Lindsey Kuper (lindseykuper) wrote,
Lindsey Kuper

A very short talk about !!Con

At the Sunday Assembly meetup that [personal profile] alexr_rwx and I attend, there's a regular segment of the program called "X is doing their best" where X gets up and talks for three minutes about something going on in their life. After seeing my tweets about !!Con, our meetup's president, Gillian, invited me to speak about it at yesterday's Assembly.

Condensing my thoughts about !!Con into three minutes was hard! My first draft was over a thousand words and took me about six minutes to read out loud. Alex suggested that I should try to get it down to 700 words, which I just barely managed. The 700-word version took about three minutes and forty-five seconds to read. Thankfully, nobody begrudged me the extra forty-five seconds. I didn't have any visuals, except for a !!Con logo that Gillian graciously agreed to add to the day's slide presentation for while I was speaking.

I had to leave out a lot of important stuff, but people seemed to react very positively to what I did say. One person asked me if I'd speak with her son, who's in the middle stages of his CS degree and feeling disillusioned about it -- she's hoping that hearing about !!Con will get him fired up again. I'm not sure if some twenty-year-old kid who doesn't know me would really care about or respond to what I have to say, but the middle years of my undergrad degree were kind of a drag, too, so I sympathize. I can at least send him some links to some good talk videos.

For posterity, here's what I said. I quoted [personal profile] brainwane's essay "Toward a !!Con Aesthetic" with attribution, but the sentence "There are hundreds of other tech conferences that focus on particular programming languages, methodologies, business needs, or demographics." is also very nearly a quote from the same essay. I also cribbed quite a bit from my own past writing and speaking about !!Con.

If you've been around me in the last four years, you might have seen me wearing a shirt with this logo on it. It's the logo of !!Con, a conference about the joy, excitement and surprise of computing held annually in New York. A group of friends and I co-founded !!Con in 2014, and last weekend was our fourth conference, the biggest one yet. The word "bang" is programmer slang for the exclamation point, and !!Con is two days of short, rapid-fire talks given by very excited speakers.

I come from an academic computer science background. During my Ph.D., I was encouraged to focus narrowly on one subfield. At !!Con, we instead embrace eclecticism. !!Con talks have featured everything from poetry generation to Pokémon; from machine knitting to electroencephalography; from quantum computing to classic games; from the geometry of Islamic art to how to build a cell phone from scratch. We welcome tinkerers and practical types, scientists and artists, ordinary programmers and out-of-the-ordinary ones.

There are hundreds of other tech conferences that focus on particular programming languages, methodologies, business needs, or demographics. As my friend Sumana Harihareswara wrote: "The radical assumption !!Con makes instead is that every attendee has the capability of being curious about everything, at least for ten minutes." This year one attendee wrote on Twitter, "It's refreshing to learn 30+ new things about programming in a single weekend at @bangbangcon, even though I've been programming for so long."

But you can't learn thirty new things in a weekend unless you're in an environment where it's safe to show vulnerability and surprise, and so that's what we strive to create. At !!Con, there's no need to act cool and jaded. When you see something that's new to you -- which you probably will -- it's safe to say "Whoa!", to be impressed and excited, without worrying that somebody’s going to say, "Oh, you didn’t know about that?", or make you feel as though you're inferior for being impressed.

This approach works. We get a lot more strong talk proposals than we can accept, and we have way more potential attendees than we have room for. This year, for instance, we accepted 30 talk proposals out of 215 submissions. We had room for 300 attendees, and we had another 284 names on our waiting list.

It's nice to be popular, but it means that we're constantly having to disappoint people by rejecting their talk proposals or not being able to offer them a seat, and that feels terrible. If we were running !!Con like a business, the sensible thing to do would be to charge more money. But radical affordability, like radical eclecticism, is a core part of what we are.

So I think that the long-term answer will be to have a lot more conferences like !!Con. I don’t mean that the existing organizing team should run more conferences -- we all have jobs, not to mention other stuff going on in our lives (like having kids!). Instead, I'd love to see people who like our approach to go out and start their own similar events around the world. In fact, it's already happening -- fans of !!Con have organized their own events in Berlin, in Atlanta, and most recently in Toronto this February, at an event called Hello, Con! I exchanged emails with one of the Hello, Con! attendees, who wrote: "At the end of HelloCon, I was genuinely excited to start delving into projects that the speakers had talked about. A lot of tech events that I go to are focused on recruiting interns or handing out swag, but HelloCon was simply about getting exposure to the field of technology and getting to meet a very diverse and skilled group of technologists."

Hearing this made me really happy, because it showed that the !!Con spirit was also present at Hello, Con! Even more excitingly, the attendee I heard from is now planning on organizing a similar event herself. I can imagine a future where !!Con-like events flourish around the world -- not unlike Sunday Assembly, in fact -- and where we continue to grow, improve, and evolve under a new generation of leadership.

Thank you!

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Tags: bangbangcon

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