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Interview With Chris Williams

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When you think about people who have made an impact in the JavaScript community, I think most people would immediately think of Brendan Eich, Douglas Crockford or John Resig. And rightfully so, as their contributions have unquestionably impacted JavaScript as we know it.

There's another person who I feel has made a profound difference in the way that JavaScript is viewed and has done as much as anyone to bring organization and structure to the JS community. And that's Chris Williams, the founder and organizer of JSConf. I think we tend to underestimate how important a community is to the vitality of a technology and Chris has worked hard to cultivate the JS community through his outstanding conference, making it one of the most sought-after events for web developers. It has been so successful that it has spawned off sister events worldwide, all with the sole focus of improving the community.

It's not to say that everything is always rosy but Chris is undeniably passionate about JavaScript (and now robots) so I wanted to ask him a few questions about his conference, the state of the community and what's the big deal about robots anyways.

Q Let's start off with the usual. What do you do and why do people love you so much?

It was the first time that a technology conference focused on the deep technical perspective of JS.

Well first off, hello everyone! I am a bit of a jack-of-all-trades these days. I am the Vice President of Product Development and co-founder of a senior safety monitoring company called SaferAging. As part of my work there, I created node-serialport, which is the package through which JS developers are able to control and manipulate objects in the real world through devices like Arduinos and Raspberry Pis (among others). The project has evolved into a larger idea called NodeBots which basically lays the groundwork for making hardware hacking accessible, easy, and understandable to any web or high level language developer. Watching the world wake up to the exciting world of hardware has been amazing, it is why we are starting RobotsConf in order to help more people experience this energy and happiness.

Alongside these efforts, and possibly where most people know of me (not entirely sure about love, but possibly), my wife and I started the JSConf technical conference in 2009. It was the first time that a technology conference focused on the deep technical perspective of JS. We did it with a strong focus on not just technical lectures, but on fostering a strong, social community, something that has continually grown year over year. We have worked to engender a strong sense of mission to the community whether it be through various charitable donation drives, constantly encouraging and supporting new conferences and community leaders, or using the platform we have built to fix the issues in our community.

Q JSConf is one of the most sought after conference tickets. Why not just open it up to a bigger audience?

By distributing the events around the world, we allow more people many more opportunities to participate in our community instead of allowing a small group have a chokehold on speaking slots and defining our community.

We do get this question a lot and it normally involves a long, philosophical dialog which ends roughly the same way every time. The original JSConf worked, because of its very intimate nature and that is something we have always tried to retain. By creating an intimate event, everyone at the event feels like they are part of something instead of feeling lost in the crowd. I have been to many conferences over many years and the ones that stick out the most in my experience were the ones where I felt like I could connect with everyone and left feeling part of something bigger.

All too often, the crowd demands "just add more seats" without understanding that by doing that you drastically affect the overall experience, the cost structure (conference costs do not scale linearly with attendee count), and, in my opinion, it yields an overall degraded experience for attendees. My proposed solution, largely influenced from a wonderful talk by Jason Fried at the SEED conference, is to make or help make many smaller, regional events that are finely tuned to and help reinforce the local community. By distributing the events around the world, we allow more people many more opportunities to participate in our community instead of allowing a small group have a chokehold on speaking slots and defining our community. The talk I referenced provided me with this great tidbit I have never forgotten and has been very shaping on my vision of how events should be, "I would rather sell cookbooks that help others make their own masterpieces than to be the greatest chef in the world".

I believe a lot of the argument rests on the assumption that a technology conference should just automatically accommodate everyone, which is impossible. JSConf US is organized entirely by the Williams family; yes, even the two year old and two month old helped out with this year's event as did our extended family. Trying to balance everything and maintain our family life and responsibilities, while still focusing on the conference, curation of experience, and quality of talks has already been almost impossible to accomplish. In the end, the size and style of the conference we organize is up to us and only us - we do appreciate the feedback, but for now we are going to continue as we see fit - for better or worse.

Q I find JSConf special because it's more than a technical conference. It's about friends and families which I love. I heard some people aren't thrilled with that and want more tech. What are your thoughts on that?

I have heard similar and when I pressed people that made this statement, what I eventually found out was that the issue was more about unmatched expectation, commonly due to the deep philosophical and very risky nature of talks we spotlight at JSConf. We want to spotlight people doing crazy things; things that might not be usable this week or month, but have a good possibility of changing the world. Things like:

  • Phonegap
  • Appcelerator
  • CoffeeScript
  • Cappuccino
  • Node.js
  • Gordon
  • PDF.js
  • Cloud9
  • Firefox OS

Some attend a tech conference with the assumption that they will be shown some tutorials, possibly a "big name" or two will present a replayed keynote, and be able to say they "learned something". JSConf is intentionally not that kind of event, which is exactly why it sells out so quickly. That said, we finally came up with a solution to handle these mismatched expectations with our new Training Track, which was always full and a huge success. In the end, there is always a grain of benefit from any complaint - you just have to refine it to something usable.

