the book Essentialism?
I have. I don’t know much about it though.
Each chapter has a title, and there’s a chapter that’s titled “Protect the asset.” It wasn’t talking particularly just about mental health; it was talking about sleep, and basically taking care of you, because you can only be you because you are you, and you’re only you when you’re the healthiest version of you, right?
[15:46] And so this idea - that’s what sparked it for me. It was like “I need to work eight, I need to play eight, and I need to sleep eight.” That’s my optimization. Outside of those three eights, I’m optimizing for family time, and work/life balance… That’s all part of the eight, but… And I’m not daily tracking like “Did I work eight? Did I play eight? Did I sleep eight?”, but generally I’m trying to hit those. I’m not crazy about it, but I understand that that’s my North Star, like you’d mentioned before. What do you think about that idea of protecting the asset?
I love that idea, I love that a lot. And that’s one thing, too – a good example is two days ago I was kind of done with my work early; I finished my work around 4 PM, and I said to myself “Okay, you’ve done everything that you were supposed to do today… Should you try and squeeze in a couple more hours, or should you just pause and take a break? Go watch a movie, you’ve earned it.” And that was the moment for me to say, “Okay, I know that I can push myself a little bit, I know that I could do it, but I’m gonna not do that. I’m gonna protect myself from myself. I’m going to stick to my goal of ‘You’re done for the day, so just go take a nap, go do whatever.” And in doing that, I felt great the next day. Yesterday was a super-productive day because I took care of myself the day before. And that’s the thing that is hard to (at least hard for me) remember, is that when you take care of yourself, you’re doing future you a favor.
For example, yesterday I pushed myself maybe a little bit more than I should have, and today I’m a little more tired as a result of it, you know?
Burning the oil, as they say. The midnight oil, right?
Yeah, yeah. And the more I take care of myself, the more able I am to do better the next day… So it’s not be being lazy or unproductive, it’s me paying it forward to myself.
Let me empathize with you a little bit, because when you were sharing your list, I can’t say that there wasn’t a time in my life where I didn’t have a similar list. I had a similar list where I was like “Brush your teeth.” Things any normal human being that is just – I don’t know how to describe the word “normal” in that case… But just more like people who do day-to-day activities on the norm, that is not a big deal to them. For me, I was in a position like that at one point, and I can say that I had a similar list, where it was like “Get out of bed.” I didn’t recognize it was depression at the time; I was in a crisis moment, I suppose, in my life, and I had to remind myself of the most basic tasks. But if it wasn’t for that list, honestly, I wouldn’t have encouraged myself to get out of that spot.
It’s kind of crazy to just think how that depression or anxiety can really take over somebody’s mind and transform them from not really the person they are - because I’m an ambitious, outgoing, striving person, and in that moment in my life I was very weak. Very weak.
Yeah. I think that was the most terrifying part of it - just not being able to recognize myself, and just looking in the mirror and going “I don’t know who this person is.” I’m very similar to you - very outgoing, very extroverted, really hard-working, really determined, really passionate, and all that was just gone. I was just a shell. All of that was completely gone, and I felt very out of control with my situation. And to me, control is very important, and the idea that there’s this other thing that was essentially taking over for me was infuriating and frustrating. So for me, my tool of getting that control back was tracking my time… But yeah, I know exactly what you’re talking about.
[20:14] Organization. I like that. Organization as a tool to get back. I mean, again, that seems logical. That seems logical, right? That should have been the first choice. But hey, it always takes us a lot to get there.
Yeah. No, you made your list; that’s basically the same thing, right?
Yeah. Well, I wanna go back to Codeland here in a second, but I wanna ask you - is there anything in regards to the conference that’s around mental health, since this is something that seems to be on your mind, so to speak?
Yeah. We have a talk actually – I can’t remember what the title is, but it’s basically the story of one of our speakers, and how he dealt with a lot of mental health issues, a lot of depression, and how he was able to manage that, navigate that as part of his coding journey. So yeah, we’ve got a talk exactly on that topic. We’re working together on crafting that topic and shaping it, and so far it sounds – it’s gonna be really good; it’s gonna be super-inspirational, really (I think) validating for a lot of people who (I think) are going through that kind of thing, so I’m super-excited about it.
One of the things, honestly, that made me a little sad is – so we had a CFP, and when I was reviewing the proposals, so many people mentioned depression as part of their coding journey. A lot of people said “I was in a rough spot, and coding either helped me out of it, or it was a good distraction”, and there was a lot, a lot of talk about mental health. And on the one hand it’s sad, I don’t want people to feel that way, but on the other hand I wish we talked about that stuff more… Because I think a lot of people who are suffering by themselves will realize that it’s not just them, and that if other people can manage it… I’ve been pretty good at managing it; especially in the last few months, it is manageable, it is doable. It might take medication, it might take time, but it doesn’t have to be the end. So that made me sad, but I also – I like to talk about mental health, because I wanna normalize it, and I want people to feel like it’s not just them struggling, because a lot of people are dealing with it.
