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93. Conferences in a Virtual World

Hosted by Chris Castle, with guests Julián Duque and Carter Rabasa.

COVID-19 has rendered many in-person events impossible. Like so many others, organizers of developers conferences have had to adjust to providing online sessions. Carter Rabasa, who runs CascadiaJS, talks about the changes he made in moving the conference to the visual space, while longtime conference organizer Julián Duque adds his thoughts as an attendee with developer advocate Chris Castle.

Show notes

Chris Castle is a developer advocate at Heroku and Salesforce. He is joined by Carter Rabasa, the lead organizer of CascadiaJS, as well as Julián Duque, a developer advocate here at Salesforce/Heroku who organizes NodeConf and JSConf in Colombia. Carter shares his first experiences at a tech conference, finding it to be surprisingly intimate and a great community of well-intentioned web developers that wanted to learn. He was inspired to start CascadiaJS, a JavaScript conference situated in the Pacific Northwest. Over time, he realized that it's the people and the networking opportunities that really makes CascadiaJS special.


When COVID-19 made it clear that in-person events would not happen for 2020, he and his team struggled to figure out how to put on an event that their community would love. It required them to imagine a future where software to support their vision didn't exist yet. They became certain that the event would need to learn how to be virtual for a long time. They accepted this challenge, and set to work building a conference model that they felt was interactive and immersive. There was just a tremendous excitement and enthusiasm to see if they could do something that hadn't been done yet.

Of course, they stumbled in several ways; there were issues sending swag to customers, for example. Still, there are many reasons to keep the virtual conference format. For one, it's more accomodating for people with physical accessibility issues as well as attendees all over the world. There's more flexibility in the timing of events, where speakers can just play their sessions one after another; attendees can hop between different workshops and talks at the click of a mouse. Julián agrees that CascadiaJS' hybrid format of a recorded talk followed by a live Q&A was great for engagement, as speakers were chatting with viewers as their session played. Overall, Carter is excited at future conferences having a serious virtual component to them.


Chris: Hello and welcome to Code[ish]. My name is Chris Castle and I'm a developer advocate at Heroku and Salesforce. Today we've got a super interesting topic that's probably relevant to a lot of you in the developer community. The quote kind of funny title that our guest suggested was 'Virtual Conferences That Don't Suck For Dummies.' And that's exactly what we're going to talk about. We've got Carter Rabasa, he has been a long time lead organizer for CascadiaJS and just put on CascadiaJS this year in 2020 at the beginning of September. We're going to talk about some of what happens behind the scenes at a virtual conference. It's a new thing for the 2020s, learning to change in person conferences to virtual ones but still make them exciting and fun and engaging and valuable to attendees. Let's get a little bit of introductions from our guests. Carter, can you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got into CascadiaJS?

Carter: I guess for folks who don't know me, I'm a developer who lives in Seattle and I'm the lead organizer for CascadiaJS which we started back up in 2012. When I'm not working on CascadiaJS, I'm working on a little startup called Fizbuz that helps developers get connected to better jobs.

Chris: Yeah, that's cool. You had a lot of developer enablement maybe, focus in your life, right? You came from developer relations.

Carter: Yeah, oh yeah, sure. I'm one of those gray beard developers. I've been writing code since before the internet actually existed, right? Yeah, I just started out my career as a web developer, went to business school, had one of those kind of quarter life crises and wasn't sure I wanted to program anymore so I went to business school. And after business school, I got a job at Microsoft. Working at Microsoft is what brought me out to the West Coast and to the Pacific Northwest. And the job that I got was in marketing, but it was in developer marketing. I did developer marketing for Microsoft for a few years and then I left Microsoft to join what was then a small company called Twilio as one of their first developer evangelists. This was back before the average person had any idea what a developer evangelist was and I helped build that team at Twilio for a while. And then I ended up transitioning out of that role into product management but being a product manager building dev tools. You hear that word, developer, over and over again.

Carter: Everything in my career has been sort of around helping and enabling and empowering developers. And that kind of leads straight into Cascadia. Just sort of building something for the developer community up here in the Pacific Northwest.

Chris: That's cool. And then my partner in crime may be here, Julián, can you introduce yourself.

