By: Jim Brewster

Last month we had the 15th Annual International Conference on Genetic Genealogy, or ICGG, as the cool kids say. Apparently. This is not to be confused with the International Conference for Geometry and Graphics (yes, that is real), I4GG, IAJGS, ECGGC, NERGC, or NYG&BS. Seriously, conferences, could we stop with the convoluted acronyms?

Anyway, as a proud member of ISASA4SCL (the International Society Advocating the Shortening of Acronym Names for Societies, Conferences, and the Like), I just refer to ICGG as the Admin Conference as it is geared to Group Project Administrators.

The first Admin Conference was held in October of 2004, and, as long as you don’t count the years where it was not held for various reasons, it has been held every year since. Back in those days, a DNA test cost a nickel, and it was safe to let your genealogists play outside with swab sticks till the streetlights came on. That’s how I picture it, at least. Many of the most active Group Administrators we have today have been active since those early days, and the conference is as much a family reunion and a chance to catch up with old friends as it is to learn about cutting edge advances in research.

Breaking Ground: My Initiation into Genealogy Conferences

I remember my first conference well. [Queue dream sequence harp and wavy lines]

The year was 2014, and I was a young lad, nine years younger than I am today, because that’s how math works. The Admin Conference was held in October, and I had just started in the customer service department of FamilyTreeDNA in August. As a time tested, seasoned genetic genealogist of two months, I knew just enough to think I knew considerably more than I did. Bless my heart. I quickly learned how little I knew, as many of the presentations at the conference were clearly over my head.

The hall was full of people I had never met before, discussing things I didn’t understand and embracing each other like old friends. That year, Spencer Wells, author of The Journey of Man and heavily involved in the Genographic Project, was a speaker. I had never heard of him, but everyone was really excited, and coworkers kept telling me I needed to meet him. The problem was that no one bothered to introduce me, so I decided to introduce myself. The conversation went something like this:

Me: Hi, I’m Jim Brewster
Wells: Hi.
Me: People kept telling me I should meet you.
Wells: Okay.
Me: ……….
Wells: ……….
Me: ……….
Wells: ……….
[awkwardness intensifies]
Me: Well, okay, then. Nice meeting you.

In retrospect, it was a missed golden opportunity to say, “Wells, okay then,” but we all make mistakes.

Community Compassion: Tales of Support from Genealogy Conference Administrators

A few months after the conference, the FamilyTreeDNA product manager put in his two-week notice. This was unfortunate timing, as the company had been working on a collaboration with FamilySearch and was slated to give a presentation about it at Rootstech in February.

Due to my LDS upbringing and my familiarity with FamilySearch, I was asked to give the presentation. I was no longer the fresh faced newbie of two months; I was now a seasoned veteran of five months, so what could go wrong?

The presentation was fine, but I was way over my head during the Q&A portion. Fortune favors the bold, I suppose, because Dave Dowell and Tim Janzen, two Group Administrators I did not know at the time, were both in the audience and graciously stepped in to help out. They have since become good friends of mine, and I feel forever indebted to them.

That was the beginning of what would become a regular conference schedule for me. In my third ever conference, NERGC, as I was sitting alone at the booth (Janine Cloud had stepped out for lunch), a total stranger sat next to me as if she worked there and started answering questions. I thought to myself, “Well self, I have no idea who this person is, but they seem to know what they are doing, and there are a lot of customers, so let’s just go with it.” It turns out this helpful stranger was another active Group Administrator, Jennifer Armstrong Zinck. Over the years, we have also become great friends.

Schelly Dardashti, Jennifer Zinck, and myself at the 15th International Conference on Genetic Genealogy
Schelly Dardashti, Jennifer Zinck, and myself at the 15th International Conference on Genetic Genealogy

The Team Spirit of Genealogy

Helping random strangers with their knowledge, time, and abilities for no reason other than the love of genetic genealogy is exactly what this community is all about. Genetic genealogists know that a rising tide raises all ships, and sharing information with others benefits all of us. Sitting down with those more knowledgeable than me helps me learn, and in turn, I can pass that information along in lectures, at booths, and in conversations. I genuinely feel that the community as a whole has benefited enormously from this helpful, sharing attitude.

When I think back at the skill level of both myself and the audiences I have presented to in 2015 versus today, there is a night and day difference in knowledge. As the knowledge level of the audience grows, I am able to teach more advanced concepts, and in turn, they are able to teach me new things as well. As Ben Folds once said, “The more you know, you know you don’t know s***.” For the majority of what little I do know, I have Group Administrators to thank.

Genealogists: Making Connections While Researching Connections

Many Group Administrators are regular conferencegoers, and over the years, networking and bonds of friendship grow. Each conference is a bit of a mini reunion and I always look forward to seeing these friends I have made. It has even prompted trips outside of conferences. Katherine Borges, from ISOGG, flew out to Saint Louis from California to officiate at my wedding, for example.

