S1:E18 Eric Handler – Running a virtual conference

June 16, 2021 |  News
31 min

Eric Handler helped put together a successful virtual conference for 2021 with the unique challenges that the year presented. He discusses how things went and what he’s looking forward to for San Diego in 2022. www.siguccs.org


Tyler Jacobson 0:00

Welcome to LabChats, a podcast from the team at LabStats. I’m Tyler Jacobson, your host for today’s episode. Each week we’ll sit down with technology leaders in higher education to get the latest buzz and insights while we discuss current events, trends, problems and solutions. Now let’s get into it.

Joining us on LabChats today we have Eric Handler who works with the IT department at Macalester College. And Eric has been intimately involved in this year’s SIGUCCS Conference. And so that’s what we wanted to talk mainly about today. Eric, is there anything else about your background that you wanted to add in or anything that that you would like to share?

Eric Handler 0:43

I’ll just say, by day, I’m an academic technologist at McAllister and nights, weekends and wherever I can squeeze it in, I’m currently serving as the Vice Chair of the Executive Committee for SIGUCCS.

Tyler Jacobson 0:57

In case there’s anybody that’s unaware of SIGUCCS, give me a little bit of background on what SIGUCCS is, the mission statement and who’s involved.

Eric Handler 1:05

Sure. So SIGUCCS is the ACM special interest group for university and college computing services. So much like some of the big SIGs that are out there, we’ve got SIG Chai and SIG Graph, those are computer human interaction. And the GFX one, those make the big headlines with you know, the New York Times and The Verge, talking about all the cool technology research that’s happening. SIGUCCS is a little smaller than that. We typically have about 200 people attend our annual conference and anywhere from 8 to 20 attend our regularly scheduled webinar sessions during a non-pandemic here. And we are focused on those higher ed staff members and some faculty who support information technology in the classroom and around the classroom. Anything from email support to helping faculty with research, which is what I do in my day job, the one that pays the bills. SIGUCCS pays the emotional bills, I get to hang out with all my cool colleagues from around the country and the world. I think that’s one of the really nice things about sigfox as a community is that we have an international attendance, we’re not just a hyper-focused, US conference and group. We have two groups, we have our conference committees, and we have our Executive Committee, we do events outside of our conference every year. But that’s the one that’s the flashiest because we get to go to a city somewhere and see each other face to face.

Tyler Jacobson 2:38
And as far as we’re aware, this is one of the most long running academic community conferences in the world. When did you become involved in SIGUCCS? And how have you kind of moved up through the participation in that?

Eric Handler 2:52

Yeah, I don’t know if we’re truly the longest running. I do know that 2023 will mark—assuming we don’t have any cancellations for 2020—to our 50th conference. So yeah, we’ve been around for a little while. I got started with SIGUCCS in 2015. Shortly after I returned to higher education IT. I had done some undergraduate studies and worked as a student worker at a help desk during that time, got my computer science degree, went off into the world and said, “You know what, higher ed is a great place to work, I want to go back to it.” And then shortly after that attended my first SIGUCCS in St. Petersburg in 2015. Ask me about the Dali museum at some point here or on Twitter or wherever it makes sense. My involvement started because it’s a great community. I mentioned we get about 200 attendees. And I think that’s a great size for making connections. When you go to something like EDUCAUSE and there’s 10,000, 30,000, whatever the number is, people, it’s harder to get those connections and then keep them going from year to year. And so I was able to get connected with even the conference committee in the executive committee of the organization, starting from basically day one and my first SIGUCCS. And so I was able to get involved. And we have activities at our physical conference that promote that. We have a hospitality suite. So if you are maybe rundown after a day of sessions of learning important things that you’re going to take back to your institution, instead of having to go out into St. Petersburg or Denver or Seattle, all these places we’ve been in the last few years. You don’t have to find your own fun. We’ve sort of built this framework for that fun, and we’ve got board games and some years we have karaoke, which depending on your preference may or may not be fun, but a way to in space that’s created by the conference to build those bonds with your co-workers from around the world to then be ready to connect when you need help six months later. You’re like, “Hey, you remember that conversation we had over that game of Codenames about multi-factor authentication rollouts? Can you tell me a little bit more about how you did it? Or can you share your notes as you were exploring different companies to support that so that I can give my institution a heads up and a little bit of a boost in our start to that process?” And that’s really what made me want to get more involved. Probably, honestly, 65 to 75% board games, 25% the work, but it certainly was a nice draw for me to bring me into that workspace as well.

