illustration for Organizing a Conference to Combat Brain Drain in His Hometown - with J.C. Hiatt

episode 47

Organizing a Conference to Combat Brain Drain in His Hometown - with J.C. Hiatt

John Lindquist

J.C. Hiatt put together the conference MagnoliaJS in the town of Jackson, Missouri to help his community and combat the growing problem of brain drain in his state.

MagnoliaJS is not only for his community, but it was put together with the help of it too. J.C. put it together, publically by using Github issues, blogging, and posting about it on Twitter. The community responds well when you are genuine and trying to do something good, and bringing them in and giving them a sense of ownership is what J.C. attributes as the single most significant contributor to the conference's success.

If you have the opportunity to do something like this for your city, go for it. Bring in as many people as possible, contact your city officials, plan it publically. Technology can have a significant positive impact on a community!


Resources

J.C. Hiatt

John Lindquist

Transcript

John Lindquist: I'm here with J.C. J.C., why don't you go ahead and introduce yourself?

J. C. Hiatt: I'm J.C. Hiatt. I am a software engineer and growth manager at Echobind, and also, on the side, I run a little fitness company called Dev Lifts.

John Lindquist: Nice!

J. C. Hiatt: And I'm also the organizer of MagnoliaJS.

John Lindquist: Sweet! We're here to talk about MagnoliaJS, and you were the organizer of it. What even gave you the idea of starting a conference?

J. C. Hiatt: I had the idea for a conference probably four years ago, but at the time, I had no idea how to execute on it.

John Lindquist: Yeah.

J. C. Hiatt: And the mayor of Jackson, here in Mississippi, he really wants to try to put, in our area on the map, a little more in terms of tech, and try to attract companies to come and open offices here and create more jobs here. We have a big, what we call "brain drain" problem here, where lots of people just kind of get trained up and then they immediately leave because there's better opportunities elsewhere.

John Lindquist: Right, okay.

J. C. Hiatt: He's trying to put us on the map, and his office was planning a more general tech conference to kind of bring in some companies and kind of showcase what's going on with tech in Mississippi, or in Jackson specifically. And then, he asked if I would do something for the developers-

John Lindquist: How did he reach out to you? How did he find you?

J. C. Hiatt: In Mississippi, it's a pretty small pond.

John Lindquist: Okay.

J. C. Hiatt: And so, being the organizer of pretty much the only developer meetup in central Mississippi.

John Lindquist: Right.

J. C. Hiatt: And also, I do a lot of volunteering with the Coding Academy in downtown Jackson, stuff like that. So, just through that network, my name, I guess, came up, but, yeah. They reached out to me...

J. C. Hiatt: They first kind of put it out there in December of, "We want to do this conference. What do you think?" And my initial response was I would love to do a conference, but I don't want to tie it to this general tech conference that the city was doing.

John Lindquist: Right.

J. C. Hiatt: "I don't want to tie it to the general conference the city is doing because I want it to be able to stand on its own, and I think that, I truly believe, that stuff like this is going to... more on the ground level, a grassroots level, is going to be a huge... It's not going to be the single thing, but it's going to be a huge part of moving my state forward, and helping people learn about code, get a job, who actually want to stay here because there are good jobs to work here. So, I really want this to have legs, and whether or not... hopefully not, but if the mayor doesn't care about tech two years from now, I still want this conference to have its own name and recognition and stuff like that."

John Lindquist: Right.

J. C. Hiatt: Those were my conditions. I was like, "Yeah, I will do this. I just want it to be its own thing." And they agreed to that. I think they truly believe in what they're doing, they truly believe in trying to move us forward, and so, they supported me a lot. And I know, we can go into that in a little more detail. That was the initial discussion, was just kind of...

J. C. Hiatt: We talked for 20 minutes, they kind of mentioned it, and we decided we would go from there.

John Lindquist: Cool! That's great. I love that it's a conference to help the community, rather than just pro-tech, you know. This is promoting people and community over tech. And I attended it, and I loved it. It's one of the favorite conferences I've been to, just because it felt much more genuine than any conferences I've been to.

John Lindquist: What other conferences had you been to that sort of inspired the way you ran it, the way you organized it? Were there other people you talked to, other conference organizers who helped you out? It seems to me, from behind the scenes, like a lot of work to get it up and running. How did you get the direction and the plan to put it all together?

J. C. Hiatt: This probably actually starts way back in high school for me. I'm currently 26, I've been out of high school for, I guess, eight years now. Back in high school, I did a combination of things. I built websites for businesses and stuff like that, but I also booked concerts back then.

John Lindquist: Okay!

