Tech-Fest of Champions: How to run a community IT conference

Everybody who attended seems to speak well of the IndyTechFest. It is a great example of how to organise a free local conference for IT people who wish to increase their skills and knowledge. So how is it done? Brad McGehee decided to find out by talking to one of the organisers, John Magnabosco who blogs here on Simple-Talk.

Tech-Fest of Champions: How to run a community IT conference.

Successful DBAs and developers know the importance of continuing to learn. While some DBAs and developers are fortunate enough to have large training budgets and can attend formal classroom training, or national conferences, many aren’t so lucky. Fortunately for those who don’t have large training budgets, more and more local users groups have been putting on free, local conferences. So how is it done?

One of these events is the IndyTechFest, which has been held in Indianapolis, IN for the past two years. I attended and spoke at both events, and I was so impressed at how well it was organized that  I then asked one of the event’s organizers, John Magnabosco, how he had managed to organise such a successful and well-organised  event as IndyTechFest.

Brad: “On Saturday, October 4, 2008, IndyTechFest 2008 was held. What was the aim of  the event?” John: “IndyTechFest is the premier community-lead technical conference in Indianapolis. It is a day-long opportunity for developers and DBAs to learn more about familiar technologies, learn about technologies they are considering adding to their arsenal of skills, and learning more about technologies that are on the horizon.

This year, the conference included presentations on VB.NET, C#, SharePoint, SQL Server, Team Foundation Server, REST, WCF, Silverlight, CodePlex, Robotics Studio, and XNA Studio, just to name a few. In addition to these technical topics, we also provided some sessions that were pure fun, such as “Tech Jeopardy”, “Phidgets and a Better Election,” and a separate room in which our attendees could jam with their peers along with “Rock Band.”

The topics were presented by national, regional, and local experts. This combination of talent provided the opportunity for attendees to hear some well known speakers and authors, along with up and coming talent found at our local user groups. It was a good mix.

The 2008 event sold out very quickly. We opened registration on our website ( on Friday, August 22, and by noon the following Monday we had hit 500 registrants, which was as much as  we could handle at our venue.

As with any free event, we expected a certain percentage of no-shows, so we continued registration until 750 had signed up (which occurred on Thursday), with the assumptions that of these 750, about 500 would actually attend. At the end of the day of the event, our count was 470, so our estimate was very close.” Brad: “How did IndyTechFest. get started?” John: “The event was originally conceived by Brad Jones, the former President of the Indianapolis .NET Developer Association (IndyNDA), who felt that the Indianapolis market was extremely underserved by events that travel nationally. After a few years of conversations with many others, the founding team was assembled and history was made.

IndyTechFest 2007 was our inaugural event. It was very successful and exceeded everyone’s expectations, so we had a lot to live up to with our second event. Based upon the feedback that we have received from the attendees of IndyTechFest 2008, this year’s event was also a great success.

The team who put on the event includes the leadership of the Indianapolis .NET Developer Association (IndyNDA), as well as the leadership of the Indianapolis Professional Association for SQL Server (IndyPASS). This is an awesome example of what can be done when local user groups pool their resources and experience for the benefit of their communities.

This year’s organizing team included Brad Jones, the former President of IndyNDA, whose primary responsibility were logistics, securing swag, and handling the finances; David Leininger, the current President of IndyNDA, whose primary responsibility was registration, volunteers, and signage; Mark McClellan, a board member of IndyNDA, whose primary responsibility was dealing with sponsors; and myself, the current president of IndyPASS, and my primary responsibilities included scheduling sessions, working with speakers, and producing the event booklet.” Brad: “Why should other user’s groups across the country consider offering their own local TechFest?” John: “Many other communities have been putting on similar events in increasing numbers over the last few years. While these do not always contain the title “Tech Fest,” they are similar in spirit.

For those willing to take this task on, their communities and user groups will benefit tremendously.

There seems to be an endless hunger in the IT community to learn more about current and upcoming technologies. These events connect the community to the experts in the field, as well as other IT professionals, creating a true cooperative community that improves the community’s overall skill level and understanding. User groups benefit because these events provide a great platform of the awareness of their activities.

Organizing such an event should not be attempted lightly. There is a lot of work and coordination involved. The most successful events must approach their speakers and sponsors with a very high level of professionalism and attention to detail. ” Brad: “What  benefits did the attendees get out of attending the event?” John: “The benefits to the attendees of our event are numerous. They gained information on many current technologies that they could immediately take back to work with them the following Monday. They gained some understanding of new technologies, providing them with information that may help them in their career, or provide an upcoming solution to a current challenge. They also gained networking opportunities with their peers as well as our sponsors and speakers.