Tyler Jacobson 5:29

When was the last on site ‘meet in person’ conference? Was that in New Orleans?

Eric Handler 5:35

Yes, the last time we were able to gather the community together in person was in New Orleans in November of 2019.

Tyler Jacobson 5:41

And I had the privilege of attending that one. And you were mentioning the non work related activities, and…it was exceptionally well done. The after work activities were exceptionally well attended. So for instance, some of the out of the box things you would never think going to a higher education IT conference would end up with you standing in the locker room at Mercedes stadium and on the fields, looking at the Saints’ emblems. I mean, I thought that was incredible. [It] made my son horribly jealous, which was fantastic. And so I must applaud the fact that you guys put so much thought into the social element and things that are outside of just it, which all of that content was well done as well. One of the things you decided to be, or you were invited to be a co-chair this year. What does a co-chair do?

Eric Handler 6:43

So the program chair, so there’s, sometimes we have conference co-chairs, too. So I’m going to be specific about program co-chairs. Program co-chairs have two major responsibilities for the conference. The first is arranging our keynote speaker or speakers. Working out the contract details, all of those…fun, I’ll say fun. My sense of funds may be a little twisted after 2020 and most of 2021 so far. Those fun logistical details like travel and all that and arranging for who you want to speak. And that also gives you the first opportunity towards the second responsibility, which is managing the content of the event. And so our conference is part of the ACM umbrella organization. So many of our presentations require a written peer-reviewed paper. That’s a little different. If you do a panel or some other types of sessions, it may not require a paper. But that process of getting our authors to submit the initial abstract for their paper, review that, help them write the papers, go through the peer review, get them formatted and then published. All of our presenters become published authors as a result of presenting at SIGUCCS, which is a really great opportunity for some folks, it’s part of their process of keeping their tenure status, if they’re lucky enough to be a staff member who can earn tenure at their institution, things like that. But it’s also a great opportunity, because it means that the work you’ve done lives on past the conference. Many institutions pay to have access to the ACM Digital Library as part of their library organizations. And so I know that the work I’ve done and the work that my friends from SIGUCCS have done, if I know they gave a presentation in 20—hold on, I’m looking at my mug to see what year that presentation was—2017 about the different personalities of people who will need support. And they frame that in the context of the cats from ‘Cats’, that I can go read the paper associated with that if I need to refresh my memory on what it really means if you’re the support person, and you’ve got a Rum Tum Tugger coming into your support area.

Tyler Jacobson 8:55

When you are recruiting for people that do these presentations, is it a mix of people that you reach out to in order to request that they do a presentation or them proactively reaching out to you requesting to participate?

Eric Handler 9:11

In a regular year it’s mostly the author’s coming to us. I think we’re probably going to see some changes as a result of the pandemic that are going to lead us towards doing a little bit more active recruiting. I think that may mean that we are doing things like soliciting feedback where we know…because we’re in the community, we know that so and so did some great work on—I’m going to stick with two-factor authentication because it’s on my brain today apparently—doing a rollout of two-factor authentication. And we want to hear how that went and what the pros and cons were. Or thinking about who I’m talking to if somebody did great work with the LabStats tools during the pandemic to help facilitate virtual labs, having them come in hopefully with you as a co-presenter to talk to the community about how that went and why It worked. And maybe sometimes you learn something that didn’t quite work and how you fix that. That’s the important part about the partnerships, especially with our exhibitors.

Tyler Jacobson 10:11

And you bring up the exhibitors. And one of the things that again, we need to give a compliment to you is of all the conferences that we’ve attended, whether it’s on site or virtual, you’re one of the only that has reached out to the vendors themselves for feedback. So what was the feedback that you received from vendors as well as from the participants for your virtual event this year?

Eric Handler 10:37

I got to lead with the bad news. It turns out, everybody likes getting together in person. And so we got a lot of feedback, we missed the in person event. And I think everybody probably knew that. So I’ll just get that out of the way. The other feedback we got is that the way we chose to change our presentations was actually really something that people enjoyed. What we ended up doing for almost all of our sessions was having our authors pre record their content. And we had at least one reason to do that that comes to mind, which was we wanted to make sure that we didn’t have to reschedule things. If someone’s internet connection was bad. I’m sure there are other reasons, but they’re escaping me at the moment. But what that meant is it changed our model in terms of presentation because if our authors didn’t have internet connectivity problems, they were there in the chat while the video of them presenting was being shared. And so they were able to answer questions live, we got a lot of good feedback that said that that live interaction where you didn’t have to hold on to your question for 25 or 30 minutes until the question and answer section was really helpful. The other I would say advantage that we learned about was that we didn’t have three or four or five sessions going simultaneously. So we were able to get a much larger percentage of our community all attending the same content together. And that helps with sharing some of the multiple viewpoints. That I think is one of the strengths of the SIGUCCS community as well.

