LJ Archive

A Conference Primer with Gareth Greenaway

Shawn Powers

Issue #208, August 2011

Can't make it to a LinuxFest this year? Host your own!

Every time I attend a Linux conference, I'm reminded of one thing: I'm so glad I'm not in charge. I have a difficult time getting my family out the door to go to school on time every morning. The thought of arranging dozens of sessions, hundreds of volunteers and thousands of attendees is just overwhelming. I've always been quite certain every conference has a “nervous-breakdown room” where the people in charge go to rock back and forth in a fetal position a few times a day.

Although that might be true for many people, as it would certainly be for me, my opinion changed when I attended my first Southern California Linux Expo (SCALE) a couple years ago. There certainly was plenty of chaos to be had, but in the hallway outside the vendor area, I met Gareth Greenaway. Gareth was casually talking to the group of us from Linux Journal, sipping on a cup of coffee and wearing flip-flops. When I learned that he was one of the people in charge of SCALE, I figured he already had cracked and had just come from a fetal-ball-rocking session in the nervous-breakdown room. As it turns out, he's just really good at what he does. When we decided to do an issue on Community, I thought he would be the perfect person to interview about running a Linux conference. Thankfully, in his typically calm and casual way, he agreed.

SP: What is your job, specifically, when it comes to SCALE every year?

GG: Currently, I fill two roles within the SCALE organization. The first role is Conference Operations. This role is the primary contact between the venue and the SCALE “team”. In this capacity, I also deal with several of the vendors that make the show happen, such as the booth decorators.

The second role is that of Community Relations. This role is responsible for working with the community to get the word out about the show, working directly with the speakers' chairs to draw speaker submissions from community groups and projects, and directing the Community Relations committee's efforts to recruit dotORG exhibitors from the Free and Open Source community.

SP: Given a one-year calendar, could you describe the milestones and activities that take place to prepare for SCALE? If some things are planned more than a year in advance, mention those as well.

GG: The big milestones for the show include things like the dates for the Call for Presentations, when the Call for Presentations should open and when it should close. Other milestones are when attendee registration for the show should open, and when the “early-bird” registration should end and the ticket price should increase. We also have several milestones for behind-the-scenes tasks, such as the various committees submitting their budgets for the show, determining the placement of booths on the show floor, signing various contracts and so on.

Planning for the show usually begins around May or June. Around September is when we typically open up the Call for Presentations. In December, we open up the registration system, with the early-bird ticket prices going until around early January. The Call for Presentations closes near the end of December or early January. Around this time, things really get busy for most of the committees. [Note: the conference is usually scheduled to take place toward the end of February each year.]

SP: Most conferences charge an entry fee, accept sponsorships and get money from vendors for having booths on-site. Without divulging specific dollar amounts, what percentage of funding comes from what sources?

GG: Generally, a good portion of the funds that we need to host the show comes from our generous sponsors. Several of them return each year and have a regular presence on our show floor, and we greatly appreciate their support. We end up providing various discounts for our attendees to attend the show—these range from student discounts to discounts for various user groups and open-source projects.

SP: What is the most expensive part of putting on a Linux conference?

GG: There are a few aspects that could easily qualify for the most expensive part. The first is the show network, which is utilized by our exhibit floor, our show registration system, our show wireless networks and audio/video equipment used for monitoring talks. Each of these areas, including each booth on the show floor, ends up being a separate managed network. The downside is that providing this kind of network infrastructure can be very expensive, while the upside is that SCALE ends up with a rock-solid network.

The other aspect is our audio and visual equipment. We made the decision a few years back to handle the audio and visual equipment ourselves, realizing how expensive renting it directly from the venue can be. Luckily, we had some very talented individuals step forward and fill the need. Although we're handling this element ourselves, it still can end up being quite an expense, especially with the number of speaker sessions that we need to accommodate now. At the SCALE 9x Friday sessions, we had nine concurrent sessions running, each room with its own full A/V setup.

SP: What is the most difficult aspect of planning SCALE? And, what's the most rewarding?

GG: For me, the most difficult aspect is that the show lasts only a few days. We plan things out for almost a full year, and it often feels like it's over too quickly.

A few years ago, I jokingly said that it reminded me of a scene from one of my favorite movies, Brewster's Millions. The main character inherits millions of dollars and has to spend it all to get his full inheritance. Shortly after he gets his first inheritance, he has an interior designer design him an office, but it's never quite right. He explains to her that he wants to walk in and say “I want to die in this office!” Finally in one of the final scenes, after he's spent all his money and has nothing, Brewster walks into the office and exclaims “I want to die in this office.” Immediately after that, all the rented furniture is taken back and the office is torn down. This is always how I feel when SCALE is being packed up.

