I'd like to pin down some thoughts I had during a conversation with a friend about technical conferences in 2023.
Thinking to the past +2 years, I realize that my conference content consumption has gone to almost zero. Before the pandemic I enthusiastically participated to conferences, enjoying meeting people and picking their brains about a lot of subjects. Gossiping and sharing a dinner was a fun part. Then COVID happened and conference organizers had to figure out how to have the format survive.
The solution were online conferences: mostly prerecorded talks with after a Q&A area (usually a chat of some sort) where conference participants could ask questions to the speaker. This format never really clicked to me: after the first or second online conference (where I tried to financially support the project) I gave up attending these online events and just waited for the release of the talks on YouTube, downloaded the ones looking more interesting, watched them at 1.25x (or faster), skipping a lot of parts. In the end I lost interest also in this, content consumption this way was not engaging (despite the efforts of the speakers1). I have in my SSD gigabytes of talks sitting there since months about topics that are of interest for me, waiting to be watched but I know I won't watch them because I can't commit anymore to such a task2.
Now we start seeing more and more in person live events again and while I can't say if it will last this winter, here's how I would like a conference in a real location to be after 2 years of virtual hiatus.
First off, I find the whole "technical conference" format a bit stale and in need of fresh paint. I'm looking at some conferences happening in 2022, I won't name names out of respect and gratitude to those that are working hard to make them happen.
This said, here are some points that in my opinion can be improved or "reinvented":
- Avoid marketing talks or self-promotion "humble bragging": I don't care about how you squeezed a 2x perf. increase at company Acme Ltd. using the latest framework (still in beta). I want to know of your failures, I want to know how much time did it take, learn about the stupid things you stumbled upon that made you lose sleep. About the documentation, about the ergonomics of the tooling. You will not impress me by hiding the tears you shed behind a graph with a company logo. I want to understand if my use case is similar to yours so I can justify the effort to do that.
- Companies sponsoring conferences: the whole idea of sponsorship tiers and its related perks feel uninteresting. Sponsors are classified in Supermario-esque boxes named "platinum, gold, silver" which feels so ... late-stage capitalism. Some conferences exchange these tokens against visibility currency, where the sponsor is allowed to show a logo or merchandise and that's all. I am tired to see for the nth time the logo of Google. Yes, I know they are always looking for fresh meat to hire, chew and then spit. Aren't companies able to provide a more captivating contribute to the conference? Are their marketing departments only capable of shitting pins, USB keys and plush toys?
- Less talks and more hands-on work: talks are monologues of one person on the stage in front of a passively watching public. Being an engaging speaker is no joke and sometimes talks are boring. Conference organizers too often are lacking the control on the content and do not mentor speakers for various reasons, resulting in a deliver more painful than me hammering my toenails.
- Enough with blockchains and cryptocurrency projects: a personal pet peeve of mine. They throw marketing money to look hip, get visibility and acquire talents. Sorry folks - I had enough of these projects. I find them uninteresting and outright annoying in that they all look like they are selling snake oil. I am sympathetic with people working there (often talented!) because it's good money but that's really all there is.
Online conferences are an heroic attempt to carry the torch forward but in my opinion they are the final blow to the "in presence" conference format that once was. Online conferences basically made the conference format itself useless. I am completely not interested in seeing a prerecorded talk that I can see later on some streaming platform at 2x skipping all the uninteresting parts. Conferences are cool because of meeting people, gossiping and have real social event with people. Let's save this part!
Possible ideas to reinvent the "in presence" conference format:
- Reduce the amount of talks: I want to see 80% workshops and 20% talks, I want rooms stuffed with nerds and Club Mate and have their neurons spin for a couple of hours. Give them ideas they can hack on the spot and finish up at home. Help people get started. Let them touch the stuff and run away if it's too ugly, all in a safe place for experimenting. Leading a workshop is hard work. Leading an effective workshop is even harder.
- More "meetup"-like content: more quick show&tell stuff. 15 minutes max each. Show something but show it actually working. No slides, show me your project, a live demo and the damn code. Interact with people. Be humble: what do you guys think? Will it work? How can I improve it? Anyone wants to team up to help me overcome this thing I don't understand?
- Find a sacrificial lamb and put them on stage answering questions: very specific questions about the programming language, the framework or the library, best practices and pitfalls. "Is there something that you guys find confusing? Ask me about it!". 10 minutes max per question. No question is stupid. Don't try to be clever and form a smart question that in the will not be useful to you and anyone else. Ask real questions, about something you worked yesterday and failed to solve. A bit like the "office hours" format, I think.
- Less budget: conferences should NOT be so damn expensive for the organization. Find cheaper ways to organize them. Strip away all the useless stuff (like expensive catering, gadgets). Is the venue expensive? Find a smaller one! Cap the conference attendance capacity. Who cares. Enough with conferences with 150/200 attendees. It doesn't need to be a Woodstock 1969, you know? Everyone should be able to afford a ticket to a technical conference. Offer "support tickets" to let people pay more and compensate for those who cannot afford the full price. Give more power and value to local communities instead of flying the Great Guy from the other side of the ocean for the keynote3. And if a programming language or framework does not have great traction to fill up an auditorium, so what. Organize meetups and foster the community.
Really, the previous points are not suggesting anything new, what I wish is a return to the origins. Tech conferences are great tools but after just a couple of years of attendance I'm getting tired of them.
We need to distill the distinguishing traits (in a time where everything is online), cut with the bullshit and leverage their added value. Bring them back to Earth, to their original hacking spirit.
I remember an online talk by Bryan Cantrill (ex-Sun Microsystems, now at Oxide), a public speaker I really enjoy. I could notice his effort to engage an invisible audience, but it felt so awkward.
It's a bit like me watching movies: I can hardly see an entire movie on the sofa without falling asleep but if I happen to go to a cinema/theater I can sustain hours of full attention span. Go figure.
... and then see them disappear to visit the city where the conference takes place, because of course a historical UNESCO living site is more interesting than compilers.