Q There have been a number of dust-ups at JSConf about speaker diversity, Brendan's political views and even the "significant others" track got attacked. How'd you feel about being placed in those situations?

My personal philosophy is that mistakes happen, don't judge people on them - judge people on their reactions to the mistakes and their actions to remedy the situation (if any).

Great question, awkward, but great. I take many things personally, arguably too personally, but if I can take the issues in and make something better for it, well then in my mind it's a net win. Sure we have had "dust-ups", but I would expect nothing less from a conference that brings together some of the best technology people and puts them on the edge of the world to see what comes out. We didn't build JSConf to be risk-free, if anything it is almost the exact opposite. I view it like a bootstrapped startup - sure sometimes we misstep, sometimes we mess up huge, but that is part of the adventure and what SHOULD matter is how we react to the issues, not necessarily the issue themselves.

This is actually something I think the larger technology community needs to come to terms with, we are all too quick to vilify people without giving them 1) a proper trial and 2) a chance of redemption and thus we continue to perpetuate the bad behavior. In all the efforts I have seen, they almost always involve quick decisions, made unilaterally, with no recourse or review later. My personal philosophy is that mistakes happen, don't judge people on them - judge people on their reactions to the mistakes and their actions to remedy the situation (if any). With respect to my personal event, it is a private event in the end - my family has assumed all of the risk and I don't see anyone else willing to take on that risk, so for now I am going to continue forward.

In general, if you aren't making someone angry, you probably are not pushing hard enough.

Q In terms of speaker diversity, some argue that there should be steps taken by organizers to ensure an equitable distribution of male to female speakers. Is that the right approach or should organizers go for the best speakers possible regardless of gender?

The problem with the diversity in computing is that it is a systemic issue and therefore the answer must be one that immediately addresses this systemic nature.

This is a very touchy subject and one that many witch hunts have already been set out for. I have a different view in that I believe gender and racial diversity is not something that can be fixed in a generation, but something we must start now and fix upstream and continue to improve over time. There isn't a quick fix that will magically solve it. The problem with the diversity in computing is that it is a systemic issue and therefore the answer must be one that immediately addresses this systemic nature. Force adding female speakers to meet some unknown magic percentage, while a step in the right direction is by no means approaching a final solution.

From a historical perspective, conferences get better exposure (and yes it is negative exposure) by not having speaker diversity than those that do. Think back about "stand out conferences" and I can guarantee you that the names of "bad actors" stick out far more than "good actors", so we are inadvertently reinforcing bad behavior. This year at JSConf US we had an unprecedented 35% of our speakers AND trainers were female - we got zero community acknowledgement of it. With our attendees and our sponsors, we donated $10,000USD towards actively improving gender diversity in computing - it got less community acknowledgement than if we had something "bad" happen. This has to change, we have to start promoting the positive efforts alongside the constant, angry/frustrated negative rallies. Going beyond this, conferences and conference organizers cannot be the only line of defense pushing the change - we have thus far focused far too much on just one aspect -- the raw count of "diverse individuals" present in a speaker roster. I believe this is misguided and a focus on short term gains at the loss of long term goals.

I and a friend, Matt Podwysocki, have been working behind the scenes on a different strategy for improving gender and racial diversity. We have been visiting middle to high school age groups, be at their place of education or through groups like DigiGirlz Day, introducing and exciting them about things in computing - giving them a better, brighter, and bigger picture of the world that helps them see it positively. Most women and minorities drop out of computing classes around middle and high school, one way to stop this is to offer mentoring or glimpses into how exciting of a profession it really can be. The presentations we have conducted are easily as fulfilling for myself as it is for the individuals present, I wish more of the community would do similar actions. I do firmly believe that setting up a strong mentoring or apprenticeship program is a vital and under served component of our industry, until we start trying to fix the diversity ratios in the next generation, it will continually get worse.

Q There's a tremendous amount of effort that goes into putting on JSConf. Have you felt that you've gotten a decent return on investment (whether it's relationship, financial rewards, or other)?

