First timer’s guide to FOSS conferences

AdaCamp Model Release Agreers

I’ve been going to FOSS conferences since 2006. My first open source conference was FreedomHEC in Seattle, a little 30-person conference for Linux users to protest Microsoft’s WinHEC. My next open source conference was OSCON, which had over a thousand attendees. They were both very different conferences, and as a college student, I really didn’t know what to expect. Going to your first open source conference can be intimidating, so I’ve complied ten tips for people who are new to the conference circuit.

Rule #1: The Hallway Track Matters Most

Conference talks are great because they teach you new skills or give you ideas. However, what conference talks are really for is giving you additional topics of conversation to chat with your fellow conference goers with. Hanging out after a talk ends to chat with the speaker is a great way to connect with speakers or fellow attendees that are passionate about a particular subject.

Why do I downplay conference talks? Because it’s really the networking at a conference that matters. The “hallway track” is where you’ll talk to fellow open source contributors, find your next job, or get excited about a new project. If you were only here for the talks, you would save yourself the travel expenses and sit in bed watching the livestream of the talks. So your first focus should be on the people at the conference.

There’s a lot of ways to maximize the networking you do. One small trick is to make sure you have a pen and physical paper cards. Moo cards are great, because you can add pictures to the front of the card. Maybe you want to add a picture of your latest circuit layout. Or travel pictures, so you can have an additional conversation starter. However, I would avoid putting a picture of yourself in a business suit on the front. I’ve seen one card that used that trick, and while it was great for identifying the person I talked to, it felt really pretentious.

When you receive someone’s business card, write down the reason you need to get a hold of them on the card, and any identifying information you need to remember who they are. You’ll thank yourself two weeks later when you recover from con fatigue and find a stack of forgotten business cards. I’ve tried using digital barcodes on my phone to redirect people to a business card page on my blog, but it takes too long for people to fiddle with their phones and it feels really awkward. Paper cards are old school, but they work best. I’ve also seen some hardware hackers print circuit board business cards. Those are really neat and memorable, but cost more and don’t allow people to write on them.

To optimize your networking, follow the one to many rule. If you mostly hang out with groups of people you know, you won’t end up making many new contacts. What you really want to find is a group of people that has one or two people you know, who can introduce you around. If you’re already in a group, face your body slightly outwards and a bit away from the person next to you, leaving the group open to new members.

If you don’t know anyone, you can stand around the coffee/snack/water table and drink/eat while you see if there are interesting conversations you can insert yourself into. Moving into a group of chairs and asking someone nearby if the chair is taken can be a good way to try and start a conversation about how the conference is going. If you find out someone is a speaker, you have an automatic topic of conversation later when you ask them how their talk went. Approaching a stranger with the question, “I love that sticker on your laptop, where did you get it?” is always a good way to get someone to talk about something they’re passionate about.

Rule #2: It’s OK to Skip a Session

Maybe you’re having an awesome conversation. Maybe you skipped lunch and you desperately need food. Or you’re speaking later in the day and you want to go over your slides one more time. It’s fine to skip a session. I promise you won’t miss out on much.

Rule #3: Triple Conflict Sessions Are Common

Conference schedules are a feast or famine affair. There’s usually at least two sessions where I’m not interested in any of the talks, and two more sessions where there are three talks I want to attend. Scheduling is the bane of conference organizer’s existence (it’s an NP complete problem!) so cut them some slack.

When I am triple booked, I’ll go to the talk on a subject I’m least familiar about. Conferences are a place to learn, and a place to network with experts, so it’s better to go to a talk on a new topic you’re interested in. The only exception I make with this rule is if the triple booked session is in the late afternoon. At that point, my brain is full of new knowledge, and it’s better if I watch the new topic talk as a video later.

Rule #4: Care and Feeding of Introverts

Most conferences start around 9am or 10am, include a break for lunch (either provided by the conference, or on your own at local restaurants), continue until 5pm or 6pm, and then have evening events from 7pm until around 10pm or 11pm. A lot of conference goers then go drink and chat until the wee hours of the morning.

I know a lot of geeks who don’t attend big parties at home, but get all their socialization in during the conference season. It can be exhausting as an introvert to attend a conference. It’s not just that there’s a whole lot of people, it’s that there’s a whole lot of strangers, and that can trigger social anxiety.

