‘Experiencing computing viscerally’: my PG Podcast interview about !!Con
A few days ago, I had the fun experience of being interviewed by Philip Guo for his excellent new podcast series. Phil invites his interview subjects to discuss any topic that they’re passionate about, so I took the opportunity to talk about !!Con (“bang bang con”), the conference I co-founded and help organize.
The video is up, and this post is a lightly edited transcript1 of our conversation, with a few added links. I really enjoyed speaking with Phil – thanks to him for making this interview possible!
LINDSEY: So, I thought it would be interesting to talk about the conference that I co-founded and helped organize, which is called !!Con. And in honor of that, I’m wearing my !!Con shirt today.
PHILIP: Cool. So, for people who haven’t seen, this is two exclamation marks, right?
LINDSEY: Yes! Yeah, so the conference actually got its name as a result of a conversation involving somebody else who has appeared on this podcast, Julia Evans. So – I’m trying to think back exactly what the history was, and this is all documented, but what I can reconstruct of it right now is – so, as you know, both of us have done residencies at the Recurse Center. At RC, they have a chat service called Zulip, and Zulip fosters all kinds of conversations, and at one point, people were discussing – there was somebody, Ian, who was a former Recurser, who was kind of lamenting the fact that that he didn’t have a good reason to come back to New York to visit the Recurse Center. And somebody suggested that he should make up a fake conference, submit a talk to it, pretend to accept his own talk, and then have a reason to go. Then other people kind of began riffing on this idea, and somehow, this idea of a fake conference turned into an idea for a real conference. Somebody suggested that it be called “JuliaEvansBlogPostsCon,” named after Julia’s extremely enthusiastic blog. And then, this became abbreviated to simply “Bang Bang Bang Con,” and then later, “Bang Bang Con”, with two exclamation points.
PHILIP: Wait, how did it go from Julia to — oh, because of the excitement?
LINDSEY: Yeah, I think Julia may have made that suggestion. I don’t remember exactly who suggested it. But yeah, the reason for suggesting Julia’s blog was because we wanted this conference to be, like, essentially Julia’s blog in conference form – to capture all of the enthusiasm and unbridled excitement that her blog is about. What would it be like if there were a conference like that? And so that was the original motivation.
PHILIP: I had no idea. I mean, I knew about !!Con from an outsider’s perspective on social media. But I had no idea how that was actually related to Julia, and on her podcast, we didn’t actually talk about her blog at all.
LINDSEY: Sure, sure, sure. Well, you know, it’s kind of evolved since then. And Julia was one of the organizers of it the first two years – she stepped down this last year, and some other people came on board. But I feel a little bit weird sometimes, telling people that this is a conference all about enthusiasm and excitement, because I, personally, am a pretty curmudgeonly person, actually.
PHILIP: IronyCon. There’s an irony conference.
LINDSEY: Right? Yeah, and there’s, like, FailCon…but the thing is that at !!Con, it’s actually not all joy and happiness and roses and sunshine; there are a lot of heavier and more serious topics discussed, as well. My current favorite summary of what !!Con is about actually comes from somebody who’s spoken at two !!Cons so far – Mark Wunsch, who spoke at the first one in 2014, and then at the third one this year. And he described it as a conference that’s about “experiencing computing viscerally.”
I like that a lot, because, for me, that captures what makes !!Con unique. We had talks this year that made people laugh, that made people cry, that made people scream, “Holy shit!” – and this doesn’t necessarily happen at the average conference. In fact, we’ve had people react to the videos of !!Con that are available on the Web, saying, “This audience sounds way too happy. They’re laughing way too much. Are they drunk?” You know? “Is this…? How can this be? How could people be expressing this much enthusiasm at a programming conference?”
