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July 22, 2019 · 22 min read

Organizing a tech conference; advice from the pros with Sarah Withee and Colin Dean

Tech conference veterans Sarah Withee and Colin Dean joined Ledge in this episode to talk about their combined dozen years of organizing tech conferences, what they personally get out of it, and the value the events provide when done well. We talked through all the stakeholder groups, how to take good care of them, and how to think about budgeting, speakers, and more.

Colin and Sarah are two members of the conference team in Pittsburgh coming up in August 2019 where over 2000 software pros of all types will convene for learning, community, and more. Tickets are still available so don’t miss it. And don’t miss this episode for evergreen advice on running great conferences when you get the itch to start your own.

Sarah Withee

Engineer at Code & Supply

Sarah Withee is a polyglot software engineer, public speaker, teacher and mentor, and hardware and robot tinkerer located in Pittsburgh, PA. She has a passion for technology and has ever since she wrote her first computer programs in elementary school. She captivates audiences with both popular and powerful technical and anecdotal talks. She gives workshops to teach programming and hardware building to women in tech, as well as to students of all ages. She’s mentored middle and high school robotics teams to world championships. She’s even co-organized six conferences and is the director of programming for Abstractions II conference.

Colin Dean

Engineer at Code & Supply

Colin Dean is a software engineer and community builder based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA. He’s worked with Code & Supply  since its inception and heads operations for the non-profit Code & Supply Scholarship Fund.

He’s also president of Meta Mesh Wireless Communities. Colin has organized large events since 2002, including tech conferences Steel City Ruby, devopsdays Pittsburgh, Uptime, Heartifacts, and, of course, Abstractions. By day, he’s a software engineer at Target’s Data Sciences division. 

Read transcript

Ledge: Colin and Sarah, it is so cool to have you on. Thanks for joining.

Sarah: Thanks for having us.

Colin: Yeah, thanks.

Ledge: If you don’t mind, just for the audience that doesn’t know you guys, maybe give a quick little intro one at a time there. Just one or two minutes about yourself, your background, and what brought you here.

Sarah: Sure. My name is Sarah Withee. I’m a software engineer. I live in Pittsburgh. I’ve worked on a variety of different jobs over the years, but presently I am a Director of Programming for Abstractions Conference, which is a conference coming up in August.

It’s going to be about 2000 people. That’s mostly why I’m here today.

Colin: I’m Colin Dean. I’m also a software engineer and have been involved in conferences in Pittsburgh for many years. I think I’m coming up on seven years, but I’ve been running events in Pittsburgh for about 15 years.

Got involved in Code & Supply in 2014 when I was just getting started. I’ve been the right or the left hand of the man who runs it, depending on if I’ve asked for permission or not, ever since.

Ledge: Excellent. Sarah and I got to chatting. We’re the Podcast Café Slack group. So any of you podcasters out there who are doing the tech podcasting, certainly hit me up there because we have a great little group of Slackers who are talking about podcasting.

We got to chatting around there, and we were chatting about Sarah’s work with the Abstractions Conference, and she pulled in Colin.

I wanted to know, hey, what’s this all about? Tech and software conferences abound, so what’s the unique look here? Two thousand people is a lot. Lots of engineers. Lots of cool stuff. Just tell us about the event.

Colin: We’ll have 2000 people, is what we’re planning for. This is the second year for Abstractions. Our first year was 2016 where we had about 1700 people in total. We’d been shooting for about 1500 that year. 2016 had about 115 talks. This time we’ll have more than 150.

We’re multidisciplinary, so we shoot for software folks all over the stack, all over the process as well. Its designers, developers, managers, CTOs. Sometimes founders. We don’t focus a whole lot on entrepreneurship but it does come out. We also want to see people who are doing support, IT, anybody who’s interested in the process of producing software.

Sarah: We’ve been working on the schedule for the past week or two, and I can say there’s definitely a wide variety. Every day is going to have a whole bunch of developer talks, a whole bunch of designer talks, DevOps talks. We do have a really, really good variety.

Those sessions are online now so you can go check out what we have.

Ledge: And that Is that right?

Sarah: Yes.

Ledge: Good guess, or good memory.

We were talking off-mike. Zoom out for a second. Conferences. There’s conferences all over the place. There so many stakeholders groups. I’m interested, being someone that thinks about the business side of all these things, you’ve got sponsors, attendees, speakers.