If you’re an introvert (like me), there’s a couple of different ways you can take care of yourself. Personally, my social batteries get pretty low around mid-afternoon. If I don’t recharge, I know I’ll be a untalkative zombie during the evening social events. Every day, when I’m planning out my conference schedule, I deliberately pick one uninteresting afternoon session to go back to my hotel room and take a nap. If my hotel room is too far, I carry a headband to cover my eyes and unabashedly take a nap on a conference bench. Those naps have seriously saved my life.

Evening events are always a game of chance for me. As an introvert, the best evening events for me are ones that center around an activity. Some of my favorite evening events at conferences have been bowling, wandering around a museum, playing arcade games and DDR, going for a boat ride, and playing board games. My least favorite conference evening events are the booze-filled bar crawls. When my anxiety at being crushed in a giant crowd of strangers is coupled with a throng of drunk dude-bros that are shouting at each other over the loud music, I last about an hour before I flee. It’s perfectly fine to retreat back to your hotel room. It’s also acceptable to find fun people to flee with, or even arrange to meet said fun people elsewhere and avoid the crowds.

Rule #5: Care and Feeding. Period.

When I first started going to conference, I wanted to see all the talks, talk to all the people, and do all the events. However, a lot of conferences don’t allow enough time at lunch to get food from restaurants. If you want to make the sessions before and after lunch, that typically means eating some crappy food at the convention center, and rushing off without talking to people. Rule #1 applies, so what you really want to do is be at peace with coming late into the afternoon talks, and wander off with some interesting people to chat over a leisurely, healthier lunch.

I’m not going to lie, a lot of people at conferences drink at evening events. Some of them don’t, and honestly, some of the most fun I’ve had has been hanging out and bonding with other non-drinkers. Many geeks don’t drink all that much at home, but tend to throw back A LOT of drinks when they’re paid for out of some start up or big company’s budget instead of their own pocket. If you don’t feel comfortable in that situation, make sure you come with a buddy or another non-drinker.

If you do drink, take care of yourself. Drink water, take some vitamins, and have a plan for getting back to your hotel in a foreign city. Due to past experience with the morning after impacts of heavy drinking, I always pack an extra pair of jeans. They add weight to your suitcase, but having an additional pair of pants is better than washing vomit out of your only pair of pants and then ironing them dry before you rush off to your flight. Did I mention I don’t drink much any more?

The morning after evening events are brutal. Not gonna lie, I’ve never made breakfast plans at a conference. I do often find people to eat with in the hotel breakfast buffet, but I never make firm plans because I don’t know how long I need to sleep. Sometimes I skip the hotel breakfast and just head straight to the conference. On those days, I’m really glad I packed myself breakfast bars.

Basically, you need to be a soccer mom to yourself. Pack yourself a water bottle and food, and maybe some fruit snacks and animal crackers. ūüėČ

Rule #6: Trust the Whisper Network

Conferences are full of people who are interesting, and occasionally house people who are known harassers. As a newcomer to a conference, you’re likely to be targeted because you don’t know who those harassers are. Trust your gut if something feels off. Recognize when someone is trying to isolate you, test your boundaries, or ply you with alcohol. Know whether your conference has a Code of Conduct, and program in the email or phone number of the CoC contact into your phone, along with the local police non-emergency numbers. Figure out how to identify conference organizers, and make friends with minorities and women who have been to the conference in the past. It’s likely they will know who you should avoid, even if they can’t publicly talk about it because they might get sued for libel.

Rule #7: Know Your Conference Perks

Did you know that most conferences have a travel budget? That’s right, if you’re a speaker or a student or a member of an underrepresented group in open source, you may be able to get your conference travel paid for. Organizers will usually pay for conference fees, sometimes pay for airfare (it may be harder to get them to pay for international travel), and may pay for hotel and hood. If you’re a well-recognized speaker who has been invited to give a talk or keynote, organizers may also pay you a stipend (the amount of which is usually negotiable).

Some (but not many) conferences have consuites where any attendee can get free food. Others provide lunch. Some conferences have evening events with free food. If you’re a speaker, find the speaker’s lounge, which usually has coffee and cookies and other interesting speakers to talk to.

Rule #8: Swag is a Double-edged Sword

Do you really need another beer bottle opener? Are you willing to lug home a dozen t-shirts that don’t fit? When someone asks what that sticker is on your laptop, will you lose geek cred because you slapped some company’s brand on your property without actually using their product?