And I think that one thing that makes !!Con special is that we try to create an environment in which it is safe to be as enthusiastic as you want to be. There’s no need to, you know, act cool and jaded at !!Con. And that’s good, because the kinds of things that you will see are absolutely stunning. We had a talk this year from Sina Bahram, who’s a blind hacker, and he showed us how he interacted with JAWS, his screen reader, at…I don’t remember how fast it was, but it was — uh, it was way faster than the average person can hear. He was listening to his screen reader, coding this way. He was listening to music while he was doing this. And it was an absolutely stunning demonstration of, you know, what he’s capable of, and what the technology is capable of. I said a second ago that there were talks that made people scream, “Holy shit!” – I was the person screaming, “Holy shit” while this was going on, because it was so absolutely stunning. And that’s, I think, typical for !!Con.
We’ve had talks from people who’ve built their own cell phone – that was Kevin Lynagh’s talk last year. We had a tremendous keynote from Mary Rose Cook, which was about git and the internals of git, last year, and she talked about things that people in the audience just found jaw-dropping. And at !!Con, it is safe to say, “Whoa!”, you know? It is safe to be impressed by these things, and to be excited by these things, without worrying that anybody’s going to say, “Oh, you didn’t know about that?”, or make you feel as though you’re inferior for being impressed. So that’s, I think, what makes this conference special – one of the many things that make it special.
PHILIP: Cool. This was a really awesome launching-off point. And I would actually argue that you do have this sort of enthusiasm! I mean, maybe organizing all these years had influence, or maybe you were always like that.
Yeah, so, I guess we can talk a little bit about the nuts and bolts of this, because it started off as nothing, and this requires resources, and money, and people, and stuff. So, I mean, I don’t want to turn this into a giant logistics discussion, but just even briefly, how does this get off the ground?
LINDSEY: Yeah, oh, I’m glad you asked. So, I think we started small. We started in 2014, and I mentioned that the people involved were from the Recurse Center – in fact, all of the organizers from the beginning have been somehow involved with RC – and because of that, we were able to use the RC space as our venue the first year. That was a huge boon to us, right from the beginning, because it meant that we didn’t have to try to find space to rent out for a weekend in New York. So that was one thing.
Also, the conference is pretty small, or was pretty small. It was only a hundred people; it’s only one weekend long; it’s a single track. And it was just entirely a volunteer effort. Because it was the first time any of us had organized a conference, we didn’t really have any expectations, you know? Every time something succeeded, we were so glad that it succeeded – for example, when we asked our keynote speakers to participate the first year, we didn’t think they were going to say yes, and they did! We were so happy that, you know, anything worked at all, that we were kind of able to ignore the rough edges, of which there were many.
PHILIP: Yeah, and I think that’s great. I love hearing about the early days of these efforts, right? Everything has to start from nothing, whether it’s an open source project, or an online community, or a real-life community, or a conference, they all have to start somewhere. And in the future, if something becomes really big, the original people remember those early days where it was, like you said, rough around the edges, and things were not perfect. But there’s, like, a visceral charm about that. This word “visceral,” right, there’s a charm about that.
LINDSEY: Yeah, yeah. I think that probably my favorite example of something that has gone wrong was the second year – so, we were planning to return to the Recurse Center for our second year, which was May 2015. And we found out about two weeks before – I want to say it was only two weeks before; maybe it was more like three weeks or a month, but anyway, it was a very short time – we learned that we would not be able to hold our conference at the Recurse Center, because their landlord was coming down hard on them about fire code violations.
So we had to find another venue on extremely short notice. And this is where Sonali Sridhar from the Recurse Center, who’s, you know, one of the founders of it, this is where she really went above and beyond and pulled a bunch of strings that she has in New York, and was able to get another venue for us for free on almost no notice, which was at NYU.
And so we had to change the venue of our conference at the last minute. We felt terrible about it, because, for one thing, we were really throwing a wrench in the plans of some of our attendees and speakers, especially people who were taking public transit or had to change their plans drastically in some way in order to get to the new venue. It ended up working out in the end, but, you know, that’s one of those things that probably could only have been done because we were such a small conference, and because it was only two days long and only a hundred people.
