Making SISTEM Happen

🕓 Mar 9, 2019 · ☕18 min read

Originally this was going to a thread on Twitter (cheap plug, but follow my Twitter here), nothing terribly fancy, just your regular everyday thread thanking everyone who helped out in regards to making SISTEM happen. Be it that you helped out on the day, spoke at the conference, attended, or even helped spread the good word, I really wanted to cover all bases. I soon realised that I had a lot to get off my chest, and I knew that a simple thread wasn't going to do the event justice.

What's SISTEM?

For those who have happened upon this post, be it in 2019 or otherwise, SISTEM (Student's Inter Society Tech & Enterprise Meetup) is (or indeed was) a meetup style conference run by students, for students. In the surroundings of the DCU Glasnevin campus, SISTEM provided a link between students and those in the world of tech and enterprise in a casual meetup environment. Organised by Redbrick, UCD Netsoc, UCC Netsoc, DU Netsoc, DUCSS, MUCSS, and DIT Compsoc, the event sold out, with 150 students from across the country coming together on the 2nd of March 2019 for a very special community driven event. However, that event, namely SISTEM 2019, was actually the second installment of the conference, with the inaugural event taking place on the 24th of March 2018. The journey to this sold out success has quite the backstory.

How did SISTEM come about?

I was elected as the Events Officer on the Wednesday the 5th of April 2017. The following Monday (the 10th of April) was my first committee meeting in this position. Up until this point, well, from 2014 at least, Redbrick ran a wildly successful week of events in DCU's Student Hub by the name of TechWeek DCU. Apart from the 2017 installment of that event, Redbrick single handedly organised talks and workshops which ran from 12:00/13:00 to 17:00 each weekday during TechWeek. So, why did the 2017 event not run across a single week like the previous years?

Well in 2017, Redbrick was forced to space TechWeek out across a series of Wednesday afternoons. This was because the venue in that been held in, DCU's Student Hub, was under reconstruction. While DCU was shaping it's future, Redbrick's Techweek needed to find a new home. So, as I stated, that year TechWeek was spread out across a series of Wednesdays in the DCU School of Computing. Seemingly, both committee members and non-committee members of Redbrick were left dissatisfied with the events new format, it felt less community focused, less cohesive and much more drawn out.

So, this is where I come in. Let's jump back to that first committee meeting I had as the Redbrick Events Officer. Near the end of that meeting, the then outgoing System Administrator Lorcan Boyle (aka zergless) proposed the idea that Redbrick should reach out to the other networking and computing societies and put together an inter-society day long tech conference. Now, I'm sure I wasn't the only one listening at the time, but I was (seemingly) the only one who picked up the pieces Lorcan laid down. Within the next week I had sent several emails out to our counterparts in universities across the country. Gauging the level of interest in running such an event was carried out over that summer period, and when the first committee meeting of the 2017-18 academic year came around, the idea was on the table, and within a week it had a name - SISTEM.

Many people regard SISTEM as ‘my baby’ because I gave it the name, but in reality, the credit for this event very much is with Lorcan Boyle.

SISTEM 2018 and the Aftermath

SISTEM 2018 had 61 attendees. Not exactly the biggest success in regards to numbers, but, a humble one indeed. It did what it set out to do, there was a very well established sense of community throughout the entire day. Held in the Trinity Innovation Academy, speakers and workshops came from Google, Microsoft, HEAnet, SAP, and Bloomberg. The 2018 edition was held between Redbrick, DUCSS, DU Netsoc, and DIT Compsoc, and we only had half an idea of what we were doing. The only reason SISTEM 2018 retained any sense of professionalism from an organisation standpoint was due to Cormac Smartt (aka pints), who helped secure and organise so much alongside myself and Clíodhna Harrison (aka thegirl). Cormac operated the camera during the livestream, which ran all day. SISTEM 2018 very much wouldn't have been haf of what it was without his influence.

SISTEM 2018 was a vital part of the events history because aside from being the inaugural event, it gave me a blueprint, something to work from. I now had it in my mind how to make the event feel bigger, simply because I knew what it needed this time around. During the summer time I talked with Brian Nisbet of HEAnet, a speaker of SISTEM 2018. Brian has ran multiple meetup events, and I knew he would have some advice for us. Indeed, he imparted his wisdom with me in an email thread, of some little things here and there we could work on, and I'm happy to say that his advice to me regarding the event over the summer of 2018 manifested itself in the 2019 edition. Brian is a great friend of Redbrick, and he is just as much of a reason for the success of SISTEM 2019 as anyone else. But, I digress.

