Tag Archives: conferences

Conferences

I think there are too many conferences.

I conducted this very scientific Twitter poll and out of 52 respondants, only 23% agreed with me. Some people who disagreed with me pointed out specifically what they think is lacking:  more regional events, more in specific countries, and more “generic” FLOSS events.

Many projects have a conference, and then there are “generic” conferences, like FOSDEM, LibrePlanet, LinuxConfAU, and FOSSAsia. Some are more corporate (OSCON), while others more community focused (e.g. SeaGL).

There are just a lot of conferences.

I average a conference a month, with most of them being more general sorts of events, and a few being project specific, like DebConf and GUADEC.

So far in 2019, I went to: FOSDEM, CopyLeft Conf, LibrePlanet, FOSS North, Linux Fest Northwest, OSCON, FrOSCon, GUADEC, and GitLab Commit. I’m going to All Things Open next week. In November I have COSCon scheduled. I’m skipping SeaGL this year. I am not planning on attending 36C3 unless my talk is accepted. I canceled my trip to DebConf19. I did not go to Camp this year. I also had a board meeting in NY, an upcoming one in Berlin, and a Debian meeting in the other Cambridge. I’m skipping LAS and likely going to SFSCon for GNOME.

So 9 so far this year,  and somewhere between 1-4 more, depending on some details.

There are also conferences that don’t happen every year, like HOPE and CubaConf. There are some that I haven’t been to yet, like PyCon, and more regional events like Ohio Linux Fest, SCALE, and FOSSCon in Philadelphia.

I think I travel too much, and plenty of people travel more than I do. This is one of the reasons why we have too many events: the same people are traveling so much.

When you’re nose deep in it, when you think that you’re doing is important, you keep going to them as long as you’re invited. I really believe in the messages I share during my talks, and I know by speaking I am reaching audiences I wouldn’t otherwise. As long as I keep getting invited places, I’ll probably keep going.

Finding sponsors is hard(er).

It is becoming increasingly difficult to find sponsors for conferences. This is my experience, and what I’ve heard from speaking with others about it. Lower response rates to requests and people choosing lower sponsorship levels than they have in past years.

CFP responses are not increasing.

I sort of think the Tweet says it all. Some conferences aren’t having this experiences. Ones I’ve been involved with, or spoken to the organizers of, are needing to extend their deadlines and generally having lower response rates.

Do I think we need fewer conferences?

Yes and no. I think smaller, regional conferences are really important to reaching communities and individuals who don’t have the resources to travel. I think it gives new speakers opportunities to share what they have to say, which is important for the growth and robustness of FOSS.

Project specific conferences are useful for those projects. It gives us a time to have meetings and sprints, to work and plan, and to learn specifically about our project and feel more connected to out collaborators.

On the other hand, I do think we have more conferences than even a global movement can actively support in terms of speakers, organizer energy, and sponsorship dollars.

What do I think we can do?

Not all of these are great ideas, and not all of them would work for every event. However, I think some combination of them might make a difference for the ecosystem of conferences.

More single-track or two-track conferences. All Things Open has 27 sessions occurring concurrently. Twenty-seven! It’s a huge event that caters to many people, but seriously, that’s too much going on at once. More 3-4 track conferences should consider dropping to 1-2 tracks, and conferences with more should consider dropping their numbers down as well. This means fewer speakers at a time.

Stop trying to grow your conference. Growth feels like a sign of success, but it’s not. It’s a sign of getting more people to show up. It helps you make arguments to sponsors, because more attendees means more people being reached when a company sponsors.

Decrease sponsorship levels. I’ve seen conferences increasing their sponsorship levels. I think we should all agree to decrease those numbers. While we’ll all have to try harder to get more sponsors, companies will be able to sponsor more events.

Stop serving meals. I appreciate a free meal. It makes it easier to attend events, but meals are expensive and difficult to logisticate. I know meals make it easier for some people, especially students, to attend. Consider offering special RSVP lunches for students, recent grads, and people looking for work.

Ditch the fancy parties. Okay, I also love a good conference party. They’re loads of fun and can be quite expensive. They also encourage drinking, which I think is bad for the culture.

Ditch the speaker dinners. Okay, I also love a good speaker dinner. It’s fun to relax, see my friends, and have a nice meal that isn’t too loud of overwhelming. These are really expensive. I’ve been trying to donate to local food banks/food insecurity charities an equal amount of the cost of dinner per person, but people are rarely willing to share that information! Paying for a nice dinner out of pocket — with multiple bottles of wine — usually runs $50-80 with tip. I know one dinner I went to was $150 a person. I think the community would be better served if we spent that money on travel grants. If you want to be nice to speakers, I enjoy a box of chocolates I can take home and share with my roommates.