This year, we actually expanded the conference, because the demand for it was so great the first two years that we realized we really needed to serve a larger audience. So this year, we expanded to 200 people, and there really was no free space available that could accommodate us, that we could find. So this year, we ended up paying for a venue. And that ended up being the right choice, because the venue was really good – but it was also just a lot of money, and it meant that our balance sheet looked very different this year than it did the first two years. So, now that we know that, we can be prepared for it next year, and at least one person has already stepped up to maybe-kind-of-sort-of volunteer their space as a possible venue for next year, which might actually fit all of us, which we’re excited about. But that’s the kind of thing that we have to deal with, because we’re doing this on a budget, and as volunteers, we don’t have — there’s nobody else who we could turn to to take care of those kinds of logistics. It’s all us.
PHILIP: Right, right. No, that’s really cool, because if one of you doesn’t handle it, it just doesn’t get done, right?
PHILIP: There’s, like, a distinct possibility that some glaring part doesn’t get done, and there’s no backup for that.
LINDSEY: Yeah, and I guess one point that I want to make along those lines is that one of the most crucial things, I think, that I’ve found to be true with organizing !!Con is that trusting my fellow organizers is really crucially important, because none of us can do it all ourselves, and we have to rely on each other to be able to get it done. If somebody else is gonna do it in a way that’s, you know, slightly different from the way that I would do it, I have to decide, you know, “Okay. Well, are they gonna do it in a wrong slightly different sort of way? Or are they just gonna do it in a different slightly different sort of way?” And if the answer is, “No, it won’t be wrong; it will just be different,” then I have to be okay with that. I have to trust them.
Something that I have tried to do over the last three years of organizing it is say “I trust you” pretty often. And I’ve noticed, over time, that when we first started organizing this thing, we used to be really tentative about decisions, and nobody would ever do anything unless they got confirmation from the other five people, or at least they got a quorum of those people. Whereas, this year, it’s been like, somebody sees something they think needs to be done – and, you know, they’re probably right, because we all have enough experience with it now; we all have kind of a sense about what needs to be done – and they just go ahead and do it, or find a way to cause it to get done. And that’s been essential, you know? At this point, we’re a team of people who’ve encountered a lot of problems with organizing !!Con. We know about all the good and the bad things that can happen. I’m sure, you know, more good and bad things that we haven’t encountered are going to get thrown at us in the years to come, but, at this point, we have a pretty decent idea about how to organize this conference, and we trust each other. And trust is really important to being able to pull it off.
PHILIP: Yeah, well, that’s huge. What you said is such a general thing, too, right? You know, how do you work in teams in general, but, more here, distributed teams where people are doing this as volunteers. I mean, this is a distributed, voluntary team. And you can’t all do everything all the time, because you all have other jobs to do, and then other things in life.
Even that dynamic itself is really rare, too. I mean, this experience is what a lot of people want, but is hard to get because not everyone has the opportunity to organize such a thing. What do you think about the kind of time commitment that’s required of you and the other folks? Because you all have full-time jobs doing other stuff, I assume. And so how does that balance?
LINDSEY: You know, I don’t have an exact number for you because it kind of blends together with other things that I do. I can say that in the day or so leading up to when I left to go to the conference last year, I was technically supposed to be working at my job, but all I could really do was think about !!Con. And that is probably true of many of the other organizers, as well.
I think we do a pretty decent job of spreading out the work among us. You mentioned that it was a distributed team, and that’s true. In fact, this year — so the conference is in New York every year, and this year, we only had two organizers who were actually physically in New York, Danielle Sucher and Nabil Hassein. And it was really, really crucial that they were there. Nabil and Danielle were the people who found our venue for us, which was really something that could not be done remotely.
And so, despite the fact that a lot of conference organization can be done online from wherever, there are things that you really do have to be there for. And that’s something that’s kind of gotten more challenging over time, because there were people on the organizing team who used to live in New York and have moved away. That’s part of the reason why Nabil and Danielle joined the group, because we really needed boots on the ground in New York to make it possible. But it’s hard, and time zone issues are hard, and we have to do a lot of Hangouts like this – and I missed one of our Hangouts this spring because I was disorganized. And other people sometimes missed things. You have to be willing to forgive each other for those kinds of screw-ups.
