This post is part of our Non Sequitur Fridays series, which will feature a different Wistia team member's take on a non-Wistia-related topic each week. It's like our "employee of the month" but less "of the month"-y. Max Schnur is an engineer at Wistia. This is the second part of a three-part series that will be continued in his next Non Sequitur post.
To find out what led to this post, you should check out Part 1.
The Project Leadership Conference
Hopped up on Dayquil, I sauntered down the jet bridge and found my seat on the plane. I rested my head on the porthole and sucked air into my nose until enough oxygen drizzled in. My mom sat in the middle seat next to me, serving as a buffer for whichever poor soul was stationed next to us.
I was really sick. Like, "this headache is blinding me," "I can't breath out my nose" sick. Sleep for most of the day sick. And now I was on my way to Orlando, Florida to give a presentation at CHAOS University's three-day National Project Leadership Conference.
In the weeks leading up to that trip, I fleshed out my talk. I wrote up a draft, a thesis, made flash cards. It was the whole high school nine yards. I treated it like any other class project.
I don't remember who I told at school, but somehow, word got around. I was called down to the principal's office, where a higher-up (I don't remember her exact title) congratulated me and said my days out wouldn't count as absences on my record. I'd also be representing the school. Cool, I guess. And oh yeah, she said I was only a finalist as a novelty, because I was a kid. Kind of rude, but whatever.
My classmates also found out. This was worrying. My reputation to that point had been built on soccer, sleeping in class but getting by, and occasionally being a wise ass. Now my extreme level of nerdiness would be public knowledge. Potential points of stereotypical, obvious harassment would include:
- Video games.
- Dungeons and Dragons.
- Fantasy writing.
I might as well give myself a wedgie and knock the books out of my hands first thing in the morning—save everyone the trouble.
But to my pleasant surprise, my classmates were all really, really congratulatory and supportive. I guess if there's a force that drives kids to bully nerds, it was negated by the fact that I was secretly doing something they aspired to. Making games just sounds cool. Who knew.
Anyway, back to Orlando.
The plane hit the ground and I began to recover from brain-bursting sinus pressure. My head didn't implode during the landing, but I'm pretty sure my eyes melted a little. A shuttle appeared at the terminal, then whisked my mom and I to the hotel.
Now for semi-traumatizing anecdote #1.
The shuttle stops and a young man takes the bags out of the trunk for us. The door to my right opens, and the woman to my left takes out a $5 bill for a tip. Seeing that her arms are about four feet too short, I attempt to pass on the money.
Wrong move. She slaps my hand and gives me the evil eye. What the hell? My memory includes a modest snarl, too, but that may be an artifact of rumination.
I kind of get it. She didn't know me, I could've been a thief, she wanted "tip credit" for herself. One of those. But jeez, did she have to hit me?
I say "semi-traumatizing," of course, because it's really not a big deal, but it made me feel like crap and affected my view of the world. When you work for free for four years, you don't value money the same way the rest of the working world does, certainly not like a dog with a bone. This little incident was a jarring wake-up call.
Now, moving past my bruised ego and into the hotel lobby...
I climbed a few flights of stairs and found my luxurious room. The complements resting neatly on the bed included a branded travel bag, fancy cheese, and a nice wine. Whoops, I guess someone didn't get the memo that I was only 15! In any case, it didn't matter because my mom instantly decided the wine was hers.
Honestly, the rest of my trip was kind of a blur. Sick with a head cold, I slept a lot. I rose from the dead a couple times to try and clear my thoughts. One time I wandered through Disney World. Big ride. Small ride. Pirates. Goofy. Palm trees. It's not too exciting when you feel like you're underwater. Another time I zombie-walked through the conference hallways, casually poking my head into smaller presentations.
Head clearing: failed.
I remember stopping to watch the guy who infamously got the Blue Screen of Death when Windows 98 was first demoed. I don't remember his topic, but I like to think it was "How to Recover from the Worst Presentation Ever (tm)".
Oh, and, Bill Gates was the keynote speaker, so I obviously made time to go see him, but I think his talk was mainly a demo of the new Microsoft Project 2003. That's when I realized this whole conference might be a gambit to sell project management software. Of the many talks Bill Gates could possibly give, this was probably the most boring.
Through the fog, I had a vague recollection that my own presentation was coming soon. I wasn't nervous though. In my mind, I was just so different from these people. Maybe I was only chosen as a counterpoint. They were well established adults; I was a kid. They wore suits; I wore torn up sambas and a polo. Everything I did was free; their world revolved around money. I was technical first; they were project management specialists. Formal organization and clear hierarchy was their ideal; I strove for a loose and flat structure.
I'm a little anti-authoritarian by nature, so for me, the differences were empowering. I had the confidence of a rebel taking down the establishment. I reviewed my flash cards one last time and made my way to the conference room where I would present.
The first thing I noticed: it was small. Thank god, because some of those rooms were cavernous. I had imagined hundreds of confused and bored conference-goers walking out on me. This was more like a classroom, with a long table set up at one end for the panel of judges. Two other tables were set up in the shape of an L for the other contestants to sit at, and a projector screen in front of the fourth wall. Worst case, 20-30 people walk out.
I don't remember any of the other presentations. I barely remember mine. Something about how my team members were all over the world, and how we collaborated only online. Something else about how much it cost ($120 or so, for a few copies of the game and a good internet connection). I talked about the WED file format for a while; I'm pretty sure no one knew what I was on about.
I did manage to get a few laughs, and I don't think I embarrassed myself. I also didn't offer any great insight. In the end, my presentation was more project history than project philosophy, more "cool story bro" than mindblowing strategy.
And that was it. They picked 3 finalists the next day. I wasn't one of them, and I didn't care. Sleeping and going home sounded like paradise, so that's what I did. Kind of anti-climatic, but such is life.
Looking back, I think I was part of an early movement toward a different type of "work," an important movement. But I was mired in details—I couldn't see the forest through the trees.
Whatever the Project Leadership Conference was, it did at least one thing for me: it made me think seriously about leadership. About the best way for a group to accomplish a goal. About being efficient, effective, and most importantly, happy.
A sneak peek.
As my notion of leadership solidified, I returned to the modding scene. I finally had a cap to put on The Darkest Day, and I was ready for my next project. Time to get a new team and dial up the difficulty. This time, the quality would be professional or better. I dreamt of a totally new game, in a different fantasy world. A Total Conversion: The Glory of Istar. It would be epic.
This was Part 2 of 3. Read the next (and final) installment.