Julián: Of course. Hello Chris, hello Carter. My name is Julián Duque, I'm also a developer advocate here at Salesforce Heroku and similarly to Carter, I'm also a conference organizer. I am the lead organizer of NodeConf in Colombia and JSConf in Colombia as well.

Chris: How did you get into those two conferences Julián?

Julián: Well, first I think the first contact I have with the developer community in Colombia was through a conference in 2011. I was invited to this conference through the work I was doing with the meetups in my city and then I met the main organizer of that conference. Then we became friends and we started talking about that we needed to have a more focused conference in Colombia so we decided to do a pivot from a general developer conference to a JavaScript specific one. And that's how in 2013, we started with JSConf Colombia.

Chris: And I also know that you're a Node JavaScript developer, right? And you've worked on some of Node.js core and what are some other things that you've worked on?

Julián: Yes, sir. I was involved in the Node.js projects since 2012. Until 2015, was a Node.js official contributor. But right now I like more focus on the education and promotion part of the platform rather than being involved in coding.

Chris: Okay. So let's talk about CascadiaJS. Carter, you said it started in 2012 and actually I was fortunate enough to be a presenter for the last I think the closing session at 2012 CascadiaJS. But can you tell us a little bit about the history of CascadiaJS? What it is, why you or maybe others started it and what draws you to that to do that stuff?

Carter: Yeah. CascadiaJS. I mean, honestly CascadiaJS wouldn't exist if it wasn't for a conference called JSConf which was started by Chris Williams back in, I don't even... I think maybe 2009, something like that. I attended JSConf, the US version in 2011 I believe. I think it was the one that was in Portland and I was working at Microsoft at the time and when I was doing developer marketing for Microsoft, this is when Microsoft was rebooting its Internet Explorer engineering team and was in the process of releasing IE9 which had all the HTML5 goodness in response to what Chrome and Firefox had been doing over the last three years. I went to JSConf Portland to represent Internet Explorer and frankly I was kind of scared because JS web developers didn't really think very highly of Internet Explorer for totally good reasons. And I was very worried about the reception that I was going to have and how people were going to treat me. And also, I'm just old enough that my history of going to tech conferences were like going to events that were very impersonal and housed in giant convention centers with lots of marketing and sales and crappy food.

Carter: That's kind of what I thought a tech conference was. And I went to this event that was small, intimate, the people were kind, the food was amazing, the talks were technical and there was very little perceived sales or marketing that was happening. It was like there's just a community of these well-intentioned web developers that just wanted to learn and get better and meet one another. And it was just this transformative event. I came back to Seattle and I was like, "My God, this is the future of conferences." This is what every conference should be and then the gears started turning because I think I don't remember where JSConf was going to be the next year. That might've been when they were going to be an Amelia, Florida, but I started to realize like, "Oh man, I don't want to have to fly all the way to Florida to have this feeling," right? And I don't think anybody should have to fly from Seattle or Portland all the way across the country to experience this kind of feeling, right?

Carter: And so that's when the gears started and it just became clear that there were so many talented web developers in the Pacific Northwest that I just wanted to take the feeling and the experience of JSConf and sort of bring it to where I lived and where my friends lived so that was sort of the genesis.

Chris: And it seems like you also... I mean, the Seattle area Microsoft's been around as a large tech employer, software developer employer for a while in the area but in the last decade, since CascadiaJS started, there's been this other company named Amazon that has gotten huge. I'm sure there was probably some of riding the wave of just this hugely expanding number of developers in the community, even last year, was it last year or two years ago? I think you used an Amazon facility for the in-person event back when we did these in-person conferences.

Carter: Yeah, no. I think that's true, right? I mean, I think it's not just Seattle, right? I mean, if you live in Portland, there's been a flourishing of tech companies both big and small, right? Big companies like Urban Airship and then smaller companies that you may or may not be familiar with, right? It's up and down and Vancouver, like Vancouver, Google and Microsoft and many other companies have opened offices in Vancouver in addition to all of the startups that had sort of flourished up there. I mean, I guess as someone who organizes a conference for the region, I have a lot of visibility into like all the cool things that are kind of going up and down on this area.

Chris: Yeah. I was going to ask about that. CascadiaJS is a little bit unique in that it's for this region. Can you explain a little bit more about what that means and how that applies to the venue and where you go?