PHILIP: Yeah, this is really interesting. I guess the next question I have is, I want you to discuss a bit about how you feel like this whole experience fits into your professional identity, right? So, for example, some people have a job doing X, and then their hobby thing is doing Y, and they’re completely unrelated – you’re, like, organizing Motocross dirt bike races or whatever, that you’re passionate about equally but completely unrelated to your job. But this, perhaps, can be a bit more tied in with your professional identity, even though obviously it’s not exactly what you’re doing at work every day. How do you imagine all this kind of synchronizing in your head?
LINDSEY: Sure. Oh, that’s a terrific question. When we ran the first one, I was still in grad school, and I told my colleagues about it; I told my adviser about it. And my adviser liked it! He thought it was pretty cool. My colleagues now know about it also, and they know that I take a day off every spring to go to New York and do it. I guess I don’t really — aside from the fact that I definitely don’t make any secret of my participation in !!Con, and, you know, I tell people about it – it doesn’t really play into my work life or my research life all that much.
With that said, at the event itself, I have terrific research conversations sometimes. And I think that, you know, part of that is because of the kind of people that go to !!Con, but another part of it is just that the atmosphere of !!Con, as well as the Recurse Center in general, as you know, is an atmosphere [that’s supportive] of people who are deeply curious, and who want to know about whatever cool thing that I might be working on.
Thus far, I’ve never given a talk at !!Con – you know, I’ve been a little preoccupied with organizing it – but I would love to attempt to give a research talk at !!Con. We had a great talk this year, in 2016, from Laura Lindzey, who’s a geophysics PhD student. She talked about convolutions and Fourier transforms, and tried to explain them visually in her talk, and explain how that related to her research, which has to do with analyzing ice-penetrating radar data from Antarctica. I thought her talk was fascinating. We’ve had a few other talks from researchers over the years, too. We had another one this year from a quantum computing researcher. I guess those are the two examples that I have that come to top of mind: Laura Lindzey, and the one on quantum computing, which was from Jennifer Fernick from the University of Waterloo.
PHILIP: Cool. Yeah, I’ll pull both of those up in the notes because afterwards I’ll put all the links up. One thing I was thinking about along these lines is that these sorts of environments of intellectual curiosity like you’re mentioning, and the visceral sort of excitement like that, is — I think, especially for people like us who are working in cutting-edge research, and advancing the field intellectually, keeping that spark alive inside of our heads, I think, is really important. Even if it’s something that’s not directly related to the exact problem you’re working on at work, I think there’s something big to be said about inspiration, and enthusiasm, and all the stuff that we’re talking about here.
LINDSEY: Right, yeah. I have mixed feelings here, I have to say, because one of the reasons why I like hanging out with researchers and being a researcher, and going to research conferences, is that I actually appreciate the fact that people are not relentlessly enthusiastic all the time. If I wanted to hear about how, you know, everything was the greatest thing ever, all the time, then I could go to industry conferences and I could get that. But at research conferences, instead, you know, what we talk about is what’s hard, and what we’re struggling with. At least for me, my favorite parts of research are hearing people talk about what they’re struggling with and what they’re just barely beginning to figure out. And I think there’s a certain kind of respect for hard problems that researchers have. You don’t hear researchers say “Oh, well, why don’t you just do this?” so often, because everybody knows that everybody’s wrestling with something that’s hard.
PHILIP: Let’s actually talk about this more, because this is a good turn. Contrasting what you feel is valuable about more academic sorts of conferences versus the !!Con end of things, I think, would be really awesome.
LINDSEY: Sure – well, I think !!Con is kind of in a different place. So there’s — there are industry conferences which may even be, say, sponsored by a company, and they tend to attract talks where people are really excited about that company’s product, and in the worst case, the talk is practically a product pitch.
PHILIP: Well, yeah, and then there are roles called developer evangelists, right?
LINDSEY: Right. And !!Con really tries very hard not to be that. I’m involved with talk proposal review for !!Con, which, by the way, one of the things about !!Con that I think is especially cool is we do anonymous talk proposal review, so when you submit your talk proposal, we don’t know who it’s from. And, in fact, we go to an effort to remove identifying information from what you submit, so that we can try to review it in a way that is as bias-free as we can make it.
