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, Linux.conf.au, 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:
I do hope that the Linux.conf.au, 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.