A New Year's Challenge to Conference Organizers

I tend not to make New Year's resolutions anymore. It's an optimistic time of year where we're all going to be thinner, happier, better versions of ourselves, and then somewhere around February it all comes crashing down. That's not to say that I think we can't form new, better habits to improve ourselves (which is what most resolutions are about), it's just that I think that the new year is one of the worst times to make changes that will stick.

There is no denying, however, how useful this time of year's symbolism is in making us ponder the past and contemplate making changes for the better in the future. To that end, I'd like to challenge the Umbraco community's conference organizers to make 2019 the year that we collectively improve the experience of the speakers at our events.

I want to preface this all by acknowledging that running conferences is a hard, often thankless, and frequently money-losing labor of love

My Stake and Experience in the Conference Space

I want to preface this all by acknowledging that running conferences is a hard, often thankless, and frequently money-losing labor of love. Especially in the Umbraco community. I was a team member at the now-defunct Mindfly when that agency founded and ran the first couple of years of uWestFest, the North American Umbraco conference. (Since those first couple years it changed hands to Scandia and now a coalition of agencies and in 2018 was rebranded to the Umbraco US Festival.) Other team members (including Skrift's own Erica Quessenberry) did the heavy lifting of the conference's planning, organizing, and agonizing, but I had a front-row seat to learning about the challenges of that experience and helped move chairs.

I've also been fortunate enough to be accepted as a speaker on a handful of occasions, most of which involved crossing an ocean to get to the conferences in question.

Over the past few years I've made a deliberate choice to attend conferences only as an attendee for a number of reasons. First and foremost, I fit a demographic that the majority of speakers fit and I want to make room for a more diverse range of voices and ideas to be presented. But also, quite frankly, it's expensive and taxing to speak at conferences, especially in the Umbraco community when you're coming from the west coast of the United States and have lengthy trips to most festivals.

So bear in mind as I continue here that I'm discussing the topic with empathy towards both organizers and speakers, having been in both sets of shoes before.

The Tweet That Started It All

On 17 December during this past holiday season, Dave Woestenborghs tweeted about a Smashing Magazine article called "Don't Pay to Speak At Commercial Events" and asked about the thoughts on the topic from the Umbraco community's organizers and speakers.

What unfolded was a great discussion, which I took part in, about the challenges and experiences involved in speaking at conferences and the thorny question of who covers the costs involved. Major participants included Callum Whyte who organizes Umbraco UK Fest and Mr. Umbraco himself, Niels Hartvig.

Every time I've spoken at a conference [...] either myself or my agency spent a considerable sum for the opportunity.

The conversation paved over the cow paths of what all speakers in the Umbraco community know already: the vast majority of conferences are agency-ran "labors of love" and speakers are often attending with no pay and only occasionally covered costs for travel and lodging. Callum had a busy year as a speaker, and indicated that he alone ended up paying over £5k of his own money to do so. Although the numbers varied, this experience largely reflected my own, as I've found that every time I've spoken at a conference that either myself or my agency spent a considerable sum for the opportunity.

The Challenge

It should come as no surprise to those who know me that I had opinions about this. Although my view on the topic of speaker costs are tempered by sympathy towards organizers who are frequently losing money by just running conferences, I think the current model of speaker compensation that is the norm in the Umbraco community is stunting the pace at which we become more inclusive and nurture new new voices.

Therefore, I challenge all Umbraco community conference organizers at all scales beyond local meetups with the following: pay your speakers. Pay each and every one of them.

For those of you that didn't immediately close this article in frustration at me asking you to squeeze water from stones, please let me expand upon that audacious request and why I'm asking you to consider something that I know will be difficult to budget.

The Sizeable Costs to Speakers Restricts Voices

Being a speaker is expensive. Organizing a deck of slides and practicing and preparing your talk takes a decent chunk of hours which either comes from billable hours at work or family hours at home. As even national conferences prefer to seek out a range of quality voices, many speakers come from outside whatever city the conference takes place at, and thus there's travel expenses, lodging costs, and daily expenses related to food and local transportation. Often conferences will even involve a few speakers from Australia, the United States, or other non-European locations crossing an ocean or two to present, which dramatically increases the cost of travel. And the travel time and days of conferences are more days that billable hours aren't being created.

I challenge all Umbraco community conference organizers at all scales beyond local meetups with the following: pay your speakers

In short: by agreeing to speak, a community member is already costing themselves work and acquiring expenses. Most Umbraco conferences at least cover the costs of the ticket itself (it's hard to imagine some conferences don't, but it happens!), but I'd hazard that even relatively local speakers are going to be losing at least a few hundred euros/dollars/pounds in lost work and travel costs, or their agency will be losing that on their behalf. Depending on the distances involved, the cost can go well over $1000 or more (virtually every trip I take out of the US, which is most Umbraco-related conferences, cost me a dramatic amount to just reach the venue).

