How to make technology conferences suck less

How to make technology conferences suck less

Summary: There's a dirty little secret to technology conferences: Most of them suck to some degree. It's about time someone started thinking about how to make conference time more valuable and less stale, especially now that companies are cutting back on travel to shows.

TOPICS: CXO, Open Source

There's a dirty little secret to technology conferences: Most of them suck to some degree. It's about time someone started thinking about how to make conference time more valuable and less stale, especially now that companies are cutting back on travel to shows.

I've been thinking about this quite a bit lately. We just announced the openSUSE Contributor's Conference for this fall, and I'm on the presentation committee for OpenSource World and LinuxCon this year. After seeing Danese Cooper's post about designing better conferences, I was finally moved to write about it. Cooper says:

Speaking personally, I'm much more interested in content and formats that are fresh.  As we're reading these carefully worded abstracts, I keep thinking about how hard it is to even remember what my intention was when I get around to finally speaking 6 months after an abstract is accepted in traditional "Call For Papers" kinds of conferences...

Have to agree here: I've been submitting talks and judging talks for years now. It's a chicken and egg problem -- people plan their conference attendance far in advance, and choose based on the content at the conference. This means choosing talks well in advance, but by the time the talks are given... they're usually a bit on the stale side.

And the traditional schedules packed with one talk after another, that may not be the best format for a lot of events, either.

So, what makes an ideal conference? There's no single-purpose format that works for everybody -- what works for the Open Source Business Conference attendees is going to have nearly zero value for the audience that attends FOSDEM.

Oddly enough, going pro doesn't mean a conference will be better. Perhaps I'm a bit biased, but I've found that community organized conferences like SCALE, Ohio LinuxFest,, and so forth tend to be much more enjoyable and useful for attendees. In part, that's because the shows are not organized with a profit motive in mind -- and thus, they don't cater as much to the sponsors. (Read: The speaking schedule is not "pay to play," so the keynotes, talks, and format are chosen to benefit the attendee rather than the sponsors.)

A couple of suggestions for organizers to make the most of a conference:

  • The audience comes first. Paid keynotes don't give attendees value.
  • Let speakers know what's expected, give them guidance and suggestions on good presentations. Subject matter experts don't always make good speakers.
  • The "Barcamp" and "unconference" format works really well for "advanced" audiences. Bring Your Own Content is the format for the future.
  • Panels can be fun, but no more than one panelist per 15 minutes of session time.
  • Give the conference attendees a way to connect before, during, and after the event. Mailing lists, wikis, and other tools that let people reach out and connect and stay connected.
  • Leave plenty of time for the "hallway track."
  • For the love of all that's holy -- give attendees plenty of electrical outlets and a robust network.
  • If you're starting a new conference, try to hold it somewhere other than San Francisco, OK? Done. To. Death.

I do hope that the, SCALE, LinuxFest NorthWest and/or Ohio LinuxFest organizers will sit down and write the "conference howto" for other organizers to follow. There's a lot that goes into a good conference, and having to relearn those lessons seems like a real waste of wisdom.

Topics: CXO, Open Source

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  • Nice post

    Thanks for sharing this information. I attended ClueCon last year and it was
    great- for some of the very reasons you mention. I enjoyed it so much that I'm
    volunteering this year to help out. I think community-organized is important. I
    also think that there's value in keeping some kinds of conferences on the
    smaller side. Being able to spend time with other attendees without the rush is
    a great thing. I'd rather make two or three really high quality contacts than
    dozens of shallow ones. (That's just me.)

    I will definitely keep these suggestions in mind so that ClueCon continues its
    reputation of "not sucking"! :)


    See you at ClueCon.
  • RE: How to make technology conferences suck less

    In addition to the items you mentioned I think professional conferences need
    -a pre-event platform where people can assign to the topics they are interested, where one can schedule appointments etc.
    -an onsite communication platform like spotme ( or ( , where people can get information at their fingertip, make some kind of realtime social networking and exchange information electronicly on the fly, making realtime votings ("TED") on topics, speakers etc.
    -an after-event platform where people can discuss, network, download ...
    t h a t's the future of events!
  • Employees still go to conferences?

    Ford cut that out nearly 8 years ago. The problem with conferences NOW is that since there is no budget for employees (read worker rats) to go, companies send management. After a former manager of mine went to a conference, he came back brainwashed by IBM. We spent millions and years trying to get Tivoli, ClearCase, Rational, etc. stuff working. One throat to choke beats Best in Class every time . . . when idiot management gets involved . . .
    Roger Ramjet
  • Conference Costs

    I recently went to a small conference that cost about $1800. I heard one of the speakers say that if it wasn't for the hotel costs it would cost about $800. Hotels and conference centers charge way too much. I also asked him why the do these in Orlando and Las Vagas instead of a smaller city and he said no one goes to the smaller cities and they charge about the same as the big places. I live in a small town that isn't the easiest to get to that could support this conference (<500) but it probably would have cost just as much because of the hotel/conference center charges.
    • Regional vs. Vegas (etc.)

      This is definitely a problem: It's cheaper to attend something in, say, Columbus, Ohio. But, Columbus isn't as geared towards conferences as San Francisco, Vegas, etc.

      Plus, with tech conferences there's the fact that a huge percentage of attendees are local to the West coast, so it's an easy sell to hold it where it's only a few hours drive or a one-hour flight.