Tyler Jacobson 12:04

And I greatly appreciated that, because again, I had the opportunity to attend several of those sessions. And I didn’t have to make that choice of: “Which 1 am I going to sacrifice for the benefit of attending another?” And I thought that that was fantastic. So one of the things you had mentioned is the papers and things like that or any of these presentations available for playback? Or how do you guys provide that? Is it just in the moment they live? Or do you guys have an archive that can be reviewed?

Eric Handler 12:38

The arrangement we made with both ACM and our authors was that we would not keep those recordings for anything beyond the live presentation moment. The individual authors are welcome to share their videos with anyone who they’d like. So I would encourage folks to take a look at the ACM Digital Library for the proceedings of SIGUCCS 2021. And all the author contact information will be there. So if you see the paper or an abstract that you think is interesting, and you want to hear what that author had to say, I’d say reach out and connect with the author individually. We are a great community, we are a community first more than we are IT professionals in my opinion. And so if you ask for help from someone, they may say: “Commencement was yesterday, and we start our summer semester tomorrow. And today is not the right day for me. Could we meet up in two and a half weeks and do a Zoom (or a call whatever technology is the appropriate one) when you need this help.” And they’ll be glad to make the time for you. They also might say, “Hey, I uploaded my video to my personal YouTube channel, here’s a link.”

Tyler Jacobson 13:50

And that’s fantastic, because there were a few that due to scheduling conflicts that I did want to participate in, but just wasn’t able to log in. So it is great to be able to reach out to them and get that.

Eric Handler 14:02

Yeah, and I would say maybe that’s the negative feedback we got. We decided that with virtual into higher ed IT support during a pandemic that has…most of us have our physical campus closed, that we probably couldn’t schedule our sessions back to back for three consecutive days. And so we spread it out over six weeks. And I think as many people benefited from that as told us that, “You know, I really like having it all crammed together,”. And it doesn’t feel so crammed together when you’re all in the same space without time zones and all those other things. And so I think there’s just this reality that when scheduling a conference for—let’s just stick with that 200 person number—when you’re not all in the same timezone and taking off with sort of the blessing of work to go do work and be focused on that when you’re sitting at a machine in your home office with your two other monitors set up and you got your work email on one and your kids schoolwork on the other that attention spans are not able to handle all of that the way a true conference travel trip might allow. And so I think I’m hopeful that people, on average, found that that time where we were only taking up 90 minutes to two hours a week or a day, when we had a session was beneficial to them in terms of their ability to participate.

Tyler Jacobson 15:24

Were those issues, things that you were able to anticipate you were prepared for? Or were there things that kind of surprised you along the way?

