I’ve gone to a lot of conferences. When I was 17 I lied on the registration for LinuxWorld and said I was 18, which was the minimum age requirement. I was pretty into Linux in those days, and having LinuxWorld in San Francisco was too good a chance to miss. As it turns out, I probably interacted with people at that conference who would end up being friends and co-workers more than 5 years in the future.
My early conference-going years, and I should point out this was before I was actually full-time employed in tech, were all about LinuxWorld and MacWorld. Those were the things I liked, because I was really weird in high school, apparently. In 2010 I discovered comic conventions with WonderCon. I was blown away with the realization that this whole world of comic-and-movie lovers existed, and I had only dipped my toes in it in comparison.
2012-2014 was filled with technical conferences and fan conventions. HTML5DevConf, PyCon, KrakenCon, AOD, APE, BigWow ComicFest. There was something that drove me to each of them, and PyCon sticks out as being full of friendly pythonistas. PyCon still ranks as my favorite technical conference.
Sometime through all this I realized that I enjoy going to conferences and conventions because I like hanging out with groups of people who are guaranteed to share at least one interest with me. The strength of that shared interest normally dictates how much I like the con.
Now we come to XOXO 2014. I will be forever grateful to Tom Cenzani, one of the many excellent people I work with at Eventbrite, for showing the videos from last year’s XOXO Conf. As I watched Cabel Sasser, and Jonathan Coulton, and Maciej Cegłowski and all the other speakers talk openly and honestly about their successes, and failures, and fears in trying to build things, in trying to add something to the world while following their own path, I knew I had to be a part of that. The idea that there was a con, this thing that I already knew I loved, dedicated at least in part to being a creator, a thing I struggled with daily - how could I not want to be there?
Of course, I promptly forgot about this desire. The videos came out last fall, registration didn’t open until the spring, and we lead busy lives. But when registration opened, I remembered watching those videos, and immediately went to sign up. And right from the beginning of registration I had a feeling I was in for something special.
We’ve established that I go to a lot of conferences, but most of them are technical, and therefore not deeply accessible to my wife. She’s incredibly intelligent, but has chosen math and music over technology. I have, in the past, felt sad about not being able to share my joy at certain cons with her, because the common thread or theme was something that she didn’t have experience with. So when I saw the blog post from XOXO about families, I paused for thought, and then realized I had finally found a conference that (maybe, hopefully) my wife and I could enjoy together. That in and of itself is an incredible notion, one that still brings me joy.
So I got her to sign up, and we went. Myself, my wife, and my cofounder. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, they were definitely not sure what to expect, but all of us saw enough interesting bits in the program that we were excited. And well we should have been excited. From the opening party Thursday night to the closing party Sunday night, XOXO 2014 was an experience that none of us were truly prepared for, and none of us will forget.
This is where writing this post gets tricky, for me. I could go into excruciating detail about every game, and musician, and speaker that we loved, but I think that would miss some of the true character of XOXO, for me. PyCon was the first convention where I heard about the concept of the ‘hallway track’ as a measure of how good a con is. The ‘hallway track’ is all the conversations and random meetings and excellent discussions you have between sessions, over meals, or generally outside the scripted part of the con. For cons like PyCon, the quality of the ‘hallway track’ is one of many factors used to determine how good a particular year’s con was.
For XOXO, the ‘hallway track’ is the con. The spirit of XOXO may be distilled in speakers, and the musicians, and the games, and the films, but it lives and breathes and shouts with joy at the conversations and chance meetings that take up every spare moment. I thought I had found friendly groups of people at other cons - they don’t hold a candle to the friendliness and warmth of the attendees at XOXO. I made what I hope are lifelong friends during that weekend in Portland. Out of hundreds of conversations, I can only remember one where I didn’t come away feeling excited and so happy to have talked with that person.
For me, XOXO wasn’t a huge ‘BANG’ of insight or revelation. It was a slow burn shared with a thousand perfect strangers and true friends who were there because they make things, and who wanted to share the reassurance that makers are not alone. If you look up a bit from the candle that you are desperately trying to keep burning, you’ll see hundreds of others, all with their own candles, ready to lend a hand. It was the best four days of my life that I can remember, and the fact that I got to share that with my wife makes it all that much sweeter.
Now, the hardest part: I am privileged. I am a white, straight, twenty-something male who works as a software engineer for a startup in the San Francisco Bay Area. It would be really, really hard to be playing life on an easier mode than what I’m currently playing. I try, every hour of every day, to recognize my privilege and not let it drive my actions. I am surrounded by those less privileged than I, and I struggle with what I can do to help. I am not perfect, and never will be.
And because I recognize my privilege, and want to be a human being despite it, I applaud and support everything that the enthusiasm of Andys do to make XOXO a more diverse place. I don’t think that the conference is for everyone (how could it be? how can anything with any focus be for everyone?), but I do think it benefits from having as diverse an audience as possible. Which means that, if there is another XOXO, it’s unlikely I’ll be selected to attend. There is most likely someone far more deserving for the spot, and I am incredibly lucky to have been able to attend once. This is probably how the universe should work.
But I also desperately, desperately, desperately want another chance to spend four days in Portland with all the friends I have, and all the friends I haven’t met yet. To be inspired together, laugh together, play together, sweat together, and remind one another that we are not alone.
Thank you, Andy, and thank you, Andy, for an incredible XOXO.