Carter: Yeah. I mean, Cascadia for people who are listening that don't know, it's like a made up term for this area of the Pacific Northwest. In fact, you can Google it and there are people that joke about seceding from the United States, right? Kind of creating a country of Cascadia. I'm sure the term has historical origins, right? I'll be honest, I mean, I attended a conference back in 2010 or something called Cascadia Ruby. It was the same thing but for Ruby. It was a Ruby conference that attracted people from up and down the Pacific Northwest. My history is that of a web developer and increasingly of a JavaScript developer. So for me, when it came time to come up with a name for this conference, CascadiaJS just sort of felt right. And actually being regional mattered to me because I live in Seattle but I love to visit other cities. I love to visit Vancouver and I love to visit Portland and I'm not alone, right? I think people who live in this region love, I mean, this is pre-COVID, right? Love to travel up and down and visit these places. So to me, it just felt like, "Yes, this is perfect."

Carter: I didn't want to create like the Seattle JS conference, right? I wanted to create the CascadiaJS conference that would bring people from all over into one location. And I think your question also kind of alluded to the fact that we don't hold the event in the same location every year. We rotate locations. The first year was Seattle, the second year was Vancouver, British Columbia. The third year was Portland and so on and so forth. We've moved the event around so that people don't accidentally think it's just for people in Seattle, right? It isn't, it's for people all up and down.

Julián: It is regional but how big it is? What is the average number of attendees for the in-person version of the event?

Carter: Yeah, sure. I mean, the first year that Chris spoke at, I think we were lucky to get over 200 people. I mean, and it probably felt like a really large meetup or something but the most recent in-person event in 2019 which was in Seattle, I think we had maybe 550 people. It's either big or small depending on your perspective. For us, the event is much more than just about the talks. It's about people and people meeting each other so there's kind of a maximum size that we would ever consider growing to because we want the event to always feel intimate and feel like you don't get lost in the crowd.

Chris: You actually bring up one of the things I wanted to chat about which was one thing that I think you've always done well or maybe you've learned how to do well with CascadiaJS is it's not all about just the event and not like the day of the event. And it's not all about just the talks that happen, those are very important part and kind of maybe the anchor of the conference or of the event but at least in my observation, you seem to organize a whole bunch of other events either leading up to CascadiaJS or after it. At least my experience with that is it provides more opportunities for personal interaction in a smaller environment with fewer than 550 people but you still feel attached to this larger whole that is the CascadiaJS community. Was that something you learned or was it something that you did from the start?

Carter: No. These are just things you learn, man. When we did Cascadia just the first time, I mean, I think the only thing I really thought hard about doing was having good talks, right? When I first got in to putting on the conference, I think I put almost all my energy into who's speaking because I just sort of had this naive notion that like, "Well, that's why people come to conferences," right? To listen to people speak, right? That's sort of the obvious answer to, why go to a conference? All of my energy went into who's speaking, what food are we serving and maybe what bar will we go to after the event? And it was only over years of talking to attendees and talking to people in the community that I came to sort of understand wow, the talks are maybe the third most important thing that people care about. Most people who come to my conference, I mean, I don't want to make a blanket statement, right? But most people who come, come for networking and personal reasons. They want to connect with the community. Maybe they're new to the Pacific Northwest, right?

Carter: They moved from somewhere else and they just want to connect, they want to meet people. Similar use case for why people go to meetups. Also, they want to reconnect, right? Cascadia has turned into almost like a reunion for people. There are these awesome people that you love seeing but you only really see them once a year and it's at Cascadia or they're either actively jobs hunting or they're like passively job hunting, right? They kind of know in their gut that it's time to make a change but they don't know what that would be. And they they go to an event to put themselves in a position to just bump into people and have interesting conversations, right? I sort of learned over time that it's the people and the networking that really drive people to attend Cascadia. And then of course, yeah, I mean, of course you need to have talks and you need to have great speakers, those are all important but they're not more important than the human part.

Chris: Julián, does that resonate with you from your experience with NodeConf and JSConf in Colombia?

