The Secret Sauce: The NATC Workshop Assignment Algorithm

How does a Conference Coordinator make more than 1600 workshop assignments, placing 400 participants into 56 workshops and 10 discussion sessions spread over 5 time slots? AND ensure optimal happiness?? If you’re Terry Nguyen, you call on the TCA Tech Committee who, in turn, serendipitously find Josh Yoon (Stanford Taiko, 2013-17). Josh blended his passion for taiko with his technical prowess and took time away from his lab work with Nobel Prize Laureate W.E. Moerner to produce the NATC Workshop Algorithm. Here, in a nutshell, is a description of what’s behind the seemingly impossible task of workshop assignments @ NATC 2017.

The Goal.

Place people in workshops they want to be in. Optimize happiness for each individual while maximizing happiness for everyone.


A number calculated based on how participants ranked workshops when they registered. The operative assumption is that being assigned to your number one choice gives you the greatest happiness.

The Constraints.

  1. Registration tiers. Tier 1: Members Only Pre-Sale (to March 22); Tier 2: Early-Bird Registration (to April 30), Tier 3: Regular Registration (to June 30), Tier 4: Late Registration
  2. Specialized workshops. Fue workshops are pre-populated with only people who express an interest in them. We assume that if a participant chose a fue workshop, they could play a fue — or keenly want to learn.
  3. Specialized participants. Taiko Jam performers and workshop assistants are given preference for time slots when they are not teaching or tech-ing.


Within each tier, the order of participants is randomized as they are assigned workshops according to the preferences expressed in the registration form. When the algorithm proceeds to the next time slot, the order of participants is randomized again, providing the fairest access to available spaces in the workshops.

The Beauty of Machines.

After all assignments are made, the median Happiness and standard deviation from median Happiness are calculated. The workshop assignment algorithm, built on Matlab, is run repeatedly to produce one million assignment sets. Then, based on the highest median Happiness and lowest standard deviation, one ideal assignment set is chosen.

The Beauty of Humans.  

After the algorithm negotiates the numbers, it’s people who ultimately negotiate their own happiness. At NATC every participant will receive a registration packet with a ticket for each of three workshops and one discussion session. If a participant is unhappy with a workshop assignment, they can go to the Workshop Swap desk at registration and trade it for one they would be happier with.

Beginner’s Mind.

Clearly, in a world where you have to share time and space with others, there is no perfect happiness for everyone. Yet with the help of Josh and the NATC Workshop Algorithm we believe we’ve got the best shot at providing each participant a fair shot at workshop happiness. Truthfully, maximum happiness will be found when each participant applies their “Beginner’s Mind” and approaches each workshop as if it were their first encounter with taiko. With that mindset, Terry and Josh are confident that all participants will gain new taiko insights at NATC 2017. That’s the true “secret sauce”!