 Give preference to local speakers. One of the things conferences do is bring in speakers from around the world to share their ideas with your community, or with an equally global community. This is cool. By giving preference to local speakers, you’re building expertise in your geography.

Consider combining your community conferences. Rather than having many conferences for smaller communities, consider co-locating conferences and sharing resources (and attendees). This requires even more coordination to organize, but could work out well.

Volunteer for your favorite non-profit or project. A lot of us have booths at conferences, and send people around the world in order to let you know about the work we’re doing. Consider volunteering to staff a booth, so that your favorite non-profits and projects have to send fewer people.

While most of those things are not “have fewer conferences,” I think they would help solve the problems conference saturation is causing: it’s expensive for sponsors, it’s expensive for speakers, it creates a large carbon footprint, and it increases burnout among organizers and speakers.

I must enjoy traveling because I do it so much. I enjoy talking about FOSS, user rights, and digital rights. I like meeting people and sharing with them and learning from them. I think what I have to say is important. At the same time, I think I am part of an unhealthy culture in FOSS, that encourages burnout, excessive travel, and unnecessary spending of money, that could be used for better things.

One last thing you can do, to help me, is submit talks to your local conference(s). This will help with some of these problems as well, can be a great experience, and is good for your conference and your community!

Gym noise (02)

Here’s the recent(ish) list of videos I’ve watched at the gym.

Okay, so it hasn’t been a lot. I’ve been listening to more Pod Save the People while running outside.

Conference roundup (2017)

2017 was a good year–and by that I mean very busy–for conferences. Here is a brief roundup of where I was.

January

Nothing!

February

FOSDEM (Brussels, Belgium)

March

LibrePlanet (Cambridge, MA)

April

Lectures in Paris

May

Linux Fest North West (Bellingham, WA)
OSCON (Austin, TX)

June

Nothing!

July

Readercon (Boston, MA)

August

DebConf (Montreal, QC, Canada)

September

Nothing!

October

Leafest (Stowe, VT)
SeaGL (Seattle, WA)
All Things Open (Raleigh, NC)

November

Public Lab Barn Raising (Cocodrie, LA)
CubaConf (Habana, Cuba)

December

Chaos Communication Congress (Leipzig, Germany)

Of these, I spoke at:

For this, I was out of Boston for 65 days. (There were a few other travel days over the course of the year.)

I have my eye on a few new conferences for 2018, but also to drop a few of the ones I attended in 2017. For example, I don’t think I’ll be lecturing in Paris; I’m not attending FOSDEM this year. I submitted to the OSCON CfP, but it’s unlikely I’ll attend otherwise; I am planning on submitting to Open West.

I submitted to some conferences I was not accepted to, but I forget which. Sorry!

Gym noise

I hate running on treadmills. In general, I hate running, in spite of the fact that I do so fairly frequently. Treadmills have been great for working on form, so I try to make time each week to spend running in place.

While I don’t like running, I do like catching up on talks I miss at conferences. While I am incredibly good at making time to run, I am incredibly bad at making time to watch talks. A few months ago, I realized I could use my fancy pocket computer to enable me to combine these two activities (running on treadmills and watching talks) to a completely benign, neutral 20-40 minutes of activity.

I’m going to link some talks I’ve watched recently (at the bottom), but also add a little commentary about how this has changed my presentations.

1. I explain slides more.

Video usually doesn’t carry slides well–especially when you’re running while trying to look at them. I try to say a bit more about the content on the slide itself. I use slides as cue for what I’m supposed to say, and something to provide some visual stimulation (I don’t think I’m a very visually engaging speaker) to help people focus.

Now, I usually read slides–a practice I used to think was bad. This a) helps anyone in the room who may have a vision problem and b) provides more utility to someone listening remotely.

I always read long quotes–even if I think it’s tedious or unnecessary for in-person attendance. I try to not just analyze or provide context for graphs, but also some sort of description of what is being depicted in the graph itself.

2. I make more boring slides.

At first, Asheesh Laroia and Deb Nicholson taught me to make slides with nice images on them. It’s good personality. I wanted to have a more serious angle to my talks, so I switched to a more academic style, with mostly bullet points and graphs. I’ve since eschewed bullet points and, under the advisement of Ned Batchelder, stick to a goal of one to two lines of text per slide (barring longer quotes).

