This post is more than two years old. As a result, it may contain information that's out of date or that I no longer agree with.
Posted 03 Jul 2018

Last week we held the tenth and final Open Source Bridge conference. It’s been a long, amazing experience for me, and I was struck by the warm and thoughtful conversations I heard throughout the day. When we first talked about the possibility of running our own community conference in 2008, I could not have imagined the arc of this story. Christie shared the history of the conference and our community she presented in her keynote, so I’m not going to rehash that — she included many of my own notes and recollections in her talk.

Instead, I thought it would be interesting to share what planning this year was like, some things I felt I did well over the history of the conference, and one regret. I’ve had many different roles on the conference planning team. I’ve been a co-chair twice, had two different board seats spanning about four years total, participated in content selection for every conference but second one (in 2010), was content chair last year, provided significant “shadow” backup and support to conference chairs at least three times, ran the external communications with attendees for three years including starting a very useful daily newsletter, put together a successful last-minute crowdfunding campaign in 2015 after a major sponsor didn’t re-up, and developed the code of conduct enforcement program and trained staff members and volunteers to use it. I think the only thing I haven’t had a substantial role in at some point is logistics, although I did recruit my brother Peter to manage it the first year when we got overwhelmed dealing with the Oregon Convention Center. He did a great job.

Christie and I spent about 12 weeks creating this year’s finale. I’ve known this ending was coming for a while — to me it seemed that we hit a peak around 2014-15 and that the conference was getting harder and harder to keep going. There are a lot of reasons for that, some of which Christie covered in her keynote. I’m really grateful for the wrap-up process in ways I hadn’t expected. As we talked about the history and I went back through things I had noted, I realized that what often felt like a decline is also a distributed amplification. We created a body of practice than influences many other events, even ones that don’t know the origins of some things. We brought together a number of other communities that took their experiences back home. So while we struggled with things like fundraising and organizer burnout, there were also people building something from what we’d done. I heard many kind reflections on that at this year’s event.

I didn’t want to belabor it at the conference, but neither of us had planned to be directly involved this year. I’d offered to be there for information and support, and do some writing and maybe speak about the shifting meaning of “open source citizenship” and the ways I would frame and phrase it differently now. Citizenship is much more complex and fraught than I understood in 2009, and I will write more about this at some point. The plan for this year had been to do a kind of transition or finale, to wrap up what had come before and build connections for the future. Two people stepped up to chair, and they agreed on a kind of go/no-go requirement around fundraising. They had some meetings with different community events to put on more of a group co-located conference — the parts that eventually did happen are a Django Girls workshop the weekend before, and the Indie Web Summit.

Unfortunately, the intended co-chairs both had to drop out over the winter for personal reasons, and we still had a reservation at the Eliot Center and a deposit that had been paid, but no sponsors. Around February or early March, I prodded a couple of people on the Stumptown Syndicate board to let me talk through the current situation and help create a plan of action for them to use. I still had no intention of organizing anything. Then two things happened: Christie lost her job and suddenly had the availability to consider helping, and I had a dream wherein I saw myself saying, “stand back and get out of my way, I’ve got this. I can run this conference in my sleep!”

And really, if anyone was going to do a last-minute run at planning this conference, it would be the two of us. So we re-wrote the budget, re-negotiated some of the details of the venue contract, calculated how many tickets we’d need to sell, and opened registration for a single day event. I had a lot of confidence that we could bring things together in time, and get enough money from registrations and small sponsorships. I’m not positive we hit that target and there’s still some bookkeeping to wrap up, but we’re definitely in the ballpark.

We kept the planned programming simple, so that participants would have the most of the day to bring their own topics for the unconference. I have to express gratitude to Kronda Adair for agreeing to keynote. She had some reasons to not say yes, which attendees heard about, but I think it was a very important perspective to make space for. Open source still has a ton of work to do in order to be truly representative.

During the unconference, there was a session on how to keep the community alive now that the conference is gone. I appreciate that someone was interested in facilitating the conversation and that they took notes. One immediate outcome is that there’s now a Zulip site for Open Source Bridge. I saw a couple of other remarks in the notes I’d like to comment on. There was a general question about whether the conference site, videos, etc. will stay online and I can say there’s no intention to remove anything. The conference wiki needs some substantial spam cleanup, but that would allow us to keep past notes. We recorded audio of most talks, most years, and I think not all of them are accessible online, so I’m going to see what I can do about that. I think it would be neat to create a kind of podcast retrospective.

People have some great ideas about what to do next, beyond staying connected online. There’s interest in showing up together at other events and doing pop-up kinds of activities. Two people have offered to sponsor an offshoot community event in the next year, if folks decide to organize that. Someone asked, how do we better use volunteer effort and time, when some people contribute a lot but many of us can only do bite-size pieces? I want to talk about that, because it goes to something about Open Source Bridge that may be hard to see from outside.

