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 

Kalamazoo X 2014

Last year, I experienced the Kalamazoo X Conference for the very first time. It was an extremely emotional experience and one of two events that catalysed some ongoing personal change (the other was changing jobs after 12 years).

This year, I returned to Kalamazoo X, curious as to what the experience would hold. It was daunting; it felt different.

It wasn't worse different or better different. It wasn't different because the talks were new or the venue had changed to accommodate more attendees. I initially thought it was different because last year's talks were focused on the self and "accepting who you are", whereas this year's centered around others and how we can benefit those around us.  But then I realised that view is coloured by who I am (or was). It was different because I was different.

My life changed after attending Kalamazoo X last year. After the conference (perhaps even during), I started to reflect on who I was, faced old and painfully familiar demons, and began focusing on my well-being in a way I had not allowed myself to before. I began to recognise that I was broken and as the weight of one of the worst winters in history crushed my spirit, I finally sought professional help.

It was a long time coming. Friends had urged me to try counseling for years and perhaps once or twice, I had conceded they had a point, but that was just to shut them up; I knew I wasn't weak like that, I was strong enough to weather my problems alone, to be a "man", to cope. But coping isn't enough. It isn't enough for me or those around me and coming to that realisation is crushing, at least at first.

I am still working through that personal change, the cliched "journey of self-discovery", and I am all the better for it. Kalamazoo X 2013 started something, something that affected how I experienced Kalamazoo X 2014 and life in general. I am certain Kalamazoo X 2014 has started something too.

For me, Kalamazoo X isn't about learning something new or retweeting a pithy statement (though I certainly enjoyed that part). It is about perception and coming to terms with the things I have to let go. It's about growing and perceiving that growth.

I hope to return to Kalamazoo and the X conference year upon year, not only to measure my own growth, but also to see the growth of others. The software development community is incredibly nurturing and nowhere exemplifies that more than Kalamazoo X.

KalamazooX 2013

I struggle to put into words the Kalamazoo X Conference, more commonly known as KalamazooX, a single day, single track non-tech conference for techies. The difficulty is not in describing the talks, the speakers, the venue or the overall experience, describing the conference in such terms is easy; the talks were insightful and inspirational, the speakers were passionate and informative, the venue was accessible and appropriate, and the overall experience was emotionally demanding and entirely worthwhile. To describe what KalamazooX was to me, specifically, to reach deep inside and expose the raw emotions, to be open and honest about me, that is difficult.

It was the simple mantras:

It's not about you.
– Jim Holmes (@aJimHolmes)

Move the elephant. Direct the rider. Shape the path.
– Todd Kaufman (@toddkaufman)

It was the inspirational stories behind Todd Kaufman's talk on enacting change or Mike Wood's (@mikewo) talk on choices of doing the right thing, saving and changing lives, and becoming a better person.

It was the tears that welled in my eyes during Layla Driscoll's (@layladriscoll) talk on being happy, after she encouraged us to sit with our eyes closed and think about who we are. I wrote, "I am sensitive, funny, creative."

It was the encouragement from Leon Gersing (@rubybuddha) and Alan Stevens (@alanstevens) to take time out from time and reality, to meditate, and to find our inner voice.

It was the relief I felt in hearing Alan Stevens say, "you do not require approval from any external source," or Elizabeth Naramore (@ElizabethN) say, "It's okay for it not to be okay."

It was the moment I wrote in my notebook, "I feel less special than others. Is that true? Am I? Or do I need to redress my self image?" I think we both know the answer to that (though some have known a lot longer than others).

It was connecting with others in unexpected, overwhelming and assuring ways.

I do not believe for an instant that I was the only one in attendance that was deeply moved and I suspect that those who were returning attendees already knew about the impact this event can have. What a secret they have kept, hiding the true value of this event behind such dismissive phrases as "My favourite conference of the year!" and "It's a non-tech conference for techies. It's all about soft skills." Such pedestrian phrases pay no due to the experience at all. A more accurate and yet still inadequate phrase was tweeted to me by Michael Letterle (@mletterle) during this years event:

Now, you may think I'm being overly dramatic or reverent and you might be right. I have a tendency toward such things, but rather than assume that be the case, I encourage you to attend next year's KalamazooX and experience it for yourself (or at least look through the #kalx13 tweets). If, having done so, you still feel I have been exaggerating, I will concede and leave you and your cold, black heart to //Build, PyCon or whatever it is that floats your ghost ship (just playing, I'll still love you really).

To close, I thank Michael Eaton (@mjeaton), his team and all the speakers1 for putting on an event so cathartic that even writing about it overwhelms me a little. To uncover a part of oneself is enlightenment, to see that reflected in others is KalamazooX.


  1. Besides those mentioned above Suzan Bond (@suzanbond), Jen Myers (@antiheroine), Brian H Prince (@brianhprince), Jeff Blankenburg (@jeffblankenburg) and Justin Searls (@searls) all gave amazing talks.