You may have noticed I wasn't at Bay Area Drupal Camp last weekend. If you were following the camp closely or my social media account, you might have expected otherwise. When the accepted sessions were announced, my talk "Ride the Whale: Docker for Drupalists" was on the list. Then, a week before the camp, it was nowhere to be found on the schedule. What happened was a combination of unexpected circumstances and the relentless progression of the hourglass.
An unexpected acceptance
First of all, I wasn't expecting to have a session accepted. In fact, I'm still surprised each and every time I get a session accepted anywhere (with the exception of my local camp). When you don't ever expect your talk to be accepted, you fall into an r-selector pattern. You submit your talk anywhere that sounds fun, appropriate, or interesting. Like spawning fish, you do not expect most proposals to survive.
When a talk does get accepted, you madly rush to get everything set up in time. For a good chunk of my adult life, I was a consultant. I was used to dropping everything and being on a plane the next morning. My life circumstances were different back then. I lived alone, I owned a car, I didn't have anyone I needed to care for at home. I've had trouble adapting to the fact that none of that is true for me any longer. I have a cat and a partner that have difficulty being alone in a 100 year old house for days at a time.
If I am gone for more than a few days, that often means one of two things. Either I need to fly my partner somewhere while boarding the cat, or fly a friend of my partner's to my house. For Drupalcon Dublin, we settled on the latter. That turned out really well for all involved, but it wasn't without cost.
An unfortunate expense
I had submitted my talk to BADCamp while I was still working at my last job. The event policy was a catch 22: to be reimbursed for the event you had to be pre-approved, but to have a reason to go at all I needed to have an accepted session to give. In most circumstances it worked out, but it was always a tense experience. A few times I had to cancel or -- between home and college loans -- pay for it all out of pocket. It felt wrong to ask the camp for a scholarship when I was working for a Drupal company.
Then in July, I was unexpectedly laid off. It happened at a bad time for me financially and emotionally. My health took a huge hit as my income and coverage evaporated. I explained to the camp organizers I would have to cancel as I no longer could afford to attend. They deferred on canceling my session outright, and suggested I look around for some assistance.
A few days later, that did arrive. Still, try as I might to make the numbers work, it simply didn't come together. Flights from MSP to SFO are surprisingly expensive on a weekend. Even the worst, you-will-definitely-miss-your-connection flights were simply out of reach. This was even before you factored in local transport, lodging, and other expenses. I couldn't in good conscience accept the help and put my finances (more) at risk at the same time.
The relentless progress of the hourglass
I tried for the better part of a month and half to make the trip work. In the middle I attended Drupalcon Dublin. I was no longer unemployed at this point, having accepted some contract work. Obviously it didn't cover attending a Drupalcon and only allowed for my absence that week. I would like to say I enjoyed Ireland, but given my limited budget there, I barely saw more than the airport, my hostel, and the convention center.
When I returned to the States, I tried to make the numbers work for BADCamp once more, but the calculus simply did not change. In the end, time simply ran out.
The camp organizers rightfully pulled my session, fortunately finding someone else to fill the spot. To be clear, I'm not frustrated or angry. If anything I completely understand: I've assisted with camp organization before; believe me, I get it after all the trouble I caused them.
So what now?
I certainly don't plan on attending any more events this year. The holidays are coming up, and I've started a new job. Travel during a Minnesotan winter is inherently more risky due to the potential for canceled flights and missed connections. But what about next year?
I love giving talks. I love introducing people to new ideas and technologies. It's gratifying for me to help empower others, saying "You can do this! Let me help!" I certainly want to continue giving talks, but it's not something that's highly valued in our world. Camps have limited budgets. Employers are likewise constrained even if they see the benefit to the community. Only the very best and the very lucky give talks at conferences regularly. It's unlikely I will ever be that good or that lucky so I need to be practical.
I wish I had a solution, but for now I only have ideas.
For Drupalcon Austin, I crowdfunded my attendance on Drupalfund (which now appears to be abandoned). I was fortunate to have a friend that would put me up for the week, plenty of vacation time, and public transport to the event. Furthermore, I received a scholarship that covered the cost of the ticket itself. That worked for a single event, but how far can that go?
One idea is to run a crowdfund to pay for an entire year’s worth of speaking events. Using Drupical, I could assemble a prioritized list of events I’d like to attend. I could estimate the flight, lodging, and expense cost for each event, making the total my “fully funded” goal. Stretch goals could be added for additional events. In order for this to work, I’d have to start developing next year’s talks now. Usually I right two sessions a year, sometimes three.
There’s an inherent risk to a crowdfund, however, and that is what happens if I don’t reach any goals at all? I don’t want to have to cancel outright due to a lack of money (like Drupalcon Barcelona) or leave camp organizers hanging until the last moment like I did with BADCamp.
An alternative -- and more stable -- strategy would be something like Patreon. Instead of funding an entire year’s worth of events up front, the community could support me speaking at events monthly. Patreon is the emotional opposite of a Kickstarter-like crowdfund. Supporters have a much more control over how much they donate, how often, and when they want to stop completely. It sounds much more appealing to me given how much less stressful it is to all involved. Even if I don’t attend an event a month, the funding can roll over to the next event.
I’ve been reluctant to act on either idea. Tax implications aside, I can’t think of any other practical way for it to work. While Drupalcons and many camps offer scholarships, I’d rather that money go to unknown speakers with fresh ideas.
Special thanks to the several people who helped review and edit this post!