There really is a tremendous amount of effort that goes in and countless hours and incredible risk to run a conference the size and scope of JSConf. We are the only major conference for a major programming language that is run by a single family and as such sometimes it feels like we are on a reality TV show (or should be). Defining return on investment is a complex beast because when executing a conference like JSConf where basically everything is on the line and you just hope it all works out like the spreadsheet says it might is almost impossible. I wrestle often with this question because it is a huge strain on my personal life, my family, my work, and my personal code and hardware projects.

I would like to think if I ever needed a job, I could rely on my sponsors as a first line of request, but I don't want to be in a position to test this. I would like to think I am a leader in, at minimum, the JS community, but most people who could identify Alex Sexton, John David-Dalton, or Paul Irish do not have a clue who I am. I do know that among conference organizers, established and aspiring, I am well known which is incredible just to be counted among that crowd.

It is a strange world I live in where I have built a platform by which the JS community rallies together, some become incredibly famous, and yet I have been able to stay very much out of the limelight.

Some nights, I am greatly appreciative and happy of that resultant - others I wrestle with it. I have personal demons that I am slowly coming to terms with - we all want to be known and loved; and sometimes we lose sight of the context within which those goals apply. Sometimes I lose sight of that context and those moments drive me to either change my existence or change my perspective.

One day, that may mean JSConf just ends because family, friends, or work will take a larger importance in my life, many might complain or be angry or write hurtful blog posts, but in the end it is something that is just part of my life, not encompassing of my life, and there are many parts of my life that constantly require juggling, much like I am sure there are for you.

Q I've spoken to some developers who thought you ran all of the various JSConf events but that's not the way it works. This is a great opportunity to explain how the JSConf circuit works and what your grand vision is.

From the very beginning of JSConf, we always had a perspective for growth, mainly because we never wanted to limit the size of the event strictly based on our ability. Furthermore, we didn't want JSConf to be a "just US thing" as it is a global language with each region using it in a different, varied, and exciting manner. One thing I saw all too often from other larger conference organizers was the belief that if an event worked in San Francisco, it should work exactly the same way in Europe or Asia or Africa and to me, something is seriously wrong with that model. Stamping out the same event over and over again regardless of location misses the entire point of having a regional event.

For JSConf, we decided to set up a model similar to a restaurant franchise model where local groups or individuals, after attending an established JSConf, take on the risk and create the event in their own voice. This has yielded events that not only represent JS perfectly but also presents the local culture, leaders, and vibe, because they live in that environment day in and day out. They see the local rising stars long before anyone else does. They meet with the local companies that just need a little limelight to amaze the world. They are from the audience that would attend the very event they are trying to create and that is how they create such an amazing event. This was admittedly an accidental occurrence, but one we would never change as it has made the scope of JSConf so much broader while still making it so specific to the local event. I honestly believe it to be one of the most beautiful and unique aspects of the JSConf series because it is that loose federation that allows it to continually grow, expand, and stay fresh and exciting.

That said, much like a franchise model, we do have some structure to ensure that the event retains the same general ethos and we, established organizers, do have veto/oversight ability to ensure nothing goes too crazy, but otherwise it is a blank canvas for the regional organizer. So from a certain perspective, I do still have influence over all of the JSConf events, but I do not (nor could I possibly) personally execute each event. One thing that I do assert, at the end of every single JSConf event a family picture is taken and posted - to me this is the most important moment of the entire JSConf experience as it represents that you are not attending a single event in time, but becoming part of a broader family and at its core, that is what JSConf is really all about.

Q Has Fluent Conf motivated any changes in the way that JSConf is organized and run?

I have worked to be as transparent as possible with JSConf and things like this actually help inspire new ways to provide others with the information, data, and workflows for creating great events.

Last year, 2012, was the first year of Fluent Conf, something I had seen would eventually happen and mentioned in my closing keynote of JSConf EU 2010 - so at a base level it wasn't too much of a surprise. Over that year, various things happened as the big machine of a publishing company moved in, got settled and began implementing the same time tested methods and marketing that is employed for any large event. None of this was unexpected, but what was unexpected for me was the reactions from the community both for and vehemently against Fluent Conf. I, admittedly, had grievances with the way they propositioned the event as the first and only JS event for developers, but over time came to realize that was just standard marketing copy for any event. Others had issue with the way they handle speaker incentivization (travel, lodging, ticket reimbursement). Eventually this culminated in a rather unfortunate situation, the resultant of which left me with a self-imposed block on all things Fluent Conf, this allowed me to come to terms with the situation before new "information" clouded the picture, thinking slowly about the overall aspects instead of thinking fast in a reactionary response.

