What I Learned from a Year of Running Free Developer Events

Running developer events can be tough but rewarding, exhausting but thrilling.

I have been involved in running events and meetups for developers for some time. Starting with a ColdFusion (😱 for those old enough to know and probably 😕 for everyone else) user group in Boston, to a 350 person annual Flash/Flex/Web development conference in Boston (which, interestingly enough is still alive having evolved into Web Unleashed in Toronto), to a number events for Telerik/Progress (my employer) including last year’s DevReach event in Sofia, Bulgaria and this year’s jsMobileConf in Boston. All in all, I’ve been running events for developers on some level for about 15 years I guess.

Developer events are like trendy restaurants though. They tend to seize on a trend (i.e. topic area) and, assuming it works, run until it is no longer relevant. When the topic/trend runs out of gas, the event often closes and reopens with a new concept. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but it doesn’t jibe with how I, personally, like to learn. I don’t just want one topic area, I want to know about many different things at once! I want to be exposed to stuff outside my wheelhouse - technologies that I may never be exposed to in my day-to-day job.

It was with that in mind that I launched an effort in August of 2017 that I called Certified Fresh Events. In the past year, I’ve run 12 free events (as well as one paid event so far which is now available to watch for free as well). All of them have been online. In this post, I wanted to share some of what I learned during my first year running these events. I know that this post is a bit long winded - I’ve put a lot of myself into this effort. I’ll forgive you if you want to just skip ahead and learn more about my upcoming events and how to support them.

Online Events Can Be Surprisingly Interactive

So, I’ll be honest. My initial concept for this effort was not going to be focused on online events. I have always had trouble keeping focus and attention during an online event. I also have felt that the level of interaction was generally too low to keep me engaged. I chose to start with online events as a matter of expediency rather than a firm belief that this was the way to go.

However, after a year, I will admit to having been extremely surprised at how much interaction an online event can have. I’ve run panels where we have interaction between speakers, of course, but beyond that, the engagement with attendees on the chat during the event is surprising. The conversations generally start before the event even officially kicks off and remain active throughout. This was true even for the full-day paid event that ran 8 hours - the conversation continued the full day.

Sure, it’s not the same as meeting someone in person, but I also didn’t have to invest thousands of dollars in conference fees, travel and lodging to join. This also means that I can take a chance on topics that I may not invest to travel to an event about. It’s not a replacement for in-person events if you can attend them, but it can offer some different possibilities.

Past Performance is Not Indicative of Future Results

My first event a year ago was hugely successful - we had over 250 live attendees and almost 700 people total including those who watched the recording. It was more than I ever anticipated (I even had to sign up for the more expensive streaming service due to the response).

Nonetheless, a year later, I have never reached that level of success again. Sure, many of the events have been popular, but nothing like that. Each event seems to be its own adventure, from a promotional perspective. One event will get 30 live attendees and the next 150.

I think this is indicative of the challenges of switching topics fairly significantly each month. While many of my events have focused on web technologies, I have often have run other topics outside that focus. The channels open to me for promotion (especially free promotion) are limited, so when I venture outside my wheelhouse, I can’t even leverage my own limited personal audience on social media.

Beware of Burnout

It would be fair to say that I’ve had months where I’ve been on the verge of just giving up. When you get a well-known speaker to agree to give a talk, and invest time and effort (and the money to run everything) only to find it difficult to get an audience, it can be disheartening - especially when the job that pays the bills gets busy.

This isn’t specific to these events. Running community events can be really, really tough and stressful. The hardest part is always getting the word out. So while an online event may logistically be easier, it doesn’t alleviate the need to promote it. In some ways, it can be tougher as many channels dedicated to events and meetups don’t cater toward online meetups.

Keep in mind that people who run community events for developers, even paid ones, are rarely in it for the money. Events, even ones like monthly meetups - whether online or in person - take a ton of time and effort to organize. Even if an event is profitable, it rarely makes enough to make it worth the effort unless you really care about it for reasons beyond the money. For my part, the rare paid event is only enough to subsidize the cost of running the free ones.

But the key to fighting burnout in these events, for me at least, is that I invite people that I really want to hear speak on topics that I am really interested in. These are an opportunity for me to learn alongside the audience and it has been awesome.

Help Me Keep This Going!

Over the past year, I’ve had over 2,300 people register for my free online events/meetups. I know a lot of those people keep coming back. I am already looking forward to another year of events, but I need your help. If you have benefited from one of them or think you will in the future, here’s how you can help:

Thanks in advance!