“My advice? Start small. Focus on what’s doable” – an interview with the organizer of the Big Data Day LA conference
Big Data has been one of the hottest technology and business topics recently, but just a couple years ago, hardly anybody knew and perceived this term like today. When it became a buzzword in 2013, the first edition of Big Data Day LA appeared and gathered over 250 attendees. This number has grown about 6 times, now attracting over 1550 people and 2018 looks to break past records. The main organizer of the event Subash D’Souza shared with us the story about the beginning, organizing matters, and plans for the nearest future connected with this great technological event.
Event: Big Data Day LA conference
The conference mainly focused on Data Science, AI, Machine Learning and Emerging Tech. It’s the largest of its kind in Southern California and features the most vibrant gathering of data and technology enthusiasts in Los Angeles. Big Data Day LA is organized and supported by a community of volunteers, sponsors, and speakers.
Location: California, USA
The person in charge: Subash D’Souza
The originator and the head of Big Data Day LA. Subash is a Data Evangelist and organizer of Los Angeles Big Data Users Group and the Los Angeles Apache Spark Users Group. In his day job, he works for Warner Bros on their Data Intelligence team heading up the Big Data and DevSecOps platforms.
What’s the story behind Big Data Day LA? How the event came to life?
Big Data Day LA was started with the thought of promoting a quality conference for all without the costs associated with it. Most quality conferences cost several hundred to thousands of dollars. I believe that we could do the same for zero to a very low fee. Over the last several years we made the conference completely free not even charging for the breakfast, lunch or evening networking session. This year we added a small fee but that mainly as a way to ensure that people who sign up show up.
How did the organization of the first edition look like? What was the main challenge you’ve faced?
Being the organizer of meetups prior to starting Big Data Day LA, I have had the support of speakers, sponsors, and the tech community. I was able to leverage my connections and partnerships to start something I believed could work. The first year, I got my company (Shopzilla now known as Connexity) to host the location. I’m very grateful to them and my sponsors at the time for helping bring this to fruition. The first edition had only 250 attendees. Since then we have moved to several locations including AT&T (at the time DirecTV), CTRL Collective, West LA College, and USC. We are again very grateful to all of our host locations.
How long did it take from the idea in your head to the actual event in 2013?
I would probably say a few months. I had the idea in my mind and I had been doing meetups for a while so it wasn’t too far a stretch from meetups to a conference. I knew that sponsors would be far and between because I had to first show value before they became involved.
How did the conference change in the following editions?
I have been keeping the trend of the topics over the years. We have rapidly evolved to include upcoming trends. That isn’t different this year. By showing value over the years, the conference has quickly evolved such that we get sponsors reaching out to us often. The brand of the event has made it so popular that people talk about it all the time.
You plan to change the name of the event. Since 2013 you’ve built quite a movement behind Big Data Day LA. Why do you want to re-brand now?
Big Data was the buzzword back then. Over the years, trends change and there is a lot of buzz behind newer technologies such as AI or Blockchain, that it made sense to evolve with the times. We are still going to be data-centric just we won’t have Big Data as a title. It will still be a key component of the conference though.
Aren’t you afraid that going wider with the topics could somehow backfire on you? The core audience might not be pleased.
It’s always possible to upset one group of people but I believe that keeping the quality conference at a low price always makes the difference. Also, the tech field changes rapidly. Having a mechanism to evolve very quickly with the times makes sense. For me, the bigger issue would be getting left behind.
What’s the main challenge with the conference this year so far?
Keeping the conference interesting and keeping folks motivated to attend is always a challenge. But there is always the unknown [smiling].
Comparing the first and this year’s edition, how did challenges change through the years?
I believe the challenges are always there. Some things have become easier and we have learned over the years. One thing I have realized as the years pass: because we always changed locations, the same issues we faced in previous years would come back to haunt us. This year, since we are doing it at the same location as last year, I’m hoping a lot of those issues are resolved.
How big is the team organizing Big Data Day today? How did it grow since 2013?
We have over 250 volunteers this year. Every year this team grows which is awesome.
