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Far out in the remote red dirt country of Oklahoma—well, actually it’s in Oklahoma City—it’s the Red Dirt Ruby Conference, a unique experience in professional education and networking.

Regional programming conferences are an increasingly important part of the working programmer’s ongoing education. You’ve doubtless attended your share, and it’s possible that the idea of putting on your own conference has crossed your mind. James Edward Gray II and a few of his friends had that idea, and they ran with it. The result, the Red Dirt Ruby Conference, starts next month in Oklahoma City. I thought it would be enlightening to chat with James about what it took to put on a conference, and what he’s learned in the process.

Dave Thomas of Pragmatic Programmers and Jim Weirich of EdgeCase will deliver the keynotes at the conference. The organizers hope to make it a uniquely focused and productive experience, partly by limiting attendance. The conference is organized around four themes:

  1. Ruby: The Ruby language still has the power to surprise us. This theme is focused on Ruby syntax, gems, and good development practices.

  2. Rails 3: Ruby on Rails is crossing a huge milestone. This theme is centered on topics such as routing, metal, the new response system, and advanced queries.

  3. NoSQL: Database choice affects application performance and scalability. This theme will focus on databases such as MongoDB, Riak, Redis, and Tokyo Cabinet.

  4. Servers: Ruby is well suited for web based applications. This theme will focus on tools such as Rack, Unicorn, EventMachine, Resque, and AWS.

Here’s what James—and Dana Gray, who joined in the conversation—had to say:

ms: Whatever possessed you to take this on?

jg: That’s a good question. We may need to plead Temporary Insanity.

I have wanted to do a Ruby conference in Oklahoma for some time now, mainly for selfish reasons. The official conference hosted by RubyCentral seems to bounce from coast to coast now and driving my wheelchair van all that way for a weekend event just isn’t much fun. There are quite a few regional conferences for Ruby, but again they tend to be towards the coasts. The closest, before we put this event together, was the Lone Star Ruby Conference in Austin, TX. I have attended that each year and it is terrific, but they give me a lot of flak for my Okie accent in Texas.

ms: What about the location? Oklahoma is not everyone’s first thought when they think of attending a conference.

jg: Travel distance aside, I’ve always felt Oklahoma could support a real tech conference. You may not have heard of us yet, but our little town is starting to make some waves. We are very startup friendly and we will be hosting the U.S. Conference of Mayors this June, just so they can observe how well our economy is still doing.

ms: I imagine doing a big conference like the Red Dirt Ruby Conference is a lot of work.

jg: Of course. A couple of the organizers had looked into doing it separately, but the size of the task scared us off. It wasn’t until we came together with a like-minded vision that we had the resources to do it.

ms: It seems that with so much information online, and technology changing so quickly, smaller, regional conferences like yours are getting more important, and the reasons to go to big conferences (unless your employer will pay for the international travel) are disappearing.

jg: Having been to both types, I agree that the regional conferences are becoming more important.

I feel that’s because of the people. Regional conferences have fewer people. That makes the key interactions more accessible to everyone. You can track down a speaker and have a quick chat with them about their topic. If you arrange extra-curricular events, like the Hackfest we have planned for the Red Dirt RubyConf, a significant portion of the speakers and industry experts will be there with us mere mortals. Those experiences really make an event.

ms: So what are the benefits of a regional conference?

jg: I think the primary benefit is the scale. We just don’t have the resources to think on the scale of a multitrack event that seats thousands. If you embrace that constraint, it comes down to the question of how you can pack the best content and experience into the time and space you have.

That means you have to make the tough choices like, how do I get these 50 speeches down to the 16 I can use. Those cuts are painful, but it also means we are really trying to maximize every aspect of the conference we control. I believe that will be noticed by those who attend.

ms: What are you trying to do with this conference that’s different, and why?

jg: First, we aren’t trying to be different just to be different. As avid conference attendees ourselves, we have seen a lot of things we like. We want to stand on the shoulders of those giants. Two of our biggest inspirations have been the Lone Star Ruby Conference, which taught us to favor their “cruise ship experience” and introduced the topical trainings, and the MountainWest RubyConf, which showed us that a single track conference with time restrictions can really build a killer program.

ms: So you’ve emulated those conferences?

jg: We kept those ideas. In a lot of ways we just tried to do even more of what we feel is working well. For example, our program has even tighter time restrictions than MountainWest RubyConf, limiting the majority of our speakers to just 15 minutes. We didn’t make that choice lightly and we have thought a lot about how we are going to make that work. We’ve divided the speakers into four themes of discussion. Each of those themes will have a 30 minute introductory speech to set the stage. Then we can followup with three 15 minute talks that are tightly focused. We feel that will allow us to get into multiple aspects of each theme even though we are just a one-day event. We close each theme with a panel Q&A from all four speakers. This relieves speakers from needing to allow time for this, which is important in making their limited time really count. As a bonus, attendees will get multiple perspectives on the questions they ask. Everybody wins.

Then we follow the conference up with trainings provided by experts on the same themes covered the day before. That allows attendees to get hands-on mentoring. We’ve got Envy Labs giving the same training they will be doing at RailsConf this year, Squeejee sharing their deployment expertise, Glenn Vanderburg helping me teach how to clean up Ruby code, and Basho teaching their Riak NoSQL database. It’s a full package we have created.

ms: Dana, you wanted to add something?

dg: Yes. Building on the cruise ship experience idea, we wanted to have a conference that kept everything together in one place. We felt by having the conference location next door to the hotel allowed participants to spend less time traveling from place to place and more time socializing and networking. Because the hotel provides service to and from the airport, we made it easy to get to the venue and then set it up so you don’t have to leave if you don’t want to.

