There are times and places, great cities, that are remembered much more fondly than they were thought of at the time. Paris in the twenties when it was home to Hemingway, Picaso and Fitzgerald. Or San Francisco in the 50s when the beat generation migrated from New York to call it home. So impressionable were those years that the echo fuels future, lesser, generations for decades.
When you're in Portland, Oregon you can't help but think it might be such a place and the time. For what it will be remembered I have no idea, but everyone seems to be bursting with creativity and no one is content until they have done more.
If history does remember this place it will surely fail to mention the DoubleTree in Lloyd Center. In a city full of little pockets of food and culture, this is not one of them. Why then, am I waking up at 7am on the 14th floor?
You can call a cab here. You can call a cab in San Francisco too, it just won't actually show up. We called two cabs to bring 8 people across town and being out of San Francisco already for 3 days and acclimated to the promptness of Portland cab services I was quite upset that we had to wait nearly 20 minutes for them to arrive. We have a reservation at Paley's Place, a bistro on the other side town where two more of our troupe are already waiting.
We are a seemingly random collection of geeks brought together by Geoffrey Grosenbach, creator/owner of PeepCode. Once we arrive one side of the table is made up entirely of Pusher and it's CEO, Max Williams, is in the running for "most english man" I've ever met.
I am not the first to make this observation, there is a fake twitter account that echo's his posts called Mr FancyEnglishWords started by a former employee. The translations are quite entertaining.
"the sound of me eating jelly babies is apparently akin to 'an alien being sick'"
"The sound from one's consumption of soft gelatine sweets has been likened to that of an intergalactic being vomiting. HG Wells you are not!"
He vigorously cleans his water glass between fillings, a habit his co-founder Damien enjoys taunting him about, to which Max's only retort is to jokingly claim "some day someone will do this for me". After I give it some thought I realize that it might actually be true.
I ran through my talk twice in the hotel room, as I do with any talk I haven't given before. This talk is unique. I usually talk about code I've written, or code other people have written and I seem to be the only one fit to speak about. This talk is about some observations I've made lately, first discussed in a blog post I wrote while in Berlin.
At the time I wrote the article I was trying to work through some thoughts I'd been having and writing them all out is good way to do it. After Berlin the ideas have hardened and, as much as such ideas can be, been validated. Something in the article resonated and I was invited to speak, at 9:20am in the ballroom of the DoubleTree in Portland, Oregon.
Conferences are temporary artificial environments. They are constructed for a short time by a set of organizers and hired laborers. Without proper attention they are sterile and have the depth of character you might find of an airport bathroom. Over the last few years we've come to see a new breed of conference, an environment tailored to humans, to encourage culture and conversation.
People tend to rate conferences superficially. The choices that lay on the surface, like venue, are a focal point. I wasn't above this practice myself, writing off much of the potential of the Keepin' It Realtime conference before I even arrived. This was a mistake.
Being hungry I spend a lot of time talking about food while the drinks come out, so I shouldn't be so surprised when everyone looks, and Damien quite literally points, at me when the waitress asks for our food order.
"Can we just have whatever the chef would like to bring us?"
"How many courses?".
"What is the maximum number of courses?". A few people began to squirm, what was I getting them in to?
Boastfully, "We could keep you here all night honey. You could eat 12 courses."
I look her dead in the face "That sounds like a very reasonable number of courses". I was indignant, I was out to prove something. 12 courses, HA! That's nothing, why only last month I conquered more than 13 courses at the Yeatman in Portgual, with wine pairings!
The table does not share my adventurous spirit. Maybe adventurous is the wrong word, although it would have been like going on Safari.
We compromise on ordering the menu, the whole menu, with some plates being doubled at their discretion if they weren't easy enough to split 10 ways.
Airport convention centers and hotel ballrooms are hallmarks of large flaccid conferences. They are the easiest choice, so they are the most common choice. If you are running an event, and want to make very few decisions, these kinds of venues are the path of least resistance.
