The last thing you want to do is rankle a group of Star Wars stormtroopers. The annual geekfest known as Comic-Con International is not only a four-day exploration of the intersection of science fiction, comics, science, and pop culture; with 125 000 attendees, it’s one of the largest conventions in the world, requiring heroic feats of engineering to keep the lines moving and the fans happy. Luckily, the guy at its helm is an engineer.
By day, John Rogers is a mild-mannered director of engineering at an undisclosed San Diego telecommunications company. But on the third week in July, he sheds his suit and tie and morphs into the president of Comic-Con. You’ll probably spot him wandering the San Diego Convention Center, past a parade of Jokers, Supermen, and blue-skinned Na’vis, walkie-talkie in hand.
"My job at Comic-Con is all about managing crowds and people," Rogers says, but a list of his other responsibilities seems endless: avoiding empty seats in sold-out programs, arranging quick entrances and exits for panelists and audiences, pinpointing how many badge scanners and data-entry people are needed, and honoring fans who have lined up early. "If you’re passionate enough to show up at dawn for a panel, then we have to work hard to make sure it happens for you," he says.
Rogers has done the honors since 1986. He devotes "more hours a month than I care to calculate" to managing the US $7 million budget, a staff of 20 full-time employees, and 3000 volunteers. He also oversees CCI’s San Francisco–based sister conventions, WonderCon and Alternative Press Expo, which together attract another 40 000 attendees and 400 volunteers.
This year, Rogers is electronically streamlining the workflow by hiring a programmer to develop custom software that tracks where, when, and which kind of security and signage are needed throughout the convention center’s 57 200 square meters (616 000 square feet). A database, fronted by an Excel spreadsheet, links the security shifts of the more than 300 daily guards with the 400-plus daytime and evening events. Another feature shows a detailed but changeable map indicating sign placement around artist tables, publishing-house booths, and movie studio kiosks. "As far as we know, nothing exists like this today," Rogers says.
"There’s not a lot of technology or understanding of how you can use computers to make the process better," he adds. "If you look at the convention industry, you’ll see people with binders that are 10 inches thick with explanations of where to place everything and position people."
Rogers began at Comic-Con as a projectionist when he was in high school. After graduating with a bachelor’s in computer science from the University of San Diego in 1983, Rogers worked steadily in computer engineering—first for Sperry Corp., an electronics firm that became part of Unisys Corp., and then as a software developer at the now-defunct Simpact—before embarking on his current job in 1995.
Initially a comics-centric convention with science fiction and media components, Comic-Con has seen an increase in real-science programming, in part because Rogers loves sci-fi, programming director Eddie Ibrahim was formerly a biologist, and treasurer Mark Yturralde—a hardware engineer who helped develop the Comic-Con iPhone app—has a major jones for anything space related.
"One of my fondest memories was when we had people in to do Tesla coil demos and talk about the science behind it," says Rogers. "I have this really cool picture of me sitting on top of the coil at night, looking over the harbor, and holding two rods with lightning coming off of them."
22–25 July 2010