By Trey Mitchell – edUi Co-Director
The first KJ sort I ever participated in was back in 2009. A handful of web folks from UVA were in a room with post-it notes and sharpies quietly shuffling, grouping, and re-grouping ideas for a new conference. My friend and colleague John Loy — then a jack-of-all-web-trades for the UVA Library — had recently come back from a conference on the west coast where he’d heard Jared Spool speak. John wanted to put on an event with speakers like Jared that he, I, and all our colleagues in higher education could actually afford to attend without bursting our limited professional development and travel budgets. The group in the room that day decided that the conference should be focused on User Interface (UI) design and that it (obviously) should be for people working in the education (.edu) space.
John stuck .edu and UI together and created our name and logo. That’s really how edUi was born, in a room with a bunch of geeks, doing a KJ sort. But I think in those early days we saw ourselves a little like the Van Halen of web conferences. Bear with me on this for a sec. In the 80s, Van Halen made their mark by bringing big-city, arena rock productions to mid-sized venues in small towns across the country. This led to the (in)famous story about David Lee Roth’s contract rider requiring no brown M&Ms in the green room before shows. We didn’t have pyrotechnics, lasers, or even a green room in which to put a bowl of M&Ms, but that very first year we did in fact book Jared Spool. And Molly Holzschlag. And would later book Jeffrey Zeldman, Steve Krug, and a host of other “David Lee Roth” rock stars of the web world.
As we approach our 10th annual conference in October 2018 I thought I’d share a few highlights from over the years.
2011 – Richmond and Jeffrey Zeldman
The first two years of edUi (2009, 2010) took place in our home-town of Charlottesville, VA. For edUi #3 we headed for the state capitol, Richmond. Our hope was to expand our audience by locating in a larger, more metropolitan city with access to a better airport. We also booked one of my favorite web rock stars, Jeffery Zeldman. I’ve had a copy of Designing with Web Standards on my book shelf for years. It never seems to go out of date. Unfortunately, we hadn’t yet learned the importance of lining up a good photographer. And camera phones that give pro DSLRs a run for their money were still a few years out. So the photos from that year are objectively terrible.
2013 – Live Story Telling
For edUi #5 longtime attendee Ray Nedzel brought us a new, novel idea that would turn into something I now see as core to the edUi experience. Ray suggested we hold a “Moth” style live story telling event. I was skeptical. The idea that conference attendees, most of whom are strangers, would stand up and tell a story at a local bar seemed fraught with problems. What if no one volunteers? (We are a bunch of introverts after all.) Or what if they do volunteer but the stories are super boring? (We are a bunch of introverts after all.)
What unfolded that night was unlike any experience I’d had before or since. It quickly became one of edUi’s “were you there?” moments. People did volunteer. The stories were anything but boring. In fact, they were deeply personal. And expertly told. One after another, each storyteller stepped up to the mic and after each story I thought, ‘Well that’s it, the evening has peaked. No one can top that story,’ and every time I was wrong. In a bar full of people packed shoulder to shoulder you could’ve heard the proverbial pin drop. The audience was riveted. At one point two late-comers walked in the front door mid-conversation and the room literally “shhh’d” them like librarians in a cheesy old movie.
One thing I learned that night was the importance of creating opportunities for people to connect on a personal, not just professional, level. We’ve woven that sort of experience into our networking activities ever since. Last year we even invited people to perform karaoke on stage with a live band. One participant called it “trauma bonding” and it was amazing. (So of course we’re doing it again this year.)
2015 The Conference Re-imagined
Ray had planted a seed and that seed grew into the idea that edUi didn’t have to look or feel like other conferences. Inspired by a few private-sector events that eschewed conference hotels in favor of community spaces, for edUi #7 we decided to move back to Charlottesville and turn the conference experience inside out.
At most conferences you spend most of your time in meeting rooms that look and feel exactly like every other meeting room in every other hotel in America. And you eat the same hotel chicken for lunch. Then they take you out on the town to a bar or restaurant for a reception to give you a tiny taste of the community you’re visiting. We decided to leave the conference hotel space and instead spread edUi out over a few venues on Charlottesville’s downtown pedestrian mall.
We booked a local live music venue where they have rock shows at night (sadly not Van Halen) for our keynotes. And we re-purposed a community theater for our breakout sessions. This move enabled us to take attendees out to local restaurants for lunch and have a small local bakery bring us breakfast everyday. Goodbye hotel chicken. That year we even brought street performers into the conference space. Honestly I don’t think people quite knew what to make of that. But when we brought them back for the reception that night the result was pretty amazing.
The Conference Today
As we approach our tenth conference in October 2018, I think edUi is still pretty true to the original vision created back in 2009. I think everyone who was there would still recognize the conference as the embodiment of the ideas that came out of that first KJ sort. And I think we even still see ourselves as the “Van Halen” of web conferences, providing an arena-rock experience on a smaller stage (and at a more affordable price). At least that’s still how I see us. And at least one attendee agrees with me. My favorite comment in a conference eval ever (yes we read those) was this:
edUi is like the indie rock festival in a world of mainstream, cookie-cutter, slickly produced dreck.”
I can’t think of a better endorsement or a better guiding principle going forward.
With a Little Help From Our Friends
I’d be remiss in writing up a conference reminiscence if I didn’t thank the many, many people who have actually made edUi happen every year.
It hasn’t been all glitter and glam rock. And if it looked that way from the outside, it’s only thanks to the work of a lot of people who aren’t me. There’s a small team of people who guide the conference, most of whom have been around for many years, and at least one (hey Joe!) who’s been involved since year one. There’s conference co-director Jasmin Perez who joined in 2015 (and guess what? her background is in managing artists in the music industry), plus countless volunteers who over the years have done everything from keeping time for presenters, to being impromptu tour guides, to serving cheeseburgers during a session at a speaker’s request. (Oh, yeah I left that one out of the highlights. It was a presentation by Christopher Schmitt in 2011 full of LOLCats called “HTML5 Does All That… AND I Can Haz Cheeseburger? You bet!” and at the end, everyone had cheeseburgers. I kid you not.)
And of course our sponsors. I know, I know, you think I’m just shilling here, but hear me out with one more story. In 2009 we didn’t have any money. We’re still a non-profit running on a cost recovery model that… oh never mind you don’t care. But that first year there was no cash reserve because we’d never done this before. I told you we booked Jared Spool and Molly Holzschlag that year. But we were short on funds and still needed one more workshop leader. We asked Jared for advice and he told us we needed to talk to David Poteet of NewCity in Blacksburg, VA. He said David’s a great speaker and really knows the higher ed space. David agreed to lead a workshop for free. David and NewCity have been involved in edUi in one way or another pretty much every year since.
So thank you to everyone who ever donned a “volunteer bandanna” and did the hard work of making the conference happen.
About the Author
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