Julián: Yeah, totally. It is the same. At the beginning was just more focused on being able to get good content because normally all the content that was being created at the time you got access through videos or Twitter but the people in the country weren't able to have that experience to be able to attend a conference and meet the people that are creating the libraries or open source projects they love and they want to use. When we started, we decided to start inviting certain speakers that had some sort of renown in the country and then opening opportunities for the local people to also share the spotlight and share those speaking spots with the international speakers. Always trying to have a very good mix of external and international content that we brought to Colombia and people locally. When the event was growing every year, now those numbers are starting to change and we started to have way more locals interested in speaking.

Chris: Yeah. And it seems like they're more and more renowned Colombian developers these days too.

Julián: Exactly. What happened is that the role got inverted and a lot of people from our country from the same community started to go to the other international events like applying to CFPs, having the confidence to be able to go to these other places and give a conference in a different language than the native one so it was pretty amazing to see that transformation in our community.

Chris: Yeah. I mean, I remember I was fortunate enough to be able to attend JSConf in Berlin, JSConf EU three years ago and it blew me away. Heroku was the sponsor of that all so I get to go as part of that. And it was like I had a similar experience, Carter, to like what you described where I was like... And this was just three years ago like 2017 or something like that and I kind of knew what tech conferences were like even like some of the more community or niche ones but I was still blown away by JSConf EU in Berlin. That brand, the JSConf brand or whatever, however they manage the experience or expectations, it's amazing.

Carter: Yeah. And I think brand's a good word but I mean, it's the people, right? It's not like a logo or something. It's like Chris Williams had a set of values that he communicated incredibly clearly to people who came to his event, right? And if you attended a Chris William event like I did, you absorbed those values and it inspired you to bake them into your event, right? That's why technology conferences are like, it's about the people first and not the tech because you're right, I can learn how to program WebRTC by watching a video or reading a blog post, right? But conferences are different because they bring people together to share these kinds of values and these kinds of ideas and that's what makes them so uniquely inspiring.

Julián: Yeah. And it is also a network because pretty much all of the other different conferences that are being added to the same family are being mentored by us, the organizers of those conferences. So for example, I'm organizer of JSConf Colombia and I'm helping the team at JSConf Mexico to run a conference. It's like sharing those values and passing those values to other people so we at least can guarantee that the quality of the conference is going to be according to the brand, according to the values that Chris Williams and the team like implied at the beginning.

Chris: Let's switch topics a little bit. In the end of February, from February 28th to March 1st, I as part of work was in London and we were sponsoring QCon London, Heroku and Salesforce were. And all of a sudden we got this call or this email actually from someone in Salesforce security. And they were like, we need to discuss whether or not you should come home right now. And of course we knew like something was happening but this was my first real, personal experience with like, "Oh wow, this is serious." And so as we all know, the COVID pandemic has required us to wear masks and stay inside more and not go to physical conferences where people are pressed together waiting in line to get into a room or waiting in line for the food or yeah, in an overflow keynote room watching some great speakers or something like that. And so, a lot of us in this industry who are used to doing conferences as part of our job had to think about how do we maintain community? How do we keep working with developers and doing the things that we love to do when we can't physically see them maybe once every quarter or every six months or whatever it is. And so, a lot of developer events have switched to being virtual events which kind of you think maybe, okay, that makes sense.

Chris: It's easy to do. This is a technology event, it's a developer event. Of course they can do this technology-driven, technology-centric video event, but it's actually not that easy. A lot of the things Carter and Julián spoke about, right? It's not about the speakers necessarily. It's about the personal connections and the conversations you have in the hallway or in the line waiting to grab a bite to eat. Carter, when for you was like the big decision or when did it dawn on you that, okay, something's got to change for CascadiaJS?

Carter: Well, I mean, I think January and February you're like living in denial.

Chris: Yeah.

Carter: You're like, "Well, maybe it'll go away." You don't know what to believe quite frankly. I mean, especially if you live in the US. You're getting a lot of mixed signals from leaders and the media. But I mean, it was clear that something bad was happening. In my case, we had a venue, right? We had a contract, we had a venue, we had already begun selling tickets. I think, it was in that March timeframe where you're reading the news headlines every single morning, I'm talking to my fellow organizers and I think it was sometime in early April where we just finally pulled the plug. And quite frankly, I only felt like I could because we got the venue to shift our contract to 2021, right? For people who don't organize conferences, I mean, there's a lot of logistics in the back that you just don't know about.