I wanna say we agree, as a matter of fact. I’ve been noticing this more and more, similar to what you’re saying, and I happen to have a friend who’s a doctor in clinical psychology… And I was like “Hey, would you like to do a podcast with me?” So we’re starting a podcast called Brain Science; it’s for the curious. We’re gonna explore the inner workings of the human brain; we wanna understand things like we’re talking about here - mental health, behavior change, habit formation. This thing we call the human condition. It’s not just about the brain and what we know about the brain, but it’s like “What can we learn about the brain to transform our lives? How can we rationalize when we lash out at someone, or we’re not our best self? Let’s figure out from a biological state why our brain is the way it is, and why we think the way we think, and potentially why we make certain choices.”
Absolutely. Yeah, I love that. That sounds like a great show.
Let’s go back to Codeland. You were mentioning Abby, you were mentioning organization… Let’s dive deep into the organizational process of a conference like this. How many attend? Where is it at? Give me the rough stats, the outer fringes, and kind of go into how you organize all of it.
[23:31] Sure. So for the last two years our conference was about 300 people. This year we are going bigger, we’re at 600-700 people, so we’ll be doubling in size. I’m super-excited about that. I’m really excited to have more people there, and the price point is actually lower this year. Our tickets start at $99, and that includes breakfast, lunch and dinner, after-party, complementary childcare, snacks - all that. So I’m really hoping this is a very affordable ticket for folks, a very affordable conference, very accessible… And it’s happening in Skirball, which is at NYU; it’s a beautiful, gorgeous theater. It’s a very professional theater. Kevin Hart had one of his comedy specials (Grown Little Man) at that place, so it’s a very gorgeous, very professional–
I love Kevin Hart.
He’s so funny. So yeah, I’m really pumped about it. It’s a one-day conference, it’s a mix of talks and workshops, and this year we’re gonna do an after-party with not one, but two VR stations, so we’re gonna allow people to kind of try that out… So yeah, I’m really excited about it.
VR stations… Is that virtual reality?
Okay, just making sure I’m on the same VR here.
Yeah. We did it last year, and it was such a good hit. It was amazing. People had just never tried it before, and we set it up; people got to watch it on the big screen, and it was just – I think the best part about doing VR is watching other people do VR. So it was good, it was a good time.
You can lurk and be entertained, or you can do it and be entertained.
Yes, exactly. Either way you win.
Do they pair up, or is it one person doing the VR by themselves, in their own virtual reality?
It will be two different people doing their own thing, their own little world.
Interesting. Well, let’s talk about the details of organizing. You mentioned you loved spreadsheets, so I can only imagine the spreadsheets you have for organizing Codeland…
Tell me about Abby - how did you meet Abby? Who runs this conference - is it simply you, is it you and Abby? What are some of the moving parts here?
Yeah, good question. Abby I’ve known for a number of years now. We first got connected when I was a speaker at RubyConf; I think this was five years ago now… And she’s the point of contact for all conference things, so she and I interacted via email. Then I was on the programming committee for (I think it was) RailsConf a couple years back, so we interacted that way… And then when I started Codeland, I got a lot of really great advice from her, I got templates from her, where she helped me out and helped me navigate the conference scene, and it was really great to talk to.
So we’d been kind of acquaintances for a while, and worked on some things for a while, and then when I was thinking about doing Codeland again this year, I said to myself “I really need help.” There are just too many things going on, and I need to have someone who knows what they’re doing, who can just jump in and get started, and I thought myself “Oh, it’d be so cool if I could work with Abby. It’d be so much fun, and she’d be so good at it…” So I reached out to her and I said, “Hey, can I hire you to do some contract work and kind of help me with all the stuff I don’t wanna do?” And she said “Yes, because I love…” – the stuff that I hate doing, she loves doing.
So it worked out really well.
Those are the best partnerships, honestly.
Right?! Oh, the best partnerships. And it’s funny, because I’ll ask her to do something - I’ll say like “Hey, do you mind making a spreadsheet about this?”, and I feel bad, because I hate doing it, and she’ll go “Yeah, it’ll be awesome!” And she does it in ten minutes. She loves the things I hate. It’s great.
But I think her official title with me is Event Consultant. She contracts for us. But otherwise, it’s officially produced by CodeNewbie. I’m the Conference Chair, I think is the official title of that. But it’s been great working with her. She puts in a good ton of time into this conference… So yeah, it’s been good.