J. C. Hiatt: I was pretty involved in the local music scene, and I was effectively just a promoter, and I would try to put together events, and I think a lot of those types of skills, just thinking logistically about events, kind of transferred over a bit. But I also, after high school, ran my own marketing agency for a while. I learned a little bit about marketing and branding, and then how to create a story and stuff. And I think that those are some skills that definitely helped me out in the past few months.

J. C. Hiatt: But as far as tech conferences, I went to my first tech conference in 2015. It was Connect JS in Atlanta, which is now Connect Tech.

John Lindquist: Okay.

J. C. Hiatt: And that was really my first exposure to a conference, and the only one that I've ever really been to. I went to one called The Lead Developer in Austin last year, just as a sponsor, so I didn't actually get to really attend any talks or anything, but those are really the only conferences I've been to.

J. C. Hiatt: But I still keep an eye on things. By being active on Twitter and stuff, I can kind of get a sense of what different conferences out there are like, and so, between that and then asking the right people for help, and kind of planning all of this in public, that was kind of the staple. The big thing about Magnolia was I planned everything in public. We had GitHub issues for all my to-do's, and I blogged about it a lot. I talked about it on Twitter. I tried to create a drum and beat it as loudly as possible.

John Lindquist: Right.

J. C. Hiatt: Which was the advice of Gant Laborde. Gant is a good friend. He was a speaker. He works at Infinite Red, and when he saw what I was trying to do, he can empathize a little bit because he's from New Orleans, he kind of gets... I won't speak for him.

J. C. Hiatt: For me, it's very easy to feel like the South gets forgotten, especially the Deep South, like Mississippi, in terms of tech. I think he can empathize with that a little bit, being from New Orleans. So, he hopped on a call with me, he and Shawni over at Infinite Red, for about an hour, hour and a half, right after I announced this. And just gave me some pointers, of things that they've done with Chain React and things to think through. And Gant was kind of my sounding board for the whole thing. I would just call and say, "Hey, here's what I think I need to do next, and am I missing anything?"

J. C. Hiatt: He was a huge help for me. But, yeah, besides that, it was just putting everything out there in public, getting people's opinions. I think we technically even named it publicly. It was originally going to be called, I think, Blues Comp, or something. And someone else came up with MagnoliaJS, because that's our state flower.

John Lindquist: Right.

J. C. Hiatt: It was really fun to plan in public.

John Lindquist: Cool! Yeah, it seems like it turned out great. The format is my favorite format, the single-track, half hour sort of talks. Whenever I go to a larger conference and they try and do a multi-track thing, three or more talks or whatever, there's always one talk that gets completely full and then other, sad speakers who have the leftovers of that one talk that everyone wanted to go to. It always feels like if you try and do more than one track at a time, that the speakers are sad because they know people are going to go watch someone else's talk, and the attendees are sad because they couldn't get into the talk they wanted to see. And I don't understand why...

John Lindquist: I mean, I understand why conferences get larger, and bigger sponsors, but there's got to be some sort of limit on those things, because every conference I've loved, whether it's Magnolia or React Rally or some of those smaller ones, have kind of kept that single room, single track approach. And I love the way you pulled it off.

J. C. Hiatt: Yeah! I really appreciate that. I think that I won't take credit for that necessarily, because I probably stumbled into that format more than I chose to be in that format. Yeah, I'm glad you enjoyed it, but my only... with Connect JS, I guess, my only experience in a conference was a huge, multi-track conference where I might have to decide between two talks that I'd love to hear.

John Lindquist: Yeah.

J. C. Hiatt: And originally, I was like, "Well, obviously, I know I can't plan on a conference with 80 speakers." I know we probably skipped over some stuff there, but it really came down to about six weeks of actual planning for this thing. I knew I couldn't do that in six weeks. There was no way I was going to be able to get that many speakers or raise that amount of money, and originally, I was actually going to do three stages and we were going to have a main stage, and then we would have a two-hour block in the afternoon for first-time speakers to speak on two different stages.

John Lindquist: Okay.

J. C. Hiatt: You know, concurrently. And I thought that would, first off, give people who are first-time speakers an opportunity to come and, in a pretty forgiving environment... I mean, it was a conference that was planned in six weeks, so people are already probably having pretty low expectations. It's going to be a pretty forgiving environment, they can come and kind of get one under their belt. And specifically, I was hoping for people from the community and stuff to come in.

J. C. Hiatt: And that was the plan, but as I drew closer to the date, it just got too hard to handle logistically, and even though it was-

John Lindquist: Only doing local speakers?

J. C. Hiatt: Well, no, just having more than one stage.

John Lindquist: Okay.