In the end, I came to the realization that it doesn't at all matter. The sheer size of the JS developer community is so massive that we could support many Fluent Confs without it affecting the various JSConf events around the world. Furthermore, JSConf is not impacted by Fluent Conf, because they target two very different markets with JSConf addressing the visionary/strategic leading edge market and Fluent (and others) addressing the tactical market and as such they are actually somewhat supportive of each other. As 2013 rolled around, we made decisions on the timing and placement of JSConf US based on one major factor, the impending birth of our son and the ability for us, all four of us, to be able to organize and attend the event. We scheduled the event roughly two months after the birth and picked the specific date based on the best pricing at the venue, unfortunately that is a similar selection process for Fluent Conf (minus the birthing aspect, of course). As such, this year we had a collision of dates which some heralded as a huge issue and representative of attacking between the two events.

This actually couldn't be farther from the truth, Gina Blaber and I corresponded over phone and email to identify how we could work together and created one of the greatest gender diversity fundraising drives ever by a technical conference. We started the #15ForAda campaign for the Ada Initiative and they, Fluent Conf, started a similar donation drive for Girls Who Code, both of which were largely successful and positive events. I am incredibly proud of this outcome and happy with the working relationship between the two events - for next year, we already have coordinated dates so individuals can attend both. One of the things attendees rarely see is how long out you have to lock in dates and put down payments and commit to insane contacts all before even announcing the event.

One of the outcomes from the date conflict this year is I decided to set up a backchannel for all JS events just to provide a space for any JS event organizers to provide early notice, ask for assistance, and offer to help promote each others events. I have worked to be as transparent as possible with JSConf and things like this actually help inspire new ways to provide others with the information, data, and workflows for creating great events. That is something I am confident will yield better events and collaboration that will in turn help foster a better community worldwide.

Q I remember you dropping off of Twitter entirely because of the drama on it. Do you still feel the same or will you be back on Twitter on a regular basis?

One thing I have quickly noticed is we are all focused on the wrong problems of society.

At the end of JSConf US 2012, there was a very angry and direct attack levied against JSConf and specifically myself about the perceived culture we purportedly foster at the event. The worst part of the event was witnessing all of the so-called friends quickly tuck tail and support this new trend despite being completely in opposite. The level of hypocrisy, witch hunting, and willingness to assume guilt without even so much as discussion affected me tremendously. Worse was seeing my wife, who had just dumped heart and soul into tireless nights putting together and putting on JSConf US 2012, read these callous and careless attacks against the event and our efforts. The individual in question, without any fact checking or prior outreach, levied some very exaggerated and aggressive claims against us as organizers that attacked our very spirit, ethos, and destroyed my personal willingness to do any of this "for the community" work again. It was at this point, I burned the very vehicle that allowed this to exist and perpetuate, cutting out twitter and all of its vapid so-called discussions.

The gang mob mentality has won Twitter and it grows worse every day. When you step away from the constant stream and "jump in" encouragement, you quickly start to see it for what it has become. The medium has become ideal for drive-by experts to sling their attacks-veiled-as-opinion in the most attention getting envelope - an envelope stewed in negativity. I am done watching people bicker and have it propped up and encouraged by the angry mob all in the search of blood, regardless of fact or consequence. I am tired of watching people just waiting to tear down anything that contradicts, but doesn't block, their opinion. I am too old and have too much already to deal with to also worry about the constant river that might include some semi-anonymous person that seeks to utilize my efforts, my sweat, and my work as their soapbox to fame.

I have since come back to post a couple bits of information, but for the most part - Twitter is no longer a valid communication channel for me. It holds no sway over my time, my mindshare, or my soul and I encourage you, the reader, to take a similar break - if just to realize how addicted to the constant stream of so-called real-time new you have become. I have taken the rare opportunities I get to present a similar position and one of the items I advocate for is not just disconnecting, but disconnecting with the intent to see reality for what it really is, instead of what we are told to see it as. We are told that we, as developers, must constantly be on the edge of technology and we must be constantly connected in order to stay on that edge - this couldn't be further from the truth. One thing I have quickly noticed is we are all focused on the wrong problems of society. We don't need yet another, faster, more pervasive video distribution network with commenting -- we need a cure for cancer, obesity, HIV/AIDS, heart disease, and every other ill that has affected mankind. We need our brightest minds not focusing on scaling social networks but on solving the problem of cheap, renewable energy and widely available clean, fresh water. We need to start focusing on the right problems and putting the right time and effort on them instead of posting more vitriol on Twitter, Reddit, Hacker News, and the like.

If you don't want to spend time doing those things, then at least dedicate the time you might look at one of those outlets to mentoring or teaching computing to the next generation. Trust me, it is a billion times more fulfilling and more impactful than slinging 140 characters. Try it and see for yourself.

