Robin 'Roblimo' Miller: We are talking about LinuxFest Northwest. Jakob, you are one of the organizers. Tell me a little bit about yourself and about LinuxFest Northwest.
Jakob Perry: My name is Jakob Perry, and I am a technical account manager at Acquia. We are a Drupal company. And I am an organizer for LinuxFest Northwest, and I have been involved since the beginning back in 2000. So I guess that is almost been 14 years ago now.
Jakob: So, yeah. That’s basically half my life I have spent working on LinuxFest. And I am 28. So yeah, it has been a fun journey, and it is a great little festival located about halfway between Seattle, Washington and Vancouver, British Columbia. So just on the south side of the border in the States.
Robin: Well, so obviously you just don’t have as large a population to draw on as say, I don’t know, Los Angeles SCALE (So. Calif. Linux Expo), where people are organizing stuff... in Florida even; but you still have Seattle. How far out of Seattle are you?
Jakob: We are about an hour and a half. And despite being an hour and a half north of Seattle, and 45 minutes south of Vancouver, or three hours depending on the lineup
Robin: Right. Okay. The border. There is a border there, yes.
Jakob: Yeah. We end up still gathering almost 1200 people for the two-day events.
Robin: Wow! That is a pretty good showing. And how many people does it take to put this on?
Jakob: So we have about a core group of ten people who are around year around. We start the week after LinuxFest ends basically and go all the way around the year. And then when the event happens at Bellingham Technical College, which is where we are located at, they have their CNET, their IT group of students, we have 50 of them come volunteer, help set up the network, help do the rooms and all that. So we have 60 people total, and 50 of them are students. They are doing this as a student project for their end of the year, sort of like CAP stuff.
Robin: So it sounds kind of like, one way to make this sort of thing work, if somebody else wanted to do something similar, is to hook up with a college or university. Am I right?
Jakob: I think it is a good prescription. There are a lot of conferences who have started that way, and then move away from it. But for us, it really works well, because our core tenets is to keep it free and a community event first. And I think one of the problems with a lot of events that you see even in the open source community, is they turn to paid events, and that sort of, I don’t know, it takes away from the fun of the whole thing in the first place.
Robin: Well, I went up and I spoke at the Southeast LinuxFest, and that was in the Carolinas, and they charge admission, I think it was some $5 or $10, something token, and they had really really good volunteer help. That thing runs like a clock, but I think it burns people out, it was subsidized heavily by a couple of local businesses including one of the guys who was one of the organizers, and his own business. I don’t know how long he can keep it up. It had to be a drain on him. How are you guys doing as far as burnout?
Jakob: So I think part of the greatness of how LinuxFest started was as a bunch of people who wanted something to do, we have people from all ages, and because we have such a wide range of people, who are both working and retired, we have a lot of extra time to work on things, and we keep it fairly grassroots and low key. Because of that, we don’t have to raise much more than a couple of thousand dollars a year, we don’t have like $40,000 budgets, we don’t have to worry about a board of directors, we don’t worry about any of that. It is sort of like the college gives us all of this space and then we just need to pay for the rest of the supporting infrastructure around it, and it makes it a lot easier and a lot less stressful than say, a major conference.
Robin: Now, you mentioned retirees, I haven’t seen a lot of people tapping the retiree community, and wait, that would be me for one. How did you do that? How do you contact and get hooked up with retirees?
Jakob: I think a lot of the past of the Bellingham Linux Users Group which sort of started the whole Linux Users Group in general, quite a few of them are close to, or in retiree age, and were playing around with Linux or old Unix systems and they just want to keep that up and running. And so a lot of them need something to do and this is a fun thing to do; so it keeps people energized and engaged.
Robin: That’s interesting. That would be certainly be something if we want to do -- hint, neighbors and people from here to Orlando -- if we want to do another LinuxFest type thing in Florida because Lord knows, we have more retirees than anybody. It is true. Seriously, how did this get going? How did the Northwest LinuxFest start out?
Jakob: We started as an Install Fest at the college. So one of the people who is an organizer, he was a professor that did the Linux course at BTC as a part-time job and that sort of moved in to being able to use a few rooms at BTC for an Install Fest which then turned into a tiny LinuxFest. And then we found out the other Linux users groups in the Seattle area would love to do something as well, but they ran into issues of space, venue, the issues that most places run into, and then they said, hey let’s just latch on to LinuxFest Bellingham and make this LinuxFest Northwest.