J. C. Hiatt: I was stretched really thin, and that was a pretty stressful couple months, there. But I decided just to merge it all into one stage. I went back and... I'd actually already chosen the speakers, the first-time speakers, and I said, "Hey, I think that we're going to merge everything on the one stage. Basically, your talk is not 25 minutes anymore. Your talk's going to be 20 minutes."

John Lindquist: Yeah.

J. C. Hiatt: No one had a problem with that. They were still grateful to be able to speak and stuff. But I didn't set out to do that, but it did work out that way, and I think that it probably was for the best.

John Lindquist: Did you find all the speakers through Twitter, or, what was the process there?

J. C. Hiatt: Yeah!

John Lindquist: Did you have a CFP? I didn't...

J. C. Hiatt: Yeah, we did.

John Lindquist: Okay.

J. C. Hiatt: It was very short. The CFP was only open for two weeks, and we had 66 submissions, which I thought was pretty good.

John Lindquist: Oh, wow! Yeah.

J. C. Hiatt: Considering that no one had heard of this before, and it was pretty much just kind of getting out there from my efforts on Twitter and some really nice people re-tweeting stuff for me.

John Lindquist: Yeah, that's great.

J. C. Hiatt: Most of them came from efforts on Twitter. I set out to go ahead and pick certain people to just come, ask certain people to come in, because I already had a pretty decent network of knowing people I knew, so, most of the people who I picked to come and they didn't have to go through the CFP process, most of those people, I already had a connection with and I just DM'd them on Twitter and said, "Hey, I'm doing this thing. You might have heard about it already. I'd really love it if you could come. I'll help out with whatever I possibly can as long as my budget allows me to."

J. C. Hiatt: And everyone was really cool about it. We even had some speakers fly themselves in on their own dime, and I thought that was super cool of them. And everyone that I asked to come was pretty low-key and it went pretty well.

John Lindquist: Yeah. How did you find the MC? He was from New Orleans, right?

J. C. Hiatt: Yeah. He came at the recommendation of Gant.

John Lindquist: Okay.

J. C. Hiatt: He and Gant are in Toastmasters together down there, I think.

John Lindquist: Oh, yeah! Gant was... He gave that AI presentation during lunch, right? The magician...

J. C. Hiatt: Yes.

John Lindquist: Okay. That's Gant, okay.

J. C. Hiatt: Yeah. I think they know each other from Toastmasters, and, yeah. He highly recommended getting an MC just so on conference day, I wasn't the one trying to do...

John Lindquist: Yes.

J. C. Hiatt: First off, I'm just not the person you want up there. I'm really monotone, in case anyone hasn't noticed yet. I'm not great at just creating conversation out of thin air.

John Lindquist: Right.

J. C. Hiatt: Or cracking jokes.

John Lindquist: No, it's a talent. Yeah, it's definitely a talent some people have and some people don't. Or, work on, I guess.

J. C. Hiatt: Yeah.

J. C. Hiatt: And Kenneth came, and he was just so good.

John Lindquist: Yeah.

J. C. Hiatt: Kenneth LaFrance was our MC. He took care of everything, and he knew nothing about coding, but it didn't matter. His personality and his energy, everyone... I've heard so many great reviews of him, and so, we'll definitely have him again next year if he's willing to come.

John Lindquist: Yeah, he was fantastic!

J. C. Hiatt: I'm so glad we went with that, because, yeah, I was actually running around pretty crazy on conference day, so I'm glad that we brought him on.

John Lindquist: Yeah, I've seen conference organizers in smaller conferences trying to MC, then a issue comes up, and then they miss their spot to introduce somebody, and it all kind of collapses from there. You got to separate those two responsibilities, for sure.

J. C. Hiatt: Yeah, definitely. Huge props to Gant for that recommendation, because that was huge.

John Lindquist: Yeah. What did you think of the final result? Anything you'd do differently, or any advice you have for someone who would want to start their own conference, based on your new experience?

J. C. Hiatt: Yeah. As far as the good stuff, I highly recommend planning in public, and I kind of got that idea from Sean... Shoot. I'm blanking on his last name. Was it Wang?

John Lindquist: Sean Wang?

J. C. Hiatt: Sean Wang? Yeah. At Netlify?

John Lindquist: Yep.

J. C. Hiatt: His essay series called Learn in Public, it's really talking about you as a developer, but I've been kind of following along with that and adhering to it, to a degree, for the past year. And it's done wonders for my career, and I've found that if you put things out there and... It's kind of hard to... Because people also are going to call BS if...

J. C. Hiatt: If you put things out there and you genuinely are trying to do something good for people, and trying to do something good for the community or whatever it might be, I think the community responds to it.