Before I had contacted any other society about the possibility of running a second installment of SISTEM, I contacted John Looney (aka valen) and Tom Shaw. Both of these men are huge parts of the Irish Tech Community, and I had heard (from Cormac mentioned earlier) that both had a back catalogue of enthralling talks. Within a week, both had signed on. I sent out an email to the societies involved in SISTEM 2018, all of which were interested. Along with this, I tracked down emails for UCC Netsoc and MUCSS. Two more down, one more to go - UCD Netsoc.

The story of UCD Netsoc is a curious one after I made many previous attempts to establish contact with them. The society seemingly died a death sometime in 2014. I sent and email reaching out to them to be a part of SISTEM 2018, but to no answer. I was kind of hell bent on getting UCD on board because I had friends in UCD who told me it was active to a degree anyways. That activity was enough for me to be interested. I'm not sure what drove me to getting them on board, I guess I just don't take kindly to being ghosted. Contact with UCD was established through, of all this Twitter. The brand new Chair of UCD, Oisin Quinn, the man responsible for reviving UCD Netsoc, and I followed each other and began chatting in the later summer of 2018. Oisin insists he followed me first, so I guess the credit for contact goes to him on this one. I digress. Finally, we had contact with UCD. SISTEM 2019 was going to have seven societies at the helm organising it.

Organising SISTEM 2019

Seven societies sound like a hell of a personality clash right? You'd imagine there were some egos at play, with people trying to leverage control over one and other. Surprisingly, no. The SISTEM 2019 committee was as follows:

Redbrick DCU - James McDermott, Josh Malone.

UCD Netsoc - Oisin Quinn, Thomas Creavin.

DUCSS - Catalina Rete, Niam Zaman.

DIT Compsoc - Arthur Coll, Becky White.

MUCSS - Ciarán Ó hAoláin, Ryan Lynch.

DU Netsoc - Leon Sinclair, Dylan Lewis.

UCC Netsoc - Evan Young, and Sam Druggan.

From the very first meeting of the societies, it was very clear that everyone who came to the table was there for the same reason. To build an event for the community. The work began in November sometime. Sponsors were contacted, and the societies all worked on contacting speakers for talks and workshops. The variety of what was produced for our labours was equally interesting. We had a lot of ideas floating around; it never felt restrictive, it was very much so a collaborative set of sessions together. Redbrick, in particular Josh Malone (aka sangreal) made a very good case that the event should take place in DCU's new Student Centre, you know, the one that was under reconstruction. It never really struck me until later on, maybe a week or so before the event itself, how things had fallen into place. I mean, from TechWeek being scrapped due to a lack of a suitable venue, which in turn created SISTEM, to SISTEM now being held in the venue which stands in place of where TechWeek was once held, things have come full circle. In any case, the new Student Centre in DCU was chosen as the venue for SISTEM.

We had a venue, and thus far we had landed some fantastic names on the schedule. UCD Netsoc had established contact with one of their founding members; Niall Murphy is an editor/author of the incredibly popular Google SRE book. This was a real coup for the conference. Niall agreed to speak about the birth of the Irish internet and the role netsocs played during that time. Along with this, Niall also appeared on our SISTEM SRE Panel.

Redbrick's Clíodhna Harrison brought Demonware into the fold and shortly after this Google were brought into the fold by Catalina Rete of DUCSS. On the day Google contributed a talk and two installments of the now famous ‘Google Algorithms Workshop’. During this time, Naim Zaman secured the Xbox One X from Microsoft as a raffle prize on the day of the event. Slowly but surely we were building quite a strong line up, and everything was falling into place. All while this was happening, each society was feeding information about the event bit by bit at their own respective events, building what they call ‘hype’. Finally, David Sutton, Director of Arista Ireland was brought as a speaker for the day. This, coupled with Terry Bolt (aka tbolt) of Google and Cian Butler (aka butlerx) of Demonware for our SRE Panel meant we indeed had a stacked lineup.

We ‘officially’ announced the event just 15 days before it was scheduled to take place. A special thanks goes to Theo Coyne Morgan (aka depp) for his brilliant work in relation to SISTEM's brand design and media output, and to Sean Fradl (aka Fraz) and Ben McMahon (aka mcmahon) for building and updating the SISTEM website. Our official announcement coincided with tickets going on sale. Our promo over the course of these two weeks was planned out by Josh Malone, and honestly without his vision I wonder if we could have sold out as fast as we did. A special thanks goes to Seanie Germaine from DCU Clubs & Socs, who helped us book the rooms in the venue and set up the audio equipment, and of course the NuBar staff who agreed to come in on a Saturday to help with the catering of the event.