In addition, each attendee walked away with an embroidered backpack filled with goodies. Many walked away with valuable prizes.” Brad: “Can you provide any general demographics about who attended?
John: ” Those who attended were .NET Developers, SharePoint Developers, Database Developers, Business Intelligence Developers, as well as Database Administrators. The past two years have been focused primarily on Microsoft technologies, which in turn results in attendees who are focused on these products. We do have plans to introduce other technologies at future events, such as Oracle, Java and open source platforms, which will introduce a whole new demographic to our event.

Based on the zip codes of the attendees, we found that all of the mid-western states were well represented, making IndyTechFest very much a regional event. There were even a few attendees who travelled a great distance to attend.” Brad: “How did the attendees rate the event, based on the evaluations you got back?” John: “Overall, the evaluations were very positive and expressed an eagerness for attending IndyTechFest 2009. As with any event, there are areas we need to improve on. Attendees offered many great suggestions that we will definitely consider in our planning for next year. It was also very encouraging to see the areas that were in need of improvement (based on last year’s feedback) were successfully improved, and that this was noticed by those who attended both last year’s and this year’s event. We look forward to exceeding expectations again next year.” Brad: “An event of this size requires many different volunteers. What kinds of volunteer roles were necessary to put this event together?” John: “The largest need for volunteers was at the check-in booths at the entrance of the facility when the event began. While this did not require a lot of volunteer for the entire day, it did require being able to handle the various unpredictable occurrences that come with that job. In addition, some of the volunteers helped out stuffing the backpacks with the goodies that were given to attendees. Volunteers also helped out with the user group booths we had at the event, promoting our local user groups. Besides the four of us, about 15 other volunteers helped out.” Brad: “How do you go about finding volunteers?” John: “Our volunteers were recruited from our user groups, co-workers, and family. All were very eager to participate and they did an awesome job. We are indeed very fortunate to have such a great support system in our community and families.” Brad: “How do you coordinate efforts among all the volunteers involved?” John: “Our approach was to assign one of our coordinators as the “go-to-man” for everything regarding volunteers. He orchestrated the tasks that needed to be performed, communicated with all the volunteers on an on-going basis, and he performed the pep-talk prior to the opening of the doors of the event.  If a question or situation arose, this person was the one who volunteers sought.

This approach was very effective because our volunteers clearly understood what was needed and how they could help. At the registration booth, we teamed up our volunteers in pairs, which was also a very effective approach.” Brad: “Why do people volunteer their free time to help out in this event? What do they get out of the experience?” John: “The only tangible gain that our volunteers received was an IndyTechFest t-shirt. The motivation for each volunteer certainly varies; but I think the volunteers find in personally rewarding to be able to help out in an event that promotes the further education of their peers. Many of these same volunteers also volunteer at the monthly meetings at IndyNDA and IndyPASS.” Brad: “How do you go about finding the location for an event with nearly 500 attendees?

The location for IndyTechFest is also the home for the IndyNDA’s monthly meeting. That organization has been meeting at the Gene B. Glick Junior Achievement Education Center ( for many years. This is a popular facility for various events ranging from banquets, weddings, community events, and educational events, such as IndyTechFest.

Due to the IndyNDA’s previous relationship with the Gene B. Glick Junior Achievement Education Center, they were very willing to work with us to keep within our budgeted amount for the location and food.  This location has served us very well over the first two years of our event.” Brad: “How do you find speakers to speak at this event?” John: “As leaders of our local user groups, we have the opportunity to meet many people who are potential speakers for the event. All of our speakers were introduced to us either directly from a conversation at a user group meeting, or has spoken at a user group meeting in the past.

Many events offer a “call for speakers”. We have not yet taken this approach yet because we happen to have a great network available to us. For those user groups who may not yet have an established network of potential speakers available to them, I would recommend that they establish a regular dialog with neighboring user groups and use their sponsor’s connections and resources.

Gathering speakers and determining sessions is definitely a team effort. Maintaining regular communications with speakers is very important so that they know what to expect, and to help reduce the occurrence of last minute cancellations. In addition, user groups need to approach speakers early. This allows them to fit your event into their schedules, as well as prepare the quality presentation that is expected.” Brad: “How did you market the event?” John: “We have a website,, which is a must, not only to promote the event, but to handle attendee registration as well.