3. I repeat questions.

I’m not always good about this. Questions might be understandable in the room, but not always on the recording.

4. I remind people where we are in the presentation.

I began to explicitly divide my presentations into sections, worrying less about smooth narrative transition than I used to. When listening at the gym, I can zone out and lose track of where I am. Scrolling back in a video (without pausing the run) is really hard.

5. I repeat points.

I try to tie things together more and do so with greater frequency. This is in the spirit of helping people when they zone out and can’t easily rewind.

6. I occasionally address the remote audience.

Especially with things being streamed. I don’t just address the room (but I do do that). I make it explicit that I know (or at least hope) people will be watching it later. As part of this, not only do I list my contact info at the beginning and end, but I do it verbally as well.

7. I thank people for their time.

I always try to do this anyway. I really appreciate people listening to what I have to say when they’re not at an event. It makes you feel special to see that people want to learn about what you care about even if they’re not already at the conference and looking for something to do.

Talks to run to

self-funded

Since 2010, I’ve been paid to work in free and open source stuff, in various fields, sub-fields, and roles. Sometimes I hear people talk about how they want to work in free software as well, and sometimes I get asked about how I ended up here. It was pretty easy: I spent a lot of time paying to do things other people get paid to do.

I’m proud that I am on the Open Source Initiative board. I think it is a serious accomplishment. It is also tied very directly to me spending thousands of dollars a year on things related to free software–namely travel.

This past February I had my first trip of the year–I went to Brussels for FOSDEM. In March, there was LibrePlanet (more on this later). In April I’m going to Paris to lecture at two universities. May is Linux Fest Northwest and OSCON–so I’m doing the two-for of going from one directly to the next. In August, DebConf and Wikimania are both in Montréal     (at approximately the same time), so I submitted talks to both.

I spent 96 days of 2016 out of Boston and 74 in 2015. Among my friends in the field, I don’t actually travel all that much.

I live a fabulous life in one of the most expensive cities in America. I also have student loans and not a lot of savings.

I can’t make a good average guess about how much I spend per conference. I usually stay with friends who live in town, or a friend kindly lets me sleep in the hotel room their company is paying for. C3 and DebConf have been the exceptions (though, I paid for my accommodations at LCA 2016 after a miscommunication with my employer at the time). Other than C3, I only go to conferences that don’t have a fee–which means I only go to one if I’m speaking or volunteering.

Conferences mean having to eat out. They mean coffee from shops and carts. They mean late nights at bars and, not infrequently, car service back to where I’m staying. LibrePlanet 2017 was in Boston, where I live. Still, I ended up not having the time or energy to eat at home, and, most nights, threw myself into a car I paid for.

I have self-funded nearly all of my travel.

As I post this, I am at Linux Fest Northwest and it’s Sunday. My flight cost around $300. I got a ride with a friend from Seattle to Bellingham. I’m staying at someone else’s hotel. Breakfast this morning cost $8, and lunch yesterday cost about $15. Post-dinner drinks ran $11–someone else expensed dinner. Friday night dinner was provided by the conference (that’s rare). With some other miscellaneous charges, the conference itself has run me about $350. That’s with a lot of help from friends, which I have because I’ve been doing this for a few years now. As I read that number, $350 doesn’t seem that bad, but then I remember it’s half of my rent and not actually the total cost of just the Seattle portion of this trip and this is a very cheap trip.

I do this because I want to have a career in free software–I want to progress and grow. I want to see the movement be successful.

When you work in a small field, being known is important. It gives you “the edge” over others when you’re being considered for jobs. It gives you cred. Recently, in a totally unrelated meeting, someone referred to me as an “expert” on something–without ever really having talked to me about it, because he knows I go places to speak about it.

That’s the secret to having a free software career: work really hard and spend a lot of money self-funding travel.

FOSDEM 2017

F as in Freedom: Codes of Conduct & Community Guidelines

or,
I haven’t read the code of conduct, but I’m pretty sure I’m about to violate it

Presented at FOSDEM 2017, Brussels, Belgium

This year I attended my first FOSDEM, which was my first European community organized free software conference. It turns out that if you add enough classifiers, anything can be your first something. There were some great sessions.

I gave a talk!

In early 2016, I gave a humor talk on the use of “bad language” and the words “open source” and “frees software” in various combinations on twitter. It was a party. Since then, I adapted the general premise into a very un-scientific study on the use of slurs on mailing lists (specifically the Linux Kernel Mailing List), and the possible role rules and guidelines might have on these things.

