As you might be aware, I’ve been involved in the running of a couple of Ruby conferences over the past few years. I wanted to try and codify some of my feelings about the conference’s goals, and how it might proceed in the future.
While Ruby Manor is by no means my thing1, as one of the original instigators I had a few rough goals that I wanted to achieve. In a nutshell, I wanted to demonstrate that it is possible to run a conference which is equal to any of the “big” confs in terms of technical quality, usefulness and general atmosphere, but without the bloat which has become a typical part of the conference experience.
I’m talking about fluffy inspiration from the same pool of “big name” keynote speakers peddling keynotes without any real insight. I’m talking about low quality food and swag (t-shirts, lanyards, glossy schedules) that we’ve all inadvertently paid for in our ticket prices. I’m talking about cheaper tickets to boot - can it really cost hundreds of pounds per person to run these events?
So that’s what we tried to do in 2008, and again in 2009.
Some time later…
Hereafter I can only speak for myself. Everything that follows is my own rambling opinion, and I don’t speak for “Ruby Manor” as a thing when I say any of the following2. I am on occasion vitriolic, but I hope that doesn’t distract from the fundamental points I’m trying to make.
I know that a lot of people enjoyed the conferences we ran, and the praise is something I personally treasure. However, after the euphoria of the first event, and then the hard work of the repeat, I was left thinking about my original goals again.
We had imagined that, with a minimal amount of structure, the community could be inspired to come together and suggest, plan and refine the presentations and structure of the day. However, after the second event it was clear that it still required a significant injection of energy from the “organisers” to keep the process going. While a not-insubstantial portion of the attendees did participate in shaping the proposals, the majority of people engaged either in a minimal way (“yes that sounds interesting”), or not at all.
This left me wondering about some of these goals. I have a handful of hypotheses about why participation didn’t feel as strong as I hoped.
Hypothesis A: Confusion
Perhaps people we not sure or confident about how they could engage with the process. Admittedly, it was very free-form (a mailing-list), and so there was no apparent structure unless you read the introductory posts and some of the content to get your bearings.
We chose email because… well, everyone uses it, so the barrier to entry should be low. We hoped it would be the simplest way both for us to get something rolling quickly, and the simplest way for people to start engaging. It was also an easy way to keep people informed about progress and new developments.
However, perhaps the “blank page” of an email was more of a hurdle to jump than we imagined.
Hypothesis B: Laziness
My somewhat-pessimistic hypothesis is that people are generally lazy, and so it was easy to allow or assume that other people would contribute and drive the process.
Having seen the twitter hyperbole surrounding most conferences (ours included), I now suspect that a lot of people enjoy going to conferences partially because they can just buy a ticket and turn up without being required to invest much time or energy, and get the same conference “buzz” without expending much effort.
Of course, people are busy – we’ve all got jobs and deliverables, and volunteering becomes a good intention that is rapidly superseded by more tangible priorities.
Hypothesis C: The Quo is Good Enough
Perhaps people don’t really care about the presentation content, or the food, and are only going to be a part of the mild hysteria that sets in when you’re on a tech jolly3 away from home? They clearly don’t mind spending the money, as most established Ruby conferences continue to sell out4 with ticket prices of hundreds of dollars/pounds, often before they’ve even outlined the schedule or themes. I think that’s pretty strong evidence that people either:
- don’t care about the talk content
- are happy to delegate the nature and quality of the content entirely
- some mixture of the two.
So if people don’t care about the price of the ticket, and they don’t really mind about the exact nature of the content, what is the point of running Ruby Manor in the way we do? Does it serve any purpose beyond being just another conference with a slightly quirky aspect?
A + B + C == ?
In reality I think there’s a bit of truth in all three hypotheses.
And it would be remiss not to suggest that perhaps the fault is my own - perhaps I didn’t do a good enough job of communicating these goals; you’re not psychic, after all.
But either way, the question I am asking myself now is this: what is my motivation for running the next Ruby Manor?
Ruby Manor has been misinterpreted as a “unconference”, a distinction which I personally believe is fairly meaningless beyond reinforcing traditional conference organisation as the status quo. Personally I think that “unconferences” are better at achieving the fundamental goals of a conference than these other ones are - meeting people and getting new ideas. Unconferences strongly encourage participation, whereas “real” conferences cater to consumers.
I had originally hoped our execution of our idea would act as a strong, definite statement both to potential attendees and existing “real” conference organisers that you don’t need t-shirts or lunch boxes, or the same speakers peddling the same presentations from conference to conference, pontificating from an altar.
I believed that the “real” conference world needed (and was ready) to be disrupted. I had hoped it catalyse active questioning by attendees about why tickets cost hundreds of pounds, and at the very least conferences should declare clearly whether or not they are for-profit, and if not then make the finances transparent. I hope hoped that conference attendees would demand a stronger influence on the content of the conferences themselves.
But now I’m not sure if that’s what people really care about.
Now before I lose myself in pure ranting, it’s obviously true that people can do whatever they want, and in reality there is room in the world for lots of different kinds of conference. My point is, I suppose, this: surely this cannot be as good as it gets?
For the best part of two years I’ve been mulling this over.
I think we’re going to run another Ruby Manor, but I would really love it if more people were thinking about how to make these days better, simpler, and more useful.
As I said at the start, Ruby Manor does not belong to me, but as long as I am involved, I’m always going to push this agenda. Perhaps not everyone is ready to leave the safe world of traditional conferences, but some people are, and those are the people that I think can help us figure out what might be better than the status quo.
I want to explore the Space of Possible Conferences, and every aspect should be challenged, every pointless indulgence stripped away. I want it to be simpler, more honest, and less prone to hyperbole, so that the community actually becomes stronger, not just increasingly bloated, flabby and self-congratulatory.
And I would love to know what you think.
Given the absence of commenting on interblah, but more particularly in the spirit of this essay, I hope that you use whatever motivation or momentum that might be available to you to blog or tweet what you think.
Ruby Manor is organised by a group, and it’s very much owned by the community. I would be delighted if people in the community wanted to take it forward. ↩
I cannot make this clear enough - these are only my own, sightly-raw feelings about how the events went, and how the community is at the moment. ↩
Apparently plenty of people are happy to pay thousands of pounds to go to conferences on tropical islands, full of leisure activities like photo walks and so on. cough BizConf cough. I don’t begrudge anyone a holiday, but it’s fairly indulgent as a conference. ↩
The Scottish Ruby Conference has sold out incredibly quickly for two years running now; even Ruby Manor 2 sold out incredibly quickly, before we really had a chance to get momentum behind the community organisation of it. ↩