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Thoughts on Tech Conferences

This post is being, um, posted from the venue for GOTO Copenhagen 2012. It’s the end result of a few months of reflection on what I get out of conferences, what I want to get out of conferences, what I put into (and want to put into) conferences and the position of tech conferences in our industry. I’ve also been discussing things a lot with my friends and peers; I’ve tried to attribute specific quotes where I remember who said them but let it be known that many people have contributed to the paragraphs below in many different ways. I’ll make it clear at the outset that I’m talking about my experience at independent commercial and non-profit tech conferences, not scientific conferences (of which I have little experience) or first-party events like WWDC (which are straightforward marketing exercises).

Conference speakers

My favourite quote on this subject is courtesy of Mike; I remember him saying it in his MDevcon keynote this year but I’m also fairly sure he’s said the same thing earlier:

The talks at a conference are only there so that you can claim the ticket cost as an expense.

We’re in a knowledge economy; but knowledge itself is not of any value unless it’s applied. That means it’s not the people who tell other people what’s going on who’re are doing the most important work; that’s being done by the people who take this raw knowledge, synthesise it into a weltanschauung – a model of how the world works – and then make things according to that model. Using an analogy with the economy of physical things, when we think of the sculpture of David in Florence we think of Michelangelo, the sculptor, not of the quarry workers who extracted the marble from the ground. Yes their work was important and the sculpture wouldn’t exist without the rock, but the most important and valuable contribution comes from the sculptor. So it is in the software world. Speakers are the quarry workers; the marble hewers, providing chunks of rough knowledge-stuff to the real artisans – the delegates – who select, combine and discard such knowledge-stuff to create the valuable sculptures: the applications.

Michelangelo's David, source: Wikimedia Commons.

Conference speakers who believe that the value structure is the other way around are deluding themselves. Your talk is put on at the conference to let people count the conference as a work expense, and to inspire further discussion and research among the delegates on the topic you’re talking about. It’s not there so that you can promote your consultancy/book/product, or produce tweet worthy quotes, or show off how clever you are. Those things run the gamut from “fringe benefits” to “deleterious side effects”.

As an aside, the first time I presented at a Voices That Matter conference I was worried due to the name; it sounds like the thing that matters at this conference is the speakers’ voices. In fact I suspect there is some of that as many of the presenters have books published by the conference hosts, but it’s a pretty good conference covering a diverse range of topics, with plenty of opportunities to talk to fellow delegates. And IIRC all attendees got an “I am one of the voices that matter” sticker. Anyway, back to the topic at hand: thus do we discover a problem. Producing a quality conference talk is itself knowledge work, that requires careful preparation, distillation and combination of even more raw knowledge-stuff. It takes me (an experienced speaker who usually gets good, but not rave, reviews) about three days to produce a new one hour talk, a roughly 25:1 ratio of preparation:delivery. That’s about a day of deciding what to say and what to leave out, a day of designing and producing materials like slides, handouts and sample code, and a day of practising and editing. Of course, that’s on top of whatever research it was that led me to believe I could give the talk in the first place. The problem I alluded to at the start of the last paragraph is this: there’s a conflict between acknowledging that the talks are the bricks-and-mortar of the conference rather than the end product, and wanting some return on the time invested. How that conflict’s resolved depends on the personal values of the individual; I won’t try to speak for any of my peers here because I don’t know their minds.

The conference echo chamber

That’s not my phrase; I’ve heard it a lot and can track my most recent recollection to @secwhat’s post Conference Angst. Each industry’s conferences has a kind of accepted worldview that is repeated and reinforced in the conference sessions, and that only permits limited scrutiny or questioning – except for one specific variety which I’m coming onto later. As examples, the groupthink in indie Mac/iOS conferences is “developers only need developer features that have been blessed by Apple”. There’s recently been significant backlash to the RubyMotion framework, as there usually is when a new third-party abstraction for iOS appears. But isn’t abstraction a good thing in software engineering? The truth is, of course, that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dream’t in Apple’s philosophy.

The information security groupthink is that information security is working. Shocking though it may sound, that’s far from obvious, evident or even demonstrable. Show me the blind test where similar projects were run with different levels of info sec engagement and where the outcome was significantly different. Demonstrate how any company’s risk profile has changed since last year. Also, show me an example of security practitioners being ahead of the curve, predicting and preparing for a new development in the field: where were the talks on hacktivism before Anonymous or Wikileaks?