Last year’s conference was organized by you…
Yeah. I had some help… I had a woman who was basically the assistant producer, so she helped with a bunch of the logistics, and stuff… But yeah, it was just the two of us last year.
Gosh, I can’t even imagine organizing not only all the thoughtful things you wanna do, but the necessary things; the things that people take for granted almost. Like “Oh, there’s coffee and water at the breaks.” Or like you said before, have a hotel room to stay in tonight for speakers. What did you go through – I think you mentioned before the list that you made over the years of attending conferences and speaking at conferences, but what are some of the things that were very specific, that you wanted to make sure that you had involved?
[27:55] Sure. So the good thing is the first two years we were located at Microsoft, so Microsoft was our venue sponsor, and that made things a lot easier, because frankly, there weren’t many options of what we could do with the conference. For example, they had all their A/V already laid out, they had a person for that, they had their conference room set up, they had their in-house catering team… So a lot of things we just kind of had to agree to what they were doing, so it made conference organizing a lot easier, because I didn’t have to bring in chairs, for example. That’s one thing that blew my mind. We were thinking about doing Codeland in SF - this was last year, I think - and so I went to a bunch of different venues, and there were so many venues that is just literally one big room. That’s it. You get no projector, you get no chairs, you get no tables, you get nothing. And you have to bring in everything yourself. So I felt very lucky I didn’t have to do any of that, and I could go to a place where a lot of that was already set up for me. That was hugely helpful. Then I could focus on the conference experience, versus worrying about the conference venue.
This year is different because we are at a different venue, so now we do have to worry about some of that stuff a little bit more… But it all starts frankly with the calendar, it all starts just mapping out on a high-level “Here are the goals for each month”, roughly, from the moment you book the venue to the conference date itself. “Within each month, here are the different…” – there’s almost like different tracks. There’s the CFP track, that includes creating the CFP, publicizing it, having it open, reviewing it, making the final selection, and then booking initial speaker agreements and all that with speakers. So that’s one track.
And then overlapping some of that is ticket sales. So is there gonna be an early bird? Is there gonna be a presale? Is there gonna be a regular registration, late registration? And then there’s a timeline specifically for that.
There is vendors, which is like a whole separate project. What kind of equipment do we need? What kind of vendors do we need to book? When do they need final numbers by? When do we need to put in final orders by? How are we gonna get it shipped? Shipping is a whole other project. Where do we ship it to? Where do we store it? How do we get access to it?
Once the CFP is over, there’s the Working With Speakers track. There’s how do you do the initial kickoff call… I do three touch points with every speaker. We go through the talk outline together, then we go through the slides together, and then we do a rehearsal together. There’s a period where we do one week of initial calls, one week of slides, one week of rehearsals, and then that’s kind of it for the speaker tracks. So there are all these kind of different tracks that need to be mapped out on the calendar, so when Abby and I meet every Monday, we start off by doing a calendar check… By saying, “Okay, what does the calendar look like for the next 30 days? Is there anything we need to move? Is there anything we forgot about?” And as we move month-to-month, the details become a little bit more obvious. We realize that in order to do the speaker calls, first we need to make sure the spreadsheet is updated with all the speaker info. We need to make sure the speakers info is on the website. So a lot of those little details show up once you’re a little bit closer to them.
There’s so many details in there, and as you’re making this list I’m just thinking how I would personally get lost in the details… [laughter] Which is why I haven’t made a conference yet. It’s so daunting to me. I want to do it, and I aspire to do it at some point, and we will do it…
You should do it. A Changelog conference?
Something… We’ve got some ideas.
Yeah, who knows…? I don’t know if it’s about ChangeConf, but… I feel like I would get lost in the details. I don’t know how you do it. I’m just in awe.
[31:34] The good thing is – frankly, it may look like I’m good at details, but I’m actually not, so I compensate for it by taking a ton of notes. That’s my way of doing things. Abby is an incredibly detail-oriented person. She’s really good at remembering all the little things, and being on top of things. I’m much better at big picture stuff, and so in order to make sure I don’t get in my way, I document absolutely everything. I will repeat myself 100 times, I will confirm and reconfirm… I kind of created a system that won’t let me mess up, because it’s not my natural strength, you know?
Right. Now it makes more sense, because you’ve got such a rigorous method to hold yourself accountable on the daily in terms of how you spend your hours… That seems like for you in particular the only way you can be successful in the day-to-day, because of how much you have going on.
Yeah. It got to a point where I don’t – I used to do a separate to-do list on a piece of paper, but I kept forgetting to do things on my to-do list, so now I use my calendar on my to-do list, and as my time tracker. So if you ask me to do anything, I won’t end the call until it’s on my calendar to do at some point in the future. And if that to-do list moves, that’s fine; that task can move around, but it needs to be documented on the calendar, otherwise it’s not real and it won’t happen.