I’ve realized in my time, dancing around the edges of DevRel and speakership and podcasts and events, that there’s just so much going on there, and how all those work together.

I’d love if you would tell that story little bit. Take us behind the tech conference curtain, because I think it’s interesting.

Colin: The first and most obvious stakeholder is attendees. Those are the people who are putting the bread on the table for the organizers – depending on how much bread they’re taking from the table – and the people who are ultimately going to learn something and take that knowledge and do something with it.

Those are the ones who are going to forge new friendships. They’re the ones who are going to talk about you positively or negatively to your friends, family, social media, whatever.

The next stakeholder group is the second most obvious, and that’s speakers. You’ve got to have some content to present. Regardless of how you get speakers, whether your conference entirely invites all of their speakers themselves or they go through a CFP process, treating speakers well is an important thing because the people that your attendees are coming to see. Ultimately, as the producer of an event, it’s incumbent upon you to decide what the shape of that event is going to be. Choosing excellent speakers, choosing excellent content is ultimately what is going to make a break the event.

I think our next group worth talking about is sponsors. Abstractions and most Code & Supply events account for, anywhere from about 15 to 25% of our budget comes from sponsors. Sponsors are oftentimes wanting to sell to developers. So, a company like GitHub or GitLab that’s wanting to approach developers and their teams about using their services.

The other group is companies that are recruiting. Oftentimes, companies that are recruiting are local to where the conference is being held. Although, with the expansion of remote engineers and designers and other employees, over the last about five years we’ve seen a little bit of outreach from companies that are headquartered literally anywhere in the world who might be interested in recruiting at events in Pittsburgh and beyond.

Then there’s always sponsors who are just wanting to get their name out there. They’re wanting to be seen a little bit. We get a few of those per event. They’re generally smaller shops that maybe don’t have an interest. They want to derive value from having a table or having a talk.

Ledge: So you guys have done this a lot over the years. I’m just curious what you’ve learned. As a person that’s an activator, I love staring things, I love doing community things. It pops into my head here and there like, oh, yeah, we should do a conference or we should do an event.

I wonder, what are the personal motivations and lessons learned from doing this? I suspect that it is the kind of thing where each you go, “That was awesome, but I’m friggin’ exhausted and I need to take a little break.”

Sarah: I feel like I accidentally got into it. I went to a Women in Computing conference in 2011. One of the main organizers of that was one of my teachers at the time, and she was like, hey, we need a website person. Would you want to work on our next one?

So I ended up starting out as the web person for their next conference, but I ended up becoming one of their six chair-people of the whole event. Yeah, it was definitely exhausting, but it was really cool to be able to have an impact on all the attendees, especially since it was very much geared towards students and women in computing.

I stayed involved with them up until I moved out of the city that we were in and I moved into Pittsburgh. But I happened to know Justin, who’s one of the Code & Supply organizers. I met him once, coincidentally at a conference. in St. Louis. We became buds. We talked on Twitter every so often and I ended up landing the job in Pittsburgh and I moved here.

Almost immediately, Colin and Justin were both like, “Come. Come. Do things. Do things.”

Hartifax was a conference we ran last year, and it was within about two weeks that the event happened that I moved there and then immediately was in the event. I helped them out around the edges with that, and ended up being the MC for that event, because we needed a person that got along the single-track event. So that was kind of fun.

But yeah, it’s definitely exhausting but for me, I get a lot of energy back from it knowing that a lot of people get invigorated after a conference. Sometimes work gets really boring. It gets monotonous. You’re like, I don’t like my job any more, I don’t like my career anymore.

I think conferences, at least for me, help excite that back. Refresh me on the newest things going on. Remind me of why I really like software development in the first place, and why I want to keep doing it. Kind of refreshes me a bit from new content and visiting people I’ve met again. Just kind of re-excites me.

Ledge: It’s like the IRL community element is critically important to that excitement. I know my own work in non-profits and events, it’s rewarding from almost a different dimension of my brain. It feels like a break, but it’s a hard work break. You see that difference in the people that you impact and the relationships that you develop.

Colin, what do you have to add to that?

Colin: That’s exactly what I feel after it. I know after I go to conferences, I’ve always felt incredibly energized.

I distinctly remember the feeling that I felt after coming home from first tech conference, which was Ohio Linux Fest in 2007, I think. I was so empowered, so enabled, so encouraged to go forth and do some awesome stuff by the last speaker, ‘Maddog’ Hall, that I just wanted to go home and just attack the planet or something. So inspiring and encouraging to see, hey, here’s this world of people who are interested in doing this thing.

