On the Origin of the Speciated Conference

I go to so many conferences! It’s an awesome and amazing part of my job. I speak at them, but I also attend them. I sit in the front row and live-tweet. I attend talks. I participate in unconference sessions. I talk to people in lines, and at lunch, and at the afterparty. I give out stickers and I say hi to the vendors. Conferences are something I’m an expert at. And when I’m not doing technology stuff, I am support crew for science-fiction conference runners.

Given that, I’m surprised that I haven’t seen a taxonomy of technical conferences, something that would help you understand which flavor of conference you’re about to go to. As near as I can tell, about 10 years ago, there was a great flowering of conference types.

Originally, we had The Technology Conference. People paid a lot of money, they sat in large conference rooms (over 100 people, say), and they listened to industry experts. Some/many of the industry experts were also vendors giving pitches.

Then, a decade ago, many people decided that this method was not meeting their needs, and they wanted more interaction, more peer contact, more connections. We ended up with some new species of conference:

  • The regional variant of a language conference. No longer just PyCon, but PyConAU, and EU, and the same for JSConf and Ruby. It was cheaper to get people to someplace close to them, the conferences were smaller, the odds of meetings speakers and experts was higher.
  • Single-track conferences with registration caps. Write the Docs, The Lead Developer, and (I think) Monitorama use this method. Everyone attends the same talks, but the registration cap means that it’s still possible to identify and talk to a speaker. A well-run single-track conference allows a lot of time between talks so people can mingle and talk.
  • DevOpsDays. The DoD format is flexible, but tends toward the single-track morning, unconference afternoon. They also work really hard to fit into budgets that allow people to attend on their own, with lowish registration fees and locations all over.
  • No Fluff, Just Stuff. The first unsponsored conference I’ve spoken at. No vendors, and a high rate of repetition for speakers and a lot of tracks, so odds are good that you will be in a small group.
  • Birds of a Feather. Not unique to any one conference organizing system, but a way for people interested in a similar problem to find each other and do collaborative learning. Mostly these happen during non-programming time.

All of these conference styles prize collaborative learning over authoritarian instruction. If you’re a speaker coming from a more authoritarian background, I have to imagine the change is a bit of a shock. I know I have felt weird when presented with a large audience that I can’t see. I don’t want you to think that one way or the other is better – depends on what you need. 50k people wouldn’t go to AWS Reinvent if there wasn’t a value to be found in it. And Reinvent has small, unrecorded sessions as well as the massive keynote sessions.

Hotel ballroom filled with a few hundred people, all facing toward a podium and the camera.

DevOpsDays Toronto

So who are the stakeholders for running a conference?

  • Attendees
  • Sponsors
  • Speakers
  • Organizers

When you maximize the happiness or utility for one group, the utility for other groups goes down, or may go down. There are some overlaps. Attendees want content that answers their questions. Speakers want to provide content that is new and promotes their personal brand. Organizers want to select speakers who bring good value and are reliable. Sponsors want their speakers selected because talking about a product drives sales. Attendees, on the whole, don’t want sales-pitch talks. You see the problem!

As a speaker, I prefer single-track conferences. That way, I never miss other people’s talks! The talks are also usually very highly curated, since a day-long conference might only have 7 speakers, so it’s pretty darn flattering to get picked. As an attendee, I like conferences that are sized so each speaker ends up talking to about 50 people. It’s small enough that I feel engaged, and big enough that the speaker doesn’t feel like they have to stop to take questions. As a sponsor, I want multiple tracks with large spaces where people have to walk past my booth to get caffeine. As an organizer, well, I’m still working on that.

I’m thinking about this because LaunchDarkly is assembling our first conference this year (2019), in the spirit of Gremlin’s Chaos Conference and Honeycomb’s o11ycon. What do we want to give people, how many people do we think we’ll have, and how do we make the experience useful?

In the spirit of testing in production, we’re going to try a combination of things – keynotes will be one-track, so everyone has a common thing to talk about, and then we’ll split into other configurations in the afternoon.