Another part of the cruise ship experience we are trying to replicate is the food. We will provide breakfast and lunch on both the conference day and the training day and we will provide dinner on the night of the conference. Since the keynote is after dinner, we didn’t want anyone to feel rushed to eat so they wouldn’t miss such a great speaker. Not only are we providing food, our hope is that people will find it first-class fare. We’ve worked hard to build menus that cater to a variety of appetites, from vegetarian to the carb-conscious without sacrificing quality or selection.

ms: Is there anything apart from the content of the sessions that’s particularly Ruby-ish about this conference? I mean, would it make sense for someone to copy the model for a Java conference, or would that be a bad fit culturally or in some other way?

jg: I don’t think the ideas we are trying are inherently tied to Ruby, no.

It is interesting that regional conferences have have exploded in the Ruby community, though, and our culture encourages this kind of experimentation. I wonder if we would have been as tempted to try and build such an event if we were immersed in the Java world instead.

ms: What are you learning in the process of doing this?

jg: That organizing conferences is scary hard.

I always think, “Alright, I’ve finished that task up.” Then two weeks later I think, “Am I still doing this?” Yikes!

You have to have passion to do this. Luckily, Ruby is my second favorite thing and the first one, my wife Dana, is helping me organize the event.

I have planned a three week nap for myself as well, starting May 8th.

ms: What has the process been? What have you had to do to make it happen?

jg: This is roughly the order we did things in:

  • Secure respected keynote speakers, so people would take us seriously

  • Get great training content so we had something to offer

  • Make an open call for proposals to fill out the program

  • Find a location that could support our needs

  • Sort out the extras like food, so we knew what we had to charge

  • Line up sponsors to get that number down for attendees

  • Open registration

  • Do an interview in PragPub so people will know how cool we are and want to come join us

Short little bullet points make those seem so small to me now, but they sure felt big as we struggled to make them happen. I’m sure we will have quite a few other challenges as the event approaches.

It’s also worth noting that promoting the event is something we do just about every day in some form or other. You have to get the word out.

ms: How easy is it to line up speakers for a conference with no track record?

jg: I am very lucky to know some wonderful people in the community. I asked several of them to come and most of them took me up on the offer.

I started with my programming heros: Dave Thomas, Jim Weirich, and Glenn Vanderburg. We are super lucky to have them all and that’s exactly why they are my heros!

That said, there were still plenty of surprises for us organizers. A lot of people wanted to be a part of this event. We have some real heavy hitters from the industry: Twitter, Google, Engine Yard, 10gen, ThoughtWorks, Hashrocket, and more. They are coming to show how they use Ruby, which is so valuable to the attendees.

There was a little bit of pushback on the tight schedule, but I hope it goes over as well as we have planned—and it will be less in doubt in future years. We received at least as much praise for trying it, so we are not the only people who believe we are on the right track.

ms: How about attendees?

jg: We’re in that process right now, so I’ll let you know.

My hope is that people will see the program we have lined up and feel they would be crazy to miss it. That’s sure how I feel.

ms: What led you to the particular model of conference; e.g., strictly limited attendance?

jg: Early in our conversations one of the organizers told me, “Build the conference you have always wanted to attend.” That’s exactly what I did. And they have actually trusted me to do it, crazy ideas and all. Of course, if this year flops, I suspect they will go hunting for a new Idea Man next year.

I think the fact that it’s my ideal conference is really reflected in the program. One of the speakers commented that Red Dirt RubyConf is really shaping up to be a “down in the (developer) dirt” event. That makes sense. I’m a developer through and through. I want to see what other developers are using and trying so I know what I need to be keeping an eye on.

Of course, I’m not perfect. A couple of people have pointed out that I didn’t build in much room to discuss the business side of our business. That’s a valid complaint. It isn’t on my radar enough. It is now though and I’ll make it up to them next year.

ms: One last question: who should come to the Red Dirt Ruby Conference?

jg: While we originally planned an event for the central Ruby communities, the conference is much bigger than that. We had speech proposals from three non-U.S. countries. We would love to see our attendance be as varied.

I feel our program is strong enough to rival the national Ruby events. If you want to see how Google and Twitter scale or really get into this NoSQL movement everyone has been talking about, Red Dirt RubyConf is the right place for that. You can get information, trainings, and plenty of face time with like-minded developers and experts.

That said, we know everyone can’t make every conference and we don’t want to leave anyone out. We have been working hard to ensure we will have the resources to stream the presentations live for those who cannot attend. We are also making high-definition videos of the content available at a small expense. Anyone who wants to will be able to catch the Red Dirt RubyConf.

ms: OK, well thank you both for your time and insight.

jg: Thank you for taking the time to talk to us about our fun new hobby.

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James Edward Gray II is a Ruby and Rails programmer by day. However, he often spends hobby hours helping to maintain TextMate’s Ruby integration. This gives him an ongoing excuse to play with his two favorite toys pretty much all the time. He is the author of TextMate: Power Editing for the Mac and Best of Ruby Quiz.

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