KalamazooX 2016

It's time! #kalx16

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This weekend, I attended the Kalamazoo X conference in Kalamazoo, MI. KalamazooX, or KalX (as it is more often referred by organizers and attendees alike) is "a one day, single track non-tech conference for techies", or perhaps "it is a soft skills conference", or perhaps not. You see, like a book filled with complex characters, rollercoaster plot twists, and profound revelations, it is hard to describe KalX; each description I hear is somehow right and yet completely wrong, painting KalX as something you have already experienced where speakers talk of project planning, team communication, and time management. But KalX is different. KalX is where you hear about the importance of empathy, the roots of genius, or the virtue of personal reflection. KalX might help with your soft skills, but only through indirect action, through powerful talks on why practice trumps passion or creates genius, how apathy and empathy are both needed to foster better relationships (at work or otherwise), or what it is to simply give a shit (and sometimes, to give a shit too much).

Some interesting insight into genius from Alan Stevens and a much needed personal break from tears #kalx16

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Whether speaker, organizer, or attendee, KalX is catharsis in the shared and personal experience; strong emotions —anger, joy, sorrow— marked by F-bombs and tears; and unexpected moments (some uncomfortable, some reassuring) where attendees might think "me too", "that's bullshit", or "I am not alone"1.  It is in those moments that KalX shines, the moments when we are raw and exposed.

Four years ago I attended my first Kalamazoo X conference. It was then held in a classroom at a local college and there were about 50 people in attendance, including speakers and organizers2. I had no idea what to expect, so when I found myself crying, stuck in the middle of a row of people I barely knew, I felt surprised, uncomfortable, and confused3. I do not recall if I knew at that moment, but I now look back on that day as the start of what would lead to the diagnosis of my anxiety disorder, its treatment, and the continuing changes to my life that followed. That experience pushed me closer to asking for help.

Though it was for me, I would never say KalX is life-changing; each person experiences it differently and each year is different. In the safe space of peers, where the speakers, unfettered by recorded sessions, can open up about their personal experiences and the things that, in other forums, might be hidden from view for fear of judgement or isolation, KalX facilitates personal discovery. This year, I felt anxiety rise from nowhere when one speaker (Ed Finkler) started to tell my story. Ed doesn't even know me and yet there he was talking about General Anxiety Disorder (GAD), fearing entering bars to look for people as though a lion might be waiting to attack, thinking things through to find every possible outcome and worrying about all of them intensely. Though I wanted to hear more about how he coped with it all4, I was amazed to even know that there was someone out there just like me. It was scary and reassuring, and I might have been the only person in the room that thought so.

We all know I need to heed this #kalx16 (thanks, @leongersing)

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When I first started writing this post, I tried to summarize the whole day, but I couldn't do justice to Christina Aldan, Ed Finkler, Kate Catlin, Jay Harris, Cory House, Leon Gersing, Lauren Scott, and Alan Stevens, or their talks on empathy, apathy, genius, passion, and more besides. It is hard to describe what they said in a way that could convey what it was like to experience it at the time, just as it is hard to describe KalX as a whole. It is even harder to describe these things to convey how someone else might have experienced the day. In realizing this and the inadequacy of phrases like "it's a soft skills conference" or "it's a non-tech conference for techies" I have wondered, how could I describe KalX in a single sentence? I don't think I could, not because KalX is some indescribable experience, but because each person finds value from it in different ways. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, there is no apt summary, no convincing abstract; sometimes you just have to read the book for yourself.

 


  1. Or briefly, involuntarily emit an inappropriate laugh at that same realisation 

  2. this year had closer to 200 

  3. KalX can really sneak up on you 

  4. how I could cope with it all 

And so it goes

You may have noticed I have not posted in a while. We recently moved from Michigan to Texas and during that time, I let a few lesser commitments slide. That is not to say I do not value my blog, I merely value other aspects of my life more1. Now that we are settled and some of the more frantic aspects of the move are over with, I thought it appropriate to get posting again and began crafting my next entry in my series on Octokit. However, there is something more pressing that I have to share first. I want to tell you about someone very special.

In 2001, a few months after having graduated from university and moving to Cambridgeshire, my housemate, Adam, and I decided to check out the local pub2. It was on that first visit to the Red Lion in Stretham that I met Mary, who at the time was working behind the bar. She was joyful, sparkling, kind, and funny. Like the most excellent of those who work a bar, she made us feel welcome, like we belonged. For the first time, I felt like Stretham was home.

The next time I remember seeing Mary was a day or so later when Adam and I were walking across the village green. She came walking towards us, holding the hand of a little girl.

Adam memorably said, “Is that yours?”

“That” turned out to be Mary’s daughter, Jordan. It also turned out that Mary, along with her adorably cheeky daughter, lived next door to us and over the months to follow we became friends. Most Thursdays3, Mary held her “Top of the P, Top of the I” club4 where we would share a drink, a smoke, and a lot of laughs, often while watching “Enders”5 or some other nonsense. I have many fond memories of us sitting in her lounge, kitchen, or backyard, in the pub, or in the beer garden behind it; all of them with Mary smiling and laughing and sparkling.

Mary and Chrissy

When I was happy, she would laugh with me. When I was sad, she would sit with me. When I was stupid, she would tell me. Mary became the best of friends; unafraid to be honest, never judging, always supportive. A counsel and a partner in crime (I suspect this is the case for many of her friends). On the day I left for the US, it was Mary that stood in her dressing gown in the backyard of her house to wave goodbye, smiling and sparkling.