We’re looking for people who want to join us on April 9 at Trajectory to talk about feature flagging, trunk-based development, devops tools, testing in production, blue-green deployments, and other ways to speed up your development and delivery…safely.

https://www.papercall.io/trajectory

If you want help with your pitch, or want to noodle around an idea, let me know. I’ll be back at work on the 7th and ready to think it through with you! (Yes, we’ll do bigger announcements later!)

Speaker’s Hierarchy of Needs

I’ve been thinking about what I need to be a happy speaker, and what I expect, and what I hope for, and it seems to me like it’s a a hierarchy of needs, like Maslow.

This is absolutely not intended to “call out” any organizer or make anyone feel bad. The vast majority of my experiences as a conference speaker are positive.

Needs

Here are the things that I really need from organizers to make this collaboration work.

Before

  • Code of Conduct. I need you to tell me what it is, and what your enforcement method is. If I tell you I’m worried about something particular, I need you to take me seriously, because as a speaker, I have a different kind of risk profile than an attendee.
  • Conference date on every possible page, email, and communication you send me. No, more. Your conference is a pivot point of your year, for you. For me, it is a thing I am excited to be at, but I need to be sure I got my schedule right.
  • Which airport I should be planning on coming in to. This is especially vital if you are in an area that has more than one. DFW or Dallas-Love? BWI or Reagan? Midway or O Hare? LHR or ANY OTHER OPTION?
  • If there are before-or-after the conference date activities, let me now about them as soon as I accept, before I book my tickets. I hate it when I miss out on the beach day/speaker dinner/rainforest walk/tour because you told me about it after I made my plans.
  • What format do you want my slides in, what is your video input, and what kind of audio are we going to be working with?
  • How long is the actual talk slot, especially if there are breaks that could throw off the calculation?

During

    Everyone will be happier if I get a chance to test my A/V some time other than at the start of my talk.
    If there are more than 10 people in the room, I want amplification.
    If there are any changes to schedules, I’d appreciate it if you made sure I got that message.

After

  • Honestly, there’s not a lot of follow-up that counts as essential. Unless something goes wrong in a Code of Conduct sense.

Wants

Some stuff that makes me more effective or happy:

Before

  • I love those emails that tell me about things that you know about your area or venue. Yes, please tell me about the usual weather, which door of the conference center, and how close I am to local areas of interest. Write the Docs was the first place I saw this, and it’s just great.
  • I’m also excited about reminders that list my schedule, especially extras like interviews or speaker table time. I star those. Extra special bonus points to conferences that send me calendar invites! Sometimes timezones are hard, ok?
  • Give me a speaker liaison and a meeting time. I don’t need this, but it’s lovely to get a tour of the venue, the speaker’s lounge, the backstage, and to have someone I can go to if I need help with something.
  • If you know anything about the audience at your conference, sharing it with me will let me tune my talk more accurately. It doesn’t have to be full demographics, but “78% of last year’s attendees listed Java as their primary language” means that I won’t talk about Python garbage collection jokes.

During

  • A speaker’s lounge is not required, but it is lovely to have. I use it to drop my bag, hang out with other speakers, practice, swap A/V adapters, and grab food because I didn’t get lunch because I was answering questions for attendees. DevOpsDays PDX had a livestream of the mainstage talk in a corner of the speaker lounge, and I loved it.
  • Real-time transcription. It’s useful for me because I know that more people can catch all the things I’m saying, it’s useful for attendees who have language, comprehension, or attention difficulties, and it’s sometimes possible to use it as the transcription on the video. Everyone wins. I’m a huge fan of White Coat Captioning, because they appear to have a cadre of transcriptionists who have pre-loaded technology vocab packs and so are very accurate.
  • Please put water on the podium. I’m sure there are people in the world who remember to keep their personal bottle filled at all times and to take it on stage, but I’m not one of them.
  • I like a room captain or MC to do introductions. It’s certainly not a deal-breaker not to have one, but it’s less awkward, especially for new speakers. An experienced speaker will have tricks to gather attention and get people to settle down and listen, but that’s actually a different skill than delivering a prepared talk.
  • Backup laptop. My slides fail very seldom, but when they do, it’s nice to be able to just borrow a laptop.
  • Adapters and slide clickers. I have my own, but not everyone does, and even if you do, sometimes they get lost or broken, so the conference should have a few to loan out.
  • A/V tech. This is a big request, but at conferences that can afford it, it’s kinda lovely to have someone to make sure the mic, slides, and confidence monitor are all working right.
  • Confidence monitor – that’s something that I can see when looking straight ahead that shows me what is being projected behind me. Many speakers have the presentation on behind them, and what’s on the laptop in front of them is their notes. For talks, especially lightning talks that are given from a different computer, a confidence monitor means I’m not twisting around to check which slide I’m on now.
  • The purpose of a conference after-party, I think, is to let people talk to each other. TURN THE MUSIC DOWN AND THE LIGHTS UP. Most of us are not here to show off our sick dance moves, but to connect with other professionals. Every 10 decibels means that I am thinking about bailing an hour early because I have to be able to keep talking, and yelling all night makes that hard.

