Some musings on previous Strange Loop years and the plan for 2012.
Strange Loop 2009
I started Strange Loop in 2009 with the thought that I could put together a local conference and surely I could find (heck probably knew myself) a couple hundred people in St. Louis that would go to a one day developer conference. I planned it in one of my favorite movie theaters in one of my favorite areas of St. Louis – the Loop. We ended up expanding by a half day and selling out with 300 attendees. The whole experience was terrifying from beginning to end. The event itself was an a/v nightmare although I muddled through and people still seemed to like it. The 2009 event had a few edgy topics but also tread some of the same ground as other conferences.
Strange Loop 2010
In 2010 I significantly expanded, planning for 500 people. With the increased size, there were few real choices in the Loop and I ended up at the Pageant (which I love) with extra meeting rooms at the Moonrise Hotel and the Regional Arts Commission across the street. Guy Steele did a keynote. NoSQL was a big focus of the conference. We recorded many of the talks and released them on InfoQ. We sold out again at 600 people. It was not quite as terrifying but I was stretched to the breaking point in the months leading up to the conference.
Strange Loop 2011
A year ago I knew what I wanted to do with the conference but I knew I couldn’t do it alone. I recruited and found a great group of people – Mario Aquino, Ryan Senior, Scott Delap, and Nick Cowan came into the fold. I signed much larger contracts for scary amounts of money (all before a single speaker had been contacted).
We planned for 700 with a max of 800 attendees. We moved out of the loop into the Hilton downtown. I don’t know what the magic number is, but I crossed some threshold between 600 and 800 people. Things were different – sponsors came out of nowhere, some economies of scale kicked in, and Strange Loop all of a sudden seemed like a business, not a conference. Things were not terrifying, merely very very busy.
We sold out all 800 tickets two months before the conference. I worked feverishly with the hotel to find some way to let more people attend and we were eventually able to bump the total up to 900 (and sold out again).
I had many many great experiences this year – I don’t get to see many of the talks during the conference but I thoroughly enjoyed all of the keynotes and several other sessions I got to see. Probably my personal highlight was just getting to know Gerry and Julie Sussman – they were both phenomenal before, during, and after the conference. Gerry didn’t just do his keynote, he went to the Haskell workshop, they both attended sessions and the trivia event, they gave out pocket protectors. Total inspiration. Rich Hickey brought down the house at the end with a great talk that has already gotten more than 50,000 views on InfoQ. I got to talk type systems with Daniel Spiewak well after midnight and have great conversations with more people than I can remember. The speaker dinner was a blast – it felt like my wedding reception to drift through the tables and see so many people I knew and got to meet.
At the same time, I was not happy being at a hotel. The conference felt more like other big conferences – loss of intimate spaces, the typical blah vibe you get from any hotel conference space, generally crappy views for screens in the big room (inevitable given the shape of big hotel conference spaces), etc etc.
Strange Loop is too awesome to be constrained in such a space.
Strange Loop 2012
This year I was determined to find a venue that would be awesome to see talks yet still accommodate enough people. Strange Loop will probably grow a little this year, but I think it’s basically at it’s limit for retaining the feel I want. We had looked at the new Peabody Opera House last year but they were targeting an August open date at the time and I just didn’t trust that to be solid enough for 2011, but now they’re open so we’re doing it!
The main hall is sweet – it is a similar feel to the Fox Theater (if you’re from St. Louis), but a bit smaller and more intimate. I have asked the A/V guys to find the biggest damn screen they can get and they have a multi-million dollar sound system. Seeing talks in the main theater is going to be remarkable. In addition, the four side theaters are also perfectly sized for sessions. They have high ceilings and 3 of them have built-in stages – these let us put screens and speakers up higher and have a great viewing experience. Every one of these rooms is just simply better than what you can find in a hotel.
There is a truly phenomenal set of speakers I talked to last year that just couldn’t make it. I can’t wait to get started putting together this year’s program. There will still be an open call but I expect competition to be fierce. I’m convinced that we’re going to have a conference line-up like nothing you’ve seen anywhere.
That’s just the start – we’re working to make the optional pre-conference day better (I’m really glad the Emerging Languages Camp will be part of Strange Loop!), great night-time events, free-flow beverages throughout the day, better snack options, simplified parking, etc. Everything is going to be just better.
When I started Strange Loop my goal was to have a low-cost conference, in comparison to conferences that cost $1000+, don’t pay speakers, and sell keynote slots to people you don’t care about. My views on this have changed over the years – I would now say that I want Strange Loop to be a *great value* and I think we’ve hit that goal for sure. Some of the improvements above cost money. As such, Strange Loop will cost more in 2012 ($400+) but I still think this is very competitively priced and offers tremendous value.
Some of these changes are also going to consume more time. I spent a lot of time this year thinking about how to keep doing Strange Loop in a way that makes me happy. I have a full-time job at Revelytix and have been running Strange Loop by spending every evening and a lot of weekends for half the year working on it. Adding the additional guys to the team in 2011 made it possible – they were a huge help. But really it merely kept my work level flat.
With this year’s success, it’s clear that it’s possible to make some money doing Strange Loop, maybe even enough (with a couple additional other conferences) for me to do it full time. I’m not ready to make that leap yet but in 2012 I have worked out an agreement with Revelytix to reduce my hours so that I can spend 20% of my time on conference work. My hope is that this will allow me to both do better work on Strange Loop (and the new Clojure/West) and also reclaim some of my life back so I can spend it with my kids and wife (who has been very supportive throughout). Many companies would not be so flexible and I really owe a huge debt to the owner of Revelytix, Michael Lang, and my boss, Bob Scanlon, for giving me this leeway.