They can also be cheap, especially if you sell out the hotel with attendees.
What I realized here is that what makes a conference good has less to do with being in an alternative venue than being run by the kind of person that would consider an alternative venue in the first place. The intention actually matters more than the choice, at least in this case.
Most attendees will never know what goes in to running a good conference. You make hundreds of small decisions and a few big ones. The entire time you must keep, at the front of your mind, the goal of the conference. We get so fixated on the big decisions, like the venue, that we forget how important all the small decisions are. The staggering of talks, the length and placement of the breaks, hundreds of small unnoticed decisions.
The goal of Keepin it Realtime was to bring together people from different communities that were unlikely to have met otherwise. Realtime isn't new, there are lots of old salties here we can learn from, and they'd love to tell all these new node kids how this has all been done before and you're just doing it prettier.
Bringing people together is the first part, getting people talking is the next. People think conferences are about speakers. They aren't. They are about the conversations the attendees have with each other.
The talks are there to kick off that dialog. The quality of the talks, and their ordering, will have a noticeable effect on the conversations. That's why you treat speakers like royalty, the better you treat them the more pressure they feel to perform.
Plates and plates and plates. And as often as the plates come out, so do the drinks. I can feel a thirst, an itch, like a bug bite on the back of my neck I fantasize about scratching.
I quit drinking a few weeks ago. While my sobriety is young it has also been quite productive and most of the time I feel great. But not at times like this. I drink two 1 Liter bottles of sparkling water in an attempt to drown the bug bite.
Everyone else gets drunk, and it's wonderful. The conversation migrates with the alcohol; enlightening topics, the industry, various technologies we're all using or excited about and then to less flattering conversation culminating in the entire table playing the Google Suggestions Game.
The Google Suggestions Game is quite easy. Pull out your phone, or laptop, open http://www.google.com and enter various leading search terms.
"is it normal to"
"am I ok if"
"is it ok if"
"is it weird if"
"what should I do if"
The answers can be hilarious and are slightly different for everyone, a small glimpse in to what Google really thinks of you based on all that data they've been collecting.
is it normal to eat your period blood
is it normal to be sexually attracted to numbers
is it ok if your poop is green
As the game infects the table a thought enters my mind. It repeats over and over again until I'm forced to examine it's meaning and am still quite haunted by it.
"These are the brightest minds of our generation."
This conference was organized by the fine folks at &yet. While they all seem to have a hand in it the one who's eyes continue to wander the room, the one who seems to be making sure everything is always in it's place is Adam Brault. Conference organizers can smell our own and the person who's going to feel the worst if this fails, and the best if it succeeds is this man.
According to Adam my keynote went great. I'm not sure the difference between a keynote and a regular speaking slot and I'm not sure the other keynoters did either but that ignorance doesn't stop it from feeling like an honor.
Closing time. Geoffrey picks up the check. I can't help but feel like there is something to learn from that fact. While the rest of us are thinking about the evaluations of our respective companies PeepCode is busy making actual money. You can't pay the check in "internet money".
It takes 3 cabs to get us out. Only one of them is going to the closing party of the conference, the others have eaten too much and can barely walk. They will likely ask the concierge to wheel them up on the luggage cart to their rooms now that they lack basic human mobility. Amateurs.
The success or failure of a conference is best measured at it's closing party. If there isn't a crowd of people at one end dancing, gesturing for the music to grow louder while a crowd at the other end are talking furiously only pausing every now and then to ask why the music is so damn loud, you didn't run a good conference.
I found Adam at the party, looked around to observe the signs of success and yelled in to his ear, loud enough to break the music, that he'd done a great job.
As I congratulated Adam I can't help but feel a little jealous. I know what tomorrow morning will be like for him.
Adam will awaken with irremovable smile on his face, a victorious spring will infect his step that won't leave until evening. At about that time he'll start planning next year's conference.