John Lindquist: Yeah.

J. C. Hiatt: And I think that that was the single biggest thing that I did, was inviting other people to plan this with me, and putting everything out there on GitHub and saying, "Hey, here's a few things I need on the website. Here's some meetups I'm thinking about contacting. Do you know any others?" All that kind of stuff, putting all that out in public, then you can still go look at this GitHub repo and see all the issues that are closed, of everything we did.

J. C. Hiatt: I think that was the single biggest help, because giving the community a sense of ownership also helped with the promotional efforts, because people wanted to retweet everything, and if they worked on the site, they obviously were happy to share that they did that. I think that even led to some sponsorships and stuff. It's kind of hard to know what had a direct effect and stuff, but I definitely think...

J. C. Hiatt: We raised about $17,000 in six weeks.

John Lindquist: Okay.

J. C. Hiatt: And that was without me... I wasn't just busting down doors. I am not a salesman. I think that bringing the community into this was the single best thing I did.

John Lindquist: Yeah, I think you even had someone design the T-shirt and stuff, right?

J. C. Hiatt: Yeah! Yeah.

John Lindquist: A bunch of the things that would have taken you who knows how long, right?

J. C. Hiatt: Yeah. When I first got the final confirmation that we were a Go and we were about six weeks out, I asked a friend of mine at work, Ryan Steven, if he wouldn't mind throwing together a logo for me. And he's really fast at that stuff, so it didn't take him too long. I think by the end of the day, he handed me a few ideas and I took that. And then, Natalie Thomas, she's here in Jackson, she's a designer. And she just volunteered to do anything that we needed, so she did our shirts and banners and lanyards and all that stuff.

J. C. Hiatt: Yeah. She kicked ass.

John Lindquist: Yeah, that's really cool. Any other things to recommend, if you're starting a conference, or any things to avoid? Is there something that happened that you wish you could get a do-over on?

J. C. Hiatt: I think, given the circumstances, it went so well. It went as well as I could have hoped.

John Lindquist: Yeah.

J. C. Hiatt: I didn't have any huge issues. We had one speaker that did bail out kind of at the 11th hour, and that was kind of unexpected, but we were able to just deal with it and shift the schedule on the fly.

John Lindquist: Right.

J. C. Hiatt: Then, with the tornadoes, it actually probably worked out for the best. Or else, we would have been there till 7:30 that night.

J. C. Hiatt: I guess, yeah, have a tornado plan, or have a plan for natural disasters that are common in your area.

John Lindquist: Yeah, but having a plan if the speaker is sick or can't make it, I think that probably happens at 90% of conferences.

J. C. Hiatt: Yeah.

John Lindquist: The speaker is sick or whatever. I mean, that's crosstalk 00:16:25.

J. C. Hiatt: Yeah. It's kind of expected. It's actually surprising that only one out of, I think, 18 have dropped, because from what I hear, it's very common for lots of reasons for a speaker to suddenly not be able to make it. Definitely have your backups and all that.

J. C. Hiatt: And I'll go ahead and say, I'm actually kind of working on a blueprint for this stuff, because, yeah, it can be a pretty daunting task. I think that the more conferences like this, even if they're small; I think we only had 130 attendees come, but at the same time, even if they're smaller, I think more stuff like this is what really stimulates communities.

J. C. Hiatt: I'm working on something that I hope to launch later this year that's going to kind of be more of a blueprint or a framework for people who are trying to plan their own conference.

John Lindquist: Cool!

J. C. Hiatt: Especially in a rural community. Hopefully, I'll think of any other gotchas, and make sure that that's in the blueprint.

John Lindquist: Sweet. That sounds great. I'll look forward to that. Any closing words of advice, or something that people should hear you say?

J. C. Hiatt: I'd just say, if you see an opportunity or even have an inkling of hope that you can do something like this for your community, just go for it.

John Lindquist: Yeah.

J. C. Hiatt: And try to get the city involved. Get everyone you can involved. Our city, the City of Jackson, helped immensely, covered a lot of expenses for me, and they we super helpful. So, you never know. Your city might be willing to do that stuff for you. All that matters...

J. C. Hiatt: I say the same thing with Dev Lifts people for their fitness. All that matters is that you start.

John Lindquist: Right.

J. C. Hiatt: And so, if you think you can make a difference, just get out there and fail until you don't fail anymore.

John Lindquist: Yep.

J. C. Hiatt: Until you fail in different ways, but you have some success from the failure.

John Lindquist: Sweet. That's awesome. Thanks, J.C.! Appreciate your time.

J. C. Hiatt: Yeah! Likewise. Thanks!

John Lindquist: Yep.

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