Monday, December 29, 2014

When everything is fucked up beyond all recognition

Right after Barcamp Saigon 2014, I shared this status on Facebook. Though it wasn't long, it was pretty much what had been on my mind the whole event day. I was truly grateful that Barcamp Saigon 2014 wasn't a Failcamp topic the year after. The (relatively) successful execution of the event was a huge relief on my heart and by relief, I mean the feeling of being released from all responsibility in life and once again, become a child.

Over the 2 months duration preparing Barcamp Saigon 2014 with the organizing team, the experience had been stressful, brutal, and depressing to me. It reminded me of all the tough times I had been through in the past, like when my whole fish tank died after a night, or when I almost got a retention due to academy performance; the times that I genuinely told myself everything must be just a dream and I should wake up like right there before thing got worse.

At some point, my work on Barcamp was pushed forward not by the belief of Barcamp on the local community, but by the fear of fucking everything up. The shift in mentality was the same as a good student going from getting an A+ to praying "oh God, please let me pass this".

So what actually happened?

A month and a half before the event, some time in the first week of November, I met my sponsor lead. She was worried that we got only one sponsor and hadn't succeeded in getting any new sponsors for a few weeks. She suggested downgrading Barcamp Saigon so that it fitted the budget we had got. I was pretty sure that would be a huge disappointment to Barcamp enthusiasts in the city. After all those years, we had spoiled the Barcamp crowd with lots of  freebies. But I wasn't at Saigon, where all our potential sponsors were. I was stuck at Hanoi for 10 days.

A month before the event, I had a major meeting with Barcamp Saigon venue sponsor. Gathered in the meeting room on floor 9 of a downtown campus were faculty members, and various staff of the university. More or less everyone in the school whose function involved in promoting and managing Barcamp Saigon was in that room, where we finalized a few last issues mostly regarding the event flow and the university's concerns about Barcamp's openness. After the meeting, I had a tour around the campus when I got to pick the floors, halls, and rooms that would be used before and on the event day. Everything seemed so certain. All what left to be done was to update the agreement with the new room numbers and we were good to go.

Fourteen days. A major sponsor sent us a formal email demanding that the company's logo must appear on the T-shirt design and threatened to withdraw the sponsorship agreement if the demand wasn't satisfied. Though the withdrawal would mean a significant portion of Barcamp budget might be gone, appearance on T-shirt was not by any mean stated in the sponsorship proposal and contract, the demand wasn't something we could agree. Until thing was sorted out, the incident delayed the commence of T-shirt manufacturing for a few days. We were making 700+ T-shirts, so any delay on the schedule was a nuisance. However, what was going to happen the very next day made this incident in our favor.

Thirteen days before the event, I headed to the campus one more time, believing that I would have the agreement signed. After all, the event was coming close and we satisfied all the requirements from the university. To my surprise, the half-an-hour appointment extended itself into a meeting over lunch, where I was bombarded with questions from a staff I had never met in any previous meeting. He was the most paranoid person about risks associated with the open nature of Barcamp. Though I do agree that there are lot of bad things that can happen in an unconference like Barcamp, I also believe the benefits of Barcamps to its local community outweigh all the risks. In the same way, despite of its risks, the Internet prevails and continues to transform our life every day. That staff seemed to be one who would have blocked the Internet. Also in that meeting, I learned that the people I had spoken to did not have any actual decision making power. Which is fine, because I knew no university vice president would spend his time meeting me once every couple of weeks. I just did not expect that to happen 13 bloody days before the event. The meeting ended and I knew that none of the prior preparation mattered. I had to start from scratch. Everything needed to be postponed till this was solved.

Ten days before the event, I was told that there would be a way to hold Barcamp: contacting a dean at the university, who would then foster Barcamp as an activity of his faculty. I rushed to the campus to meet the dean I was introduced to. He seemed so nice, and supportive, and, above all, so affirmative about the possibility of organizing Barcamp even there was only roughly a week left. I was not as certain.

That night, I met the rest of the organizing team to let them know about the situation. And we planned for all possible exits: changing location, delaying the event date, or dropping everything all together. We were 60% sure that we would not be able to have Barcamp on the designated date. And that was horrible. We had about 30 registered speakers, half a dozen of sponsors who had signed contracts and wired money to my bank account, and worst, hundreds of Barcamp enthusiasts who had purchased their tickets. We planned to have T-shirts, mugs and gym sacks as freebies for participants. All suppliers were calling, because that night was the deadline to kick off the work, or else they would not be able to deliver on time. That was especially true for T-shirts, 700+ T-shirts couldn't be possibly made in a few days. But having these items made also meant we had to spend the sponsored money, and once we had done that, there would be no way back. We had to postpone everything. I thought planning for my own death would have been easier.

