October 26, 2012
A few weeks back the Riak Team put on RICON2012. This was our first developer conference, and by nearly all-accounts, we put on a good show. Here are a few comments from those who were at RICON:
— Sean Schade (@seanschade) October 13, 2012
— Evan Meagher (@evanm) October 11, 2012
— Dana Contreras (@DanaDanger) October 11, 2012
For more, you can browse the @basho favorites for the numerous tweets we managed to tag during RICON. A few blog posts   also popped up with positive reviews (with at least one more on the way).
We’ve received more than a few inquiries asking about how we went about planning and executing RICON, so we wanted to publish something on it before too long. This post will cover (in very brief detail) the components of RICON we chose to focus on. We didn’t necessarily do anything new, and as you’ll notice a lot of the ideas were borrowed or modified.
Riak is an open source company, and our flagship project, Riak, has been out for more than three years now. During that time, we’ve built up a strong community, and today 1000s of companies and organizations are using Riak in production. We discussed doing a pure Riak conference (and the Riak community is big enough to warrant such an event), but Riak’s ambitions are, quite frankly, a bit bigger than Riak, and we believe in the future of distributed systems. We also know that making distributed systems something every developer embraces and understands isn’t doable alone, so building a community around it is essential to its success.
So, sometime around the beginning of July, the decision was made put on a conference. We announced it later that month, and got to work. We had just over three months.
Own The Venue
One of our first endeavors was searching for a venue. We knew we wanted to be in San Francisco, and wanted something intimate. Led by the efforts of Amber, we narrowed down the options to a handful and eventually settled on the W Hotel in SOMA. Their third floor has various meeting rooms, and capacity was about 300 people. We then learned that the second floor, which was primarily a bar, could be ours for both days, too, if we so desired. This would be a perfect spot for hacking and relaxing. What really sold us (aside from the amazing staff at the W) was the fact that we could own the venue for a few days. Our attendees wouldn’t be running through mazes to find tracks; or going off-site for lunch. We would be able to carve out space for RICON that would be largely untouched.
The immediate downside is that the W isn’t cheap, meaning even if we cut a deal with them for rooms, the rate would still be pretty steep. It ended up coming to just over $300/night with the RICON code. Certainly not a steal. We mitigated this with the following: ticket prices were kept low – the early bird was just $250 and the full price was just $100 more; also, San Francisco has a lot of hotels, so if you looked around there was cheaper lodging to be had.
Speaker Selection, Variety, and Composition
Keeping with the “distributed systems conference for developers” theme, we set out to find speakers that could cover the current and future state of the space. This wasn’t an easy task, but we assembled an impressive line up of developers, engineers, executives, and academicians. One thing that should have been immediately apparent was that the focus wasn’t Riak. Of the three keynotes, two were dedicated to larger trends in distributed systems; we had talks about Postgres and Chef; “Scaling Cassandra” was one of the lightning talks.
We were also dedicated to showcasing female speakers, though we could have done better. Women were part of just under 20% of all the talks the conference total which (anecdotally) is much higher than what most of us were used to seeing at developer events. Admittedly, we wanted this ratio be higher, and at future RICONs we’ll push that much closer to 50/50.
On the top of our priority list was bullet-proof WiFi. There would be no complaints from RICON attendees about connectivity or bandwidth. We worked with the team at Unwired to get a 100MBit dedicated ethernet drop (which included running a line from the roof of the W down to their machine room – a tidy 31 floors). Meraki then came aboard as official WiFi sponsors and provided us with enough hardware to blanket bolth floors of the conference – more than 20,000 square feet – with reliable, fast internet. They wrote about it on their blog shortly after RICON concluded. Also, you can expect a full length post from Sean Carey, Seth Thomas and Ryan Carey on all the work they did to keep you connected (because it was downright awesome).
Thanks to Nimby, Artur, and the rest of the crew (and servers) at Fastly, we were able to stream the entire conference live. We did this both days, all day, and streamed out 1080p video at about 60 frames/second. By the end of the conference the live stream only dropped a total of 2,086 out of approx 2,808,000 frames (99.9%); a testament to the quality of the streaming infrastructure available from Fastly. This was something that came together within the week preceding RICON, and we were very fortunate for it as it enabled us to increase the impact of RICON by orders of magnitude. If you’re having a conference, stream it live, and use Fastly to do it. Please.
Make It Accessible to Non-attendees
Live streaming was just one of various ways we made RICON accessible to the those who weren’t able to attend. On the day of the event, we deployed a dedicated RICON Live site (which has since been deprecated) that included links to code and slides decks from RICON, tweets, and pun-riddled play lists for both days   (in addition to the stream). From a traffic perspective, we had as many visitors connect to the RICON Live site during the conference as we did on riak.com during the entire previous month.
Making RICON accessible to others around the world was also very important to us as we are a distributed company. We believe very deeply in this approach to building companies, communities, and distributed systems, and we wanted RICON to reflect this.
Only Distribute What People Will Keep
Early on we decided to keep to eliminate as many printed materials as possible. Conference bags and the paper products that go in them cost a lot of money and are very wasteful because not many people keep them. Instead, every attendee was given a customized hoodie wrapped in their conference pass. And we built the passes such that we could include the sponsors’ stickers therein.