That was 12 years ago now. The sphere of social media has changed things considerably. The world is a lot ‘smaller’ so I can interact with those kinds of people a lot easier online, but there’s still no replacement for the feeling of talking to people and hearing what they have to say. Talking to people who’ve been around for a long time, and you wouldn’t otherwise know that they’ve been around for a long time were it not for a little bit of gray hair.

The information that you can get from people who’ve been around, as well as people who are brand new. I was at Ohio Linux Fest in 2017, I presented there, and I had this wonderful conversation with a kid who was still in college. He was going to OSU for computer science. Just to hear what he was talking about, what he was interested in, gave me a whole bunch of different things that I wanted to go look up.

I’ve been in this industry now for 12 years myself. I’m not going to ever know anything. Everybody brings something different to the table.

Ledge: Right. You can’t keep up with all the things.

Colin: To me, going to conferences is like plugging into a different internet. Plugging into a different matrix, but smaller. Where there’s a whole lot more signal than noise.

Expanding your bubble a bit, and some other cliché phrases.

Ultimately, you’re building knowledge and relationships with humans. All the software that we’re building is just meant to bring humans together. So if you can go a couple of times a year and commune with people in person, you can gain a lot from it. There are things you’re going to get from a conference that you will never, ever, ever get from social media.

Ledge: No doubt. I agree. It’s like that whole different feeling and community and all the stuff that happens. You often find people that, they’ll select a few speakers to go to but more often than not there’s a lot of folks that stand in the hallway the whole time and just hang out. Or, I only go to conferences for the stuff that happens after the conference. I always feel bad for the speakers that are in the morning, but everybody makes that joke.

Sarah: It’s been kind of interesting, because really random situations have led me to meet friends that I still am in touch with today.

At that very first conference I went to, I didn’t know anybody and had a question as soon as I got there. I found one of the volunteers and asked her a question. She led me around. She’s like, “Oh, wait. You went to the same school I did. Do you know so and so?” And she ended up showing me to a bunch of people, so I met some friends there that went to my school.

She and I ended up becoming best friends, and I still talk to her. She just went with me to Oslo a few weeks ago, which is pretty awesome.

Then, one person I met randomly at a conference in Baltimore, I think, she lives in Pittsburgh. We reconnected after I moved to Pittsburgh and we still hang out here.

So, I think the fact that we can… Sometimes you meet really random people that way and be able to connect with them like that, but also locally you have a certain bubble of people, and being able to go to a conference puts you in a different bubble of people. It may be a different bubble of people you don’t know or just think differently.

Ledge: Slightly overlapping Venn diagrams.

We’re teasing everybody, going, “I want to go now, this sounds awesome.”

I noticed on your website, I thought this was really cool, that you guys have a little calculator. Like, hey, need to get your company to pay for your ticket? Here’s how to justify the ROI. I didn’t open the tool but I wondered, what’s that about and how should folks make that pitch, like, please send me to a conference, I think it would be great for our company.

Justifying the budget. Not everybody can pay for this stuff out of their own pocket. It’s pricey to get the tickets and the flights and everything.

Colin: On the price, we would like to think that we are pretty much the least expensive or the most value for the dollar conference on the east coast of our size. There are a few conferences of our size that are less expensive, but they may be very sponsor-heavy. It’s basically sponsor messaging for the entire thing. Maybe 75 to 50% of their budget is sponsorship. So therefore, you’re going to be advertised to for the entire conference. You are the product, type thing.

Other conferences, maybe they are pretty bare bones. Their costs are literally just so the organizers don’t go bankrupt trying to throw the conference.

Code & Supply, we like to pay everybody who’s involved something. Sometimes we’re able to offer more to others than we would like to. Sometimes we’re still trying to find ways to increase what we are able to pay out.

This year, we decided to go with a pro ticket. The pro ticket costs a little bit more. There’s a whole lot more benefit to it. I think we calculated that it’s about $200 or more worth of value derived from the things we’ve included in the package.

That pro ticket helps us support the conference and support our other programs that we do as a part of that.

One such thing is our scholarship fund. Talking about outcomes, one gentleman got a really cool job after the 2016 event, and he was so impressed with our scholarship program that sent 57 people to the conference at little or no cost to them, that he gave us a massive donation to start this scholarship fund.