Thanks to the Legal and Policy Issues DevRoom team at FOSDEM 2017, I had an excuse to delve into this more.

When I was preparing this talk, I wanted people to leave the room knowing:

  1. what awfulness can actually look like, and
  2. that policies are important to providing infrastructure for reporting and acceptable behavior.

Now, almost a month on, I think the most important takeaways are:

  1. Bad things are actually a pretty small part of all the things, but
  2. we cannot let this be an excuse to not actively make ourselves do better.

The talk was a little more spastic than I would have liked it to be—there was, frankly, too much ground I tried to cover. Part of this was an attempt to keep it at least slightly lighthearted by adding some humor, but it was also the overwhelming sense that a lot of things are important and I had to get them all out at once.

Some deets about said talk

To create a shared foundation, we discussed what sorts of things dictate behavior within communities:

  • standards (and other formal policies)
  • best practices
  • social contracts
  • norms

It is at least depicted that a lot of what happens on the internet (or cyber, as I think the politicos are calling it these days) revolves around people being mean. It is commonly accepted that this actually isn’t most of what happens, but it does happen (a lot) and garners a lot of attention. Why it happens is on a case by case basis and the people perpetrating meanness frequently can be categorized as:

  • a desire to “be correct” or “fix wrongness”
  • lack of repercussions
  • group think
  • culture norms
  • mental health, lacking sense of self
  • some people are just mean

This is also where I threw in a Taylor Swift reference and apparently someone in the audience legit did not know who Taytay is. I hope dude got himself some Swiftamine.

The next section of my talk contained a number of examples of the way people talk about free software and how people within free software communities talk to one another. I used examples because I like making people laugh, but also because providing individual cases is more compelling than throwing out charts and graphs and numbers. One death is a tragedy, a thousand a statistic. Or something like that. This was contextualized in various policies used concerning behavior and enforcement. My focus shifted into terms I identified as slurs–words that are treated as insults based on someone’s demographic identifiers or deeply held beliefs (like “gay” or “feminist”).

I briefly touched on codes of conduct, anti-harassment policies, and some rough numbers on incident reports from conferences, looking at what I could pre/post the adoption of a behavioral policy. This was even less scientific, even more scattered, and something I would LOVE to do more of.

I’m really hoping to do more poking around at this and these ideas. If you run a conference or event and are willing to (as anonymously as you are interested in) talk about harassment at your event, please contact me. I’m planning on doing more poking around on mailing lists too, since the LKML is really only one case and super unscientific.

“Resources”

Slides: (FOSDEM 2017) – mdb

Video: F as in Freedom: Codes of Conduct and Community Guidelines

Writeup

One of the hardest things about speaking at a conference (beyond getting over anxiety, a fear of public speaking, and imposter syndrome) is doing a write up about the conference and, more specifically, your talk. You want to provide a useful summary of your thesis, some details, and maybe a joke or two to convince people that they should watch your talk. Post-conference video views are important: you can beat your friends by having more views or judge your self-worth by how many people responded positively to your presentation–or both!

I was talking with Spencer Krum (credit where credit is due) about these problems. Presented below is a slightly less late-night, post-dinner-lull inspired solution than the one we originally came up with.

I’ve found that when I’ve needed content from people, it was extremely effective to give out surveys or conduct interviews using a set of questions designed to touch on the major important points.

By the end of the conversation, we agreed that conferences should send you a post-talk survey (as opposed or in addition to a pre-conference interview). Filling out this survey would give you a basis for a blogpost, and the conference a little more content for their blog. In theory, you would get this along with a link for the video to your talk.

Here are some ideas I had about what would make some good questions.

  1. Talk Title
  2. Organization or project represented in the talk or at the event
  3. Conference presented at, including year and location
  4. What was the thesis of your talk?
  5. Why did you want to present this talk? Why this conference was a good venue, or why was it relevant to the audience?
  6. Do you have an outline of important points? What do you think are the most important takeaways–either big ideas or details–from this talk?
  7. What do you want people who attended the presentation to understand or walk away with, that they might not have known before?
  8. Did you get any great questions or valuable feedback?
  9. Did you learn anything in preparing or presenting?
  10. Would you be interested  in giving the same or a similar presentation at another event in the future?
  11. Is there anything else you think is super important to know about your talk?

Some of these questions are kind of similar (4, 6, and 7), but I think they can help you think about the content of your talk in different ways, in order to create a more in-depth understanding of what was important.

I’m going to try and go back to the talk Deb and I gave at HOPE and see what I can come up with using these questions.