Src: Toy Story 3 screenshot

Nine days to go. I booked my meeting at 10AM with the dean, but for some reason I could not call him and did not know where to find him. I did not meet him until over 11AM, at which point he was rushing to another meeting. So we decided to meet in the afternoon instead. He looked different from the man I met the day before though, with a twist of anxiety and uncertainty in the corners of his eyes,

In the afternoon, what I worried was right (I am usually proud of my prediction, this wasn't one). Between our meetings, the dean met the university vice president who, once again, expressed serious concerns that Barcamp's openness would bring sensitive topics to the university and ruin its reputation. The dean asked for some extra information and one more day so he could think everything through. The words T-shirt and deadline passed through my mind a few times. But fuck that, it would be pointless to have 700 T-shirts and no Barcamp. The dean was my last life vest.

Eight days. When I came to the campus at 10AM, the time we were supposed to meet and sign the bloody agreement, the only paper that could guarantee Barcamp Saigon 2014 was not going to be a flop, the dean was in another meeting (I genuinely think people here are meeting too much). I had to wait, and while I was waiting, all the exit plans we planned the other day played again and again in my head. I ended up waiting for an hour and a half, but it seemed to be much longer than that. At 11:30AM, I met the dean, after a short talk and even making some changes directly to the printed agreement by pen, we finally proceeded to sign the agreement. By fostering Barcamp, I knew that the dean, and everyone involved in this plan, took a huge leap of faith in us, the Barcamp organizing team, and put their career and reputation on the line. I could not have asked any one for a better commitment. But the process almost killed me.

We then rushed to contact all suppliers we could possibly thought of to get the freebies made. Due to time constraint, we had to compromise the original design that we made. But again, having a decent Barcamp on time was more important that having a perfect one late, so we bit the bullet and rolled on.

Four days to go. Yet another sponsor intimidated to withdraw the sponsorship because they believed some registered topics went against the company's benefit. As the organizers of Barcamp Saigon, we took the responsibility of providing benefits to all sponsors, because we would not be able to pull things together without their help. But there were lines we also needed to maintain to keep Barcamp what it is, an unconference. As a Barcamp, we were supposed to not be censors. Though I have to admit it is hard to rationalize with people taking thing personally.

Sixty hours left. I got a phone call from the university, saying that the titles in the agreement was not in the right format and we would have to redo it. Now please notice that Barcamp Saigon team was nothing but a group of locals and foreigners falling in love with Barcamp. We did not have a legal status. A local company was nice enough to trust us and help us sign all the paper as a legal entity. There was only one problem, the company was in the further corner of District 7, half a city from where I lived and another half the city to the university. I am typically most productive around afternoon, but that was one afternoon I spent riding around the city and would never get back.

Until then, when the format was right, memos were sent between departments to prepare for the event. There were around forty eight hours left. People from maintenance, security, IT and sanitation were up in arms, complaining that that was a ridiculously short notice, that how they were supposed to allocate people to work overtime on the event day, and many other things. All what I could do then was smiling like an idiot. I knew that I had done everything that I could and if I made half a university pissed for my little event, so be it.

This brutal experience taught me the importance of not losing hope even in the darkest hours.

Remind me of all the tough times I have been through. It is true that the experience was horrible and even haunting, and if given a chance, I would definitely choose not to go through the same thing. But no matter how bad the experience was, and how often it happened, the next thing I remember is that somehow I am still here, in one piece, looking for the next stupid thing to do. So I know that as long as I stay on my path, this too shall pass and become a story for my children.

And the light that led my way in darkness was my "why". Why did I volunteer to put myself into this situation? For at least half a dozen of times people asked me why I was putting myself through all those pointless things, and my answer was the same. In 2008, when I first heard of Barcamp, the inner voice in my head said that there was no way would this work. Why on earth some random people would want to share their knowledge and ideas to some other random people? But somehow, the community has always responded incredibly positive to Barcamp. Year after year, the number of participants increase. And people looking forward to the event as if it was some sort of annual festival. Every year my mind is blown by the power of a healthy community. And I want to carry on the spirit.

Let me know how crucial it is to be around supportive people. If you want to do something, and all the friends are telling you how stupid it is, better consider dropping the plan, or look for new friends.  During these hard times the temptation to just drop everything on its own is huge. The assumption that once I quit, all miseries will be gone is really seductive. I know that I am weak so I don't try to fight the devil alone. I stay with my team to get encouragement. and, when I can, to help inspire others. What I have learned from all the years fighting alone is that never wait until my inner self starts screaming for some human interaction, by then it will be too late already. Now I always try to have my shields up before difficult times strike.