And so with the combined efforts of Seattle and Tacoma and I think we’ve had some people from Vancouver and Victoria involved in the beginning, we just started working on LinuxFest Northwest and it sort of expanded to be this large thing in Bellingham. Originally, we were going to actually move it from Bellingham and rotate it around the Northwest, but when the time came to actually look at other venues, it was a lot of work, and it is really really easy to stay at BTC. So people are like: Drive one and a half hours or put on an event in Seattle? Well, we will drive one and a half hours. So that is sort of how it stayed there.
Robin: Interesting. Let me ask you: It sounds like great fun, you are going to set up a website, I’ll put that in the text, I will link to that of course, but here is a question: If you were going to give some advice to somebody who wanted to start a regional Linux thing somewhere, what would you tell them?
Jakob: So you got to secure a venue, a venue is pretty much a key spot, and then you mentioned the website, trying to get a community around the said website is probably the next step. So that you can get participants.
Robin: Do you have corporate sponsorships? Do you have companies that come in and set up stuff up?
Jakob: Yes, through the website, through the COD website, we have a sponsorship system, where people can sign up and they are mainly open source companies.
Jakob: We have open source companies, and we also have community companies that also donate time or materials to the event.
Robin: Such as?
Jakob: Like we have Hardware Sales, there is a local Bellingham hardware store, locally owned and they donate the power distribution nodes to distribute power for the event. We had a sign company donate time and stuff for that. So even people outside the community, the open source community, are helping, and we get those types of sponsorships as well.
Robin: Okay. So you are saying giving local business and the local community, I have never a very few of the people I have met who organize Linux shows think in terms of the local business. They tend to go for they call Red Hat, they call Rackspace, the usual suspects, and I know they get just absolutely overwhelmed with calls, not that they necessarily mind. But do you just go out and cold call local businesses, and say, “Hey we are going to have a thousand people here”
Jakob: Well, one of the advantages, I guess, we have specifically with Bellingham is that it is one of those towns that if you are there for a few years, you’ll end up knowing someone somewhere that knows how to do it, and so in our case, like with the sign company, we had a guy who used to work there, and he got us in a few years ago, he doesn’t work there anymore but they still gave us the deal. With the hardware company, we used a guy that ran rentals there, and he is no longer working there, but they still run the deal for us. We got a guy who runs internet connections there. He provides us one of the best internet connections you can get at any conference in that LinuxFest because we have a fiber gigabit connection, straight out to the internet from the conference and it is provided by CSS Communications down in Bellingham.
Like, so we have these fun ties, because people in the org committee either know people or know some other people. And that is probably a unique feature of living in a smaller town of 70,000 or 80,000; so you might have better success actually organizing a conference in a smaller town than a bigger town.
Robin: Yet I don’t know. I think even in big cities, people don’t exploit their contacts. What you are saying is: We know somebody who knows somebody, and so the advice -- the takeaway, as we say nowadays -- from that is: Talk to your friends, talk to your friends of friends, talk to your cousins’ friends in business, your parents’ friends, whomever, and it is all just it is not what you know, it’s
Jakob: Yes, it is who you know. Yes. So I would definitely suggest trying the local community first. It will get you the furthest with the least cost.
Robin: We want to boost LinuxFest Northwest. We think it is a worthy thing, some of our people, Tim Lord has been there, and loved it. And other people have been there. We need to try to get more people to do it around the country, and around the world, which is why I am sort of asking these how-do-you-do things questions.
Robin: What would be your biggest piece of advice for somebody who wants to start a Linux conference somewhere?
Jakob: So your two best things to have are your venue, trying to figure out some type of local college or university venue where you can host it for really cheap or for free. I would also add if you can find a technical college with an IT department of students that need to have on-the-job experience, this is a great spot to start. The second part is getting a website that will organize all this stuff and do it with as little effort needed. And what we use is the Conference Organizing Distribution called COD on Drupal. That provides you all your attendee information, all your session management, all your community organization that you need around the camp. And almost all the Drupal camps use it, and almost every LinuxFest uses it as well right now.