So as you can tell - there really was no clash of egos during all this. The organisation process flowed seamlessly, it was an incredibly enjoyable and enriching experience to work with the other six societies. Problems cropped up of course, but nothing we couldn't resolve in a short space of time. Everyone just seemed to be on the ball, constantly. It goes without saying that without the contribution of each society, SISTEM would not have felt as big as it did.

The Day

People started arriving very early, and lucky most of what needed to be set up was done the night before. As people were arriving, however, Thomas Creavin of UCD Netsoc and I managed this feat of engineering. As people showed up, they scanned their ticket in and received their SISTEM goodie bag filled with Google swag secured by Catalina Rete, SAP swag secured by Josh Malone, and RedBull secured by Athur Coll. These bags were put together the night before by the greatest goodie bag assembly line I ever saw: Becky White, Clíodhna Harrison, Jack Liston, Oisin Quinn and Megan Farren. Breakfast went down pretty well, and there were folks all around the building donning the green and black SISTEM t-shirts to direct people to the Solas room, where the opening speech would be given. I'd like to give a special thank you to all the great people who donned the SISTEM t-shirts and helped out on the day:

Josh Malone, Oisin Quinn, Thomas Creavin, Catalina Rete, Niam Zaman, Arthur Coll, Becky White, Ciarán Ó hAoláin, Lucas Savva, Clíodhna Harrison, Sean Fradl, Jack Liston, Ben McMahon, Eamon Crawford, Nevan Oman Crowe, Maciej Swierad, Cian Kehoe, and Daniel Christie.

Another big thank you to Ben McMahon who operated the camera gear and the live stream of the conference all day, it really added that extra something, and it allowed those who couldn't make it to still join in on the action. Anyway, by about 10:15 we were ready to kick off proceedings. I gave the opening speech, I mentioned a lot of what I've said here honestly, a lot of full circle talk and a long thank you list. Here's the full schedule of the day itself:


Time
Room 1
Room 2
09:30
Breakfast in NuBar
10:00
Welcome to SISTEM 2019 by James McDermott
-
10:15
Impacts of Open Source Firmware by John Looney
Google Algorithms Workshop
11:15
Engineering & Entrepreneurship by Kingsley Kelly
12:15
6 Years Later, Is Docker Still Delivering? by Tom Shaw
SISTEM SRE Panel
13:00
Lunch
14:00
Netsocs and the birth of the Irish Internet by Niall Murphy
Google Algorithms Workshop
15:00
Software Defined Networking trends of today by David Sutton
16:00
Shipping it - How to put your software into production by David Rieger
Lightning Talks
16:45
Closing Speech by James McDermott
-

I found myself running and racing between the two rooms for most of the day, which were on the second and ground floor respectively. I did this the year before too, just to make sure everything was running as smooth as it could be running. I enjoy how frantic running an event like this feels; it's like Fyre Festival except nothing bad happens, but you fear constantly that something bad will happen. The only aspect I don't enjoy about SISTEM is that I can never sit one whole talk or workshop out as I'm usually required elsewhere on the day, but, we don't run this for ourselves, we run it for the members. From what I did catch on the day, most if not all the talks went down well. People seemed most enamoured by John Looney, Tom Shaw and Niall Murphy's talks, while both the SRE Panel and the Lightning Talks were hugely popular.

So firstly I'd like to talk about the SRE Panel and just highlight something here. The panel was moderated by Lucas Savva, a Redbrick System Administrator. I was utterly shocked that this was his first time to ever do anything like this, he broke down every point made into colloquial, everyday language so as to relate it to the more non-technical members of the audience. His questions provoked enthralling conversation, and there was a strong dynamic between Lucas and the three panel members, Terry Bolt, Cian Butler and Niall Murphy. I really cannot say enough good about Lucas’ performance during the day of SISTEM, not only did he pull through on delivering an informative and well mediated panel but he also delivered a Lightning Talk later on in the day that made a Google SRE jump out of his seat with shock. Speaking of which… yeah, I've barely talked about the Lightning talks, but we had five on the day and they were just something else. I wish we had a whole room of that kind of content, spread between the wholesome, the mad, the aspiring and the relatable. Our Lightning Talks consisted of the following topics:

  • In Phones We Trust - Sean Fradl
  • GetMetro - Rory Byrne
  • One Line Wonders - Lucas Savva
  • Mental Health in Tech - Clíodhna Harrison
  • Embracing the Chaos - Ben McMahon

In future years I'd love to see some SISTEM attendees jump up and give their own lightning talks on the day, I know I'll definitely try to give one next year, it seems like something I'd enjoy doing. I digress once more.