The downside of all that free stuff is that it’s actually a ploy to provide companies with your contact information. A new trick for conferences is to include a bar code on the badge with your personal information on it. Booth wranglers will scan your badge, and do whatever they want with that information. Give it to recruiters, sign you up for their email lists, or even give that information to third parties. Do you know what’s on your badge bar code? Could a stalker glean information like your phone number and zip code from it? You can always choose to take a pen to the bar code, and booth people should still give you all the freebies and manually sign you up for entry into any giveaways.

Rule #9: Follow up

You’ve met a bunch of awesome people, gathered a stack of business cards, and gotten in contact with recruiters at a fascinating new company. After the conference is over, it’s time to follow up. It’s best to wait at least a couple days, so that people traveling can get back home and start shoveling through their overflowing inboxes. Waiting more than two weeks is probably not the best practice for most conference contacts, but that may be an appropriate amount of time if you’re following up with someone you have given your resume to.

Rule #10: Project Passion Explosion

Conferences are a slew of new ideas. You’re likely to be introduced to a whole bunch of new projects and interesting people. The best conferences are the ones where you feel like your brain is on fire with all the new projects you want to do. However, be reasonable about your time commitments. Don’t try to start more than one project after a convention. Wait a week or two and see if you’re still passionate about the project before you start on it. Unless it’s a time machine. Please start on that right away, because every conference goer needs one.

SCALE: Improving Diversity with Maslow’s hierarchy

If you’re reading this, I’ve just given my keynote at the Southern CAlifornia Linux Expo (SCALE). This post serves to link to all the different studies and resources I talked about, as well as my slides with notes and photo attributions can¬†be found here.

Here’s the video of the keynote:


In open source, we talk about meritocracy a lot. However, emphasizing meritocracy can actually lead to more bias against women:

It’s much better to actually acknowledge our biases and privilege. If you haven’t read it yet,¬†Scalzi’s essay “White Straight Male is the Lowest Difficulty Setting”¬†is an excellent starting point for exploring the impact of privilege.

There are lots of different ways individuals can contribute to improving diversity. However, this talk focuses on the macro view of how we as open source community individuals can increase diversity.

The inspiration for the structure of this talk came from Abraham Maslow’s paper “A theory of human motivation.”

Level 1: Geek Homeostatis, or Deep Hack Mode

Maslow talked about the needs that are required to keep the body’s chemical systems functioning (homeostatis). Those needs include warmth, food, water, and excretion.

Trans people often face harassment that keeps them from being able to use restrooms without fear. In response, an open source project called Refuge Restroom was created to map safe and gender-neutral restrooms. The project has also been featured in hack sessions by TransH4CK, an organization dedicated to developing open source projects that help trans*, gender non conforming, agender and non binary people.

What does homeostatis mean for a geek? I posit that it means deep hack mode, that magical time when you can pour everything into your project. But what is required in order to get into deep hack mode?

The first requirement is uninterrupted time. In open source, we expect people to volunteer their unpaid time to further the goals of our software. As Ashe Dryden explains, not everyone has the privilege to dedicate a lot of time to open source. Carers of young children and elderly relatives have very little time to spare. Women and especially women of color are more likely to be carers. Next time a candidate doesn’t have many github contributions, consider whether they’re a minority who may be a carer with little time, instead of someone who simply doesn’t want to contribute to open source.

There are some companies that are trying to help techie moms. The Paypal Recharge program¬†provides job opportunities for women¬†who have taken a break from their career (perhaps to raise a child) and want to switch into a technology career. Etsy is piloting providing executive coaching to new mothers. There’s also the non-profit¬†Mother Coders,¬†which helps women with children get into technology careers.

The next thing you need for deep hack mode is some sort of computer. Even with computer ownership increasing dramatically in the United States, the census data shows a deep disparity in who gets to own computers. African American and Hispanics, along with people in low and middle income brackets are far less likely to own a computer.

Women are also less likely to own a computer until all the men in the household have a computer. The book Women Don’t Ask talks about a series of interviews with computer science students at¬†Carnegie Mellon University. They found that many female students didn’t start programming until college because their male siblings were granted more time on the computer or kept the computer in their room.

Even then, we have to consider what kind of computer minorities and lower class people are likely to buy, if they don’t buy a used computer. There are a whole bunch of different non-profits that are working to improve access to computers in low income communities around the globe. Free Geek operates in the United States (Portland and Chicago).¬†Kids on Computers and Computer Reach gives computers internationally. The Raspberry Pi organization is also working to provide cheap computers globally. Why not donate your old computer, or donate money to refurbish old¬†systems or make new cheap ones?