My wife and I at our wedding with Katherine Borges officiating.
My wife and I at our wedding with Katherine Borges officiating.

Anyone who has traveled with someone knows that you get to know that person faster than any other way. Be that for better or worse. Going to dinners after conferences with friends, friends of friends, and acquaintances let me pick their brains about genetic concepts that confused me. I remember Randy Whited once explaining phasing to me using crayons and a children’s menu. These days I get equally jazzed using Lego blocks to explain random recombination to anyone who seems half interested. It was always a good time.

Going to dinners after conferences with friends, friends of friends, and acquaintances let me pick their brains about genetic concepts that confused me.

From Acquaintances to Cousins: The Power of Genealogy Friendships

I know what you’re thinking: This article is supposed to be about the ICGG conference, and so far it has been a whole lot of NOT that. Well, friends and neighbors, if you have read any of my past articles, you know that my spirit animal is a squirrel and that all my stories are pretty much this:

All of this convoluted backstory is my way of showing how I have gone from knowing no one in the community to having lifelong friends that I see at nearly every conference.

All of this convoluted backstory is my way of showing how I have gone from knowing no one in the community to having lifelong friends that I see at nearly every conference.

My story is not unique. From local genealogical societies to international conferences, genealogists are always connecting with one another. A favorite pastime now at get togethers is to find out if someone is a cousin using the “Relative Finder” in the Family Search app. This really brings the sense of a family reunion to the forefront.

If I get excited to see just one or two old friends, imagine my excitement at seeing an entire conference full of them! That really is what the Administrator Conference is at its heart: a family reunion. This year, the 15th International Conference on Genetic Genealogy, was extra special for a variety of reasons.

The 14th ICGG and the Winter of Change

The 14th annual conference was held in the spring of 2019 and the following year. 2020 was, well, 2020. You may recall hearing about a virus caused by bats. Or possibly a popular brand of cerveza. Or maybe aliens. It depends on who you talk to. In any event, 2020 pretty much meant that all fun got canceled for a while. The world virtually zoomed along for a year or two (see what I did there?) and then slowly started opening up.

For some, this forced downtime led to picking up new hobbies. Mostly this involved making sour dough for some weird reason, but others picked up genealogy. This led to new connections made entirely through the interwebs.

Genealogical societies, conferences, workshops, and cat videos were all done virtually. Whole networks arose without anyone meeting face to face.
This means that for many, this was our first chance to see each other in person. This was the case for me. I had a few conversations like this one:

Person: Wow, you’re taller than I expected!
Me: Yes, sitting has that effect on my height.

Not only this, but it was also the first chance I had to see old friends in FOUR years! The excitement was palpable all around the room the entire weekend.

Virtually Embracing the 15th ICGG

Another exciting aspect of the conference was the ability to share and record presentations virtually through the Whova platform. Traditionally, the afternoon consists of three concurrent breakout sessions. Bit of a bummer, as you can only choose one. Double bummer when you are presenting one of the three, as I did. I didn’t learn a single thing from myself. Lame. This year, though, they were all recorded and available for later viewing, so I got to see ALL THE SESSIONS!!!! I am double excited as I have a tendency to get distracted talking to people and miss presentations because I am busy embracing my inner squirrel.

Looking Forward: Anticipating the 16th International Conference

Friends and reunions and presentations oh my! There are so many new and exciting things this year! Have I used the word exciting enough in this blog? I would say that it had more excitement than you could shake a stick at, but that expression always seemed odd to me. Like, why are people shaking sticks at things? I have never felt an urge to shake a stick at anything. Also, is there a limit to what you can shake a stick at, should you feel so inclined? Please let me know in the comments if you have answers to this puzzle. I could probably Google it, but…hey, squirrel!!!

Oh right, blog, where was I? I guess I should conclude by saying that we are already hard at work planning for the 16th International Conference on Genetic Genealogy. We have listened to your feedback and are hard at work making sure next year’s event will be even better. By this time next year, the admin conference will be our most recent conference ever!!! That’s EXCITING, right?

Jim Brewster - FamilyTreeDNA Blog

About the Author

Jim Brewster

Contractor for FamilyTreeDNA

Jim Brewster was born at a very early age and gradually became older. He has been in the genetic genealogy field since 2014 and delivered numerous presentations at genealogy conferences. He has helped with collaborations between FamilyTreeDNA and non-profit organizations and for some reason FamilyTreeDNA decided to let him write stuff too.

With a proven track record of both doing things and accomplishing stuff, Jim enjoys presenting and writing about genetic genealogy methods and the science of DNA testing. In his free time, he enjoys puns and cat pictures.