I’ve been thinking about what it was about NodeConf that had me a little anxious going into it.
Was it my fear of looking like an amateur developer? Not really. Was it worrying about camping with two small children? Nope. (They did great!) And it wasn’t even about the fact that conferences are socially overstimulating for me. (That’s a guarantee for my introverted self.)
Then I identified the feeling: It was a tiny fear that maybe I had too high of expectations.
You’ve been there: You know the band and you’ve loved every album they’ve produced so far. And now you have a new, highly anticipated copy of their work in your hands. It’s a mix of eagerness and anxiety: "I’m so excited it’s finally here! But–will I love this as much as their other work?"
Mikeal Rogers is the only person who runs a conference I’ve been to more than once. This was the third NodeConf I’d attended–the previous two setting a new bar each time for my understanding of what made for a quality event.
So I had entered NodeConf worried that I’d set unreasonably high expectations for someone who I looked up to. (Mikeal means a lot to me personally because he was so encouraging when it came to the first conference we organized.)
The casual nature of "summer camp" played well into that anxiety. It’s impossible to look on a surface level like you’ve nailed all the details in the midst of crazy haphazard human mess of a campground, so my first impression meant those anxious feelings stayed there.
I knew Paul was going to play a few original songs he’d written for NodeConf and I was really looking forward to hearing them. In his opening, he sang,
You are all very welcome
to the show that’s about to start.
The craft that goes into this,
well, it’s akin to an art.
And what art NodeConf was indeed. This was the best NodeConf yet by miles and miles.
NodeConf 2013 was an album with cover art that I may have been indifferent about, but whose soul stood out as simple yet heroic, and absolutely pefect for what the Node community needed.
In fact, given the perspective of now having three events to compare, it’s very clear now that all three NodeConf iterations have been precisely what the community most needed in their time–and that the art of those conferences was in their perfect matching of those needs to what was offered.
NodeConf 2011 was a massive onslaught of content, showcasing the most essential projects and concepts. It was perfectly paired with JSConf that year to bring yet-unfamiliar frontenders into the world of Node.
2012 was a magical mystery tour of the world of Node, all the beautiful crannies those who were just focused on web services were missing out on.
In 2011 and 2012, Mikeal ran a second Node event: NodeConf Summer Camp, which was a place where relationships were strengthened and debates of the very in-progress elements of Node were hashed out in face-to-face discussions.
This year saw a departure from the two-event summer, with both events combined into one, but with an entirely new format.
NodeConf 2013 was a full-on educational and relational experience. Upon reflection, I can’t imagine a more effective configuration than what Mikeal and the mass of "camp counselors" were able to pull off.
This is what it looked like.
Attendees were given a single card with times and numbers on it which corresponded to a map with numbered locations. A differently focused session was held in each location once per hour over the course of a day and a half, all led by "camp counselor" leaders of the Node community.
All of the sessions were well done and informative.
I learned a lot that I’d never known or understood about Node’s domains from Forrest Norvell and Domenic Denicola. Everyone had a blast in the drones session and the nodebots session–the "arts and crafts" portion of the weekend, as it were. The streams session put together by Substack and Max Ogden was unbelievable quality. (Incidentally, you can get most of the experience of their session by playing streams-adventure, which was a pretty fun way to learn about and play with what can be done with Node streams.)
But I want you to stop and recognize what a feat this really was.
At most conferences, a speaker gets to show up, hang out, give their talk, and hang out some more. It’s definitely work to give a quality talk.
But now take that two steps further.
Think how hard it would be to interactively teach developers with a broad range of skills something valuable and interesting in just one hour’s time? And then do that over and over for the better part of two days!
I am still in awe of the work the camp counselors put in–which makes me even more in awe of what Mikeal was able to pull off for NodeConf.
This was the least glitzy seeming conference I’ve been to in the past year, but undoubtedly the most fully and unabashedly human one, driven and fully dependent on nothing more than a swarm of people who simply and humbly gave their best to their community. NodeConf 2013’s understated album art let the music speak entirely for itself.
This was The White Album of conferences.
Many people come away from a great conference with a desire to run their own. (And I really do think more people should.) It’s quite easy to look at a successful conference as something to hang on your wall as an accomplishment, like a solid gold record.
The best conferences focus on people and build community, but the outstanding ones serve that community by helping lead those people and communities in exactly the direction they need.
To paraphrase Kennedy: "Ask not what running a conference can do for you. Ask what good for your community you can do through your conference."
I think a healthy understanding of "leadership" always focuses its definition on responsibility as opposed to authority. The world needs more leaders who are first of all followers and servants of the communities of which they are members–people who are more interested in taking responsiblity than having authority.
I feel like these lines from my favorite organizational philosopher help make sense of what made this NodeConf so great on a deeper level:
In a very real sense, followers lead by choosing where to be led. Where a community will be led is inseparable from the conscious, shared values and beliefs of the individuals of which it is composed.
True leaders are those who epitomize the general sense of the community – who symbolize, legitimize, and strengthen behavior in accordance with the sense of the community – who enable its conscious, shared values and beliefs to emerge, expand, and be transmitted from generation to generation-who enable that which is trying to happen to come into being. The true leader’s behavior is induced by the behavior of every individual who chooses where they will be led. – Dee Hock
Mikeal Rogers and NodeConf are among the best real-world examples I have seen of this and the Node community is better because of it.
PS Paul’s original songs really were great. I’m waiting on the album, guys.