So more than being organized, it’s being very aware of the things that I keep messing up, and doing my best to revisit my systems, and compensate for those, and make sure they don’t happen again.
I bet when we were scheduling this I said “Hey, I’ll follow up on the bit with the calendar”, and you were like “Yes…!”
[laughs] Yeah, I was!
“Adam’s my dude…!”
I was so excited about that. [laughs]
[33:15]You were like “I can’t wait to get it so I can say yes to it and it goes in my calender!” But in the meantime I’m putting my own there…
That’s exactly what happened.
I said, “Okay, I’m gonna put a hold in this spot, and then once I get the calendar invite, I’m gonna move my hold.” So yes, nailed it.
Right. That’s why I’m like “Can we reserve this spot?” Because had something competing for this time…
…and then I won.
…and I was like “Let me reserve it with you”, because I could tell based on how you were corresponding that you were very clear with your timeframes, and stuff. I’m like “You know what, I’m gonna respect that. I get that, because I’m like that, too.” And when you’re in that mode with somebody, you have to give certain people feedback, which almost leads into the feedback loop of a conference really, and how you organize this thing… Because people come there and expect certain things, and there’s this likability to a conference, this relatability to a conference, and potentially even this – I don’t know if “invitability” is a word or not, but this feeling of being welcomed, right? You wanna have a place where you can go and be, and that’s what I wanted to do for you; I was like, I wanna make sure you know you’re invited, for one; I can tell you’d probably appreciate a calendar invite, plus it solidifies things, so I’m sure that was music to your ears.
Let’s talk about just that - being invitational, being inclusive. Let’s walk through some of the things in particular you’ve done with this conference to be inclusive to newbies. Who are we trying to be inclusive to? What does that mean to you?
We are being inclusive to new programmers, people who are learning to code, and also people who are first-time conference goes. For us, Codeland is usually the first conference people have gone to - the first tech conference anyway - and tech conferences can be very intimidating, they can be kind of… Honestly, they can be a little cliquey. Even when I go to conferences, there are people I look forward to seeing every time, which means there’s a cliqueyness to it… Not in a mean way, but just kind of the reality of the situation. So we wanted to make sure that, whether it was your first time, your second time, whether you knew people or you didn’t, that you were gonna have a good time and you were gonna be able to follow along.
I think with a tech conference it is so easy to get lots. It’s easy to get lost during the talks themselves, it’s easy to get lost throughout the flow of the conference; when you’re trying to eat, it’s literally easy to not know where to sit, who to sit with, that sort of thing… So we did a couple things very intentionally to avoid that feeling of being lost. Because when you feel lost, you don’t feel welcome anymore.
[35:38] And so one of the things that we did is we have an MC. I think all conferences should have an MC. There should be a person who’s essentially your tour guide. They’re literally your guide from the beginning of the conference, when you first get there and they’re walking you through every single step of it; they’re providing that cohesion, they’re providing that overarching narrative. I think that is super, super-important.
We have a guy, Nikhil Paul who’s an amazing MC; he does a bunch of workshops and events and conferences, and he does a great job of getting people pumped, of saying “Welcome! This is wonderful! So excited you’re here!”, and reiterating that in between every talk. He does these dance breaks, his Bollywood dance breaks; they’re just so much fun, and it gets people energized and pumped. He has these little jokes… He just does a great job of keeping that energy and that message consistent throughout the conference. So that’s a big part of making sure people don’t feel lost.
We have that for all of our talks, all of our workshops, and it’s been a wonderful way of saying “We’re not gonna lose you, and we’re not gonna let you get lost here. Here’s literally the tools you need to follow along every single part of the conference.”
I love that. The MC being the person leading things in terms of like a face, the empathetic side of things, connecting with somebody, relationship…
And then this idea of this booklet. When you said 100 pages, I was like “What?!” That’s a lot of pages. But with the detail you’re putting in there, it makes sense. It’s a guide for somebody to sit down in every talk and not feel lost, and have some map to following along. Whose idea was that?
That was my idea. The story behind that was I was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness; I’m not a Jehovah’s Witness anymore, I don’t practice or anything, but I was raised that way… And the way Jehovah’s Witnesses do Bible studies, and - they don’t call it church, they call it Kingdom Hall - is you’re always following along in a book, always. Whether the book is a Bible, or it’s a different type of book, when the elder (they call it elders, not priests) is speaking, when they are explaining anything, you always have a scripture to reference, you always have a paragraph to reference, so it’s a very active sort of learning. You’re not just kind of sitting there and getting emotionally excited, you are also learning; you’re learning, you’re reading, you’re studying something. And that always stuck with me.