On return trips to England, I always did what I could to get to Stretham and see all my friends, stopping by the Red Lion for far too many drinks and never enough good times. I did not always succeed. For those that live far from their friends and family, it is an all too familiar experience to never have enough time to see everyone. On one occasion I visited Cambridgeshire but could not see Mary, she understood.

“Next time,” she said.

And so it was that earlier this year, Chrissy and I stopped by Stretham to see Mary and Jordan. Though we spent some time at the Red Lion catching up with some old familiar faces, it was back at Mary’s I remember most. There we met the amazing young woman Jordan grew up to be, we shared stories of the times we had shared before6, and we got to know Russ, the love of Mary’s life. We spent as much time with them as they could stand and it was wonderful. Jordan was sarcastic and sassy, Russ was witty and wonderful, and Mary was smiling and sparkling, more than I ever remember her doing before. There was even one surviving PEPSI glass from the “Top of the P, Top of the I” club and we put it to good use. The time we spent with Mary and her family, seeing her happier than ever, surrounded by love was one of the highlights of our trip.

Mary and Family

"It takes a minute to find a special person, an hour to appreciate them, and a day to love them, but it takes an entire lifetime to forget them."

And so it goes. Yesterday, a dear friend reached out to me and informed me that Mary had died. Some time, while I was asleep or doing something else unremarkable, the world lost some of its shine. No reason. No fanfare. No sparkle.

Russ, Jordan, and the rest of Mary’s family and friends are grieving and I with them. There’s nothing more to say about that.

Every day of our lives, we carry our friends with us, no matter where they are. They are there when we cry and when we laugh, when we have to make difficult decisions, and when we just want to reminisce. I am grateful for the moments shared with my friends and for them making me a part of their world. Mary was one of a kind and everyone that knew her is better for it.


  1. like food, shelter, and love 

  2. I do not remember why we had not gone there sooner, nor the impetus that led to us going for the first time, though I dearly wish I could 

  3. I’m pretty sure it was Thursdays…my memory fails a little to be certain 

  4. Named after Mary’s PEPSI glasses, that had letters on the side making convenient measures for the mix of Bacardi and cola that we drank 

  5. EastEnders 

  6. like when Chrissy and Mary held me down while an 8 year old Jordan bound my hands with Selotape for no good reason other than “just because” 

Community

I am pretty selfish. I would like to think I can be wholly altruistic, but I cannot remember a deed I did for someone else where I was not rewarded by a general feeling of well-being. Perhaps this is normal and we kid ourselves that true altruism exists because, well, it feels good to believe that. Recently, I realised it is because of this feeling that I volunteer as part of the local developer community.

I have been involved in the Ann Arbor area developer community for just under five years. A couple of colleagues had suggested I attend an Ann Arbor .NET Developer (AADND) meeting, but oddly, a woodworking class is what led me there. In that class, I met fellow developer Steve Meagher, we became friends, and he eventually persuaded me to tag along with him to a .NET meeting. Like many within the developer community, I avoided user groups and other community events for fear of not fitting in or some other perceived discomfort. At that first meeting, I met David Giard as he was the speaker that evening. Meeting David turned out to be a gateway into the wider community and volunteering. At the time, he was the president of the Great Lakes Area .NET group (GANG) and he invited me to attend a meeting there the following week. Just as with Steve at woodworking class, another connection was made and so it was that my adventures in the developer community continued. Through the friends I made attending the local groups, I ventured to far off places like CodeMash and Kalamazoo X. Through the friends I made attending those far off places, I ventured to electronic wonderlands like Twitter, StackOverflow, and my own blog. And eventually, through the encouragement I received from this amazingly supportive community, my family, and my friends, I found the courage to look inward, to seek help for the demons that fostered my low self-esteem, and to grow.

I have volunteered on the board of AADND, as a participant and team leader at Give Camp, and as a speaker at CodeMash; having thoroughly enjoyed every second, I can tell you that volunteering is 100% pure fun.

OK, that is utter bollocks; volunteering is hard. There is no pleasure in finding content for newsletters and slide decks, no joy in the conflicts a team faces when you have less than a day to get a database migrated, no comfort in preparing and rehearsing a talk1. Volunteering is often stressful, sometimes boring, and always built upon a foundation of compromise and sacrifice. If those things were the rewards of volunteering, I cannot imagine anyone who would do it. Every year, Michael Eaton tells a tale of how he declares that this Kalamazoo X will be his last. That it is too much work. Too much worry. Too much sacrifice.

Thankfully, the hard work leads to gratitude: the emotional words of a non-profit director overwhelmed by the generosity of local developers; a room of people applauding at the end of a talk; or a simple "thank you". Regardless of its delivery, seeing or hearing that someone is grateful makes all the effort worthwhile. It feels good. For community volunteers like Michael Eaton it is the gratitude shown by attendees, speakers, and co-organizers that ultimately leads to more events (like just one more Kalamazoo X).

So, next time you enjoy something that someone volunteered to do, show your gratitude. And if the opportunity arises, try volunteering; you have no idea who might be grateful and how good that might feel.


  1. or a last minute Pecha Kucha that your friends then make sure will get heard while you are busy searching for that lost sleep