After

  • I appreciate it when a conference emails me that my video is up, and here’s the link.
  • I also like and try to fill out the surveys after a conference. I think it’s useful to send speakers both the general attendee survey and a specialized speaker survey.
  • Go ahead and tell me about the CfP dates for next year. If it’s a low-volume list, I’ll stay on it. I will not stay on your slack. I probably didn’t join your slack. I only have so much RAM.
  • If you have collected feedback about my performance, go ahead and share it with me — after you’ve filtered it. I couldn’t do anything about the air conditioning in the room, and you don’t want the abiding taste of your convention to be abusive comments about my speaking. Constructive negative comments are fine, but don’t just pass through the comments page without looking at it.

Desires

Dreams, wishes, and improbably expensive ideas:

Before

  • Get me from the airport. DevOpsDays Chicago and The Lead Developer do this, and it’s such an amazing luxury to not have to think about that part of my trip, and try to figure out which Hilton I’m supposed to be going to, etc.
  • Book me a room with the speaker block, even if my company is paying for it. Being with the other speakers is a huge value for me at your conference, and as a bonus, you know where we are, and it’s not across town in the middle of a transit strike.
  • Send the speaker gift by mail ahead of time so I don’t have to pack it. ChefConf did this, and it was great, because I am frequently traveling in a way that makes the 4 cubic inches taken by a mug significant.

During

  • Make sure I have food tailored to my dietary needs available in the speaker lounge. Especially if we spoke before lunch or dinner, it’s likely we spent a lot of the meal interacting with attendees and not getting in line, and this is especially crucial if a speaker needs a specialized meal.
  • I don’t know what to call this — concierge service? When I showed up to The Lead Developer Austin with no voice, the organizers got me a whole assembly of throat drops, soothing tea, painkillers, etc, and had it taken to my room. That meant that I didn’t have to figure out how to get to a pharmacy or think about what I needed. Honestly, it was so sweet I cried. Hopefully, a speaker won’t need this, but if you have given them a liaison they can trust, and empowered that person to spend a bit of money, it can make a huge difference. It could be anything from “Today is my birthday” (DevOpsDays Hartford bought me cupcakes!) to “I have a tummy bug” (Immodium, don’t leave home without it).
  • Do an audience count for me. There’s no way for me to do it when I’m speaking, but I am not so good at estimating, and it’s useful for me to know for my job what percentage of the attendees were at my talk.

After

  • Caption/transcribe the video
  • Get the video up really fast. Next Day Video does this really well, and ConFreaks has gotten notably faster and also has live videographers who handle pacers (me) better than static setups.
  • Do roll-up posts on the talks and on the conference as a whole so we have something to link to.

Self-Actualization?

I’ve been thinking about what conference self-actualization would me, by Maslow’s standards and my own, and I think it’s about feeling so confident in the underpinnings of the event that I don’t have to think about them, just like most of you are probably not worried about shelter or caloric sufficiency. Being able to trust a conference is running well means that I can concentrate on higher order things like delivering value and sparking discussions.