Chris: Sure.

Carter: A lot of like contractual language and costs.

Chris: And I think even most people don't realize that even just a 500 person event over one or two days, you're planning for that almost all year, right? Maybe you take a break over the winter. It's not something you just pick up in the summer like June and start working on for September.

Carter: No, yeah. Look, every event's different and I'll be honest, there's some lower quality events that are just sort of whipped together in eight weeks, right? For Cascadia, me and the other organizers, we start working on it about nine months ahead of the event, right? And that's not nine months, 40 hours a week, right? But there's a bell curve. It kind of starts nine months out, it ramps up and then the event hits and then it kind of ramps down quickly, right?

Carter: But Chris, I really wanted to be super clear like, even separate from contracts and finances and stuff like that, there was a more important question of like, should we do it? Is it the right thing to do for our community, right? That was the more important question, because the other things you can figure out. You can figure out money and you can figure out lawyers and the bigger question is, can we put on an event that we would be proud of, right? Can we put on an event that our community would love, right?

Carter: And those are higher order concerns that we had and the truth is that I couldn't answer that question definitively. It required us to imagine a future where software and experiences had been built that didn't exist right now. And so then, almost imagine that you're like a tech company or something or a startup like you just have to ask yourself, do you think that you can build... You have a set of requirements, can you build it and can you build it in time, right? That became the question of like, can we do it, can we combine some stuff off the shelf with some stuff that we write ourselves because we are web developers? And do we believe that that will create an experience that won't exactly replicate the past in-person events but will be really, really good and on some dimensions will be better. That was the question and I think sometime around, geez, maybe May or June, we basically decided that we could do it and that was when we made the announcement that we were transitioning to a virtual event.

Chris: Julián, can you correct me if I'm wrong, but did you go through the same thoughts but then decided that it wasn't the best thing or the right thing for the community and the organizers for one of your events?

Julián: It was pretty much the same for us. We already had tickets sold, we had a venue, we had the CFP results so we were going to start booking planes when the news started to appear. We decided to hold on until May to see if we were going to cancel the event or not. We were optimists, we thought that the situation wasn't going to be that long but well, May started, the situation wasn't improving so what we did was put a survey on Twitter and on the mailing list asking the community if they wanted to have a virtual event or reschedule the event for 2021. And what happened is that people pretty much decided to reschedule the event. It was like a 50% vote so half of the people wanted to be virtual event, half the people wanted to reschedule so it wasn't fair for the community.

Julián: They want the experience, they want to share with people, they want to have the full show. And at that moment we didn't have that, pretty much a very good and clear idea how to bring a good experience to a virtual event. My mind change after attending CascadiaJS so it is possible, I saw it. Thank you very much for showing how it can be, but back in May, we decided that the best for us was to reschedule and wait until we were able to do it in person.

Chris: Well, let's talk about some of that. You said your mind changed but I'm curious to hear more from Carter about what stressed you out the most and what did change in the way you had to think about organizing this thing? You explained, I think it was a good analogy. You explained of like you had the requirements and you had to build this new thing and you just have to put your product manager hat on and decide like, can we ship this thing given these requirements and this timeframe? What was different about this than putting on the in-person event both practically but also emotionally and I don't know, for your stress.

Carter: Look, I want people to understand, it was completely different. If you're awesome at putting on in-person events, you will feel like some toddler that can't even walk. Here's the thing, it was unbelievably stressful but I want to be clear, the stress in a lot of ways was self-inflicted because look, we could have put on a lower grade virtual event that would have been much more straightforward, right? But like I said, we have a brand, our community expects something from us that's special, right? I think that's the word that I would use. It's like, it's special, it's differentiated and I think the thing is me and the other organizers, we were up for the challenge, right? And I don't think that that's fair to expect from all people who organize all events, right? My wife, Carrie, and I, we put on CascadiaJS as our family business, right? A lot of people, that is not how the events work.

Carter: A lot of events are purely organized by volunteer members of the community, right? And in fact, I mean, that's how Cascadia was for the first five or six years. I transitioned to working on it full-time after I left Twilio. In our case, because we had our ability to work on it full-time, we were up for the challenge of trying to solve this puzzle, right? I think we all sort of realize now it's not clear when things are going to go back to whatever people think of as normal, right?

