I just wrapped up running a conference. It was well attended and the response from people who were there has been universally positive. Still, I’ve taken a fair amount of criticism from people who were not there and while I find this unfortunate, I also predicted it would happen well before the conference even started.
Developers are very entitled people, I would say I’m more entitled than most with no good reason. We believe that our thoughts and arguments should be heard and responded to whenever we have them. In matters of raw programming this is a healthy thing; the culture of iteration and constructive criticism allows us to build better software and libraries and leads to a rich open source community.
When we bring our entitlement to matters that fall farther on the side of community than code (conferences, meetups, hackathons, etc.) most of us lack the depth of thought about this subject to make our comments constructive or actionable. While we all write code, few of us, too few, actually help to organize our community this way. For most of us our contribution is our code, not our time putting together conferences and meetups.
Far too often we end up having the wrong conversation on this subject. While I was reading the Open Conference Expectations thread it quickly became clear that this is not the right thing to be talking about. While I am certainly not above criticizing other conferences I try to get to the truth of the matter. It’s very easy to say “They’re charging 100K for a sponsorship that comes with a keynote but they won’t cover travel expenses for their invited speakers!” but that isn’t why we’re mad, it’s a symptom, not the disease.
What I can’t abide are opportunists. People who are not from a community coming in under the banner of running something for that community for entirely self interested reasons. Whether for fame, glory, or hard cash, it’s not a good thing for us as a community. I’ve heard people try to reason that “We need both,” as in “We need giant self-interested conferences as well as community ones,” but I can’t figure out why something that exploits our community is somehow positive and healthy and enriches us.
The OCE is a list of things that might make a conference good. But if you don’t hit half of them and you really care about your community and the goal of your conference is to enrich it and you stay honest and true, you’ll do a much better job than someone who does hit this list of bullet points but is not trying to enrich the community.
Lists of items like this can’t make people care or change their motivations and much of the list comes from things that conferences with more noble motivations tend to do already. Lists like this do nothing to help potential organizers achieve the items they might require, it’s just another daunting list of things to do for new organizers that will likely keep them from engaging. It's also a tool for those not organizing, or in some cases even attending, to berate conferences with while ignoring the noble motivations behind creating the conferences and seeing it through.
Before NodeConf I started a very long dialog with Selena Deckelmann about bringing more women into the community. What was different about this conversation from most I see taking place on blogs and Twitter was that my goal was to increase real engagement and not to relieve myself of criticism and also that Selena is one of a few people in the world who has done this successfully.
Back in 2009 OSCON announced it wouldn’t be returning to Portland. Selena gathered some of her friends, who she had worked with for some time to build a vibrant and diverse local open source community, to put on an OSCON sized conference anyway. While she didn’t meet their numbers she bettered their content.
In its second year Open Source Bridge had what I believe to be the largest number of women speakers and attendees for a conference that was not about the subject of women in technology. Her numbers were in the 30% range and all were actively engaged with the community.
What’s important about this story is that it’s a success story. While rare, success offers far more to learn from than criticism. If you solicit advice on how to engage more women you’ll get a lot of feedback, much of it conflicting, and even if you succeed in responding and implementing all of it your end result might be a 2-3% increase in female attendance. There is a big gap between 3% and 30% and there is nothing Selena can tell me or any other male organizer to bring us to 30% because the answer is simple. Women need to organize. Women need to run shit. The barriers to entry for women fall down fast when the effort is led by women.
No matter what I say there will still be endless criticism of conferences and organizers. Some organizers I know are actually giving up and not returning for a followup year because of it.
I do what I can to help new conferences get off the ground, make good choices, and live with the endless amount of backseat organizers they'll hear from on Twitter.
For the most vocal critics of conferences, you know who you are, it’s put up or shut up time. I no longer suffer comments from people who do not attend my conference or organize one themselves. My door is open to help anyone who wants to enrich their community by organizing an event.
This is what makes a conference good: giving a shit. If you know your community, what does it need? Have a goal for your conference. Pick something that you want everyone to walk away with and make that the most important thing. Something that, even if everything goes smoothly and there are no mistakes, if people don’t walk away having experienced that goal then you will feel as though you’ve failed.
Good conference organizers take responsibility. If it’s bad, it’s your fault, and if it’s great, enjoy that for a while.
Think about the audience, give them an experience. Don't let dogma drag you down, don't take anything for granted (talk length, structure, seating)—the reason it was done the way you've seen it probably has more to do with business expos and weddings than it does providing an optimal experience for your community.
Here’s more articles I’ve written about organizing conferences and meetups, about community, and a few articles on conferences I’ve run in the past.
There are also some great pieces written by other organizers.