My part

This is a long (really long) list of things that conferences should/could provide to speakers, but conference speaking is a contract of mutual benefit. Here is a list of what I think conference speakers should commit to providing to do:

  • Be on time. There is nothing, nothing more nervewracking for an organizer than not knowing that a speaker will be there at the right time. I don’t care if you have jetlag, if you have to speak in pajamas, whatever. Be at the venue an hour before your talk, make sure you check in, show up at your room as soon as is feasible.
  • Fail noisily. If for any reason you are not going to be able to give your complete talk, on time, tell the organizers as soon as possible. I know you’re ashamed, but they are in a worse spot, so suck it up.
  • Prepare. I do often tweak my talk to incorporate things that happen earlier in the conference, but it is super unprofessional to joke about how you just slapped a talk together on the flight over. Think of it this way — assume everyone in the room earns $60/hr (it makes the math easy). Now multiply that by the minutes the talk is scheduled for and the number of people in the room. That is what your talk is worth in human-hour-dollars.
  • Participate. A large part of the value of conference speaking is that you get to attend conferences. If you are only showing up for the part of one day that your talk is in and blowing off the rest of the conference, you’re missing a lot of the value, and so is the conference. I get so many great conversations in the hallway track/lunch line. Sometimes (May, June, September), you’ll get scheduling collisions and these things happen, but I promise you that I will try to go to the majority of the conference, be available for people to talk to, and generally help the organizers out.
  • Promote. As I serve on more conference committees, I see how important it is for speakers to reach out and involve their communities. Think of a conference as the middle of a very extensive venn diagram. Speakers bring in parts of their community, which makes the conference as a whole richer.
  • Bonus: I have been speaking long enough that I have a set of talks that I could give on no notice. I usually let an organizer know quietly that if they have a schedule disaster, I can cover. I try very hard not to make this about me, but about their need to juggle a lot of balls and how I can offer to catch something.

Help, I need somebody!

I may have mentioned that I have an executive function disorder. That is the category AD(H)D falls into. What that means for me is that it is often a lot of work for me to make decisions and organize tasks. All of the traits that make me an excellent systems thinker, like holistic views, consideration of concepts outside the standard solution, and interrelationships are present all the time.

Most people, when they go to book a hotel room, get on a site like Travelocity that triages by price and distance, and they just pick something. What I do is do that, and then think about how much it would take to get Lyft to and from where I need to be and if that’s a savings worth staying further away, and is there anything else I need to visit while I’m there, and is it in my 3 loyalty networks, and does it have late-night room service, and is it close to someplace that I can get groceries, and does it have a fridge, or a microwave? Is it in the loose budget my company asks for? Is there a reason that it’s more expensive, such as holidays or major events? How does that compare to the per diem for federal employees, which is what I use as my heuristic for judging which cities are just annoyingly expensive?

I think all those things pretty much every time. And I think in that scope for almost everything. I used to think that loyalty programs like airline mile memberships and hotel points were for a) optimizers b) rich people c) frequent travelers. I’m really only a member of c), but it turns out that they’re also great for d) people who need to reduce computational complexity.

I went to 44 events this year, I think (accurate year-end roundup later). Are you exhausted thinking about that level of planning? I was. And then I was facing down 3 weeks in Europe and I complained to my boss and he told me that a personal assistant was an allowable business expense.

I’m working with a lovely woman named Carly, from an organization called Aim2Assist, and it is making my life so much better. Suddenly, I understand why executives get executive assistants and why it matters to their productivity. Because I can delegate.

How does it work?

Yes, I have signed over a great deal of personal information to this person. There’s no way around it. The way I did it was to share LastPass entries for all my frequent flyer/hotel/credit card information. I can revoke those at any time, and keep them updated. This is much easier with a company credit card, because the company has the ability to get recourse if something goes wrong (which I don’t suspect will happen, but they have more money than I do).

