Interview! The Nerd Nite Crew!

I recently asked the wonderful, creative, wild and sexy folks from Nerd Nite Austin to answer a few questions for me. Their show is awesome, fun, informative and free! It’s monthly (the second Wednesday at 8 pm/doors at 7pm) at the ND on E. 5th and Brushy. Here I get groovy, nerdy, nightly info from JC Dwyer (JC), Lewis Weil (LW) and Amy Cavender (AC).

So, Nerd Night! Tell me everything I need to know! Just kidding, that’s a huge amount of info. What’s the essence and what are your roles?

JC: To me Nerd Nite is two things: an opportunity to de-stigmatize / broaden the appeal of obsessive knowledge (aka nerdiness), and a public education project that’s committed to free/fun learning for all. Lewis and I tag-team the hosting, speaker wrangling and set-up duties most Nites. Amy takes point on speed-dating/friending and special projects. I usually do the break music too, which is a vanity point for me (though we may be moving into more live music).

LW: Nerd is the new punk and Nerd Nite is the CBGB. That’s an exaggeration but it is how I feel. Nerd Nite is a about building a community of people who have passions. It is about learning and celebrating the things we are passionate about. It is like a rock show, but people show off their interests and passions instead of their songs (but also sometimes their songs). It’s about making a nerd feel like a rockstar. Its about giving them a stage and letting them tell us what they wish we knew.

I am co-boss with JC. We handle the planning and running of the speaking event (along some awesome volunteers). This means emails. Lots of emails. Talking to speakers, the venue, putting on fires, solving technical challenges. Organizing the talks people volunteer to give, or recruiting speakers. In the lead up to a Nerd Nite there is a flurry of emails and txts and then it all falls into place on the Nite Of.

AC: I have to admit, I’m still a bit surprised that I ended up being
involved. I was a very happy audience member for quite a while, and
then I got a wild hair and participated as a dater in one of the speed
dating events… and then wrote a long-winded process email
chock-a-block with suggestions to make it “better”. Then, I met Kain
Shin (a gone-but-not-forgotten former Nerd Nite producer) at the
Liberty to discuss it a bit further, and he plied me with chicken
karaage and vodka tonics as I took increasingly laconic notes on my
iPad, and then all of a sudden I was part of Nerd NIte.

(Which is to say, my loyalty and service can be bought with delicious
fried things and alcohol.)

In its essence, for me, Nerd Nite was and is a place where various
forms of knowledge and practical skills are elevated to the same level
as performing arts or other creative output.

Last month was Horror! What’s the process for you in getting topics for each month? What are some of the more popular topics?

JC: We try to curate themes, but sometimes they are a bit forced depending on who we can get to speak that month. Getting good speakers is definitely the biggest challenge of Nerd Nite. The most popular Nites tend to involve robots or sex (take what you will from that).

LW: We try to a mix of curated themed Nites and grab bag Nites. It is a mix of people we recruit to talk and people who volunteer to talk. People who recruited are always nerds at heart. Often we get UT professors. They have a blast. They love nerding out on their topics in a casual, enthusiastic environment. Often they become regulars and start coming to the event as audience members. We have a suggestion box where people can drop cards volunteering to talk. We will often build a Nite around a volunteered topic.

Before this year I would have said sex was the most popular topic. The first few years of Nerd Nite our annual sex themed nite was the most popular. But this year our biggest nite was a space themed nite where we partnered with the Austin Planetarium. October’s horror nite had an enormous turnout.

AC: I don’t have anything to do with the topic selection at this time. If
I did, I’d be giving a talk about comic books that can make you
smarter at some point in the near future. Ahem. And next month would
be all about cars in honor of the whole F1 thing. I also proposed a
night all about allergies with the title Snot Problems.

( … and I think that I just convinced myself I probably shouldn’t be
in charge of topics with all that right up there.

Not only do you serve up amazing educational topics each month, you offer speed dating and friending. Tell us a little more about that?

JC: Deferring to Amy here.

LW: I used to run speed dating. It was a mixed bag. Some nites great, some nites not so great. It was because I was splitting myself between that and the speaker event. We knew we wanted to do it because we knew it was a valuable thing to help people find each other. But like I said I wasn’t doing a great job. Amy has fixed it and made it great. The last one sold out on the first day tickets became available. She is thinking of adding another dating session. The most interesting ones I guess are the people who stop signing up for dating because they met someone.