Now we have a non-profit organization, the Code & Supply Scholarship Fund. Entirely separate from our business perspective. We are now about two weeks away from our absolute deadline for Abstraction Scholarships, and we’ve already given out more than $15,000 to more than I think 35 people, so that they can come to the event for free or for very little.

We believe pretty strongly that nobody should be limited by their means or by their current situation. Whether that be temporary, whether it be permanent disability or just age. We’ll pay for retirees to come too. We want everybody to come and have a seat at the table and have exposure to opportunities that can produce the kinds of outcomes that make people happy.

To see somebody who has been thinking about leaving the industry, and the scholarship they get to the conference is their last ditch effort to reestablish themselves in the tech community, to rebuild their own confidence. They come, they get a job. Or they meet somebody who says, “Hey, yeah. Let’s go work on this project together.” They go and do something cool and it invigorates their love for their craft and for their field. I’ve seen that happen a few times now.

I’ve been interviewed by people that I’ve given scholarships to. That was really cool. To walk into an interview a few months ago and be like, “Hey, I know you. I gave you a scholarship five years ago.”

Ledge: You know that you probably made a big investment in them where you can see that, you’re right, that maybe that’s a fork in the road for somebody. Just saying, I needed that extra boost.

That’s got to be super rewarding to do that. I love that you guys have that in play.

Sarah: You had asked what are some reasons we could talk to our managers and have them hopefully pay for a conference. I’ve had managers in the past that look at it like, oh, you’re going on a vacation to so and so. It is fun to get away, but it is not a vacation by any means. You’re sitting in a room full of hundreds of other developers and you’re learning. It’s like school, in a way. I don’t know that anybody would call school a vacation by any means.

I alluded to this before, where you’re in your work environment, you’re usually working on the same things. You’re sort of in this little bit of a bubble. You can learn new things through books, you can learn new things through videos or whatever, but I think there’s something special about seeing something live. Having somebody explain like, hey, this is a new technology that does a cloud or whatever. Not just see an example of it work, but go up to the person who knows about this later and say, “Hey, I was curious. Can you use it for this? Can you explain more about that? Can you go over your example real quick? What happens if XYZ happens?” I like that ability to have that extra live.

Ledge: Sarah just had a cat walk literally under her microphone and push the entire thing up in her face. So those of you who are not on video, we’re just going to capture that moment because it was pretty awesome. She tried to keep a straight face, but…

Sarah: So, for those who don’t see, I have two 15 lb cats. They’re very large. They’re brothers. They’re adorable. They love me to pieces.

Ledge: They really love getting in your face.

Sarah: They very much love being all over me. I have this microphone on a microphone arm and so my cat just get up and, “I just want to rock in front of you.” I’m kind of used to it at this point.

Ledge: Total loss of train of thought, right? But the audience.

Colin: One thing I want to throw in there. I’ve had managers who wanted to treat conferences as a reward. Like, oh, we’re going to send you on this vacation or this reward for doing good work. That kind of thing ends up being the carrot on the end of the stick that’s very difficult to reach.

That kind of manager doesn’t expect you to get anything out of the conference. Maybe that’s because their own perspective on a conference is that it’s just a party. Maybe their own perspective is that they expect people to go and listen to lectures and then promptly forget everything.

When I was a manager, I required people to present on what they were learning from the conferences that they were being sent to.

Ledge: I was just going to say that. That it’s part of that; bring it back.

I would say, the first things that strikes me is that, if you’re going to invest in this you don’t send one person.

Colin: Yeah. You send your team.

Ledge: You send a team, because they can come back and you’re going to get not an additive effect, but you’re really going to get a multiplying effect. That each person can now riff… Because the worst thing to do is come back with one person all jazzed up and everybody else is still all kind of, waa, waa.

Colin: Yeah. Jealous. Especially for Abstractions when, with a little bit of sponsorship, with $1,000 sponsorship, you can send a team of eight people for I think it’s under $5,000. Maybe a little over $5,000. We raised prices about two weeks ago.

If you can spend less than $500 a person to send your entire team on effectively a team building experience, that is a very cheap team building experience, even if you only treat it from that. That’s less than the cost of like an offsite airfare.

Ledge: Well, and you’re bringing back real knowledge on your engineering team. Let’s not forget about that. People are going to be able to do things to advance your product and your business.

