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robotsconf-logoChris and Laura Williams have an audacious plan to transform 150 coders into makers at RobotsConf, a sold-out new conference Dec. 6-7 on Amelia Island near Jacksonville, FL. This 48 hour, hands-on, deep-dive into the maker movement is structured for developers of higher-level languages such as JavaScript, Python, Ruby, and PHP.

By allowing attendees to focus on the hardware instead of learning lower-level languages, these software developers can quickly use their current skills with robots and drones. Chris saw the need for such a conference through organizing events such as JSConf, NodeCopter, and NodeBots as well as authoring and maintaining node-serialport.

“I became very keen to helping people use Arduino through node.js and in doing so quickly began to see how far abstracted most software and web developers have become,” he said. “There is a real fear within the software and web development community of hardware …Our goal for the event is to create a welcome and inviting event that allows developers to stay in their favorite programming language while actually building robots and other electronic projects.”

Chris and Laura’s years of experience organizing JSConf become evident when viewing the schedule for RobotsConf. They’ve brought together an amazing line-up of speakers and workshop guides for “surveys” of maker topics such as electronic fundamentals, 3D printing, and drones. They’ve also arranged to build a quasi-hackerspace on-site with 2 laser cutters, 6 3D printers, electronic components, and 52(!) drones. Attendees will have 16 hours of guided hacking during their time at RobotsConf, as well as the opportunity to demonstrate their creations in robot tournaments, and a science fair. Given the experts, resources, and opportunity to create, it is not surprising that attendees are coming from as far as Australia to participate!

As one of the organizers of the Orlando Mini Maker Faire and a board member of a hackerspace (FamiLAB), I spend a lot of time structuring events for makers, so I was eager to spend time with Chris to understand the finer points of the plan for RobotsConf.

How have you curated RobotsConf to help the transformation from developer to maker?

We are providing four very inspirational and visionary lectures from key people doing amazing things. These lectures serve as bookends to intro surveys followed by direct hands-on hacking time with the subject matter experts ready and willing to assist in any fashion. In this manner, the traditional stumbling blocks and frustration points (why isn’t this working, I don’t understand this language, where do I even begin, etc.) have been removed allowing the attendees to leave confident and competent in a breadth of subjects that would otherwise be very hard to do on their own.

On the RobotsConf website you refer to the 20 minute surveys as “speed dating for the maker movement” – how are you structuring those surveys to have a big impact in such a short amount of time?

The focus in the survey is to give a 50,000 foot view of the topic allowing attendees to identify the subject matter experts they want to talk with on a more intimate and focused one-on-one basis. The maker movement has become this huge, wide stretching knowledge base enveloping everything from Internet of Things to hackerspaces to drones and 3D printers. It can be a very daunting task at this point to start fresh against the wide spread of knowledge that from the onset you might feel needs to be understood before starting your first project. Our surveys are designed to be just enough information for our attendees to be conversant in the topics, leaving discussions focusing on depth of topic for the later hands-on hacking sessions.

Social interaction and group work is a large part of the conference. How are you structuring the groups?

Human social interaction has always been a core foundation for our events, we firmly believe people are the most important thing at any event. With RobotsConf, teams of two-four attendees will be self-assembled at the event. We will be providing small language indicators in case people want to team up with “like-minded” individuals or if they want to try the more fun route and team up with “unlike-minded” individuals. We will encourage the attendees to team up with people they don’t know while not discouraging teams of friends from working with one another. This is roughly the same model we have used with much success for NodeCopter and NodeBots.

What one part of RobotsConf has you the most excited to see or experience as an organizer? 

The attendees. From experiences with JSConf, NodeCopter, and NodeBots, I can easily say the most exciting thing is to watch the attendees as they arrive for registration, with that mixed look of wonderment and fear. As they go through the lectures and surveys, growing ever more confident in the new world they have entered, only to be followed by the sheer panic when released to their own hacking ventures. At this point, our support staff comes in like great friends and helps them understand the concepts using their familiar language leading to that point of happy enlightenment. One of my favorite times of all of our events is the closing event where you can see the dramatic change in every attendee from where they started to the bright new world that is before them.

With all of Chris & Laura’s curation and the support from RobotsConf sponsors, speakers, and workshop guides, I’m looking forward to the event. If there’s anything I should see or you think I should cover, please let me know in the comments below.


Ian Cole

Ian is a founder of The Maker Effect Foundation, a non-profit group organized to study and amplify the effects of makers within their communities. He’s currently researching the intersection between the personal and professional success of makers for a book which will be published later this year. Ian is very active in the Orlando maker community as a board member of FamiLAB, Orlando’s Hackerspace, and as a founding organizer of Orlando Mini Maker Faire. Ian blogs about his family’s maker adventures at raisinggeeks.com.


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