I always appreciated the fact that it wasn’t just kind of accepting information, it was being an active member, a part of that. So that’s where I got the idea from. I said “When people are listening to a talk, I want them to have that same active learning experience.”
I’m also personally very bad at attending a conference and just sitting still. I have to fiddle with something; I’m usually doodling or doing something active with myself, so I said to myself giving people something to do, whether it’s taking notes – and there’s a note section actually for every talk as well.
Oh, that’s good…
Yeah, so you can take notes, you can highlight stuff, you can follow along… So that to me felt like just a great tool for people to have.
Let me share maybe a bad side of me then, because while I love the note section, I’m the kind of person who would not want to destroy the beautiful book you made, and I wouldn’t write in it. But that’s me.
I would probably then open my phone and take notes digitally.
Yeah, that’s okay…
I’m not saying that’s a good way, but… I love that.
Can we talk about the business side of this a little bit?
Oh, yeah. Let’s do it.
There’s a lot of risk, I would say… Maybe now you’re – you’re three years in, is that right?
It’s our third year.
Okay, so I was thinking two for a bit there, so if I said two, that’s why; I was thinking it was just two years, and it’s three years. My bad.
Running a conference is a lot of risk. You’ve gotta put all these rooms up… There’s probably a gigantic balance sheet you’re just chiseling away to eventually get to zero, or get to a larger number, if you’re counting down to where you’re trying to get back to where you’re – you know what I’m trying to say, in terms of balancing things… Let’s talk about the financials.
You’ve got CodeNewbie, you’ve got Codeland… How do you do what you do and not have to work somewhere else and make money? How do you make money and run this conference and make it sustainable?
Yeah, sustainability is very important. When it comes to the business side, I’m always optimizing for sustainability. I’m not a conference organizer that will do anything for a conference. I’m not gonna go into debt, I’m not gonna go into credit card debt, I’m not gonna put myself in financial risk if I can help it.
The advice I got from other conference organizers is to make sure that ticket sales cover the cost of the conference, and then to have sponsors give you profit. That was always the model, making sure the ticket prices could – assuming you sell out or come close to selling out, making sure that covers your costs. So that’s how we were able to price the tickets. But that’s also why we were very intentional about how we spent our dollars.
The biggest cost to us besides food is probably speakers, covering speaker costs. That to me is non-negotiable.
I think it is ridiculous to have a speaker speak at your conference and then have to pay their way to get there. That doesn’t make any sense… So we pay for all of our speakers’ travel, and we have a speaker budget for that.
Then the other thing that we do is we cut out the stuff that doesn’t really matter. A lot of conferences do T-shirts. I don’t think T-shirts are very important. I think that paying $30-$35/shirt is not that valuable to attendees. Most people have so many conference T-shirts that it’s not valuable, it’s not gonna do anything, so we’re not gonna do that.
Swag bags - we have swag bags, mostly from sponsors giving stuff, but our swag bags are from totebags.com. They are the most generic, one-color, solid tote bags that we could find. We don’t do branded lanyards, any of that stuff… So we’re very intentional about how we spend our dollars and making sure we spend money in a way that actually makes the conference experience exciting and creates an impact in that way… So just being very cognizant and very frugal has been super-important.
This year it’s different because we have venue costs. We have two venues, because we needed a venue for the workshop and a venue for the talks. And frankly, we can’t raise our prices that much, because we’re going for people who aren’t developers yet; we’re going for people who want to become developers, so we wanna make sure it’s still financially accessible.
This year it’s definitely more financially risky compared to the last two years, because it’s a one-day conference instead of a two-day conference, primarily for financial reasons… Because if we did a two-day conference, we’d have to charge like $300 for a ticket, which is just way too much money.
[43:59] So this year I said to myself “I want it to stay affordable. I don’t want to increase the prices because our costs have increased”, so we’re basically taking a hit on that. We’re trusting that the sponsors will come in and help us bridge that gap and help us stay sustainable. But to give you an idea, our ticket prices now range from $99 to $169, depending on the different tiers, and stuff. The cost per person is for about $220 for someone to actually attend. That’s how much it costs us to put it on.
So tickets do not cover the costs of the conference anymore, but hopefully – and the way sponsorships are working out, I think we’re gonna be okay. But that’s definitely a risk we’re taking this year.
Yeah. What’s interesting about how you laid that out was that – and maybe something that is easily read between the lines… It seems like you’re willing to give up a little bit of your profit to enable this conference to be in the location it is, and have the venue spaces it does… So you’re actually taking a hit on your side in terms of profitability and personal financial gain when it comes to either sustaining, or running, or enjoying your life.
I think that’s pretty cool. I mean, not cool that you have to do it, but cool that you’re willing.
