Behind the scenes of RenderATL 2020 with Founder: Justin E. Samuels

Meet Justin- Software Engineer and lead organizer of RenderATL 2020. Read about his journey into tech to how he is now organizing his first massive conference

Tell us about yourself (while currently on a flight)…

I don't really know how to describe myself at 30,000 feet, I guess you could say I'm an alien when I'm up this high over international waters. But while on the ground, many know me as Justin E. Samuels. I'm a software engineer by trade, but I tend to wear many hats such as mentor, CEO, SCRUM Master, and senior software engineer to name a few. I'm originally from the redheaded northeastern state of Connecticut, specifically the city of Bridgeport. Long gone though is my exaggerated hard Boston influenced accent, since I've lived in the southern United States since 2005. I'm a proud graduate of Mississippi State University (HAIL STATE, c/o 2015, Business), and an upcoming technology socialite within the Atlanta community.

I met you as ‘ThugDebugger’ on Twitter and I know you’re a hardcore Software Engineer. How did you get here? Tell us about your journey into tech.

So I truly began my journey as a software engineer before I even knew I was engineering. Back when you would DDoS your entire house's communication by being on the internet, I was making a hefty $5 per custom Myspace theme I was creating with CSS. To me it was just fun, so I didn't take it seriously. Fast-forward to college, I began my collegiate career as a chemistry major because I wanted to make the big bucks as a pharmacist. I eventually ended up switching my major > 10 times (at graduation I had 190 credits, you only need 120 for a bachelor's in the U.S.). The epiphany moment came when I was walking with my fraternity brothers (Phi Beta Sigma, Theta Iota, SPR11, 7) and I saw a poster in the College of Business that read "do you like tech. Like business. Well check out Business Information Systems (BIS)". The next day I did, and as they say, the rest is history. Being a BIS grad with the minor in Computer Science really gave me an equal distribution between both sides of the industry; allowing me to easily stay technological abreast, while keeping all business requirements in tact in regards to the bottom line. This allows me to do things like Render-Atlanta, where I understand business, and technology enough to execute successfully.

You’re now adding ‘Conference Organizer’ to your resume, as lead of the upcoming conference- renderATL. That’s amazing! Tell us more about renderATL, the purpose behind it, and your experience bringing a conference idea to life.

As we say down in Mississippi, it's "skressful bruh". Organizing an international conference has been one of the most challenging things I've ever had to do, but the most rewarding. I use to organize video game tournaments in college to make money, and have friends (I founded the video games club at Mississippi State University) and those were also stressful, but nothing near the magnitude of the amount of capital required to pull off something like Render-Atlanta. The purpose of the conference is dual in nature, whereas on one side I wanted to bring attention to the hidden talents of those React engineers whom reside in the southern United States that are often glanced over by the known tech firms, while also advocating for all underrepresented groups to have a seat at the table in tech. As a minority in tech living in the south, I often would have to fly long distances to various tech conferences to network, and learn the upcoming breakthrough. While at these events, I would often hear comments from attendees, and sponsors such as "we didn't know talented engineers like yourself existed in the south", or my favorite "why don't you just move to ". Knowing that Atlanta is THE cultural melting pot of the south, and on a rapid technology boom, I knew the time to begin something like Render-Atlanta was sooner rather than later.

What would you say are the easiest parts and hardest parts of organizing a conference?

So the easiest part of organizing a conference is saying that "I'm going to organize a conference". The hardest part is everything else that follows. This includes, but not limited to: event venue procurement, selecting speakers, setting conference policies (TOC n such), speaker transportation, selecting food (the hardest), show schedule, keeping cost low, getting sponsors, and more to name a few. I say beyond that though, the hardest thing is not overextending myself. I thrive on G$D (Getting $**t Done - notice the $, chase the bag 💰), and I'll happily take on a lot of work to get the euphoria of knowing I'm finishing another task that we have to do, or helping someone out, etc. So burnout is real, but I tend to mitigate that by doing what I call micro-burning. It's where I'll go as hard as possible for 5 weeks straight, then week 6 I ease up and relax to reclaim my sanity. Usually that's when you'll see me on IG/Twitter in some random part of the world just having fun. Then it's back to business, full-throttle!

