Conference Organizing: It’s your party

A dark room with hundreds of people looking at a speaker and illuminated screen

At DevOne conference in Linz, Austria

I have a couple blog posts on conferences, including one on hosting a booth, one on diversity and inclusion, and one on Think Globally, Sponsor Locally I haven’t put together one about what I hope for from conference organizers, though.

Disclaimers

Every conference, even the massively well-funded ones, is the result of a lot of meetings articulating trade-offs, budgets, and what we can and can’t manage with the people, resources, and money that are available. I know that, and I know that articulating the value of a conference is some of the hardest work around. I am not picking on your conference! But I go to enough conferences that I have formed some opinions on what’s useful.

As an attendee

I mean, this is a book, really, and not 1/3 of a blog post, but here are the things I hope for or expect as an attendee:

  • Good content. It doesn’t need to be brand-new, but it does need to be relevant to what you promoted, aimed at everyone (single-track conferences), or at a variety of levels (multi-track), and presented in an accessible way. I know live-captioning is expensive, but it’s also hugely helpful for far more people than will tell you they “need” it.
  • Breathing space. A large part of the value of a conference is talking to other people at the conference. I need to be able to have a meal, or some passing time, or some space set aside for those conversations to happen. Theaters are such a tempting venue, but they are so hard to use if there’s nowhere to talk to each other. The hallway track requires both time in the schedule and physical space.
  • Community. I hope that there are people who look like me at the conference. I hope they’re on stage. I hope there are people who don’t look like me, and I hope they’re on stage, too. The best way I’ve seen conferences pull their audience toward more inclusion is making a real effort to reach out to speakers from a variety of backgrounds and invite them. A couple years of that and you start to see a change in the audience demographics. It’s a virtuous cycle. You can also assist this by offering scholarships and free tickets, but no one will stick around for more than a year if they feel like they were invited just to make the pictures look better.
  • Safety. I’m gonna need you to have a code of conduct, plans and training on how to enforce it, and an easy way to contact the team. This is table stakes now. Remember the Paradox of Tolerance. If you make room for people who hate me because of who I am, you are making me and the conference unsafe.

There’s a bunch of other things to consider: funding, sponsorship, food, liability, recordings, permissions, non-alcoholic drinks… this is never going to be simple, but I think there are also a lot of great models for you to look at. I especially commend White October Events, the global DevOpsDays organizing team, Write the Docs, and the late, lamented AlterConf. All of them helped organize events that I was happy to not only speak at, but paid my own money to attend after that, because they were that good.

As a speaker

All of the above, plus:

  • Communication. Crystal-clear communication about where you expect me to be, when you expect it, and what I need to have with me is going to mean that I meet your expectations and you have less anxiety. The O’Reilly conferences send out calendar invites for conference talks and chats they know I’m doing, and that’s honestly great.
  • The best A/V you can possibly afford. As a speaker, I am less distracted by a headset mic than a lav mic, and both of them are miles better than a handheld mic for a full-length talk. I’m hoping that the video becomes part of my professional portfolio. The good A/V companies are expensive. It’s a huge part of the conference budget. But as a speaker, I want you to spend money on that, even more than on speaker gifts or fancy dinners.
  • Time to connect. Yay, I’ve given a talk and people want to discuss it with me, quite often at the after-conference event.

    My friends. My dear friends. I am not here to dance.

    I know that a big repurposed ballroom feels weird and empty if you don’t put some music into it, but I have a decibel monitor on my phone, and I want to stop being in the room right around 80 decibels. I’m going to have to yell, and it’s hard to have a technical discussion WHILE SHOUTING AT SOMEONE. And the same goes for the speaker dinner. Restaurants turn the music up because there is strong evidence that people will order more alcohol IF THEY ARE SHOUTING, but you have rented this separate banquet room, and you get to tell them to turn it down. I want to talk to these awesome people and not lose my voice before my talk tomorrow.

As a sponsor

You might be surprised who gets to vote on whether a company is going to sponsor a conference. As a person who frequently goes to conferences, I get asked a lot about which ones we should sponsor. Here are some factors I consider:

  • How much do you cost? Tell me up front, and if you’re gonna nickel-and-dime me on how many badge scanner chargers you give me “for free”, I will remember. Just tell us up front what we’ll get for what we pay.
  • Who will be there? Speculative demographics are hard, but it helps me a lot if you can at least give me job titles of the people who attended last year, and about how many people there were.
  • Will you embarrass me? Will I end up helping pay for a conference where there is a major code of conduct problem/stripper scandal/publicized-and-flubbed problem? You can have problems and recover well (like Monitorama losing power at their venue, or the first DataDog Dash being way oversubscribed), but I don’t want my brand tied in with something really gross.
  • I want good content, so attendees come. I want large chunks of passing time, so they come by my booth. I want all the things that attendees and speakers want, because a conference that has those is sustainable, predictable, and enjoyable, and people don’t go home and just throw everything in a trash can and never think of the sponsors again.

It’s your party, but make me want to come

When it comes down to it, conference organizing is almost never going to pay off in a financial way, unless it’s your full-time work and you leverage economies of scale. Most organizers I know spend half a year throwing an event that lasts less than a week, and it’s hard, stressful, and expensive. We’re all benefitting from their work.

That said, some conferences are more valuable, productive, enjoyable, sustainable, and worthwhile than others. I hope that the ideas I’ve outlined here help you think about where to spend money and add value.

Thank you, sincerely. I wouldn’t be here without all of you.

Heidi Waterhouse

Heidi is a mercenary technical writer and travelling salesperson of better process and product thinking. She loves writing herself out of a job and teaching people to save themselves from future pain.

Upcoming appearances

Velocity Berlin
Minneapolis DevOps Meetup
DeliveryConf