Yeah, definitely. I don’t think it makes sense to do a conference that is so expensive that it doesn’t reach your demographic. If you’re gonna make it for the people, you have to do it in a way that invites people and makes it very accessible and inclusive… So there are certain things that we’re just not willing to compromise on, and ticket price was one of them. We’re willing to compromise on the schedule, the fact that we went from two days to one day helps, but overall there’s always a balance to strike between the financial risk you’re willing to take, and then making sure it’s really accessible, and hopefully if we did things right, then we’ve done a good job with that balance.
In what way do you allow the sponsors or vendors to participate? Do they have lightning talks? Do they have an expo hall? What are some of the common components there when it comes to, as you said, tickets roughly the cost, and in this case this year it’s a little shallow of that, a little short of it… And then the vendors and/or sponsors are where your profit margins come in. How does that break down, in terms of what they do, what they get for whatever they give you?
Yeah, good question. They factor in or they participate in three different ways. Number one is definitely the expo hall. We have an expo hall for folks to get a nice, big table, and interact with people, have sign-ups, have giveaways… Basically, whatever they wanna do with that space, it’s totally fine with us.
A second way is we do have, I think for only our top-tier sponsors, we do give them time on stage, but it’s time that we work with them to make sure it doesn’t suck, and to make sure that it’s actually good and interesting. To give you an idea, last year GitHub was our tops sponsor, and so they had these three little breaks in-between talks, where they did a rap - a little bit of rap about Ruby, or something - they did a poem, and then they did like a short story.
So that was something we worked together on, and it was like a fun, little break. It wasn’t a very good rap song; it was funny to watch and be a part of that. So at the end of the day, sponsors are wonderful, we literally couldn’t do without them, but we wanna make sure it doesn’t feel like a sponsored conference in that way, so we’re very particular about the content we’ll allow, and all that.
Then the third way is do workshops. About half of our workshops are sponsored workshops, and that is probably the most authentic and the most high-impact way of engaging with the audience, because you’re literally teaching them. It’s not an ad, it’s not a promo, it’s “I am giving you education, I’m sharing something with you. I’m helping you build something that you didn’t know how to build.” So it’s a very authentic way, that works for both sides. It doesn’t feel compromised.
And similarly to the time on stage, we work directly with each sponsor. We make sure that the conference workshop makes sense, that it’s the right level, that it’s the right schedule, tempo, all that stuff. So those are the three ways that sponsors are engaged.
[48:07] Give me an example of a workshop then. If it’s a sponsored workshop, or something like that, is it something where for example Gatsby might come in and say “Getting started with Gatsby”?
Yeah, exactly. That’s a great example of it. Another one is Gatsby did a workshop on object-oriented programming. They said “Hey, we’re gonna use Ruby to understand what this is all about, why it makes sense, how you can use it in your projects…” So they did one on that.
We also had “Intro to Wordpress”, which is literally what it sounds like - what is Wordpress, how do you build a team for it, what does that look like, how does it feel to work on it, things like that. MongoDB is another sponsored one, where it was “Intro to MongoDB. Here’s how to set up that, and what that looks like”, and it’s a very organic – and actually, I think MongoDB was our most popular workshop, where people genuinely wanted to know how to use it. So yeah, it creates a really nice, organic way for people to engage and people to get value from it.
So if someone who wanted to produce conferences on the side came to you for advice, what would you say to them?
“Don’t do it!” [laughs]
That’s kind of a joke from earlier… But give some advice to would-be conference organizers out there. Should they do it? “Yes, but beware…” What are the hit list items that you go through to say “Pay attention to this, pay attention to that…”? I know we kind of went through a lot of it, but kind of hit the ones that are sort of most important to you.
Yeah. There are two things. The first is to think about the money as soon as you can. Don’t tell anyone you’re doing a conference, don’t promote it, don’t share it until you’ve figured out your finances. So figuring out what does that budget look like, how much money are you willing to spend, what does the cashflow look like… Because a lot of the sponsor dollars may not come in until after the conference is over, but you might have to pay – for example for us, we have to pay the first half, a deposit on our venue, we had to pay that months ago, before we had any ticket sales or anything come in… So are you okay being out several thousand dollars before the money comes in? What happens to your personal finances when the cashflow is kind of off? So I would have a very honest conversation about money first.
And then second is try and get that first sponsor before you announce anything, and figure out how hard is it to get that first sponsor. If you can’t get the first sponsor, assume that all the other sponsors will be a lot harder to get… So before you make it public, before you announce anything, figure out what the financial risk is gonna be, and then figure out who your first sponsor would be and how much you can get from that. Those are the two things I would focus on.
You make it seem so practical. I kind of wanna start organizing a conference as soon as we’re done with this call.
If you do, I’m here for you. I’ll guide you through, I’ll give you all my templates…
I feel so bad, we haven’t been to Codeland, and I don’t know why.