Chris: Yeah.

Carter: In fact, I'm actually certain that 2021 will not be anything like what people think normal is. From a maybe strategic perspective, it didn't feel like an option to just wait it out, right? It felt like this event has to learn how to be virtual maybe forever, right? It was a combination of feeling like this is not just a momentary blip in time, this is something long-term and then also there's just an appetite to learn something new and it was exciting. Stress isn't all bad, right?

Chris: Yeah.

Carter: When you are challenging yourself, when you are setting this super high bar that you to hit, me and the other organizers we basically got on a call and I sort of put it out there and I said, "Hey, who's excited about putting on the best and most interactive and immersive virtual event of 2020?" And everybody was just super onboard for that, right? I think from that moment on, it was hard and it was a lot of work but there was just tremendous excitement and enthusiasm to see if we could do something that hadn't been done yet.

Chris: What about the organizers that helped you out with it? Were there instances where you had one organizer helping you who was really great at their job for the in-person event but struggled figuring something out or helping you out being a good organizer for the virtual event?

Carter: Yeah. I mean, I would say in terms of our volunteer organizer crew, I mean, everybody was just amazing. And I include like all the pivoting, right? In a positive sense, Brendan Niedermeyer, he's one of the core organizers of the Seattle JS meetup and last year, he helped spin up sort of a support network for new speakers. One of the things that we pride ourselves with Cascadia is that we don't just invite already well-known speakers to give talks. We help discover new voices in our community and we are proud of providing a platform for these new voices. But last year, Brendan was sort of part of... He led the team that helped get these new speakers ready to give a talk in front of 500 or 600 people, right? And he did it again this year but it was just all different, right? It was all about how to use tools on your laptop to prerecord your talk and set up your camera. And he coordinated shipping cameras and microphones to speakers who needed them. And it was just a completely different set of asks but he handled it really, really well. Personally, from my perspective, there is a ton of things that I did really poorly because I simply had no experience doing it, right?

Carter: I had gotten really good at ordering swag. CascadiaJS is famous for its hoodies. People love the hoodies, they're soft, they've got a great design on them and normally, we order 600 hoodies and we get them shipped to a conference venue and we hand them out in person, right? This year, we considered hoodies to be table stakes, like we would not consider putting on the conference if we couldn't send to people hoodies so we had to learn how to send this thing to 600 individuals around the world. And I will totally say that I screwed it up on multiple dimensions and it was one of those things we're like, you're having to fix airplane while it's in the air. I had to send out emails saying, "Hey, sorry. We didn't capture your mailing address properly, please go fill out this Google form." I mean, there were like multiple snafus in terms of like not capturing information correctly, asking people to do things twice, not explaining adequately enough what the difference was between a standard hoodie and a fitted hoodie, they're just so many problems that were just born out of my inexperience doing something like that.

Carter: You have to fight through those things and I just want to be clear, one of the reasons that it feels worthwhile to fight through those things is that we just have a really wonderful community. And in general, people are very, very understanding when these things happen. And that's kind of a by-product of the kind of community that we bring together.

Chris: Kind of on the flip side, were there any things that surprised you that went better than they would have or they did in a physical in-person conference? Were there any benefits for attendees? Maybe an obvious one is like people can attend from all over the world more easily in a virtual conference but yeah, what are some of those things that you found that were like, "Oh, that's pretty cool." This is something we couldn't have done or couldn't have done as well in a physical conference.

Carter: Yeah, I mean, it's honestly it's a huge list, right? And that's why I'm just so excited about the future of these kinds of conferences. I mean, I'm already thinking about the next virtual conference that we do, right? Because I'm so excited about the fact that anybody in the world who wanted to attend CascadiaJS could attend it, right? That was never, ever true in the past even with a scholarship program. Either we didn't have the resources or people just couldn't fly from Australia to Portland or something, right? We were able to bring our event to more people around the world and that was just amazing. I think another benefit is that you can really be way more flexible with how the timing for your event happens, Right? In a physical event, look, you've got a venue for two days, you've got to squeeze everything into those two days, right? And you got really almost no flexibility to do more than that, right? But in a virtual event, you can have things happening leading up to the event. We hosted free meetups leading up to the event so that we could test out some of the technology that we're building but so that also people could check out what we're about, right?

