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LCA2013: Man with the tightrope act

Given that most of Linux Australia's annual operating budget comes from the profit made at the Australian national Linux conference, the man or woman who holds the purse strings for the event is arguably the most important person on the organising side.

This year, the role belongs to Mike Carden, a software engineer with M5 Network Security.

Carden calls the art of budgeting for a successful LCA a "tightrope act". In an interview, he told iTWire: "The aim at the outset is to not run the conference at a loss."

With the conference set to get underway on Monday, Carden took some time out to speak to iTWire about his role.

iTWire: How did you come to get involved in the organisation of LCA 2013?

Mike Carden: I joined the Canberra Linux User Group (CLUG) in about 2003. LCA came to Canberra in 2005 so as a CLUGger I was motivated to attend and I had the time of my life. It felt like a year of University compressed into a week. As a result I was in Dunedin for LCA in 2006 and I have been to every LCA since then except Wellington. For the Brisbane and Ballarat conferences I saw some of the inside of conference preparation as a member of the Linux Australia Council so I had an idea of what it takes to run the event.

At LCA2009 (in Hobart), I had a chat with Michael Still who was living in the US at the time. We discussed the idea of one day bringing the conference back to Canberra and Michael set up a mailing list to draw in people who may be interested in helping. That was the start, and when Michael eventually moved back to Canberra, the die was cast.

Why treasurer? Do you have a history of handling the money for events like this or anywhere else?

No, I don’t, but I have worked in for the Australian Government in roles that carry a significant financial delegation so I am quite familiar with issues of financial probity and transparency. I am very grateful for the unstinting support of Linux Australia’s treasurer Joshua Hesketh who has taught me the nuts and bolts of the various online systems that underpin the finances of LCA.

Any differences in the income stream from previous years - has the global economic position deterred any of the regulars from participating?

I think that travel to Australia for a conference is always a challenge for people outside the Asia-Pacific region, but again this year LCA will have visitors from all over the world and tickets are sold out. My observation is that many people value LCA very highly and will make a significant effort to be here for it.

As a break-up, how much of the LCA revenue comes from sponsorship and how much from delegates' fees?

While we are very happy to welcome back some long-term sponsors of LCA and pleased to see some new ones, it is fair to say that the great majority of LCA funding comes from the registration fees paid by our delegates. That said, the conference is often regarded by businesses to be too cheap. Our full Professional registration of $950 for the whole week is comparable with the fees some other conferences charge for a single day.

How much do you look to return to Linux Australia after all is done and dusted?

Budgeting a successful LCA is a tightrope act. The aim at the outset is to not run the conference at a loss. Linux Australia has a history of supporting successful conferences, so nobody wants to be the conference organiser who first gets it wrong. That said, previous successes provide a financial cushion to absorb the risk of a conference failing. The Brisbane floods came very close to calling on those funds in 2011, but the team up there pulled off a great LCA in spite of the massive disruption. The LCA2013 crew expects to return a modest profit to support the ongoing work of Linux Australia.

What is your biggest worry as treasurer? And what is the one thing about which you really don't have to bother at all?

Lucky for me, I’m surrounded by people who are dedicated to making LCA2013 run smoothly. Many of them are charged with spending money on behalf of the conference and they all keep me well fed with receipts and necessary documents. The systems we use to manage money are well tested and reliable.

Are there times when you have to pull rank as the man who controls the purse and say "we really can't spend anything on X"?

Michael, our conference director, is as cautious as I am about spending, so we've been quite sensible about money throughout the planning period.

What would be your criteria for concluding that the conference has been a successful one?

LCA is about speakers and delegates. You have probably heard what Rusty Russell (the grandfather of LCA) says about LCA... "If you have a speaker, a whiteboard and an audience, you can have LCA". We would like to think that we can do a little better than that, but at core, that’s what LCA is about. Great speakers. Deep
and engaging topics. An audience who can appreciate them.


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Sam Varghese

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A professional journalist with decades of experience, Sam for nine years used DOS and then Windows, which led him to start experimenting with GNU/Linux in 1998. Since then he has written widely about the use of both free and open source software, and the people behind the code. His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.