Well, you have a chance to change that.
I love New York City, by the way.
There you go, see?
The problem is, as planning for this call, was like “You know what - I wanna support Saron as well, I wanna be there… But that’s the worst week for me.”
[laughs] Because it’s vacation?
My daughter doesn’t live with me all year long, so I get her for the summer time, and those six weeks I get her is so precious to me, so I lock down in terms of external things like travel.
Good for you!
Now, it might be interesting to take her with me…
We have on-site childcare…
Well, she is 15, but I don’t know if I could trust her by herself in New York City… But anyways, it’s a whole different story. The point is that it could be a fun “workation” with her, or maybe not. I don’t know, I just try to lock down… But that’s why I may not make it this year, but I do wanna support you, and we have supported you; I’m sure we’ve tweeted about it, and at least from the sidelines cheered…
…but have not been there ourselves, so we apologize for that.
Well, that’s the thing - we have a pay-it-forward ticket that we establish specifically for folks who can’t make it or maybe it’s just not a good fit for them…
[52:01] Yeah, we have a pay-it-forward ticket. So the idea is we have an opportunity scholarship that allows folks to attend the conference who otherwise couldn’t financially afford to… So what we’re done is we’ve set up a ticket called Pay It Forward, and it basically helps buy a ticket for one of our opportunity scholars. So it’s a great fit for folks and companies who wanna support, but maybe it’s just not a good fit, not a good time, whatever the reason is, but who want to play a role in helping other people get there… So yeah, pay it forward.
Well, I’m gonna take a curveball here, because I wasn’t planning on doing this, but since you’ve mentioned it… I had no idea you could do this.
How about this - we’ll buy five tickets for people.
Wow…! That’s very kind of you.
We’ll buy five Pay It Forward tickets, and as soon as we’re done with this call, I’ll make sure we take care of that.
Thank you. And we’ll give you credit for that too, so you’ll be on our wall of amazing–
We just want people to be there. If we can’t, we want others to be there.
Thank you, that’s very kind of you. Very generous.
That’s awesome that you have this… Is that your idea? Is that something you borrowed from somebody? Where is this from?
This came from RubyConf and RailsConf. They have an opportunity scholarship. I think theirs is more focused around under-represented minorities, while ours is more about financial accessibility… But it’s the same idea, where they give a free ticket for folks who wanna attend, but may not be able to, for whatever reason. So yeah, we totally stole that from them.
I think the big difference is, depending on funds, we also cover travel… So we’ve covered bus tickets, hotel nights, that sort of thing in the past. So depending on how much we raise this year, hopefully we’ll be able to do that again.
Awesome. Well, I love that. As we’re tailing off here, let’s talk about some lessons learned. I know we’ve sort of talked through a lot of things, but as you look back over either CodeNewbie, starting a podcast, interfacing with your partner in Base.cs, which I forget her name, I’m so sorry…
Vaidehi Joshi. Talk about some lessons learned there. What are some of the biggest things you think you overcame to get to where you’re at? What are some big advices that you can give around the things you have accomplished?
There are two things. Number one, I think it’s really important to do everything yourself the first time.
Yeah. With the conference, and actually with everything - with the podcast, too - I got a lot of advice that said “Hey, you should get a team together. Even if it’s just volunteers, get a team, get people together, do it with a group of people.” I ignored that advice and I said “I’m gonna do everything myself”, because I wanted to really understand what it meant to put on a conference. I wanted to know how every part felt, I wanted to know what worked, what didn’t work. I had a very specific vision for the conference, and before doing it, I didn’t know what would affect that vision, either positively or negatively… So it was really important for me to do everything, and kind of see how the hotel we picked played a role in the vision of the conference, how did the food we pick inform the vision of the conference, how did it impact that…
So I really needed to be involved in every single part of it, so that I could tie it back to the vision. Now that I’ve done that, now I know what I can outsource. Now I know “Okay, as long as the hotel has these three things, I don’t need to worry about the hotel. I can have someone book it. I don’t need to do that anymore. As long as the speaker agreement generally has these five things, I don’t need to write the speaker agreements, I can have someone else do that.” So now that I know that, I can do a much more effective job of getting help and getting other people to do things, and being able to do things more efficiently.
Same thing with the podcast. The first time we did the podcast I did all the testing for it. When we decided we wanted to upgrade our equipment, I bought – I think it was 6 or 7 mics. I did over 150 audio tests, and I made a spreadsheet [laughs] of all the different variables…
I went into the mic and into the sound, and then finally ended up picking the mic the we have now. And I needed to go through that process of really understanding how things were gonna sound, so that I can really get a feel for it and really know what I was optimizing for… And it would have been really hard if I had just – I don’t know, just hired an audio engineer to just randomly pick a mic for me. So I think it’s really important to do things you’ve never done before - to do them fully yourself, and then outsource.
