How we talk about conference lineups

Marta Paciorkowska spoke this weekend at eurucamp 2015 about how showmanship, comedy and egos are impairing the exchange of ideas at technology conferences.

Marta argued that presentational gimmicks — jokes, stunts, memes — have become the focus of conference talks at the expense of ideas. As a result of this, the perceived pressure to be entertaining discourages under-represented people from participating. It was a really thought-provoking talk and raised a lot of interesting points. You should watch it on Confreaks.

eurucamp is certainly the best conference I have ever attended in terms of diversity of speakers and attendees. The organisers work hard to foster an atmosphere of friendship and inclusion. However, I want to add to Marta’s argument by mentioning something small that has been bothering me about the way we discuss technology conferences in general. What do you mean when you say the following?

“This conference has a great lineup.”

More often than not, the phrase “conference lineup” refers to the speakers and not the subjects of the talks. To me, the following implications can be found. One might:

  1. Wish to attend a conference because the advertised speakers are well-known;
  2. Choose not to attend a conference if the advertised speakers are not well-known;
  3. Value the fame of the conference speakers over the content of the talks.

Whether for-profit or not, conferences all need enough revenue to break even and a positive enough reception to justify future events. I have sympathy for the organisers’ feelings of financial liability. Inviting highly visible speakers is one way of attracting attendees, but I have seen many conference talks given by people who enjoy some level of fame in technology circles; some great, some average and some forgettable. In my experience, the hit rate has been largely the same for speakers of whom I had previously never heard.

So what really constitutes a great conference lineup? For me, a conference looks really attractive when:

  1. The speakers are as diverse as possible;
  2. The subjects of the talks are as diverse as possible, within the constraints of the conference theme;
  3. The conference literature is explicit about the organisers’ intentions for all attendees to feel comfortable, happy and valued by each other.

Some great steps have been made to encourage diversity at conferences already. eurucamp has an anonymous talk proposal process. The Ruby Manor organisers wrote an entire web application to guide the conference content. But as non-organisers we don’t need to be passive. As attendees, our job is obviously to vote with our money. Within our means — or the means of our company perks — we can choose to attend the conferences that best reflect our social values! But we can also change the way we talk about conferences to promote events like eurucamp, which value diversity over heroes.

Further reading

Updated on 20 August 2015 to include the Confreaks video link.