Wednesday, August 10, 2016

A dig deeper into conference organizing

As Software Testing Club shared my wishful post about conferences changing on making speakers pay for speaking (through speaker covered travel expenses), there was a response that leads me to share advice I gave for someone else in private.
When I pay the travel expenses, I care a little about where the person comes. True. But simultaneously, I care about representativeness. I live in Finland, and I know a lot of awesome speakers from US, Canada and UK. Unsurprisingly, the natively English-speaking countries dominate my view of the speaking world. I recognize this, and I know Finland and the rest of of Europe are full of just as amazing experiences, that might fit my cultural context much better than e.g. american views. I want to hear from diverse groups of people and I'm willing to invest in that.

Looking at this from another angle, if speakers must pay their own way, doesn't that strongly disfavor the foreign speakers? They can't afford to submit, unless they are privileged in that ability to pay. The organizers then select from the submissions that include only ones that can afford to pay, and while they can disregard the cost factor, they still include risk factor. Someone from far away might not have understood the implications of acceptance (happens often) and is more likely to cancel and cause replanning contents at a late stage.

All this made me think of an email that I wanted to share anonymously: to realize there's local and international conferences, even if CFPs appear to be international and these two need to act differently.

On the topic of Compensation Considerations for a Local Non-Profit Conference

I can only share my views and experiences, and happy to try to do so. 

I’ve thought that local conferences can be local in two ways: local for sourcing the speaking talent and/or local for finding the participants. A lot of times, the conferences sharing their vision on what talent pool they’re trying primarily to draw from would be helpful. For example, I rarely would accept people from far into speaking at local conferences in other than invited talks, because my primary focus is on showing something not local (keynote) and then focus on strengthening the local talent pool. People need local safer-to-fail places to dare to go and consider the international stages. Around here, the safety starts from local new speakers being allowed to speak in their native language. 

Your chosen approach of being very upfront about free admission but not paying the expenses is the industry norm. You are probably well aware that I’m standing up against that industry norm, but all the fine-tuned ideas on what and why I might not even have written about yet. The primary reason is that I want to see financial considerations stop being a block for diversity. Paying the expenses is a start, but that goal actually needs that speaking would also cover the lost income if the loss hits and individual. 

Diversity in this case is not just diversity of gender and race, it’s also diversity in voices available in our industry. In testing in particular, majority of people are not allowed in conferences by their employees other than on their own time. If you’ve never been to a conference, the likelihood of you speaking in one is low. Many companies have little interest in making  their employees speakers, and people have to be well-versed and driven to overcome the lack of guidance to that direction. Product companies have awesome experiences, but little interest (other than individual’s needs of learning) to show up as speakers, especially if they are from industries that have little to sell for my audience (some argue all have to sell their employer brand, but that tends to be a role reserved for people specialized in that). 

Locally, without adding costs to the speakers, you can do a lot for this diversity. The barrier there is first and foremost encouraging people to speak and making them realize their voices would be interesting. My observation is that locally the problem is more in the submission process. People expect the organizers to know how to find the speakers, without the speakers announcing their existence. I could talk about the models on how this works and could work indefinitely. I also recognize that things might be culturally different in other places, but in Finland relying on a call for proposals on a local conference would be an insane choice. You would only get consultants with something to sell - we’re not even that tempting holiday location.  

Some consultants sell from the stage and others don’t. I don’t want to ban consultants, but I want to find ones that don’t sell from the stage. When the costs of speaking go up, selling on stage becomes the norm. 

Sometimes, audiences don’t care if the low-fare local conference is full of sell-from-stage speakers. Sometimes, they don’t know things could be different because they’ve always been to low cost events that turn out that way. 

This is really a puzzle of balance for the organizers. You might need the budget to pay for both new, otherwise blocked voices and senior voices that don’t sell from stage. You might get lucky and find people who can afford to invest or locals who don’t need to invest. You set your price and expectations of locality. You can pay some (keynoters, make people apply for scholarship if costs are prohibitive). The senior speakers can do the math of participants and ticket prices and choose a little where they show up based on fairness and opportunity of learning. You can have higher ticket price and then hand out free admissions. You can have it affordable for everyone. Every time you have to ask for special treatment (incl. travel compensation), you lose a portion of people who would show up if things were more straightforward. 

Whether you’re non-profit or for profit, this bit works very much the same way. Both seek a way of making a profit (or not making a loss), the difference is just on what the profit is used on (and scale of it, perhaps). 

So my advice:
  • focus on sourcing speakers locally, and the cost aspect isn’t so relevant for diversity
  • recognize the other blocks for local diversity. For example, I recently learned that 50:50 pledge has collected 3000 names of women in tech, so there’s quite a number of women hoping they would be reached out to specifically, not just as a mass of “you could submit”
  • make your own choices on prices and compensations and stick to them; everyone supports you when you aim for fairness.There’s no one right answer here, you’re balancing the audience and speaker needs.