You have a team of people beside you to help with tasks and organizing. How did you all come together and what’s that experience been like working together as a team for this project?

I hand picked, and got blessed when asking for help. So Mone't (my CFO) was the only person I directly messaged and said "I'm not doing this without you", because I worked with her before while serving our local Atlanta community. I knew she had a strong voice representing black women in a positive way, and I loved that; as well as having a background in finance (hence why she's my CFO). Zack, and Rick came about because I mentioned on Twitter "I'm starting a React conference in Atlanta. Anyone wana help No Cap" and they replied fairly quickly. We met at The Gathering Spot (host venue) and we talked. At this meeting, Mehul came because he was the other half of Peachtree Devs along with Rick. We were talking and I was going over potential names for the conference and I said "I have this lame idea for it. Render-Atlanta, or Render(ATL) for short because we are a React conference, and like the Render method in React I want to show what the view of the real Atlanta and what we got here to the world". Mehul blurted out "oh thats dope. Lets do it" and he joined the team at that time. Zack also joined because I knew 0% of anything about organizing a tech conference, but I did have experience organizing events for my frat, and video games club. Since he organizes NG-ATL and Node-ATL the second largest conference(s) of such in North America, I wanted to absorb his knowledge. Truly though the hardest part is conveying what needs to happen to my team, without overloading them. I have most of the plans in my head, and I try my best to convey it, but sometimes it'll be too early and we'll forget I brought it up until when it has to be done. So balancing that, and my expectations of others could be difficult at times, but we're getting the job done successfully.

What’s the biggest takeaway you want attendees to leave renderATL with?

It would make my heart swell if attendees were to leave with increased cultural awareness, and new insights into engineering. It's impossible to leave a 2 day conference with all the answers, but it can make you a more curious engineer which could lead to a breakthrough in your own skill-set. That's why I'm such a fan of debugging, because while you're debugging, you're carefully stepping into your code to find the issue which could take you to new places and concepts you've never seen before. At the same time, being in the culture mecca of the south, I want people to leave with a new outlook on what we have here, and how opening your beliefs and ideals to a new part of the country/world can enhance your views beyond your preconceived beliefs. That's how you begin to make us all more inclusive, by having people experience new ideas, cultures, and idioms they've never been exposed to (that's why I went to school in Mississippi on a whim, to gain new experiences). As an added bonus, I want people to leave full of our food! Have you seen how much food we're giving everyone May 4 - 6. It's so much, that people have called us, Menu(ATL) - lol.

Plug yourself!

So first let me say, follow my team Rick, Zack, Mone't, and Mehul on Twitter. This past week I was at a conference in Toronto, Canada called Black Professionals in Tech Network where they're dedicated to the cause of advancing black working technology professionals, so S/o to their organizer Lekan and his COO Lianne. In regards to Render-Atlanta, I truly hope everyone could make it because it's going to be INSANE. The unlimited food, speaker lineup, food truck day, after party till 1am, did I mention the food; is going to be on a scale never before seen within the tech industry (or conferences in general). Everything we're doing is with the intent that it'll be For The Culture, so you can imagine how Atlanta authentic it will be. Also a big shout out to the team at The Gathering Spot(host venue), that's been gracious to assisting our efforts since day 1, along with their CEO and Co-founders Ryan Wilson & TK Petersen; and our event planner Samantha.

If folks would like to get more of a glimpse into my life, follow me on Instagram & Twitter at (you guessed it) ThugDebugger, as well as my Facebook & LinkedIn is under Justin E. Samuels.

I'll be at AfroTech 2019, be sure to look for me to get a Render-Atlanta pin for your lanyard, and STICKER!!!! 

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