Of course, you need electricity to power your computer, and you need internet access to participate in open source communities. According to the 2011 Indian Census, only 67% of households had electricity. This Chrome Dev Summit talk on India’s internet growth was very enlightening. Most of India (19% or 248.53 million people) are on mobile networks, usually on a 2G network with an average speed of 60 KB/second. It costs them around 17 hours of minimum wage pay to have a 500 MB data plan. This means Indian internet users are very bandwidth conscientious. As community members of open source web tools and ¬†services, we have an obligation to help lower our bandwidth footprint.

Level 2: Security

I talked at length about the Petrie multiplier, which proves that an attack on sexism is not an attack on men. I also talked about the requirements for an effective Code of Conduct, and how rolling your own code of conduct without listening to inputs is like rolling your own cryptography. Instead of making shit up and having it blow up in your face, you could pay women in tech who already have experience in improving diversity. I recommend contacting Ashe Dryden, Frame Shift Consulting, or Safety First PDX. *Edit: As of January 2017, I also offer diversity consulting through Otter Tech*

Level 5: Self Actualization

I mentioned a whole bunch of cool people in my final slides, and the diversity programs they work on:

There’s a lot of awesome projects that you can contribute to. If you don’t have time, I recommend donating to the Software Freedom Conservancy and Outreachy.

The PyCon Incident, Lizard Brains, and Bad Jokes

+Peter Senna Tschudin asked (about the Pycon incident):¬† “What I can’t understand, and I would like help to understand, is how talking about big dongles to a friend in a conference can become a real problem to a women who is listening. Why did she felt uncomfortable about that? Did she felt threatened? How the dongle size talking could turn into something against her? Can the content of the two guys talking be considered a lack of respect? What are the limits to what can be considered offensive?”

I’m going to take you at face value, and assume you really do want to understand how making simple jokes can cause issues for women in tech.¬† I’m making this a post, because I think lots of my male friends are worried about cracking jokes right now.

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LCA 2010

My Linux Conference AU slides are now posted on my server. The USB 3.0 talk went really well, and I look forward to sharing it when the LCA videos go up in the next couple weeks.

LCA was a total blast! The speakers were wonderful, and I really felt integrated into the conference and social events by the techie women of LCA. Thank you to Sara, Jo, Jacinta, Liz, and all the other Haecksen of LCA2010!

The only downside is the weather. It’s really quite rainy here, although it’s 10-15 degrees warmer than Portland. I think Jamey and I are going to skip the Tongariro Crossing and go straight to the glow worm caves at Te Kuiti/Waitmo. At least we’ll be in a cave while it’s raining!

A New Years Update

*tap tap* Is this thing on?

Choose your excuse:

I haven’t posted in about six months, because

a. I bought a house,

b. I acquired two cute kittens (Derek and Elisa),

c. The acquired house needed a ton of work, including taking down a 30 foot “hedge” in the backyard,

d. I’ve been experimenting with all kinds of cooking,

e. I’m lazy.

What’s next for me?

I’m presenting about Linux USB 3.0 support at Linux Conf AU 2010. If you’re going to LCA next week, you can check out my talk at Friday at 10:30am in the Ilott Theatre. I’ll have a USB 3.0 demo for the brave souls that make it to morning talks. ^_^ If you miss it due to being hung over or not being able to attend LCA, I believe they’ll be video taping it.

LCA is being held in Wellington, New Zealand, this year. Jamey and I are going bike camping for two weeks afterwards. As Martin Short put it, “I planned a spontaneous adventure.” Let’s hope Captain Ron doesn’t screw it up. ūüėČ

Any suggestions of cool things to see on the North Island? We’re probably going to National Park, Te Kuite, Auckland, and the Coromandel Peninsula. Anything else in that general area?

Advanced Git Tutorial

Back in November, I gave an advanced Git tutorial for Portland’s Code ‘n Splode group. I posted the slides in my public_html dir without any announcement, but Mario (who is featured in the title page picture) managed to find it anyway. If you’re interested in some advanced Git revision control features beyond `”git clone”` and `”git commit”`, you should check it out.

Feedback is welcome. I might present it again at the Open Source Bridge, a new Portland Open Source convention designed to fill the gap that OSCON left when they packed up for San Jose.