There are a few aspects about organizing SCALE that I consider especially rewarding. The first being the opportunity to help spread the word about many of the free and open-source projects that aren't able to be as vocal as some of the others. A few years ago, we invited the creators of the QIMO Project to attend SCALE as a dotORG exhibitor, and they ended up being one of the more-popular exhibitor booths during the show and gained quite a bit of exposure because of being at SCALE.

We've also given quite a few people who have never spoken at a conference the opportunity to speak. One of my favorite sessions that we've had at SCALE was a session that took place during our Friday sessions a few years back. The daughter of one of our volunteers, Larry Cafiero, and two daughters of Fedora/Red Hat contributor Karsten Wade, gave a talk on what they liked and disliked about free and open-source software. It was a great moment as these three young girls were explaining to a room full of adults, many of whom were developers, what the software should and shouldn't do.

SP: As someone who speaks at conferences, I know I'm horrible at getting talks submitted in time. I can't imagine I'm the only speaker with that tendency. Do you find it difficult to arrange quality sessions in a timely manner?

GG: We've put together a list of those speakers who are typically late, and as the deadline gets closer we send our goon squads to their homes, forcing them to go through the submission process! In all seriousness, it can be difficult, and we've had to resort to extending the call for papers a few times. Usually this works to our benefit though, as we see a flood of submissions for really great talks. Unfortunately, the flood of talks also leaves us with more talks than we can accommodate in the main conference. Fortunately, many of those talks end up being great candidates for the SCALE Friday sessions or the UpSCALE, our version of Ignite.

SP: Who is your dream speaker, and why?

GG: I really have two answers to this one. An obvious choice would be Linus Torvalds. I believe there is an unwritten rule somewhere that your event really can't be considered a true open-source event until you've had Linus speak. I'd imagine he's got a whole blessing he does too, a big ceremony and probably a closing dance number as well.

My other dream speaker isn't anyone in particular but all the people who don't think they have what it takes to speak at a conference. One of the things I love seeing at events is an overflowing room for an unknown speaker.

SP: What is the most stressful part of the planning process?

GG: The most stressful part is the last few weeks leading up to the show—wondering if everything is going to come together and wondering if anyone will show up. This is also when I start dreaming about all the things that could possibly go wrong. Usually the scenarios end up being pretty ridiculous though. One of those scenarios had the show taking place on a farm, with speakers giving talks in a chicken coop.

SP: How many people are involved in putting on SCALE (not including guest speakers)?

GG: There are roughly ten core members that work on the show each year, but that number is growing as more and more people get involved, which is really great to see, because new members bring new ideas and make sure that the show stays fresh and fun. It works very much like an open-source project—someone will see a missing or existing element that needs to be added or needs attention, then he or she jumps in. We've had several people start off simply as volunteers during the show, who are not core members of the team.

SP: How did SCALE start?

GG: Several years ago, I proposed to some members of the local Linux Users Group that we host a one-day event, with the idea of it being a gathering of the local LUGs in the area. We had speakers from the local LUGs giving presentations on a variety of topics, and exhibitors included LUG members showcasing their favorite open-source projects and a handful of local commercial companies with Linux-based products. We called the event LUGFest and ended up hosting the event four times, every six months.

While planning the fifth event, a member of one of the other local LUGs told me that some students at University of Southern California and University of California Los Angeles and members of the USCLUG and UCLALUG, respectively, were looking into the possibility of hosting a conference on the USC campus. I made contact with that team, and we ended up meeting, then planning out the first SCALE event. The first show was held at the Davidson conference center on the USC campus, and there were roughly 20 exhibitors and two speaker tracks.

Since then, we've hosted the show at various locations, expanded the speaker track to five concurrent sessions, added specialty Friday sessions and expanded the exhibitor floor to more than 100 exhibitor booths.

SP: You must be passionate about Linux to take on something like this. What's your story?

GG: I actually got involved with free and open-source software while looking for a job. I was hunting for a job as a computer programmer and came across one that sounded interesting. I ended up asking about their environment and was told that they used UNIX. I had never heard of UNIX, so I started doing some research and came across two free UNIXes, Linux and FreeBSD. I don't remember exactly why, but I ended up going the Linux route, and I ended up doing a Slackware install. After writing 40+ floppy disks, I had a Linux machine. That definitely was a different time. I can vividly remember the first time I set up an X graphical session—crouching under my desk, reaching up to the keyboard to hit the Enter key, because I had read horror stories of people blowing up their monitors. I wouldn't say I necessarily miss those days, but I do think it's important to realize and appreciate how far things have come.