[56:11] And then the other thing - I think focusing is super-important. I’m really bad at focusing. As you mentioned, with all the things I do - we mentioned that earlier - I do a lot of stuff, and I do them at the same time, and it’s really hard for me to focus, but within each thing I focus enough so that I can create a process and a system around it. When I was doing the mic testing, I think I spent a month basically nothing but mic testing; that’s all I did, and I focused 100% on that. Out of that came a decision and a process that I can now use without really thinking hard about it.
Same thing with the conference. When we were doing the booklet I think we spent like a week or two doing basically nothing but the booklet, and focusing 100% on the just the booklet. And then afterwards we had a template that we can now use for the other years of the conference. So I think finding pockets of focus… Cal Newport calls that deep work, from his book Deep Work.
Yes, I love that book.
Yeah… Finding these pockets, these moments where you can just go all in on something, especially if it’s something you haven’t done before, I think is super-important.
I think people undervalue the flow, deep work, that whole process of getting lost in the details of this creative endeavor.
Yeah… It’s so hard to find it.
It is, gosh.
Because everything feels urgent all the time, especially when it comes in the form of an email; you feel like you need to respond to someone all the time, and so it’s hard to just say “Let’s just take a day, and we’re gonna do this one thing just for the day.” It’s tough.
Focus - I’m glad you said that, because actually from this show, doing this show, I learned that same lesson several years ago… I learned how important focus was, because we can’t – I’d rather do one thing really well than six things mediocre.
That’s the lesson I learned, basically… And it seems like that’s the exact same advice you’re giving here.
So what’s on the horizon for you then? Is there anything that’s unknown that you can share today? I know this is potentially an unexpected question for you… Is there anything that people don’t know about what you’re doing, what you have coming up? Any announcements? Is there early bird ticket sales? What is unknown out there that might be something you can talk through real quick?
Yeah, so as far as projects, we’re just focused on doing what we’ve been doing and trying not to add anything… Because there’s so many ideas that I have, so many things that I wanna do, that I’d love to get to, and I just need to just stop myself constantly and go “No, you’re already doing enough. Just do the things you’re doing well.” So right now we’re focusing on just doing what we’re doing, and doing it better and more efficiently.
But as far as Codeland goes, tickets are available now through July 22nd, but prices will go up on June 22nd, so make sure to get your tickets prior to that. And if you can’t go or don’t wanna go - which you should wanna go - you can always help someone else get there through the Pay It Forward ticket. So yeah, that’s about it.
Anything coming up for Command Line Heroes? You’ve got another season coming up?
Yes, we do have season three…
I love that show, by the way.
Isn’t it so good?! It’s so much fun to do that. Thank you.
You do a great job. I was really, really impressed with – not that I’m not impressed otherwise, but you did that show really well. You were the perfect host for it.
Thank you! I really appreciate that. It was a lot of fun. It’s fun because I’m a podcaster AND a technologist; I’m able to kind of give advice on both ends. We have a great production team. It’s actually a pretty big team that works on it… But it’s been a lot of fun to do.
We’re actively working on season three, and that should be coming out I wanna say in like a couple months, maybe like a month or two it should be coming out, so… Yeah, look out for that.
Nice. Well, Saron, it’s been a blast talking through CodeNewbie, Codeland, all the things you do…
I really appreciate you sharing the advice you’ve given, and then also for being vulnerable with sharing some of the things you’ve gone through and how you’ve come back from really down times in your life… That’s something that’s not always easy to share with the general public; I don’t know how often you do that, but that’s super-cool. I appreciate that.
[01:00:09.02] Yeah, I mean… It took me a year to accept it. It took me a year to say “Oh, this is a thing that you need to address. You can’t just weight-lift your way through this.” [laughs] So it took a while for me to accept that it’s not my fault, and to accept that taking medication doesn’t make me weak. There were so many psychological blockers to it that it really surprised me; it really surprised me that it took me a year to get there… But now that I feel like I have accepted it, and I’m comfortable with it, and I’m able to deal with it productively, now I feel comfortable sharing it… So thank you for giving me the platform to do so.
Yeah. And I wanna encourage you too on the mental health front if you’re ever doing it in that space around podcasts, or around the conference - I know you mentioned one of the talks there being a part of it - I’d love to find a way to cross over again; we love working with you, it’s always fun, and we seem to have similar spirits in terms of keeping our fellow developers healthy, especially from a mental state. That’s important to us as well.
Absolutely. Help is number one, for sure.
Yeah, absolutely. Well, Saron, thank you for your time today, I appreciate it.
Yeah, thanks for having me.
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