After the tracks in both rooms had concluded, we all congregated together once more for the closing speech. I kept this short a sweet, I could see people were itching to get to NuBar, but all the same I felt it was best to say a few words of thanks, specifically to those who chose to spend their Saturday in DCU with us. Along with this, I announced that the profits of the event would be going to two non-profit organisations in the form of PyLadies and CoderDojo. This was agreed upon by the SISTEM Committee; we felt no need to profit of such a community driven event, and we felt that other organisation could better utilise the profits to help build a better future for all in tech.

Growing Pains

So, with all of that now elaborated upon, let's talk about scalability. We sold just under 2.5 times more tickets for SISTEM 2019 than we did for SISTEM 2018, and we did it in half the time. Previously we sold 61 tickets in four weeks, but this time around we sold 150 in 13 days. In regards to the growth and development of this event, that's very positive indeed. I had about 20 odd people messaging both myself and Redbrick after the event sold out looking for tickets. I don't doubt this happened elsewhere too. That's a great sign moving forward with this event, to me it shows how much of a communal thing it is becoming.

With all this said, in the face of such success, I remain as pessimistic as ever. Jumping to the size in under 12 months isn't something I was actually expecting, so there were some noticeable issues on the day. It's the little things, you know? By rights we should have gifts for speakers ready on the day rather than afterwards. Along with this, it's best to provide attendees with an online feedback form, so as to gauge what can be improved upon the next iteration of the event. Perhaps also, we should work on some more sponsors on securing SISTEM specific swag such as stickers, pens… maybe even hoodies? This isn't so much an issue as something I would love to have, if not for fun, then for purely selfish reasons.

Were the some other issues? Absolutely, but quite honestly, none that are big enough to take away from what our seven societies achieved with SISTEM - just little embellishments to help make SISTEM 2020 an even better conference than SISTEM 2019 was. So with that said… SISTEM 2020 anyone?

SISTEM 2020

The organising societies are taking a few weeks off (it is reading week season after all) before we all meet up once again. When we meet up, we are going to conduct a formal review of what went well, and what didn't go well, but more importantly what did go well, and what can we do to diversify next year. And what I say diversify, I mean diversify in all senses of the word. Next year I want to see a greater diversity of speakers from companies, a great variety of rooms to attend on the day and an even greater variety of free swag. I say all this because I want to set that as the bar, SISTEM should be for all groups, it's a safe space in tech, it should be open to all. That's why we are looking at bring even more societies from right across the nation into the fold, because we want even more people to connect through the SISTEM community.

SISTEM 2020 will certainly have a bigger feel to it. We sold out this year, with 150 tickets sold in 13 days. Hopefully, we can do even better numbers next time around. It will be my last time helping to organise the event, but I'm assured it will be my favourite incarnation yet. Aside from all this, I genuinely can't say much more. These are just my hopes and aspirations for next year. See, I can be optimistic too.

Thank u, next

So SISTEM 2019 is behind us, and while I'm grateful, I'm ready for whatever is on the horizon. Can you imagine that this was going to be a Twitter thread? As you can see, it would have been overkill to even dare squeeze all this into a single thread, and it wouldn't have done the event justice.

So, I think it's best to just wrap this up with a big thank you list. If I missed out on you make sure to let me know!

See y'all at SISTEM 2020!

A huge thank you to Josh Malone, Oisin Quinn, Thomas Creavin, Catalina Rete, Niam Zaman, Arthur Coll, Becky White, Ciarán Ó hAoláin, Ryan Lynch, Leon Sinclair, Dylan Lewis, Evan Young, Sam Druggan, Lucas Savva, Clíodhna Harrison, Theo Coyne Morgan, Sean Fradl, Jack Liston, Ben McMahon, Eamon Crawford, Nevan Oman Crowe, Ciara Godwin, Maciej Swierad, Cian Kehoe, Daniel Christie, Cormac Smartt, Brian Nisbet, Lorcan Boyle, Cian Butler, Seanie Germaine, John Looney, Kingsley Kelly, Tom Shaw, Niall Murphy, David Sutton, David Rieger, Ohad Lutzsky, Terry Bolt, Rory Byrne, Katherine Safar, Emer O'Kelly, Megan Farren, the NuBar Staff, DCU Clubs and Socs, DCU Security, and anyone who tuned in to the livestream!


James McDermott
WRITTEN BY
James McDermott
Student/System Adminstrator