Carter: They could almost try before you buy, come hang out at the meetup and see what we are about, right? You're able to put on these events before the conference, you're able to put on events after the conference. We had a bunch of awesome workshops that we scheduled days or even weeks following the conference including the one that you and Julián organized. I think there's a ton of time of flexibility that you get and I think the last thing I just want to call out, you also have sort of multitasking, right? In some big physical venue maybe a multi-track conference, you have to physically get up and walk from ballroom A to ballroom B or maybe even you have to walk across the street or something, right? But in a virtual event, you're a click away from going from a really cool talk that you liked to a workshop that you're interested in, right? People can shift around in this super efficient way that I think is really powerful and then I guess, sorry, and I'll say one more thing and then accessibility, right? At a physical venue, you have to be so thoughtful about accessibility from a physical perspective just like things like stairs can be a problem, right?

Carter: But in a virtual event, you still have accessibility problems, but they're different. They're like technology accessibility, they're not like the physical ability of somebody to be somewhere, right? So long as they have a browser and an internet connection, they can be there and it's just really powerful.

Chris: I love the chat that was going on or the ability to chat maybe during a talk, maybe that's rude to the speaker but I actually liked the ability to be chatting with the audience in a way that's not disruptive to the speaker-

Carter: No, Chris, the speakers were in the chat sometimes.

Chris: Right.

Carter: Because remember, look, I don't know if people think this is deceptive or not but we had prerecorded talks that were 20 minutes long that were followed by a live Q&A, right? You would have speakers in the chat as their talks were playing and they would be interacting with people like as they were giving the talks, it was kind of cool.

Julián: I think that format is perfect. I personally love maybe live coded or live streaming format where you can interact with the person that is giving you content. Sometimes we'd like obviously conference talks, it's difficult to do it live, but if we had that space to interact or the Q&A and interact with the other people at the conference through the chat, I think that's very, very good. I mean, it's way less rude than you talking to your friend at the conference, like really interrupting.

Carter: And another thing just while we're talking about the chat, the Emote widget that you all built, people absolutely loved it. For folks listening to this podcast, you'd have the talk plane in a little video window and there was a widget right underneath the talk where you could either clap or heart or there were like a bunch of different little emotions that you could click on. And when you clicked on them, there was this cool visual effect on the screen that would be replicated to everybody else that was watching the talk and there was an optional sound effect that you could turn on or off, they loved it. I mean, if you go to Twitter and you search for CascadiaJS, you just see all these people screenshotting the end of a talk and this cascade of claps and hearts coming from the people who are watching that talk, this might sound surprising but I knew from the beginning that if we couldn't build this feature, I didn't want to do the event.

Chris: Wow.

Carter: I'm not kidding. Look, there is something unbelievably primal and human about clapping and expressing appreciation when you are a member of an audience. Just think about a play that you've been to or think about a movie that you watched and then the closing credits of your favorite movie and how everyone just starts clapping and cheering, right? It's an emotion and it's a way for members of the audience to be part of the event and not just be like these passive viewers, right? And I just knew that if we couldn't build it, I wouldn't want to put on the event because then you are just watching like YouTube.

Chris: Yeah.

Carter: And that's not what Cascadia is.

Julián: And that emotion was also contagious because you saw the burst of people reacting with the smiley faces, some plus ones so that was very, very beautiful.

Chris: So let's finish up. Let's just finish with, what was your favorite thing about the event that was kind of unexpected and your experience either prepping for it or actually day of or days of the event?

Carter: I think for me honestly, the thing that was the most surprising was the feedback that we got and just how uniformly positive it was. I mean, honestly, I was absolutely terrified that people were going to not be very impressed by what we had done, they wouldn't think that it had been worth their time. I was really worried about the reaction that people were going to have and we we sent out a survey at the end of every conference. It's one of the most important things that we do. We beg people to fill out the survey whether the feedback is positive or negative, because we care so much about improving, right? You cannot just roll out the same conference every year, right? You have to learn and you have to get better. We rolled out the survey and we got hundreds of people to respond and I couldn't believe it, people scored this year's CascadiaJS higher than any previous CascadiaJS. It just makes your head spin because as someone who's obviously been to all of them, right? Because I organized them. You kind of get stuck thinking and like, what you didn't do. You didn't do this and you didn't do that and you didn't do this and you lose sight of the fact that first of all, most people who attended had never even been to a Cascadia, right?