Colin: I look at some of the stuff I learned from a conference that I went to last January, January 2018. How I took those ideas and implemented them. My then team, there were things there that I would not have ever thought of that I then went and delivered business value for my company.

At the time, I had a manager who was not really keen on conferences. I don’t know why he hired somebody who he knows runs conferences, but that’s a story for another day.

Ledge: You talked about the signal and the noise and I think that that’s absolutely right. When you have a lot of signal, then you can go, look, you’re not going to bring back everything you saw at 16 different talks and all this stuff, but there’s going to be that one nugget somewhere that jumps out. Even if that prompted you to read one book or become aware of one expert who posts videos about anything, one little nugget there can make a huge difference for the business. That is easy to justify that $5,000 spend. No question.

Sarah: You’re basically paying to improve your team and to make better developers.

Ledge: We know that the best developers are the ones that are interested in professional development. If you have somebody that doesn’t want to go to conferences, or doesn’t want to sponsor conferences, this is a major flag in your organization too.

Colin: Right. As conference organizers, it’s incumbent upon us to make our event as approachable and inclusive as possible. We offer childcare.

Ledge: That’s super cool.

Colin: We don’t want people who have children to be excluded because childcare is expensive. We know childcare is excruciatingly expensive so, if we can provide relief from that for a couple of days, then that can be the cost of a ticket.

Ledge: Can I send my kids and not me, because that would be super cool? No, I’m just kidding. New feature.

Sarah: If you buy your kids a ticket? No.

Colin: There are some other conferences, notably CodeMash, that has a dedicated kids program. That’s absolutely outstanding, and that’s an entire separate conference for 700 kids. That’s outstanding.

Ledge: How cool is that. We all want our kids to learn how to code. This is the thing.

Before we go, I wanted to give you guys a chance, just direct-pitch the conference and what you’re looking for from attendees and ticket sales and whatever. Throw it out there so we can make sure the audience is aware.

Colin: Okay. We’ll do it from the top. Quick bullet points. is where you can see more information about the conference. That is August 21 through 23, 2019 in Pittsburgh, PA. Not Pittsburg California, Pittsburgh with an H.

You’ll be there with 2000 or more of your newest friends; 150 presenters. People that you have almost certainly heard of, as well as some people that I’m absolutely overjoyed to have and will be fanblowing] like crazy whenever they get up on stage. Sarah’s laughing because she knows exactly who I’m talking about.

Tickets start currently at 300. You can get a 10% discount if you buy multiples at a time. Sponsors get a 20% discount on tickets. We’ve got sponsorship packages that start at $1,000 and go all the way up to about $25,000.

We have a scholarship fund that we’re super proud of, You can apply or donate there. $350 dollars is our average award. We can pretty rightfully say $350 can change somebody’s life. It can set them down a new career path. It can set them down a more productive career path, and a variety of other things too.

We very strongly encourage people to go check that out. At least learn about it, even if you don’t apply or donate. Every little bit helps. We’ve currently got about a $12,000 deficit that we would love to have filled before the conference.

Ledge: Awesome. It sounds like it’s going to be a great event.

Sarah, you got anything to add there?

Sarah: I like that Abstractions… As a conference figure, I think I’d totaled it up. I’ve been to about 60 events and conferences over the years I’ve been speaking now. I like Abstractions because it’s a little bit different in the sense that, one, it’s multi-disciplinary. It’s not just developers, it’s the wide range of everything involved in the software process.

I like that we do a few other different things as well. We have some activities that are going on throughout the day. We’ve got everything from therapy dogs, we’ve had yoga for developers. We’ve got some other things going on.

As well, some talks that are just for fun. Some guy is going to do some live music coding – generative music from that. We have some really cool things going on there too.

It’s not just, come and learn all the JavaScripts. There’s going to be a wide range. I like that a lot of our talks are not just only all JavaScript all the time, or all Python all time, but we have a wide range of more abstract developer talks and more abstract things too. You can learn a lot of big picture as well as specific things too.

Colin: Celebrate new software and the people who make it. That’s how we build ourselves, and we still use that line from time to time. I like it a lot.

Celebration of software and the people who make it.

Ledge: Absolutely. Love that. Love that. Alright. We’re going to get it out there and make sure that people are aware.

It was super cool to have you guys on and talk about this. You’re obviously passionate about your conference and community building craft as well as your software craft. A lot of fun and I’m glad to have you on.

Sarah: Thanks for having us. I’ve enjoyed talking with you.

Colin: Yeah.