But one of the things that I downgrade a given talk proposal for is if it sounds too much like a pitch for a certain product. I’m much more interested in talks that are, you know, not about any particular product or service. Or sometimes the talk won’t be about a particular product or service as such, but it will nevertheless be about something that someone is demonstrating that really can’t be replicated unless you have some particular service that you’ve paid for or software that you’ve paid for. And I don’t really care for those, either. I can’t speak for the other organizers, because we kind of all have different taste, and, if any one of us were creating the program for !!Con, it would probably look different than, you know, the program that we actually end up coming up with. But I try to focus more on a different kind of talk. I try to focus on the ones that are, again, that visceral experience of computing! And you can go to the !!Con website to see the kind of things that we end up with – it’s a stunningly broad variety of talks, all over the map.
There’s everything from people talking about wacky OS internals, to code running on spacecraft, to quantum computing, to color theory and how that plays out in software, to weird text manipulation and poetry stuff – it’s really all over the map, and that’s part of what makes !!Con so great.
PHILIP: Interesting. And how broad, both scale-wise in terms of number and people involved, and also, topics-wise, how much do you want to keep it at its core, at its status quo, versus the pressure to grow broader or bigger, and what do you see in the coming years?
LINDSEY: Well, that’s a really hard question. We struggled with that, actually: just in terms of the size of the conference, going from 2015 to 2016, we were a little bit worried about expanding the conference even just from 100 to 200 people, because we were worried that it would change the flavor of !!Con and it wouldn’t be as cool or as unique of an event. I’m happy to say that I don’t think that happened; in fact, I think that 2016 was our best year yet. And I think this year, we really raised the bar for how we wanted the conference to be.
In terms of the breadth of the event, you know, that’s something that I’ve been thinking about, too. Right now, our tag line is, “The joy, excitement, and surprise of programming.” But some of our talks don’t necessarily have that much to do with programming as such; they have a lot to do with computing – for example, we had several talks this year that were really maybe more about math, or quantum computing, or something that was computational, but wasn’t necessarily about code. And I think that that’s okay! But I think that if that is the direction that we are going to go, then I think that we might want to reconsider this “joy, excitement, and surprise of programming” tag line and think about, you know, should we replace the word “programming” with “computing”? Or, should we keep it, because we seem to be having good luck with that so far, because we’re attracting the kinds of speakers that we want to attract? So, that’s something that we’re going to have to continually re-examine.
PHILIP: Cool, cool. So, for a parting thought, if you could stare into a crystal ball, however many years you want to predict in the future, or however ambitiously you want to predict, what do you think is the the future in n years for !!Con?
LINDSEY: Well, I hope that it continues. We bought the domain name for five years, so I hope that it goes for at least five years! Whether I personally would stay involved…I think it would actually be a victory for me to stop being involved and for !!Con to continue and get better, you know, without me.
I don’t know what to say. I mean, every year, at least for the first couple of years, it seemed like it was a victory just to be able to have the conference at all. It’s possible that in 2016, we finally got past that point where just having the conference at all was a victory, and now, we can kind of begin to refine the conference, and figure out, now that the conference itself has proven to be a success, now we can talk about, what do we really want this conference to be?
We’ve been very lucky in that we’ve had an absolutely astonishing, tremendous outpouring of support from people. We’ve had people who said this is “the coolest conference I’ve been to.” Ashley Blewer literally said, “best conference ever filled completely with perfect people” – which sounds like I’m lying, but that’s actually what she said! And this year, somebody said, “If I never went to another tech conference, this would be the one to have ended on.” So it’s great to get all this praise, but I don’t think we should rest on our laurels; I think we have to keep working. And there are already things that I feel like we can improve from last year to this year. So, you know, I can’t predict the future, but I can tell you what I hope would happen, which is that we continue to improve and evolve.
PHILIP: Awesome. Well, thank you so much, Lindsey. This was an awesome conversation.
LINDSEY: Thank you!
PHILIP: We’ll head offline. Thanks, Lindsey!
The original transcript of the video was done by the inimitable Stan Sakai, who also did real-time captioning at !!Con 2015. Hire him for all your stenography needs! ↩