Eric Handler 15:33

Yeah, I would say we really benefited from the timing of our conference. We were originally scheduled to meet in person in November of 2020. And we knew we were going to have to make some changes, pretty shortly in the…let’s say April, maybe May, if we really want to be specific about when we decided, “Okay, we’re gonna have to really reconsider what we’re doing.” Because maybe we won’t be able to have the same amount of people in person, if we’re able to meet in November, or at the time, maybe even worse, we won’t be able to be virtual. So we started thinking about it long before we had to make any of the really hard decisions about what we were going to do. We were also informed a little bit by the paper writing process that I mentioned. We had our call for presentations open as the pandemic was starting. I don’t remember when in late January, we officially opened it, but it was in late January. And so we were open as people were starting to shut down. And we didn’t quite see the volume of presentations that we normally would have gotten, because all of our constituents were busy helping their institutions pivot into virtual or hybrid or altered operations. And so that also helps inform some of our thi[nking]. You know, we knew people were busy, because one, we’re a volunteer led organization. So I didn’t mention that at the start. But we’re all volunteers. So we’re all doing this on the side or on top of our day to day work. And so that means, at least as a conference committee, which takes up maybe about 25 people, we get a pretty good sample size of where people’s abilities are to participate in things. And so we were able to pretty quickly anticipate because some of us tried to go to things. That’s where this story originally started with that we were able to anticipate some things because we were scheduled to be in November, the pandemic started in March, some of us had already booked other events that happened in April, May or June. And we were able to say, “Yeah, I was supposed to go to this two day thing in early June that pivoted to online and yes, I logged in, but I never paid any attention to it, because I was stuck in the weeds of my day to day work on my other monitor. And so I didn’t really get as much out of it.” But as we progress through the summer and into the fall, we were able to get that sense that setting aside an hour or two is something that’s a little bit more manageable, compared to a two day conference virtually. I think we also got the sense that 60 minute sessions and some of that’s informed by our academic technology members of SIGUCCS. We’ve been working with our faculty to say, you know, your videos should be six to seven minutes long, if you want the students to get the most out of them. So sitting and thinking about that also informed how we scheduled things as well, because they’re like, “Well, we have to practice what we preach. We can’t have all our authors do 60 minute presentations with Q&A afterwards, virtually, and be telling something else to our faculty.” So I think we benefited a lot from the work we were doing at our own institutions. And then coming together almost like our little mini SIGUCCS conference committee was a little mini SIGUCCS in and of itself to workshop the ideas about how and what we were seeing at our institutions and how they would inform our actual conference once we were able to determine our dates. And as I’m saying all this, I think I should mention, our original plan was to meet in person in March of 2021. We had hoped things would be under control by then. And while that wasn’t the case, we have decided that we’re going to stick with those March dates for the next couple of years. Try and see if not colliding with EDUCAUSE and some of the other fall conferences can maybe drive participation or otherwise be convenient for people. I’m sure that’s another one of those decisions where some people are going to be really happy and others are going to bemoan the loss of the early November conference. I think some of my colleagues are going to be very happy because I used to take some time off on either side of SIGUCCS and then with Thanksgiving, I basically didn’t work in November. So they’ll now get to see me a little bit in November.

Tyler Jacobson 19:57

Yeah, and it sounds like because of the fact that most of the participants are involved in higher education, you guys were able to utilize the experiences that you were facing on campus in order to direct the mechanisms that you needed to do to make it a successful virtual event. So, having said that, are there things that you guys felt like you did really well? Or are there things that you would do differently? If you were ever forced to do another one virtual?

Eric Handler 20:29

I think if we were forced to do another virtual conference, we would want to do a lot more work with our presenters and authors to really make sure that we create an experience that’s good for the authors and the attendees. We took a good first stab at it. And there’s definitely things that we know we like, like the ability to ask questions live while the presentation is happening. But are there other ways to play with that to maybe improve it? I would like to think so you know, when you get to do something twice, you always get the opportunity to do something better. I think we’d have to play a little bit more and talk a little bit more about what we would want to do in terms of scheduling. We made the choice not to do multiple sessions to account for multiple time zones. Because it’s hard if you’ve got authors, especially [in] varied time zones across Europe and Asia, along with the US audience to figure out how to best do that. And that runs counter to that interactivity that we were originally talking about. And so I think there’s a lot of opportunities to refine but the feedback that we all sort of have is the 2021 (…or yeah, 2021. I know what year it is), committee, is that we would really like not to have to do it virtually. But another thing that’s great about our volunteer-run events is that we do an end of conference report. So we’re all currently everybody who was on that 20 to 25 person committee is writing up their thoughts on their little section of the conference that they were responsible for. And so we’ll have a document that captures everyone’s thoughts that we get to pass forward to the 2022 Committee, and the 2023 Committee and any other committee that’s got the time to read our notes. And so maybe we don’t have all the answers, but some of our thoughts and opinions on how things went will be passed forward to future committees as well. It’s a nice little continuity that we get to set up as our little organization.

Tyler Jacobson 22:24

And that is exceptional, because if you can learn a lesson from someone else, you don’t have to learn it for yourself,

Eric Handler 22:29

Right? That’s the worst thing when you get to repeat somebody else’s mistake, because you didn’t quite connect. And actually, as I’m saying this, I’m wondering when in early June, another thing we do is we have the two conference committees. The 2021 committee and the 2022 Committee normally meet. Normally that happens at the physical conference, sort of the passing of the torch, but we’ll be doing that virtually this year. And that’s coming up sometime in late May or early June. So another opportunity for the committee to share thoughts. And maybe there’s lessons learned that don’t need to be written down and preserved forever, that can be passed word of mouth, like which bar is the best bar in New Orleans, things like that don’t necessarily need to go into written reports. But they can be useful to pass along.

Tyler Jacobson 23:15

You had mentioned the trade off between convenience of not having to travel with the value of being on site. Were there situations you’re heard