One reason that the same views are repeated over multiple conferences is that the same circuit of speakers travels to all of the conferences. I’m guilty of perpetuating that myself, being (albeit unintentionally in one year) one of the speakers in the iOS circuit. And when I’ve travelled to Seattle or Atlanta or Copenhagen or Aberystwyth, I’ve always recognised at least a few names in the speaker line-up. [While I mentioned Aberystwyth here, both iOSDevUK and NSConf take steps to address the circuit problem. iOSDevUK had a number of first-time speakers and a “bar camp” where people could contribute their own talks. NSConf has the blitz talks which are an accessible way to get a large number of off-circuit speakers, and on one occasion ran a whole day of attendee-contributed sessions called NSConf Mini. When you give people who don’t normally present the opportunity to do so, someone will step up.]

I mentioned before that the echo chamber only permits limited scrutiny, and that comes in the form of the “knowing troll” talk. Indeed at GOTO there’s a track on the final day called “Iconoclasm”, which is populated solely with this form of talk. Where the echo chamber currently resounds to the sound of , it’s permitted to deliver an “ sucks” talk. This will usually present a straw man version of and list its failings or shortcomings. That’s allowed because it actually reinforces – real-world examples are rarely anything like as bad as the straw man version, therefore isn’t really that bad. This form of talk is often a last-session-of-the-day entry and doesn’t really lead people to challenge their beliefs. What happens later is that when everyone moves on to the next big thing, the “ sucks” talks will become the main body of the conference and “<X+1> sucks” will be the new troll talk.

Conferences

Weirdly, while the word conference means a bringing together of people to talk, coming from the same root as “conversation”, many conferences are designed around a one-way flow of words from the speakers to the delegates. Here’s the thing with that. As I said in my keynote talk at MDevcon, we learn from each other by telling and listening to stories. Terry Pratchett, Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart even went as far as to reclassify humans as pan narrans, the storytelling chimpanzee. Now if you’ve got M speakers and 10M<N<100M delegates, then putting a sequence of speakers up and listening to their stories gets you a total of M stories. Letting the N delegates each share their stories, and then letting each of the N-1 other delegates share the stories that the first N stories reminded them of, and so on, would probably lead to a total of N! stories if you had the time to host that. But where that does happen, it’s usually an adjunct to the “big top” show which is the speaker series. [And remember: if you’ve got C conferences, you don’t have C*M speakers, you have M+ε speakers.]

There’s one particular form of wider participation that never works well, and that’s to follow a speaker session with Q&A. Listen carefully to the questions asked at the next Q&A you’re in, and you’ll find that many are not questions, but rhetorical statements crafted to make the “asker” appear knowledgable. Some of those questions that are questions are rhetorical land mines with the intent of putting the speaker on the back foot, again to make the asker seem intellectually talented. Few of these questions will actually be of collective value to the plenus, so there’s not much point in holding the Q&A in front of everyone.

Speaker talks are only one way to run a session, though. Panels, workshops and debates all invite more collaboration than speaker sessions. They’re also much more difficult to moderate and organise, so are rarely seen: many conferences have optional days that are called “workshops” but in reality are short training courses run by an invited speaker. In the iOS development world, lab sessions are escaping the confines of WWDC and being seen at more independent conferences. These are like one-on-one or few-on-few problem solving workshops, which are well focussed and highly collaborative but don’t involve many people (except at Voices that Matter, where they ran the usability workshops on the stage in front of the audience). A related idea being run at GOTO right now, which I need to explore, is a whole track of pair programming sessions. The session host chooses a technology and a problem, and invites delegates onto the stage to work through the challenge with the host in a pair-programming format. That’s a really interesting way to attract wider participation; I’ll wait until I’ve seen it in action before reaching an opinion on whether it works.

There’s another issue, that requires a bit more setup to explain. Here’s a Venn diagram for any industry with a conference scene; the areas are indicative rather than quantitative but they show the relation between:

  • the population of all practitioners;
  • the subsection of that population that attends conferences; and
  • the subsection of that population that speaks at conferences.

Conference Venn diagram

So basically conferences scale really badly. Even once we’ve got past the fact that conferences are geared up to engage the participation of only a handful of their attendees, the next limiting factor is that most people in [whatever industry you’re in] aren’t attending conferences. For the stories told at a conference (in whatever fashion) to have the biggest impact on their industry, they have to break the confines of the conference. This would traditionally, in many conferences, involve either publishing the proceedings (I’ve not heard of this happening in indie tech conferences since the NATO conferences of 1968-9, although Keith Duncan is one of a couple of people to mention to me the more general idea of a peer-reviewed industry journal) or the session videos (which is much more common).

