Virtual Arisia 1; or, How I Spent My Winter Break

This started out as a Mammoth Epic Article in its outline — and like so many such, I’ve wound up procrastinating about it for months. So instead, let’s break this into a series of smaller, more focused little articles. This isn’t going to try to be comprehensive; instead, it’s going to be an impressionistic look at the high points and interesting takeaways.

(Important disclaimer for this entire series: I am speaking strictly for myself here. While I happened to lead this particular project, I am not speaking for Arisia in any sort of official capacity — these are strictly personal observations.)

So: Arisia is one of the local science fiction conventions in the Boston area. We run Martin Luther King Jr. weekend every January, and it’s a blast: a few thousand geeks celebrating All Things Geek. I’ve been attending for most of my adult life.

But of course, Arisia 2021 was a bit of a problem. Getting thousands of people together in a hotel this January wasn’t going to happen. That occasioned a lot of discussion, needless to say, but it was pretty clear by mid-summer of 2020 that running our usual in-person convention wasn’t likely to be possible.

Late last August, they approached me and asked if I would lead a new division to do what was necessary to run the convention online this year. (I’ve been a volunteer with the convention for some time, but never at this level.) After some consideration, I said yes. These articles are going to be some tips, tricks, and lessons learned from the adventure of the following five months.

Suffice it to say, the convention was great. It was also an enormous amount of work. The moral of the story is that it really is possible to have a great v-con (virtual convention/conference), but you have to take it very, very seriously.

I should be clear upfront: it was nowhere near perfect. There were many, many things we wished we could have done better. But a lot went very well, and overall it was pretty great, so it’s worth talking about how that happened.

Let’s start out by talking a little about intent, process and team.

My theory was that running an adequate conference was pretty easy, given current tools — even eight months ago, everyone was getting pretty used to Zoom. (Indeed, I was deputy chair of one of the very first v-cons of The Time of Covid, which we threw together in a matter of days.) But Arisia is a lot more than a bunch of talking heads on panels: it is gaming, performances, costuming, art show, vendors, a wide range of programming, and above all socializing. Properly recreating some decent semblance of that would require a lot more than just conventional consumer software.

So I decided to do something a little radical: start by figuring out what we wanted in an online convention, and then figure out how to build it. That’s how you build good software projects, and there was no reason for this to be any different. Most folks running v-cons have been kind of passive from a tech point of view, using the easily-available tools in the conventional ways. I decided that we would instead see what we could accomplish if we tried harder.

My theory, from the beginning, was that we were going to have to stand up what amounted to a software startup for this. A serious project would require a professional approach — planned, thought through, and properly executed.

It’s worth a personal note here: I’ve been a startup guy for most of my career. Building what amounted to a tiny short-term company was both exciting and not too strange for me. That’s a somewhat unusual viewpoint, and before diving into something like this, you should make sure that you are prepared for the uncertainty, exploration, and long hours involved in something like that. Startups are fun, but they aren’t easy.

The first step was building the team, and this is where I got ridiculously lucky. I’d like to take credit for the success of this project, but mostly I decided a direction and had the preposterous luck to get just about exactly the right team of volunteers to be able to accomplish that. Without that high-caliber crew, it definitely wouldn’t have worked as well, and we might well have fallen flat on our faces.

Most folks might think that “the right team” would be a lot of hackers, and one of the most important lessons here is it’s nowhere near that simple.

The first job I advertised for, and the first volunteer I got, was a UX Designer. I was blessed with Raven, a highly experienced and talented one. She was joined before long by Em — newer to the field, but well-educated and hard working. They were the critical linchpins of the project. We didn’t just go out and start coding: we started with 1–2 months of serious interviews, UX analysis, and design, and that continued right up until runtime. They were joined by Erika, our UI Designer and Artist, and the three of them basically took responsibility for figuring out what we should be building.

On the software side we had me doing the backend (in Play and Scala, of course), with Gail and Chris taking on the TypeScript frontend and Deborah dealing with the by no means trivial IT side. That was, frankly, a skeleton crew for the programming, and it showed — we were racing right to the end, and even so there was a ton we didn’t get done. If in my dreams I would have had anything different, it would have been to have 2–3 more programmers.

That said, there was a reason we were so short-handed: it was because I was pretty finicky about my volunteers. That was a controversial decision, and not one I took lightly — conventions like this tend to have a “let’s build a barn!” ethos, taking all volunteers and figuring out what to do with them. And we did get a lot of volunteers who came to us saying, essentially, “I’m a good learner — put me to work!” Several were even experienced programmers, just not in the technologies we were using.

This is where the timeline came into play. We had about four months total between the time we started serious recruitment and the convention itself. When you’re a startup with a deadline like that, you can’t afford to hire people who are smart but inexperienced: you need staff who can hit the ground running at absolutely full speed.

(I should note that this is very subjective, and by no means absolute. Em was a little less experienced, but Raven took her on as a partner and gave her a growing level of responsibility as the project went along. That worked very well, and is a lesson that if you do have the cycles to train someone up, that can be really rewarding. Be aware of what you are able to do with your available time.)

So I wound up turning an awful lot of people away. That wasn’t fun, and honestly, if we had had seven or eight months I probably would have done it very differently: we would have had the leeway to train more folks up for a few months and then let them be productive. But engineers always need ramp-up time, and we simply didn’t have it. (In the end, several of those volunteers wound up central to the operational side of things, which was great, but it was rough having to turn them away from the coding.)

Besides having a team with the right skills, I also got lucky in getting a team of real professionals. That’s a matter of attitude more than anything else. Everyone put in the effort, and worked hard to work together. We had some moments of friction (including points where the team had to call me out and point out where I was over-designing the backend), but folks generally approached those in a friendly and professional fashion, and put real effort into working together effectively. In any startup, your team will make or break the project, and that is as much about how effectively they collaborate as it is about the skills they bring to the table.

It was a mammoth effort: between the seven core members of our team, I would guess that we put in two to three thousand hours of work just building the website and associated tech, much of it in the crunch of the final few weeks. (Speaking personally, it consumed my entire Christmas vacation, and a week of 16-hour days leading up to the convention.) That was just building the technology platform, exclusive of all the work that many dozens of people put into the content of the convention itself.

Summarizing that:

  • Building a truly excellent virtual convention is possible.
  • It requires starting from a vision of what you want from the convention, and UX professionals who can tease out what that means in practice.
  • Understand how much ambition you are willing to tackle. We deliberately took a pretty expansive view, but that’s not for everybody.
  • Understand your schedule, and hire very mindfully. Think about whether you have the time and resources for training.

Be realistic, but be ambitious within your constraints. You might be surprised at what you can accomplish.

Next time: so what did this all look like?