Coffee (Preferably Ritual)
Good, readily-available coffee is essential to keeping people excited and energized for two days of in-depth talks. We made sure that there would be freshly-brewed coffee all day both days. Additionally, we brought in a two person team from Ritual Coffee Roasters to serve espresso drinks in the hacker lounge for both days. Niley and the team at Trifork made this happen. This was a huge hit (not surprisingly) and I hope to see more events doing it as it’s not too pricey and makes for an easy-to-sell sponsorship. The cherry on the cake was that the brewed coffee in the hallways was also from Ritual.
It’s Not All About The Talks
The conference ran two days, with two tracks each day. There were 23 full length talks. That’s a tremendous amount of content. But we wanted to make sure that there was plenty of room to relax, hack, socialize, and get work done. To that end we made the entire 2nd floor of the hotel wide open and equipped it with power, food, coffee, and a few video games (including NES courtesy of the generous @cscotta.
Party Like It’s 1999
Night one featured a party sponsored by GitHub and Boundary. Much like with the venue, we wanted a space we could call our own, and we settled on 620 Jones. 620 Jones has the largest outdoor patio in San Francisco, and Amber had the idea to project the sponsor logos on the buildings that surrounded the patio. The view from Geary Street:
We also opened the party up to non-attendees which meant that significant others and those who weren’t able to attend but happened to be local could take part in the festivities. And, thanks to the sponsors, all the refreshments were free for the entire evening and we were able to feature a top shelf selection.
Design What Matters; Don’t Over Do It
The micro-site for the conference was one of the first assets built for RICON. Pulling from our design elements at Riak, the team branded and formatted a simple page, highlighting speakers and playing off of our pre-existing logos, color palette and fonts. We also made sure the site was ready for mobile devices (as that’s what people use while they are walking from talk to talk).
From Day 1, the consensus was that we didn’t want to print sheets upon sheets of paper that would be discarded. The only paper printing done was isolated to the passes and involved a traditional dye cut press. We wanted to provide a practical handout (name tag, schedule etc.), along with memento – a take away from the event that Sarah dreamt up, including a over lay of San Francisco, twitter handles, an embossed Riak node, Riak code snippet lining the inside, and the RICON twitter hash tag.
Working with a small, intimate space, RICON design was intentionally under spoken, and integrated with the authentic elements of the Riak brand and the uniqueness that the W had to offer.
No Sales People And Thoughtful, Generous Sponsors
The majority of the Riak Sales team was at RICON, but you probably didn’t realize this. The culture at Riak is engineering-driven. As such, our sales people take pride in knowing just as much about the space as our users and customers do. They were at RICON but they weren’t trying to hard close anyone. Instead they were there to learn just like the rest of us.
Our amazing sponsors also helped our attendees focus by staying largely in the background and branding things like parties, lightning talks, coffee bars, and lanyards. We cut a lot of custom deals for sponsors (there was no official prospectus), and we worked with everyone who committed money and time to RICON to make their investment fit their needs.
Lightning talks are nothing new. They are usually a huge hit if you do them right. Make them informal, encourage crowd participation (in the form of light heckling and interactive Q & A), and make sure you’re serving refreshments for the duration. Tom ran the lightning talks from top to bottom and crushed it. All told there were eleven talks at about 5-7 minutes each. Nearly all RICON attendees were present for this session and enjoyed topics varied from “Scaling Cassandra” to “How to Demotivate Your Best Talent”, providing an excellent finale to RICON Day 1.
Don’t Skimp On The Food
The W Staff worked with us to put together custom menus for both days. The lunch was served on the 4th floor roof deck, and the seating and was such that it encouraged interaction while eating. We were of the opinion that the food should be plentiful and exceed expectations for conference fare. Attendees were treated to buffet stations themed after San Francisco, and we served everything from tacos to vegan pasta to cheese and fruit plates to seared Ahi sliders.
Take Care Of Your Speakers
We tried to made it easy for the speakers to commit to being a part of RICON. We didn’t have a formal CFP (this year anyway) but instead opted to extend invites. Every speaker was of course given a free pass to RICON. If they were non-local, we paid their airfare to and from San Francisco. We also put them up at the W if they needed lodging.
Additionally, when each speaker registered, we had one person dedicated to walking them around the venue; they were given a personal tour that started with the track room they were slated to speak in, covered the entirety of the conference space, and ended with arrival at the dedicated Speaker’s Lounge.
There’s a lot we didn’t cover. This post is long-winded as it is. If you’ve got any specific questions, comments, or ideas on how we might of done things better, shoot an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. We would love to talk to you.
All told, just under 350 people registered for RICON and we sold out three times (and flirted with the fire code at the W in the process). This was a huge event for Riak as a company for our personal growth, and nearly all of our team touched it in some way; some were speakers, some stayed late setting up the space; some hustled tickets; others worked the Riak help desk during the event; etc.
Most importantly, we were able to share our passion for distributed systems with developers the world over. We’re counting down the days until we get to do this again. See you at RICON2013.
Thanks for being a part of RICON.