I heard – correct me if I’m wrong – that every year you get the venue, catering for free as a partnership. That’s every event organizer dream, right? How did you manage to do that?
[laughing] The venue – yes but I still pay for catering. I have been lucky to find a caterer as great as Rutt’s catering. They have been able to manage my budget and provide great quality food. I have used them since year two and our cooperation continues to this day. As with every event, the venue is always the biggest cost. I realized that from day one which is why I have always worked to make sure I have great connections and partnerships. This year’s host was no different in that regard. USC Marshall School of Business has been a fabulous partner and great event host for us. I would like to thank Abbass Sharif, Director of the MS Analytics program at the Marshall School of Business at USC for making this happen.
You offer free entrance for attendees registered until the end of April. That’s not very common with established events. What’s your business model behind the conference? Is it held purely for the sake of big data and tech community?
The conference was completely free for the last several years. This year too, it was free until the end of April. One of the things I realized over the years was that we have a lot of people sign up but only about 50% showed up. This made it very difficult to handle logistics and the event in general. We felt that by charging a small fee, we would ensure people’s attendance. We realize that this charge is something new for our regular supporters – we wanted to make sure we didn’t forget about them, hence we offered free attendance to those that signed up by the end of April.
In which fields of organization you use sub-contractors and which are organized by you and your team?
Everything is organized by volunteers [smiling]. I have some great supporters, who have always come back to help over the years. I would like to thank my recurring volunteers – Abraham Elmahrek, Arti Annaswamy, Humberto Zuniga, Jason Brancazio, Jimmy Kim, John Kim, Kaloyan Todorov, Oszie Tarula, Rich Ung, Ruben Barrios, Sanjeev Sehgal and Spencer Huang. I would also like to thank each and every one of the volunteers this and all previous years. Without them, this would not have been possible.
Big Data Day LA has some really nice speakers each year, representing big brands like Kaggle (a subsidiary of Google), Warner Bros or Netflix. How do you find and select them?
I work with my network connections to find the most inspiring speakers in the data industry. I then invite them to partake in this great event. The response has always been great.
Startup Showcase is a part of your event, themed every year (this year towards the Media & Entertainment Industry). What’s the idea behind it?
We started Startup Showcase last year as a way for the community to rally around new and innovative ideas. We had a great response last time so we decided to continue the idea. We chose to focus on Media & Entertainment because we are in Hollywood [laughing].
How do you promote the conference?
We have a large mailing list as well as very dedicated team using social media. We don’t use any paid marketing. We haven’t so far. That’s not to say that we may not in the future but so far, it has proved successful on its own.
Do you measure attendees satisfaction? How?
We have used the conference app [Big Data LA is our customer – editorial note] plus we have also looked at the feedback we get from attendees. Most of it is word-of-mouth. We looked at the comments feedback and the speaker ratings.
Which aspect of BDD are you most proud of as its organizer?
The camaraderie and the community support. Without the dedication and love our attendees give us, this would not have been possible. Also, the coming together of all the volunteers to make this happen.
You’re an active IT community member and organizer of various meetups in LA. How do you find the time – which is a commodity nowadays – and energy to do all that?
That’s true, I’m quite busy with a day job and a family. It’s definitely a challenge. I even wonder sometimes how I find the energy [laughing]. But seriously, I would say that’s mainly because of the dedication and efforts of the volunteer’s team without which this would have been almost impossible.
What’s the key element of every conference in your opinion?
Attendees’ happiness [smiling].
How will your conference change in upcoming 5 years? Will it evolve into something else or remain roughly the same?
I believe by the name change we are evolving to handle future changes in technology. Data will always be around, just the flavors of the day change.
What’s your piece of advice for other events organizers?
Start small. Focus on what’s doable. There will always be unknowns that surprise you. Just make sure that the list of potentially unexpected matters is manageable.
What’s Big Data Day LA for you as an organizer?
It’s a labor of love to know that all the hard work that we as volunteers do come to fruition in those 12 hours.
How’s the preparation for 2018 edition going? Any sneak peaks you can give us?
Other than the name change, not much can be said at this point. Just wait until the August 11th to find out [smiling].