On Conferences

Written on November 14 2016 at 17:06

Because it’s around the time that, were you to have any intention to run a conference towards the end of the year, now is really the latest that you could leave it before needing to start, I find myself thinking about conferences again. Specifically, software development conferences.

As you may or may not know, for the past couple of years, I have been involved in Ruby Manor. If you go back and read the initial announcement, it should be clear that we had some fairly strong ideas about where the value in conferences lies, some of the problems with the status quo, and that we wanted to see if we could do something better.

The Early Bird

So far this year, at least two well known conferences have started selling (or indeed sold out) of their “early bird” tickets. People are clearly happy to spend hundreds of pounds or dollars before any speakers have been announced, or any of the workshops or even general themes of the conference are known.

Now, I understand why conference organisers do this. Organising a conference is very stressful, and can be very risky; often you need to pay for things far in advance. Your early bird ticket is allowing them to book their venue, A/V technicians, catering, and everything else that one might expect from a conference (let’s come back to that later).

But all of that is the conference organiser’s problem; not the punter snapping up their ticket. Most attendees do not think about the logistics of putting on a conference beyond knowing the dates and the address. So why do they buy them?

Tradition

Here’s what some people have said to be in the last few days over Twitter:

“it’s more than just the talks. It’s a few days in a great city.”

“the track record of good talks and great networking in the past convinced me.”

This is why: because they have been to conferences before, and enjoyed the experience, and want to repeat it.

The ritual of the conference is something we’ve all become comfortable with, from multiple tracks to sponsored speaking spots, from raffles to disappointing packed lunches. It’s spending hundreds more pounds or dollars to take a busman’s holiday to an exciting city, and tweeting in the backchannel. It’s getting the chance to chat for a few precious minutes with Celebrity McRubySpeaker for a few minutes after their presentation.

It’s about the gallant few, submitting proposals over the wall to an anonymous panel of taste-makers and trend-spotters, who will then do all the work of choosing what is worth listening to on your behalf.

“I’m more interested in what people want to say than what I want to hear about I guess.”

Without this, without all these ingredients, is it really a conference?

The Hallway Track

And then:

“Maybe they’re there more for the people? IMO the lobby is one of the best parts of the conf.”

And they don’t really care at all about who is speaking - it’s about the “hallway” track, about the spur-of-the-moment conversations, meeting new acquaintances and re-connecting with all the people they met last year. It’s about the attendees.

You are paying to hang out with each other.

I would never deny that conferences, with their traditions and rituals, are fun. I have spent a good chunk of the last five years speaking at or attending conferences. But when you look at it in the cold, morning light, after you’ve spent money on the tickets, and the flights, and the hotel, and the food, and the drink (oh, the drink), was it really worth it? Or, if you’ll let me put it another way - is there a better way of getting the same buzz without any of the ritual and with the minimum expense?

You are paying to hang out with each other.

I’ll say it again. You could all just agree to travel to TownsVille and meet up in a bar, and you’d have your hallway track right there. What are you really missing from your conference experience?