We put on Ruby for Good which turned out to be even more successful than we had hoped it would be. The biggest compliment we received from many of the attendees was that they were shocked to find out that this was the first year we had run it. We definitely learned a lot and will be able to run a much better conference next year. There were a lot of challenges and struggles with putting on the event, especially when working with a state institution but hopefully the notes I kept will help streamline that process next year.
It should be noted that Ruby for Good was the first “real” conference I’ve helped to organize. I say real because when I signed the contract with university housing I was personally responsible for over $7k. This was quite the contrast to our Retrocessions where we have never been on the hook for more than a couple hundred dollars. This turned out to be a much larger sense of stress than I thought it would be. We started with a signup form to see if there was interest and due to the number of people who committed via the form we decided to move forward. It turns out that expressing interest is much different than actually being interested and registering.
The conference was a learning experience on so many levels. Personally, I learned that I need to ask for help when I need it and not just assume that people are just going to help.
It was extremely hard to find projects. This could be attributed to the expression “you don’t know what you don’t know” as well as the issue of there being no such thing as a free lunch. We had a few people who were suspicious of our motives ie- “why do you want to build us stuff for free?” This was an easy solve; I gave the people who made contact with the various nonprofits and others some of my business cards (I work at a university) and to tell them it was a university organized event where university students were going to be working on projects to help the community… This wasn’t exactly true but it was something easily understandable and easy to relate to others. One of the other issues we encountered was the problem of having to deal with the bureaucracy of the institutions and them not having any technical people. It was funny, I would often see the email chains and how what we were offering slowly morphed into something else and then I’d get a call or email saying something like “when are you coming by to fix our printers and network our computers?”
The communication barrier to the non-profits should be much better in the future. A few of the non-profits we helped asked if we were going to do it again and offered to pitch what we do to other non-profits… apparently a lot of them are members of similar groups and they run in similar circles. Plus all the attendees have a better understanding of the event so hopefully when we ask them to tap their friends, families and other networks they have a better idea of what we can offer and the help we can provide.
Unfortunately, we did have a few projects disappear or morph into something we were not expecting at the last minute and we ended up scrambling for suitable projects for the various teams.
We were a little worried that peoples employers wouldn’t pay for them to attend and give time off for a conference where they were going to go work for free for someone else so we organized educational workshops. On the second day of the conference we had a workshop on testing effectively with Rspec, a workshop on building apis and one on angular. To give weight to workshops we were able to get someone from the rspec core team, a committer to the jsonapi project and an angular expert to lead the various workshops. It turned out that the workshops were not needed for people’s companies to support their people coming so we’re not sure if that is something we will do again next time or not. I think if we do have workshops that we will probably have them on the first day so the knowledge people learn can be immediately implemented.
###Other Write Ups
Some of the attendees wrote up blog posts of the event and I’ve tracked down two of theme here:
I’ll add more as I find them.
We sold out the 72 slots we had allocated and are debating making the event larger next year since we had a waiting list and we’ve gotten some great word of mouth. I would estimate that with last minute emergencies and no shows we had 65 show up.
We were afraid that sponsorship would be a difficult sell to companies as we were thinking that their take on the event would be along the lines of, “You want us to give you money so our developers can go work for free for someone else?” It turned out that it was unfounded and we had some amazing sponsors, Livingsocial, JIBE, Rackspace, CustomInk and the College of Humanities and Social Science at George Mason University.
The huge take away for us was that sponsorship is much like attendance, until you have the cheque in hand, things can change quickly. I’m sure anyone who has put on a conference understands this but to naive us it was a revelation.
We offered scholarships to the conference and we were blown away by the number of requests for assistance we received. Initially, due to the indetermined financial situation, we thought we were going to be unable to offer assistance which would have really sucked. A change in situation occurred that prevented some people who bought tickets from coming so they offered their tickets up to scholarship candidates. This led to the next problem, with so many applicants and a limited amount of help available to offer, how to decide to who to help? While it is easy to see people’s employment status or lack thereof, it is impossible to know their financial status. Put simply, a huge chunk of the country is having a difficult time financially so while someone might be employed, they may be supporting parents, siblings, have massive student loan debt or so on. The fairest thing to do was to assume that if people applied for help they were doing so out of need and not just to score a free ticket. We ended up offering a mix of partial scholarships and some full scholarships.
We ended up being slightly profitable and given the fact that I just moved to Colorado I found it especialy amusing that we ended up with 420 extra dollars (after rounding.)