To make a task manageable and easily transferred, it has to be well-defined. For example, large groups of people move through the packing center at the Oregon Food Bank every year. It’s a fun, easy project for volunteer groups. It doesn’t take very long to explain how to weigh and bag apples, and they only need one staff person for a couple dozen volunteers. Nothing about the process is likely to change from month to month, or even year to year, and many events can operate that way. My grandfather was involved with the Trout Lake Fair for several years, an annual small town festival, and when I asked him how that worked, he said that the quilt people do the quilt thing and the parade folks do the parade, and running the event is about keeping the top-level work organized so everyone can go ahead and do what they know.

That’s been hard to accomplish with Open Source Bridge, for at least one good reason and maybe some other less satisfying ones. The good is that we truly created many ideas and practices from the bottom up, and that creative work is not something that’s easy to parcel out. When you’re inventing, you don’t immediately know the scope. For the first three or four years of the event, that’s the mode we were in. We tried things, we looked at how it was working, we fixed problems, and we eventually settled on a stable shape for the organization.

The less awesome part is that even after things could have been clearly defined, we struggled to document and communicate our roles and practices. We kept reinventing a few things that didn’t really benefit (we did also keep building our practices in good ways). Folks got locked into jobs they didn’t know how to hand off and often people left without a real plan for who would replace them. This is the kind of information Christie and I are tackling with the second edition of our Community Event Planning book. There’s a lot we can document for the next organizers in our community and beyond.

As we wrapped up the conference, I thought about some of the things I’m proud to have accomplished. One goes back to the very start: the writing I did, which felt like it occupied me for several months, was effective in communicating the space we wanted to create, and elements of my words have appeared in the conference CFP and other information every year. I’m happy that I could see what we were building clearly enough to describe it.

I’ve tried to keep asking myself, what can I do here that someone else couldn’t? That’s a big reason I changed roles so many times, I never wanted to keep doing something I could teach and hand over to someone else. It also led to some silly activities like spending the second year walking around with a creepy/cute hand puppet, the NSFW unconference session I did in that year’s last session, and the “Fuck No Salmonella” stickers I made after our 2015 food poisoning outbreak. It allowed me to give talks like “For Love and For Money”, “Unraveling the Masculinization of Technology”, and my 2016 keynote “Creating a Third Wave of Free/Open Source Software”.

I mentored other organizers throughout the conference’s run, did my best to communicate the things no one thinks to explain, and tried to hold the history of the event so others could understand it and use it as a springboard for their own actions. It feels like that’s been a very positive impact.

My biggest regret is that in those middle years of the event, as we were turning our big ideas into a stable system, and as I was finding new things to do and learn and teaching other people to take my past roles, I never figured out how to teach them to do the same for the next who would follow in their role. Not before I reached burnout (and later, the same happened to many of them which was also an impediment to our transitions). It’s a really critical skill and one we acknowledged but didn’t prioritize enough. I think working with the goal of someone else replacing you is very different than most things we’re used to, but when it worked out it felt so energizing and healthy to me. There’s a big difference between doing something because you like it and know how to do it well, and struggling because you’re overworked and overcommitted but there’s no one to take over. The conference wasn’t the only thing that contributed to team burnout. Over the course of this ten years we’ve lost loved ones, dealt with abusive workplaces and family members, experienced serious illnesses, handled several kinds of targeted harassment, struggled to balance positive life changes with large amounts of volunteer work, and tried to find meaningful action in the face of so much injustice in our world.

I’ll end with a few last bits of gratitude. I appreciate the labor that went into this conference, the so many different kinds of work that kept us going, and our commitment to do the best we could in all parts of the event. I had no idea when we decided that having a volunteer-run conference was the best way to make it “for developers, by developers”, the many things I would learn. I hope what we’ll share in Community Event Planning will do credit to the scope of this, and to the contributions of my fellow organizers.

I’m thankful that even on a tight schedule and with limited resources, we were able to identify several practices for inclusion and accessiblity that made a difference at our final event. This includes the CART captioning in the morning sessions, free childcare, marked accessibility lanes and all-gender bathrooms, offering discount tickets for anyone who needed it, and our partnership with Django Girls.

Last, I want to thank the hundreds of people who have attended an Open Source Bridge conference and contributed in their own ways to this event. Many of you came and spoke, even for your first time at a technical event. Often our keynote speakers were presenting their first keynote and we enjoyed offering that platform. We created the place and the structure, but you’re the ones who came and built this event from what we offered. I know many people would have liked to join us for the final year and couldn’t, and I want you to know your impact was still felt.

It’s been a journey, and this is just one piece of it. I didn’t know until we arrived here how it would feel to let go, but I’m so happy to have helped build Open Source Bridge, and to be here at both the beginning and the end. I can’t wait to find out what all of you create next.

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