Free and open-source software definitely has come a long way. It's given so many people so many opportunities to use and work with a variety of software that they otherwise wouldn't have had access to.

SP: How has the economy dip in recent years affected the turnout of both guests and vendors?

GG: When the economy dipped a few years ago, we definitely saw that reflected in many aspects of the show. For obvious reasons, many sponsors and commercial exhibitors were more reluctant to fund the show and have their employees host a booth. We saw fewer companies out at the show recruiting versus other years as well. One aspect that remains a constant, however, is our attendance. Many of us feared that with the economy in the position it was that we would see a downturn in the number of people who attended. While it didn't shoot up at all, it certainly didn't plummet, which was a pleasant surprise.

In recent years, as a hopeful sign that the economy is heading back to a more healthier place, we've seen an uptick in both sponsorship and attendance. This past SCALE (SCALE 9x), we saw quite a jump in the number of attendees that came out for the show as well as the number of exhibitors.

SP: Many are wondering if there's a place for a major national show again—a LinuxWorld circa 1998—or if the trend is toward regional community-driven events like SCALE. What are your thoughts?

GG: I think the time for commercially driven events has passed, and now it's the time for community events. That being said, I think having a governing organization for national or international events could be an interesting and important addition. The community events are so successful because of the passion for the subject that the organizers bring to the table. There definitely is a different dynamic when people work on something for a paycheck vs. for the love of it. I'm not against people being paid for their work on free and open-source software or events, but it shouldn't just be about the paycheck.

SP: How do you arrange the session schedule? Is it your fault when two sessions I want to go to occur at the same time? That said, is there a certain methodology or software that helps arrange tracks to minimize topic overlap?

GG: We do our best to arrange the talks in a way that two talks we think will be popular don't overlap. Unfortunately, we're not always right. We've definitely had some talks that were wildly popular, with attendees spilling out into the hallways and sitting in the aisles. That being said, it's absolutely my fault when there are two sessions that you want to go to occur at the same time.

SP: Share some experiences or details that would be surprising for those not familiar with planning and running a Linux conference.

GG: One thing that always surprises everyone about SCALE is that everyone involved is a volunteer; no one is paid to work on the show.

Advice I would give to others wanting to plan a similar event would be to start small and definitely not try to do everything yourself. When dealing with vendors and any venues, make sure to get everything in writing. And, if you're holding an event at a hotel, be sure to account for the 20% service charge that gets charged to everything!

One of the most interesting experiences that I've had planning SCALE was the year the show ended up being the same weekend that a certain awards show takes place in Southern California. Before the show began, while hunting around the venue for a missing package for one of sponsors, I ended up in the room where the awards show tickets were being stored. Following the show, buildings surrounding the venue were topped with snipers as a form of security for the awards show.

SP: What advice can you give to someone who is (or readers who are?) considering starting a regional event themselves?

GG: Start small, don't try to do too much the first year.

Make sure roles and responsibilities are well defined and well communicated. Nothing is worse than having too many cooks in the kitchen all trying to do the same thing.

Take chances, and allow others to make mistakes. The event doesn't need to be absolutely perfect, and it won't be.

Don't take things personally. People are going to complain; it's just a fact of life. Be polite, and listen to what they have to say. There likely will be some useful information in the complaints.

Open communication is key. It definitely should be a team effort.

SP: As always, Gareth, speaking with you was great. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us. And, to LJ readers, if you've ever considered starting a community event, I'd highly recommend attending one of the regional events in your area. Talk to the people who make conferences happen; they even might be willing to give you some advice. And, if you're ever in Southern California in late February, be sure to come to SCALE! Tell Gareth we sent you. If you're planning to speak at or attend a Linux event in the future, see the sidebars to this article for some tips from myself and editors Kyle Rankin and Bill Childers.

Shawn Powers is the Associate Editor for Linux Journal. He's also the Gadget Guy for LinuxJournal.com, and he has an interesting collection of vintage Garfield coffee mugs. Don't let his silly hairdo fool you, he's a pretty ordinary guy and can be reached via e-mail at info@linuxjournal.com. Or, swing by the #linuxjournal IRC channel on Freenode.net.

LJ Archive