Then I gave her a rough set of parameters to work with. I prefer to fly Delta. Window seats. No AirB&B if we can help it. Hotel rooms in the $150-$250 range if possible. I’ll take care of my own transportation on-site. We also did a chat where I talked about things I just liked in general, and what it means when I travel for work. (14 hours days a norm)

So, for the Europe trip, I booked my inbound and outbound flights, and then sent Carly that information and the dates of the conferences and meetings in London, Bordeaux, and Marseille. Those were my fixed points. I told her that I wanted to spend some time in Bath (which was magical), and that I preferred the train to flying in Europe. She sent back an itinerary for my approval. For all my London stays, I was in one hotel, which was nice and consistent and I just had to learn one route to and from the Tube. Because I wanted to do walking in Bath, she booked me a hotel in the historic parts that was lovely and gracious and still less expensive than staying in London. In Bordeaux, she found this ridiculously lovely off-season glamping/chateau experience.

King-size bed in a rustic wood and canvas room.

It was in Bordeaux that I was desperately grateful to have her. I had gotten pickpocketed in the half hour I spent in the Paris Metro, so I only had my backup card, which was an American Express. It’s not the card of preference in Europe, if you were wondering. Instead of me trying to argue with taxi drivers about what kind of payment they’d take, she booked me a car and driver. And when the train I was booked on told her that they weren’t going to stop in Marseille due to flooding, she rebooked me onto a flight so I would get there in time.

When I got home and there were all the usual annoyances of travel, like my hotel nights were not properly credited and I needed a refund for the cancelled train ticket, I could hand those off to her instead of trying to deal with it myself.

None of this was impossible for me to do. She’s not a travel agent with access to their mystical systems. She’s a human who gets paid to make things happen for me, another human. And it’s such a blessing to me. Her decision matrix is much smaller than mine. I’ve told her my preferences, she optimizes for them, but she doesn’t end up deep in the weeds of what’s professional and what’s self-indulgence. I don’t want to walk more than half a mile to get to a conference venue, she accounts for that and doesn’t wonder if it’s worth an extra $20/night to save 10 minutes, etc etc.

NOTE: if you are a frequent traveler and no one has given you a company credit card, raise hell. If you WANT to put it all on your personal miles card, that’s fine, but you are traveling for company business, and they are going to pay eventually, so make sure they pay now. This is especially true for people who are young, have low credit limits, or have shitty credit. I can drop 10k on a month of travel bookings, easily. I do not have a personal credit card with a 10k limit, nor do I want one. Companies should not make private wealth a prerequisite to career advancement.

What can you ask for?

LaunchDarkly is paying for this service, because it’s cheaper to pay her rate than to pay my “rate” for me to do this, only less well. Those hours I don’t spend on travel booking I spend on watching conference talks or reading articles or writing blog posts. It’s better value for money.

Because my employer is doing this, I try to keep my requests to work-related things, mostly travel. I would also feel ok asking Carly to file my expenses (if our system wasn’t so stupid-easy), or send confirmations or other things that related to traveling and speaking.

If I were paying her myself, I could also ask her to book medical appointments, send birthday presents, order flowers, get someone in to clean up my lawn. We have apps for a lot of this now, but it still takes time and effort to do, and time and effort is exactly what I don’t have to spare right now.

If you ever watched The West Wing and admired Mrs. Landingham as a highly-competent person who enables Jed Bartlett to be Bartlett, that’s like the highest expression of getting help to delegate executive function to. Few of us can have a secretary, but many of us could possibly spend a day’s wages to save that time and thought for something else.

But what if?

I think the scariest thing for most of us is having our identity stolen. Going through a proper organization is going to buffer against that. I wouldn’t hire someone random off Craigslist to do that, even though they’d probably be fine. I like having someone who is accountable. Also, let’s be real, our identity is scattered across a dozen databases on the dark web already.

What if your assistant screws up? Well, so far my assistant’s track record of screwing up is far below my own record. I am the queen of being really bad at booking flights that cross midnight and realizing belatedly I’ll arrive on the wrong day. Inevitably it will happen, but when it does, I’ll have someone to help me figure that shit out.

In conclusion

Yes, it’s totally worth the money to get an assistant if you have a life like mine. I was feeling guilty about being “lazy” when I felt overwhelmed about booking my own travel, until a friend pointed out that for me, it’s an accommodation, and for everyone, it’s an efficiency.

It is a build vs. buy proposition.

I could work hard to make this work in my own system, or I could pay money and save opportunity cost to get a better end product.