The realities of organizing a community tech conference: an ill-advised rant

Posted on June 13, 2016

Warning: this post is an ill-advised, badly timed rant. There are swear words. You have been warned.
Also, no one person instigated any of this rant. It’s been building in me for three years. <3

Let me tell you about the realities of organizing a tech conference: it sucks.

It sucks, but I keep coming back. I keep coming back, because seeing the community come together and learn from each other is a high. Getting thanked by speakers and attendees is a level of acknowledgement often lacking in our industry/society/world.

Recently, there has been a lot of discussion of the role of speakers at conferences. People talk about how conferences use speakers as promotion and for material and should therefore pay them. And we should.

I’ve been volunteering for social justice and community work for a long time. It is all predicated on unpaid labor. All of it.

You know what else is predicated on unpaid labor? The survival of our species (parenting), aid work for natural disasters, animal rescue and much more.

And it’s all bullshit.

That said there’s a lot of unpaid labor that happens at conferences, especially community conferences, that no one seems to talk about. The unpaid labor of conference organizers.

Not only do people not talk about it, but in the narrative around conferences as work, these participants are almost always the bad guys. Code of conducts, speaker diversity, speaker payment. All of these criticisms fall solely on the shoulder of conference organizers.

And to some degree they should — conferences should absolutely have an enforceable, robust code of conduct and a diverse line up of speakers.

But in this rush to publicly shame and judge people, we often forget that conference organizers are doing this work for free as well. In fact, they are doing by far more work than any speaker at the event. (I say that as both a speaker and conference organizer).

I acknowledge that, right now, a few days before Write/Speak/Code 2016, I am perhaps not in my most magnanimous state of mind. That said, all of this feels like another aspect of bullshit unpaid, emotional and administrative labor that gets swept under the rug.

We are quick to support and stand up for the “rock stars” (speakers). They are thought leaders and the public face of niches and communities. They are very important.

But in our haste, we trample on the those doing the operational and administrative work required for conferences to exist.

This is a pattern. In tech. In the world.

We exalt those whose work is public and visible and grand. We exalt those with technical skills and experience to share.

And we ignore those whose daily tasks make that work possible. We look down upon administrators and operations folks at our work. We treat project managers and QA like they are morons. We disregard the essential work that makes the world go ‘round.

And it’s bullshit.

So let me tell you a little bit about organizing a tech conference:

  • Organizers start planning 6 months to a year before the event. This often involves biweekly or monthly meetings as well as outside work. It increase to weekly and then daily coming up to the conference.
  • Even if the conference makes a profit and the organizers pay themselves, it always ends up to be less than minimum wage if you add up the hours they put in.
  • You don’t get paid until after the event. At least for ticket sales. Ps – all your bills are due before the event.
  • Most companies have “Net 30” policies, which means even after they agree to sponsor, they have 30 days (or more) to actually pay you. Most conferences I have organized end up with at least one sponsor who never pays.
  • It is like planning and throwing a full-on DIY wedding. There is so much invisible administrative and operational work that needs to be done to make any event happen. You know all those drinks and shirts and stuff on tables. Yea, human people carried those from a store to a car to the venue. Again and again and again. They probably fucked up their shoulder or back doing it. (Or maybe that’s just me.)
  • I and many other organizers have personally paid out of pocket and fucked up my credit for an embarrassingly large number of Write/Speak/Code’s bills.
  • You rarely have any idea how much money you will get until right before the event. Seeing the momentum of people buying tickets and announcing speakers brings in more sponsors, which is great! But you don’t get paid until 30 days later and you need to create a budget long before the event.
  • People make mistakes. Like, say, accidentally using a select list instead of a checkbox list for identifying minorities. Or ordering bubble gum pink t-shirts. Please privately shame us and let us fix our mistake first before publicly shaming us.

Here’s the thing. We are putting the responsibility for our community on the wrong people. You know who benefits from all our speaking and coding the most? Companies. Big and medium and small who use our open source projects or tools and who glean tech or managerial insight or don’t have to create their own professional development opportunities, because they can just send us to a conference that people put together for free.