Q You've now spun off a new event called RobotsConf. That's a huge shift from JavaScript to robotics. What should attendees expect from this event?

RobotsConf is a chance for software and web developers who are normally confined by fear and learning curves higher up in the stack.

RobotsConf is more than just a new event, it is the dawn of something incredible and arguably something that isn't as much of a huge shift as it might seem at first blush. As mentioned in the beginning of this interview, I am the author and maintainer of the node-serialport project which is one of the main gateways for almost every single Arduino, Raspberry Pi, and other crazy hardware project. Due to this I have had the great pleasure and advantage of watching all of the wonderful things people have done on top of and as a derivative of my project including Johnny-Five, xbee radios, and even educational projects that have been presented to the President of the United States.

Hardware hacking has rekindled my excitement and love for computer programming, my basement has become a robotics lab with everything from a 3D printer to multiple drones to a full workbench with at least a dozen projects in process at any given moment. I am using hardware and things like nodebots and Johnny-five to teach my three year old daughter how to program in a manner that results in a physical outcome (robot, rocket, etc) and pure geek bonding. The beauty of hardware is that it operates in the physical world and just the easy win of getting an LED to blink is so fulfilling and so easy. From soldering to drones to 3D printing, everything I am working on, my daughter is almost always (unless after bedtime) right next to me helping out. So to say RobotsConf is just a spin off is grossly understating its value at a minimum to me.

RobotsConf is a chance for software and web developers who are normally confined by fear and learning curves higher up in the stack. We as developers build abstractions on top of abstractions such that we forget the ground upon which all of it stands and at some point that is detrimental AND becomes its very own prison. I have run several training courses for hardware hacking and the first question I ask is "We are working with USB ports, so how many of you think there is a risk of you getting electrocuted here today," to which most raise their hands. Learning the basics of hardware is not as easy as learning a new programming language, it is a drastically different and scary thing, but once you get the gist, the blend of high level software knowledge combined with low level prototype building capability becomes a very powerful combination.

I am fully aware of events like Maker Faire and others and they do a fantastic job of addressing their market which is mainly people who have worked with hardware and prototyping and fabrication for most of their life (or at least for a fairly longer period than never). To those just getting into the waters, it can be a very daunting uphill challenge made worse by all of the people "doing it so amazingly well", it would be like starting out JS programming by attending JSConf -- it doesn't end well, you get frustrated and you never look back. That is not what I want for the rising hardware hacking software developers. RobotsConf is creating that perfect bridge point between high level software developers (JS, Ruby, Python, .NET, Java, etc) and the entire breadth of the maker movement in a non-confrontational, relaxed, social environment of friends.

At RobotsConf, we have the attendees participate in all the workshops from 3D printing to electronic fundamentals to interaction interfaces to robotics so they get a holistic picture of the world, then allowing them to specialize and dive deep into the areas they find most exciting. This is happening all with the guidance of the local, high level language experts (to speak your native programming language and translate to hardware easily) and domain experts (to provide insight into the low level and its use cases). We cap the workshops and build time with some of the best and brightest makers in the world to show the forest of capability and where things are heading. In total, it is a wholly different style event than has ever been attempted and we are supremely excited with how it is shaping up. The main goal is to take someone that writes software, day-in, day-out give them 48 hours of the most exciting and energetic guided hardware hacking so they can know where to go from that point, hence our tag line:

Where Makers Are Made.

When you look at all of the higher level development arena, getting back to hardware development is a massively rising trend. This is exemplified with the increase of dead simple libraries like Johnny-Five for Node.js and Artoo for Ruby and through the creation and expansion of events like Nodecopter, NodeBots and International NodeBots Day. There is clearly a need and a draw for returning to computing basics and the physical world, the combination of which allows a developer to start creating more than just digital items (sites, apps, etc.), but also changing their very own world in the manner we only saw in great 1980s movies. It truly empowers developers in a manner that I would argue few other technologies or technology shifts ever have. This is why I am excited for it and RobotsConf.

What we did for the JS community with JSConf, we are starting all over with RobotsConf, this time, hopefully, a little wiser and for the entire software development community. I am constantly asked by my Ruby, Python, and .NET friends to start something similar to JSConf for them - this is that event. It will be social, it will feature some of the most cutting edge technologies, and unlikely JSConf ever could be, it will be almost entirely hands on.

So the final question, Rey (and readers), why are you attending RobotsConf?


Thanks Chris

To answer your question Chris, while I'd love to attend RobotsConf, especially at Amelia Island, my schedule is really packed so I'll have to miss it this year. Maybe next year!

More importantly, thank you for taking the time to give our readers a peak at your thoughts.

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