Besides the website, we printed some business cards that included details of the event, which were passed to many acquaintances around town. In addition, many of our sponsors shared information about the event with their clients and staff through e-mails and newsletters. We also submitted some word-bites to newsletters, such as the PASS newsletter and SQL Server Magazine’s online calendar; we included announcements regarding the event at the monthly IndyNDA and IndyPASS meetings; and we also communicated the event to regional user group leaders who passed the word on to their membership. Beyond this, our marketing approach depended heavily on the good old fashioned word-of-mouth.

Based upon the surveys that were submitted by attendees, the primary way they learned about the event was from a friend or co-worker.  A close second was attendees hearing about the event from a user group announcement.

Another important influence on the success of this year’s event was the success of last year’s event. There remained a good amount of buzz throughout the early portion on 2008 about our inaugural event, which helped raise anticipation for this year’s event. Based upon the initial flood of registrations when registration was opened, it was definitely highly anticipated.” Brad: “I noticed that there was a great amount of communication between the event’s organizers and speakers and attendees. How do you think this contributed to the success of the event?” John: “Regular communication is important on many levels. The event executes much smoother when all parties involved know what to expect and the order of the day. Communicating regularly with speakers, sponsors, volunteers and attendees enhances the community experience. Instead of registering and attending, or agreeing to sponsor the event and cutting a check, frequent communications helps everyone involved to actually witness the planning process and have an opportunity to contribute ideas, which in turn helps to give everyone involved a more vested interest in the event.

If the communication is well done, it actually builds anticipation for the event, which helps to reduce the no-show rate. Our event has a very low no-show rate for a free event. In addition, the drop-out rate for our speakers is extremely low, and all are very well prepared by the time the big day arrives.” Brad: “How much did is cost to put on this event? And what were the sources of this money?” John: “The cost of our first two events was about $60 per attendee. Most of the cost was paying for the location, food, and the bags we gave away. Our team is a collection of keen negotiators, so while the cost per attendee might be a little high compared to other free community events, we actually get much more out of our budget than you might expect. All funds come from the sponsors of the event

All of the items in the backpacks that the attendees received, as well as the door prizes that were given out at the end of the event (including a Wii + RockBand and an Xbox) were donated by various companies.” Brad: “How do you go about finding sponsors?” John: “Being user group leaders, we have established relationships with many organizations. We are very fortunate to have companies, such as the ones who sponsored this year’s event, who recognize that there is not only a marketing benefit to the sponsorship of these events, it also give them the opportunity to give back to the community in which they do business.

As our event grows, and word gets out about our event, more and more potential sponsors approach us. We intentionally limit the number of “official partners” to add value to the sponsorship. For this year’s event, the limit was ten sponsors.” Brad: “How do you determine how much to charge sponsors for their support?” John: “When we began our planning, we first determined our audience goal and the number of tracks we wanted to offer.  These factors directly affect the location, the amount of food, and other related costs. We then were able to create the budget. Based upon this budget and the sponsorship limitation of ten official partners, we derived the cost of sponsorship.

We strive for a very simplistic sponsorship model. All ten have the same benefits of sponsorship. This is the same approach that we use for our respective user groups. This approach has proven to be very successful for us.” Brad: “How is the money handled for the event so that it is transparent for all the participants?” John: “We have a designated money-man for our team. During each planning meeting, this person presents the budget, the expenses incurred, the funds received, along with future expected revenues and expenditures, to the team. This provides the accountability needed for that role, as well as the opportunity for the team to make adjustments to keep on budget.” Brad: “Based on your experience, what mistakes did you learn the hard way, and how will you avoid them in the future?” John: “Each event brings its own challenges and there will always be areas that are in need of improvement. Our approach this year was to evaluate how the prior year’s event performed based upon the surveys, personal accounts provided by others, as well as our own observations, and determine the areas that were most in need of improvement.

For example, volunteer management was an area that was in need of improvement from last year. We discussed among the team some ideas on how this aspect could be improved. Some ideas for these tasks were to: communicate early and often to the volunteers as to what the expectations for them were, as well as the tasks that we needed them to address. Also, we had a better idea of where the critical mass for volunteers was, and then adjusted the required number of volunteers accordingly. This helped tremendously because the volunteers didn’t have to commit to the full day and we didn’t have a lot of volunteers standing around wondering what to do next.

I don’t like the word mistake because it has the implication of regret and poor judgment. I’d rather call them learning opportunities. While this may seem like a minor and silly alteration of the word, it is a mindset that is required when approaching events such as these.” Brad: “What other advice do you have for user groups who want to put on their own TechFest event?” John: “Running a successful user group, as well as an event like IndyTechFest, is mostly about building working relationships within your team, as well as with sponsors, speakers, volunteers, and attendees. These take time, and is maintained through communication, professionalism, and aiding them in their own efforts as well.