Kalamazoo X 2012: Hidden Gem Of The Midwest Conference Scene

I woke up on Saturday April 21st 2012 not knowing what to expect. Well, not exactly. Michael Eaton had been telling me for the last few years about the conference he helps organize called Kalamazoo X. How he hand selects the best speakers he’s heard throughout the previous year and asks them to come out to Kalamazoo and give a 30 minute talk for the single track conference. Unlike your typical technical conference, KalX is strictly about soft skills. The touchy-feely type of information that another human saying to you will have a far greater impact than simply reading printed words on a page.

So, I had the idea of Kalamazoo X in my head, but still had not actually experienced it; and since no one’s baby is ugly, I couldn’t exactly count on Mr. Eaton as a completely unbiased observer. So I was unsure exactly what lay a head as I walked towards the venue on that crisp, cold and deceiptively sunny Michigan morning.

Leaving the lying Sun’s ineffectual rays behind, I entered the classroom of the community college where the event was being held. As I began to pour a rejuvenating cup of coffee, I glanced around the room. As noted above, KalX is single track, so all attendees are in the same room for the duration of the event. Now, KalX is described as a conference, but at this point it’s small enough that it may be more accurately described as a gathering. Attendence numbers under hundred, leading to a very intimate feeling. Like being surrounded by a group of friends to hear other friends talk with you.

As Jeff Blankenburg took the stage, I should have known that there should have been no room in my mind for any lingering doubts. For the next thirty minutes he did a fantastic job of speaking on the topic of “How to Learn”. A big point of Jeff’s talk was how “time” and “priority” are fungible. That is, you can exchange priority for time. One of the notes I made was that “Stupid sometimes equals Great”, meaning that mistakes are wonderful things to be embraced as that is how knowledge is gained.

Following up was Joe O’Brien on “People: The Missing Ingredient”. After hearing him talk about “Pragmatic Thinking And Learning” for about the billionth time, I finally broke down and bought myself a copy. Next was Laura Bergells with an excellent talk on the personality makeup of teams and how opposing personalities make a team complete, the idea of “Creative Tension” as opposed to stagnant “Groupthink”. Suzan Bond took center stage with an amazing talk on intuition, with a riveting lead-in story of how intuition saved her life. The ever entertaining Leon Gersing gave a interesting presentation titled “Going Gonzo” about pushing boundaries of the dominant culture. One of the notes I made from that talk still resonates with me today: “The pressure to be right leads to lack of wisdom.”

By this time, it was the middle of the day and it was time for a break. Lunch was a nice selection of box lunches. A decent enough meal and enough fuel to recharge for the second half of the day. Unbelievably this was only 50% of the talks so far!

After lunch was Tim Wingfield with a talk on “Your Career Is Yours”, a talk that surely resonated with a number of the students in the room. However there was a great deal of valuable reminders about what it means to have a career in Software Development for anyone of any level. Justin Searls took hit the proverbial stage with a talk that is marked in my notes as being SO AWESOME. The talk was titled “The Mythical Team-Month” and was a great sermon on the values of early failure with quick turn around. Jen Myers followed up with the talk “Developers Can’t Design and Other Myths”, a talk I had seen her give at CodeMash earlier in the year and which was still enlightening to see a second time. Elizabeth Naramore instructed us on “Dealing With Difficult People” by noting that it’s often a case if you having to deal with yourself. The always fascinating Alan Stevens finished off the day with “Making A Difference”, a creed on transforming the world by starting with ourselves. One of the quotes that stuck with my from that inspiring talk was “Armoring yourself is not brave. Bravery is taking your armor off”. That is, it is far braver to expose yourself than it is to hide yourself away.

Overall the number one theme at Kalamazoo X seemed to be that one must strive to subvert their natural defensive mechanisms. Hack your mind.

It’s really hard to describe with written word how inspiring and polished all these speakers were. All had amazing stage presence with excellent material delivered in clear and concise, yet entertaining ways. Any one of these talks would be a worthy keynote at any conference of any size. I hear rumors that videos of the talk may make their ways online, and I certainly hope this is the case. Not only because I hope others can be similarly enlightened, but also I’d really like to experience those talks over again!

Kalamazoo X is really a hidden gem of the midwest region conference scene, one I can’t believe I’ve skipped the past three years. Miss it at your own peril. I know I’ll be returning.