SupConf: a conference organizer's dream come true

Photo credit Lance Conzett.

Several months ago, Scott Tran of the Support Driven community asked me some questions about an internal mini-conference I had organized for Automattic‘s annual meetup. He was thinking about organizing a conference for support professionals, and he’d never organized a conference before.

I was excited to share what I knew, as little as it was. I had never organized a public conference before, either. We laughed, swapped stories, and signed off of our call smiling and happy.

A couple of weeks later, Scott contacted me with some follow up questions about speaker wrangling, which I answered. And then he asked, “Would you like to help me plan this conference?”


I was out of town at the time, was buried under a lot of work, and had no idea how I would fit planning a conference into my full time job and crammed schedule of M-W swimming, Tu-Th soccer, swim meets, soccer tournaments, groceries, laundry, eating, and plain old family time. I fretted over the decision, knowing my life would be much easier if I said no.

Customer support is a noble profession with a bad reputation. Customer support is the face and voice of a company; support is the human element, the connector. Support professionals are thinkers, problem solvers, communicators, helpers. Yet customer support professionals get little respect. We get glazed eyes and blank looks when we answer the question, “What do you do for a living?” We shy away from explaining our jobs, we hedge, we hide what we do because we shrink from the reaction we’ll get.

And so I said yes. SupConf needed to happen. We needed a place where we could gather, learn from each other, teach each other, and figure out how to blaze the path of support as a career. If I could help bring it into the world, I wanted to contribute in any way I could.

Scott had a clear vision of what he wanted the conference to look like. It would be small, to encourage engagement and discussion among attendees. The talks would be professional and would have clear, actionable takeaways for attendees. The conference would be more than speakers talking at an audience. It would capitalize on the unique feature of a conference: that people from around the world gather in a physical space in person. Scott wanted to take advantage of that and get people talking to each other.

Other organizers started joining, and as a group, we found a space, we put out calls for speakers and sponsors. We started thinking about how to realize the SupConf dreams. We organized the program into themes and instituted a talk development program where each speaker had a mentor. We selected speakers blind, with no knowledge of their names, companies, or speaking experience.

Each talk would have followup questions on the screen after the speaker exited the stage so small discussion groups could form. We had breakout sessions after each theme where attendees could talk to the speakers. And instead of an after party, we hosted a dinner the first night where each table was seeded with topics and question cards related to problems support teams are looking to solve.

SupConf table topics and schedule
Table topics and schedule

We were doing all kinds of things differently, and we had no idea how it would land. Would people talk to each other? Would they vote on table topics? Would they actually turn to their neighbors to discuss the the follow up questions? Would they visit the speakers in the breakouts and have more in depth conversations? Would it be okay that there was no booze? A small number of attendees? No afterparty?

The answer to all of those, to our very great delight, was yes. Not only did attendees turn to their neighbors to discuss the questions, they turned their chairs to form dozens of small circles. There was no awkward silence. Instead, we felt we were often pulling folks out of deep discussions in order to keep the program moving.

In other words, our dreams for SupConf were realized. As with all things, it can be improved, and we are looking forward to the feedback we will get from attendees. For a first time event, and for never having helped organize a real conference before, I will go out on a limb and say it was a success.

I am still absorbing the experience. I am so proud, and so honored to have been involved in the very first SupConf. It will take me a while to process the actual content that speakers and attendees shared with us, but fortunately recap posts are already up:

Recap of SupConf vol. 1 by Pat East
The Greatest Support Conference I’ve Ever Attended* by Brian Kerr

Thank you to the attendees, who made SupConf the amazing event that it was. And thank you to these folks for making it such a pleasure to bring SupConf into the world:

supconf-organizers from lanceconzett
SupConf organizers: myself, Nykki Yeager, Bill Bounds, Diana Potter, Scott Tran, Andrew Spittle, Mercer Smith-Looper



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