Carter: I think as organizers, you lose sight of that. At least half of your attendees are new attendees, right? But then the second thing is people were just really surprised and delighted by what we'd put together and it really came through. It came through in the talks, it came through in the social events and for me, that was just really surprising. Before the conference had started, I would have said like, "Hey, I think we did a pretty good job and I'm really proud of the effort." And after reading the feedback, I'm legitimately surprised that we created something that has now made me feel like, "Wow, this is not like a one-off, this is now the blueprint," right? Going forward, even if we get to a place where people can gather, there will always and forever be a virtual a nontrivial, serious, virtual component at CascadiaJS so that people from around the world can always participate in the event.

Chris: Julián what about you as an attendee/supporter/sponsor? Yeah, what was your favorite thing about the event?

Julián: A lot of different things. The first one, I think the logistics around the event was pretty easy to navigate. All the emails, how to use the ticket, where to find the links, the different platforms that people had available. For me as an attendee, it was very easy to navigate. I have attended other different virtual events when you are lost on a website and you don't know where to go. At least in this case, I felt accompanied by somebody that was guiding me through the conference. And I loved the different virtual spaces that the conference offered by the different meeting tables that were for the career and mentor fair the day before the conference or the other virtual space where you would be able to hang out with other people and even watch the talks from that virtual space. For me, that was really, really mind blowing.

Chris: Yeah. We didn't even have a chance to get into all the tooling and the tools that you used for this Carter like Rambly and those other things but-

Carter: Future podcast.

Chris: Yeah, maybe. Exactly. We need to do episode two or part two or something like that. But before we finish up, Carter, is there anything else you'd like to add or share or any wisdom you want to impart upon? Hopefully some event organizers are listening to this but also plenty of people who are developers who might attend virtual events and maybe in person or hybrid events in the future.

Carter: Yeah. Well look, if you're the kind of person who likes to go to conferences, you don't have much of a choice. You're going to attend virtual events for a while and then hopefully hybrid events later, I think to fellow organizers look, it's scary, right? Or it feels scary and there are a lot of tools and platforms out there that try to offer a one size fits all way for you to do, kind of put these experiences together.

Carter: But I guess ultimately I would just say like, you can do it, right? We had a lot of doubt and we were worried that we weren't going to create a wonderful experience but I think ultimately it's not just the end result that people care about, it's how your effort and your empathy come through in what you do, right? The solution isn't to use X tool or X platform, the solution is to put in the time and put in the effort to understand your community and to understand what tools are available and to do your best. And I think if you do that, people really recognize that and that's certainly how I felt. We're not done, we've been posting all of the videos for CascadiaJS on our website. For people who couldn't attend, they can just go to and eventually we will have all of our videos up and we're planning ahead. I think we're going to do another purely virtual event in early 2021 and we're looking forward to potentially our first hybrid event in October of 2021.

Chris: Well, let me know.

Carter: Folks that are interested in what we're doing. Oh, and I think that the last thing I just wanted to say, I've been meaning to do it and I'm sorry that I haven't done it sooner, but I'm going to write this up. I'm going to write up a blog post that walks through a lot of the decisions we made and a lot of the tools, platforms, and vendors that we used. We'll be posting that on the CascadiaJS site soon so stay tuned for that.

Chris: Cool. Yeah, we can link to that from the show notes too but thank you for joining us on Code[ish].

Carter: Hey, thanks for having me Chris.

Julián: See you, bye-bye.

About code[ish]

A podcast brought to you by the developer advocate team at Heroku, exploring code, technology, tools, tips, and the life of the developer.

Hosted by


Chris Castle

Director, Developer Advocacy, Heroku

Chris thrives on simplicity and helping others. He writes code, prototypes hardware, and smiles at strangers, helping developers build more and better

With guests


Julián Duque

Principal Developer Advocate, Heroku

Developer Advocate, Community Leader, and Educator with experience in Node.js and JavaScript


Carter Rabasa

Lead Organizer, CascadiaJS

Carter is a web developer and the lead organizer for CascadiaJS, a conference for web developers in the Pacific Northwest USA.

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