When we ask the speakers to pay these costs, we're restricting the potential voices at our conferences to be either hyper-local or those who can casually sink those expenses or are willing to sacrifice for the opportunity. As a result, it's no surprise that a large portion of the Umbraco conference circuit's speaker slots feature a rotating gallery of the same faces. Yes, they're talented and awesome people, but they're not the only folks with good ideas and lessons to teach us, they're just the ones that can afford to pay the cost of speaking (or that are sponsored by their agencies to do so).

More-so, there's a certain... sameness... to their demographic profile. If, as a community, we're serious about making Umbraco more welcoming to more diverse developers and attendees, we need to consider how the barrier of cost enhance the other barriers that already exist for women developers, developers of color, and newer junior developers. Many are the people with good ideas that are never heard because they lack the liquid assets to sink for the privilege of speaking at a conference.

"You'll Get a Lot of Great Exposure Through This Job!"

Who, among us, haven't been offered the "opportunity" to do work on a job in exchange for exposure? Who, among us, haven't declined the "opportunity" because the grocery store doesn't accept exposure as a valid currency for buying eggs and milk?

When we get this kind of requests in our daily work environments, we're rightly derisive.

I propose that merely attending a conference gives most developers the networking benefits that lead to potential jobs down the road

A refrain I've heard sometimes about the benefits of speaking at a conference is the enhanced visibility it provides, and the opportunities that it presents. It's true that some speakers will find themselves getting contact from an agency because of their talk, but this is the rare exception and not the rule. I propose that merely attending a conference gives most developers the networking benefits that lead to potential jobs down the road, with far less time and effort than speaking.

Even then, can we rightly scoff at others for begging for free work for exposure if we're going to turn around and do the same when conference season comes and we have slots to fill?

Take Ownership of Your Presentations

And make no mistake: speaking is work. And like all work, it can be done sloppily or professionally, with the results that come with each type of labor.

As I mentioned earlier in this piece, I've had the fortune to speak at several conferences in the past. I'll be the first to admit that on two occasions that spring to mind I utterly bombed them, effectively wasting the conference's slot and the attendees' time through my mismanagement. Virtually all of us have sat through that talk, where the speaker's under-preparation sunk a promising presentation and left us all fidgeting for the better part of an hour. (Pete Duncanson's "Presenting is a Team Sport" offers some great advice on how to help as the audience when some of the more common foibles arise.)

I've also had some presentations that I'd like to claim, with all modesty, were very well received. The difference? Preparation and polishing provided by a team that helped me fix problems, test pacing, and challenge assumptions I'd made.

If you're not paying your speakers, then your conference is going to get what it pays for. Some will be good, some will be horrid, and many will be serviceable but forgettable.

 

If you're not paying your speakers, then your conference is going to get what it pays for.

If you're paying, on the other hand, you have the opportunity to be an owner and participant in the presentation preparation process. Some of the best of class conferences in the web development space explicitly help their speakers with their presentations ahead of time, reviewing them, providing feedback, and fixing problems before the speaker goes on stage. And when money is on the line, the speakers are significantly more likely to be a more professional participant in that process.

How many of us have that family project we agreed to do still sitting on that backburner because it's lower priority than paying work? Money has a noticeable effect on how we focus our work.

The Matt Brailsford Rule

When participating in Dave's twitter conversation, Matt Brailsford (yes, that Matt Brailsford!) spoke of his personal rule for conference speaking:

  • Is it a local meetup? Then he covers all his own costs.
  • Is it a not for profit conference? Then he expects at least his ticket and expenses covered.
  • Is it for profit? Then he expects his ticket, expenses, and time all compensated.

Every speaker should have their own red lines on compensation, but Matt's are good outlines. I think we can all agree that the first and last items in that list make sense, but it's that middle one that (by Matt's own admission) gets tricky, because it's where 99% of all Umbraco festivals fit.

I can't think of another conference other than Codegarden itself that constitutes "for profit" in the Umbraco festival space. Most national level events are agency ran. And virtually all of them are "labors of love" that operate at a loss. Some are done with the hopes of acquiring some sort of meaningful kickback through later work as a form of marketing, but most agencies are more than aware of how they're yearly losses, a sunk cost for the sake of the community.

If it were easy, everyone would be doing it instead of virtually nobody.

In the years that Mindfly ran uWestFest, notable amounts of money were expended each year. From discussions with other organizers, I know this is the rule, and not the exception. As such, I know that I'm asking a lot when I suggest that conferences get out their wallets for speakers. I don't have any easy suggestions on how to overcome this, either. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it instead of virtually nobody.

But with Matt's rule, I want to note that I've never received any compensation from organizers for speaking at any tier of events for expenses. Either my agency or myself has eaten not only travel costs and lodging, but also local transportation and food as well. Tickets have been covered in every case, which I think the community is particularly good at (although I've heard some stories where this isn't the case, which flabbergasts me.) I've been promised it before, but as most conferences pay up after travel (which can be a serious obstacle to junior developers or developers from poorer regions and communities), I've found that it's notoriously difficult chasing down even well-meaning organizers for payment after the fact.