To generate the biggest impact, the stories involved must be inspiring and challenging so that the people who watched them, even those who didn’t attend the conference, feel motivated to reflect on and change the way they work, and to share their experiences (perhaps at the same conference, maybe elsewhere). Before moving on to a summary of everything I’ve said so far, I’ll make one more point about the groups drawn on the Venn diagram. Speakers tend to be specialists (or, as Marcus put it in his NSConf talk, subject matter experts) in one or two fields; that’s not surprising given the amount of research effort that goes into a talk (described above). Additionally, some speakers are asked to conferences because they have published a book on the topic the convenor wishes them to speak on; that’s an even longer project of focussed research. This in itself is a problem, because a lot of the people having difficulty with their work are likely to be neophytes, but apparently we’re not listening to them. We listen to self-selected experts opining on why everyone needs to take security/TDD/whatever seriously and why that involves retaining the experts’ consultancy service: we never listen to the people who can tell us that after a month of trying this Objective-C stuff still doesn’t make sense. These are the people who can give us insight into how to improve our practice, because these are the people reminding the experts (and indeed the journeymen) of the problems they had when they’d been at this for a month. They tell us about the issues everyone has, and give us ideas on how we can fix it for all (future) participants.

Conference goers, then, get the benefit of a small handful of specialists: in other words they have a range of experience to call on (vicariously) that is both broad and deep. Speakers of course have the same opportunity, though don’t always get to take full advantage of the rest of a conference due to preparation, equipment tests, post-talk question sessions and the like. The “non-goers” entry in the diagram represents a vast range of skills and experiences, so it’s hard to find any one thing to say about them. Some will be “distance delegates”, attending every conference by purchasing the videos, transcripts or other materials. Some will absorb information by other means, including meet-ups, books, blogs etc. And some will be lone coders who never interact with anyone in their field. Imagine for a moment that your goal in life is to apply the Boy Scout Rule (which I’m going to attribute again to @ddribin because I can’t remember who he got it from; Uncle Bob probably) to your whole industry. Your impact on $thing_you_do will be to leave the whole field, the whole practice a bit better than it was when you got here. (If that really is your goal, then skip the imagination part for a bit.)

It seems to me that the best people to learn from are the conference delegates (who have seen a wide section of the industry in considerable depth) and the best people to transfer that knowledge to are, well, everybody.

Summary of the current position

Conferences are good. I don’t want people to think I’m hating on conferences. They’re enjoyable events, there are plenty of good ones, there’s an opportunity to learn things, and to see fresh perspectives on many aspects of our industry. They’re also more popular than ever, with new events appearing (and selling out rapidly) every year. However, these perspectives often have an introspective, echo chamber quality. We’re often listening to a small subset of the conference delegates, and if you integrate over multiple conferences you find the subset gets relatively smaller because it’s the same people presenting all the time. Most delegates will not get the benefit of listening to all of the other delegates, which means they’re missing out on engaging with some of the broadest experience in the industry. Most of the practitioners in your corner of the industry probably don’t attend any conferences anyway; there aren’t enough seats for that to work.

The ideal tech conference

OK, I am very clearly lying here: this isn’t the ideal tech conference, it’s my ideal tech conference. In my world, those are the same thing. PerfectConf features a much more diverse portfolio of speakers. In the main this is achieved exactly the way that Appsterdam does it; by offering the chance to speak to anyone who’ll take it, by looking for things that are interesting to hear about rather than accomplished or expert speakers to say it, and by giving novice speakers the chance to train with the experts before they go in front of the stage. Partly this diversity is achieved by allowing people who aren’t comfortable with speaking the opportunity to host a different kind of session, for example a debate or a workshop.

In addition to engaging session hosts who would otherwise be apprehensive about presenting, we get to hear about the successes and tribulations encountered by the whole cohort of delegates. At least one session would be a plenary debate, focussed on a problem that the industry is currently facing. This session has the modest aim of discovering a solution to the problem to move the industry as a whole forward. Another way in which diversity is introduced into the conference is by listening to people outside of our own sector. If infosec is having trouble getting budget for its activities, perhaps they ought to invite more CFOs or comptrollers to its conferences to discuss that. If iPhone app developers find it hard to incorporate concurrency into their application designs, they could do worse than to listen to an Erlang or Occam expert. Above all, the echo chamber would be avoided; session hosts would be asked to challenge the perceived industry status quo.

I’ve long thought that if a talk of mine doesn’t annoy at least one member of the audience then I haven’t said anything useful; a former manager of mine said “if we both think the same way about everything then one of us is redundant”. This way of thinking would be codified into the conference. Essentially, what I’m talking about is the death of the thought leader (or “rock star”). Rather than having one subject matter expert opining on how everyone should think about security, UX, marketing, or whatever, PerfectConf encourages the community to work together like a slime mould, allowing the collective motion of all of the members to explore all opportunities and options and select the best one by communicating freely across the colony.

Slime mold solving a maze (photo: Nature)

Finally, PerfectConf proceedings are published as soon as practical; not just the speaker sessions but the debates too. Where the plenus reaches a consensus, the consensus decision becomes available for all those people who couldn’t make it to the conference of to discover, consider, and potentially adopt or react to. Unfortunately I’m not a conference organiser.