      The system may not be broken, but it's definitely sprained.
    • No they don't...

      OLF takes place in Columbus, OH, and it *definitely* does not cost anywhere near what those do. In fact, it has free admission. If you want to pay to support them and get a t-shirt and lunch, it's usually between $60 and $80. And the hotel this year is $99/night.
  • Robust network, oh yes..

    We have a history of crushing hotel networks, so for Notacon we expend a lot of effort and organizer time to bring our own uplink and infrastructure. (And a few bushels of powerstrips.)

    This is a nontrivial cost, mind you! Installation charges dominate, so getting PTP wireless or a fast DSL circuit for a weekend is almost as expensive as getting it for several months would be. We've been lucky in past years that a local WISP sponsored us but this year's hotel has no LOS. Coordinating the DSL install with the local telco, hotel engineers, and our volunteer network staff is an exercise in cat-herding!

    Attention, hotels: A single T1 for 400 rooms does NOT cut it. You'll attract more tech business if your network is good enough that we don't have to bring our own. Also, blowing breakers really cramps our style, so please put more than a single 15-amp circuit to serve a 200-seat conference room, kthx!

    All that being said, throwing Notacon is a blast and I look forward to it every year. The eclectic mix of talks and activities attracts a really diverse bunch of people, and isn't that really what it's all about?
  • conferences that don't suck

    I've been a conference chair. A few things from experience:

    1. Paid keynotes can be useful, but you have to select very carefully. Someone outside the community, but with an interesting and relevant message, can work well. Probably the biggest key is to challenge the attendees; that's what keynotes need to succeed at. Opening keynote should draw people into the conference theme. Closing session should send them out with something to think about. Above all, keynote selection is not about repaying favors to old-timers.

    2. Interaction is key. We required presenters to leave one-third of their time for Q & A. Also, poster sessions, Open Space, demo space, anything that gets presenters and attendees into small groups for informal discussion. If you do take submissions for any of these, such as Posters, the deadline should be much closer to the conference, and the emphasis should be about work-in-progress or late-breaking ideas.

    Along the same line, emphasis all the way through the submission process (call for participation, peer review process, etc.) that whatever a speaker has to say is probably already available somewhere on the web. The values that a speaker brings are presence, experience, sharing, and interaction.

    Panels are good if the speakers can be limited to 3-5 minutes each. After that, turn the audience loose for an extended Q&A. The moderator needs to be a good facilitator, and should have a list of provocative "seed questions." You don't lead with these, but if the discussion flags and key questions aren't getting asked, the facilitator can throw one of these in.

    3. Food and coffee. It's worth the extra cost (which does have to be passed on to attendees) to cater breakfast, lunch, breaks, and perhaps one or two dinners or heavy h'dourves. It keeps conference attendees together and gives them more opportunities to meet each other and talk over food. (It also means that they're not dependent on local facilities that may not be able to keep up with the crowd.) Emphasize in your publicity and registration that conference fees include most of the food for the conference time.

    4. Keep costs down. If you have sponsors, give them visibility and plenty of publicity for their money. Many people pay their own way to conferences, and that's been true for many years.
    diane wilson
  • Less boring is easy, don't go.

    Anything worth mentioning will be on 100 web sites in an hour.
  • RE: How to make technology conferences suck less

    Powerpoint presentations should be able to stand alone. Presenters invest a lot of effort and resources, and it is a great pity to waste this.

    One way of doing this is to put on the Notes view the comments you would make if actually speaking, including what you provide the chair to say about you plus a thumbnail.

    Save the presentation (including notes) as a pdf, and have it linked to on the conference website.

    I've described how to do this in "Putting the Pow! into Powerpoint" at:!%20into%20Powerpoint.pdf

    Of course Powerpoint can be silly and boring, and there are lots of advice from various organisations ("Guidelines for Conference Organisers" sort of thing) for example (from memory) the American Psychological Society).

    Maybe its time for a Wiki on conference organisation, perhaps organised by ZD Net.


    Michael Patkin
  • RE: How to make technology conferences suck less

    "I do hope that the, SCALE, LinuxFest NorthWest and/or Ohio LinuxFest organizers will sit down and write the ?conference howto? for other organizers to follow. There?s a lot that goes into a good conference, and having to relearn those lessons seems like a real waste of wisdom."

    Funny you should say that, Joe. :)
    At the Ghosts of Conference Past [1] meeting for in Wellington NZ next year, some of us talked about putting new effort into improving our howto. It would be great to compare notes with the other community conferences.

    When I was starting out with the planning stages of 2008 in Melbourne I found this great resource:

    I've since got permission from those folks to modify to suit the specifics of and release under an open content license of some sort so that we can indeed share the wisdom. I've not had the good fortune to go to SCALE or the other North American linuxfests - but it's possibly safe to say that they, like LCA are what they are because it's a labour of love. The volunteer energy that runs these things is extraordinary. It is exhausting, but knowing our blood, sweat and tears is going into this great event, makes it all worthwhile.

    Our code is open, we should codify our practice and open that too.

    Donna Benjamin
    conf director of LCA2008

    [1] Ghosts - is what we call the annual gathering of past organisers of LCA to hand the knowledge on to the next team. This is part of our ongoing strategy, perhaps part of our success to date? We get new energy having a new team run the conference, but preserve the lessons learned by maintaining a link with past organisers.