AC: Well, nowadays, it’s just the dating. I was pretty into the whole
“friending” thing, because I really do think it is a lot harder to
make friends as an adult than it was when you’re a teenager or in
college. I work from home, by myself, and it’s isolating. While I
think there are a lot of perks to that arrangement, the big drawback
is that there isn’t a lot of human contact– and I really like people!
A lot of our attendees probably do something similar, or focus pretty
intently on work while in their offices, so I think there are probably
at least some who are similar to me in that we like what we do but
there’s a desire for companionship that isn’t always being met.

So, when I started doing the speed-friending, we got a good response
to it… until I offered both speed-dating and speed-friending, and
the dating sold out in two days, and the friending… didn’t. Turns
out, nerds want to make out! So, we’re just doing the dating now.

I think that the thing that may have surprised the guys was that lady
nerds will pay to meet gentleman nerds. Previously, they often had it
free for people with two X chromosomes… and they often had a bit of
a no-show problem. I want the women to have just as much skin in the
game as the men, so everyone pays to participate. And, guess what? I
very rarely have no-shows, and I usually have a person or two waiting
around on standby to slot-in if someone doesn’t show up.

I know Nerd Nite is free. Is there an overarching philosophy or ethic behind that?

JC: I do believe Nerd Nite should be free, because we are engaged in a mission (see above). Not all Nerd Nites are free — in fact, many bosses advocate for a cover charge to help motivate the organizers to work hard. We don’t need that motivation, because we don’t work hard 🙂 We don’t need the pressure either, since this is not a day job for any of us — on an off Nite, we can always say “you got what you paid for!”

LW: We do it because we are lucky enough to be able to do it. ND is one of the best venues in Austin. And they let us run it without a door fee. I don’t want anyone to miss out because they can’t afford it. Or hesistate to get out the door on time because they are sure about the fee. Plus we have done it so there is no need for money. Everyone is volunteering because they are passionate about it. JC, Amy and I do it for our love of the nerd community. The speakers do it our of the goodness of their hearts. There is no need for money. You don’t charge someone when they come over to your house. Same idea.

Also we half jokingly say it is so that we can keep expectations low. 🙂

AC: Nerd Nite Austin is free… except for the speed-dating. And the
proceeds from that mostly go towards drink tickets for the daters and
the speakers. I’ll probably end up charging to cover costs for the
field trips, but no-one who works on this is doing it for money.

Personally, I enjoy my involvement because I enjoy the event on its
own merit, and I am delighted to be associated with it in some way.
And I think there’s something very “Austin” about doing it on a
shoestring as volunteers.

What is the most surprising or delighting thing you’ve experienced as producers of the event.

JC: I love the audience questions. Having a really obscure topic always seems to bring new nerds out of the woodwork who are similarly obsessed. Think you are the only person who sits in his basement plotting the future of space warfare? Think again! There’s a guy in the audience who is just as crazy, and he has a great question for you.

LW: The fact that people show up. It used to terrify me. It will be a few minutes before the talks start and the place will be empty. Then I turn around and the seats are full and its standing room only. I try to never take it for granted. That the ND crew work so hard. That the volunteers show up and work their butts off. That people spend hours getting their slides ready so they can give a short talk. That moment when the nervous warble leaves the speaker’s voice and they just start getting into and having fun. I love that moment. A lot of people don’t have a chance to tell anyone about their passions, much less an audience of 200. So it takes a few minutes, but they always get into it and start having fun.

I just want to mention how wonderful our venue is. This is not me doing a business promotion for them, they don’t need my endorsement. We are anywhere at all because of the ND. They make the event look good.

AC: I have had more than a few opportunities to see people who are
somewhat shy or reserved or quiet in their day-to-day personas go up
onto the stage and CRUSH IT. They do such a great job speaking about
this wonderful knowledge that they have stored in their heads, and you
wouldn’t have known they had it in them until it came out of them. And
afterwards, they go back to being their sweet, unassuming selves– but
with a throng of people around them, asking questions and giving
praise. It’s a lovely thing to see.

And it’s an extra added bonus to see a few faces in the audience light
up as the night goes on because I know I’ll see some of them up on
stage in the months to come. That’s amazing!

The next show is on November 14th! Come on down and learn some amazing stuff! Meet a date! Get nerdy!


–Looking for one-on-one coaching on relationships, sexuality, life passages, or need support with personal or career goals? Seeking seeking a facilitator for your group or team to help promote healthy group dynamics and effective communication? Contact me here!

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