Baby Steps Towards Progress

So speaking is work, and deserves to be compensated. But most conferences operate at a loss, and simply can't afford to cover full costs, no matter what they wish. It's a tricky situation! I'm sympathetic to everyone involved. Conferences want "best of class" experiences by their attendees with a wide range of talented speakers from afar. Speakers, especially less affluent ones, desire or need some costs frayed to make speaking affordable.

Is it all hopeless? What can we do?

I don't know what path exists to properly compensating speakers at most events. Callum, in Dave's Twitter convo, frequently spoke with his "organiser hat" on. He spoke of what he felt was right to do, but also was honest with the challenges involved in making that happen, if it could at all. But in the conversation some ideas were presented that were either underway or that might be good ideas to work towards that I think can provide "baby steps" towards progress on this issue, helping defray costs and at least offer partial compensation for speakers.

Trim the Fat

Firstly, conferences can take a look at areas they're spending money and make some decisions on where to save it. One area is recording presentations. This can be a very expensive endeavor, and yet most conference presentation videos see fewer than 50 views over their lifespan, giving very little return on the investment. I know that preserving presentations for those who can't attend is seen as beneficial, but if the video counts don't support the argument that demand exists, then money could be saved by eliminating this. Alternatively, Callum shared that Umbraco UK Fest instead did audio-only recording, which cut the cost in half.

Conferences can take a look at areas they're spending money and make some decisions on where to save it.

Also, vendor selection for catering and other services can be a major financial drain. Where possible, negotiate harder. Seek venues that don't lock you into a mandatory catering option, as those are almost always overpriced.

And for the love of cheese, ditch the tote bags. Yes, we all love a free t-shirt, but how many of us end up with a complementary tote bag full of random conference items like pens and stickers and mugs to carry around with us all day long? How many of us actually use those bags after the conference ends? How many of us have a stack of them rotting in our closets somewhere?

Be Transparent

Speakers submitting talks for conferences shouldn't have to work up the nerve to ask about what compensation exists. Clearly outline your conference's policy on speaker compensation on your Request For Speakers pages. Enumerate what costs you will be covering out of the gate. This will save you and potential speakers a lot of grief instead of having cancellations occur as speakers decide after the fact that it's too expensive to attend despite being accepted.

It's also just way friendlier than only helping those brave enough to ask. And Umbraco is the friendly CMS after all.

Transition From Agency-Based to Foundations

Frequently conference organizers seek to offset costs by acquiring sponsors. But it can be difficult when agency-ran to get sponsors to line up. I know that many conferences' "sponsors" on their billboards are just names to flush out the list, who "sponsored" by having a speaker present or that helped put together the website.

By contrast, both DUUG and BUUG (the Dutch and Belgium Umbraco User Groups respectively) have transformed their national conferences to the foundation model. And in the process they've found themselves with a much easier time gaining actual financial sponsors for events, as wallets are far more likely to open up for foundations over companies.

Furthermore, as foundations they can coordinate the organization to multiple agencies instead of ran simply by one, which should at the least help reduce each agency's investment burdens while providing a centralized organizational committee to run the event.

If Need Be, Selectively Offer Speaker Sponsorships

Lastly, if you can't afford to fully compensate every speaker, consider offering a few speaker sponsorship slots to finance the attendance of speakers that are part of marginalized or under-represented demographics in the Umbraco community.

I've been thrilled to see more conferences taking a proactive stance in seeking more speakers that are women or people of color over the past few years. But the process of equalizing conference access and visibility is still an ongoing one, a challenge we need to improve on year after year.

By paying for travel and costs for a few diverse speaker slots, at the very least you're putting what money you can invest on speakers where it will do the most good. We already know how good the regular faces in the rotation are, but what good ideas and new concepts are we missing out from due to the voices that aren't being heard? It's been proven again and again: a more diverse community is a stronger and more profitable one.

It's Not Easy

There you have it. That's my challenge. I know running conferences isn't easy, and rarely cheap. But asking for free work can't be the right path towards preserving the friendly and supportive community that we're all part of. Let's accept that we know that good work is worth paying for.

And, yes, I accept that maybe we can't get where we should be any time soon. But as a community we've solved a lot of problems before (cough cough Umbraco 5 cough), so I have to believe that we can solve this one as well. And we don't need to solve it all at once, as long as we commit ourselves to taking steps towards that goal.

To that end, I'd like to note that Skrift ourselves has started to "eat our own dog food" as well. 2019 will be the first year that we pay every author that writes for our magazine. We believe this is not only the right thing to do, but that in the process it will benefit us with higher quality work and give us more access to voices we wouldn't otherwise hear from.

Fellow speakers, conference organizers: what ideas do you have? Dave's Twitter conversation was a small one with just a handful of voices, but already it uncovered some hopeful gems on the topic. I for one would love to hear more voices on the topic. Hit the comments below, or chat me up on Twitter. I'm @cssquirrel there.

Happy New Year!

About the Author

Kyle is a co-founder editor of Skrift, where he does a good deal of the editing and makes uninformed opinions about which shade of pink to use that the others wisely ignore. He writes code at Offroadcode, speaks about web development, designs quirky indie tabletop RPGs and is an award-winning cartoonist.

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