Companies should be ponying up to sponsor conferences and support organizers and speakers.

THANK YOU to all the companies who already do so. Everyone should know who you are.

I run a company now and yes, sponsorship is expensive.

You know what else is expensive? Building our own web framework or tech tools and keeping them up to date and secure.

You know what else is expensive? Creating or paying for internal professional development workshops and opportunities. Or not staying up to date with tech changes at all.

So this year at Write/Speak/Code we will be publicly thanking those companies that support their employees in doing community work — organizing or speaking, paying for travel or just not making them take vacation days. We will thank them for being the rare company that encourages the kind of thought leadership it benefits from everyday.

And, please be nice to your local conference organizers. They are exhausted, physically, mentally, and emotionally. Let them fix their mistakes. Say please and thank you.

Please? Thank you.


9 Replies to "The realities of organizing a community tech conference: an ill-advised rant"

  • Pam
    June 13, 2016 (9:16 pm)
    Reply

    Excellent rant Rebecca. Also congrats on running your own shop. I had no idea!

  • Troy Howard
    June 13, 2016 (10:31 pm)
    Reply

    Probably the most depressing thing is poor turnout/slow/low ticket sales. Example: An event that previous year had 350 and filled the venue to bursting, so on the following year, you plan a budget around 400 people, book a bigger and more expensive venue, and then it turns out that only 200 people bought tickets for some reason. You didn’t do anything wrong, everyone says how much they loved the event and are excited about the next one, but suddenly just as you increased all your costs, your income got cut in half, and your huge venue looks half empty with everyone in it. If you’re lucky, you don’t go into debt.

    That’s just the practical aspects. The emotional aspect of that is crushing too. You self-doubt. You look at the ticket sales daily and wonder what did you do wrong? Are people secretly talking crap behind your back and everyone is in on it but you? Do people not know how much work it is? How special the line up and all the details are that you put together? Don’t they appreciate my effort and ideas? Will the sponsors be mad because you sold them on a crowd of 400 and only delivered a crowd of 200? Will they refuse to pay, or just not work with you again the next time? Will they talk shit about you in the future? What are those 200 missing people doing with their time? Some other cooler event? Should you bother again next year? Can you even survive that financially?

  • Troy Howard
    June 13, 2016 (10:47 pm)
    Reply

    Ok. I pulled the send-comment trigger a little too soon. Maybe that’s not the most depressing thing. Maybe it’s the toll it takes on organizer’s family life and job. I’m a father with two children, and until a couple years ago, I was married. I work full time. The time I spend doing community work either has to come out of my time for family or my time for work. My jobs don’t care about the community organizing work I do. Every time I’m doing an event my productivity drops dramatically. It puts a lot of strain on my work-life and weakens my relationship with my bosses and coworkers. You’d think they would support it but they don’t. I see my kids a lot less. I sleep very little, trying to squeeze out more time. I try to involve the kids, but they aren’t interested. I try to balance the time and make sure they get attention, and work gets attention, but somehow, conference organizing finds a way to have incredibly urgent things that happen all the time, at random, that constantly interrupt everything else. Those interruptions increase in pace as you get closer to the event until finally your life is just a chaos, your job is mad at you, your family is mad at you, your co-organizers are mad at you, vendors and sponsors and speakers and attendees are annoyed because you took too long to get something done or messed it up. You have only a week left before the event and can’t even remember what still needs to be done. It’s super stressful. It’s very sad to look at your kids and think “maybe I should have just put all this energy into hanging out with them instead”… and you know what? Maybe I should.

  • Adron Hall
    June 13, 2016 (11:17 pm)
    Reply

    You rock! Seriously!

    I organize a bunch of monthly meetups and conferences, and generally it sucks. But those pay offs are what makes it worth it. But the lack of understanding and the general douche bag asshattery that goes on around giving organizers shit for every little thing has pushed me to the brink of almost dropping it all. I’m honestly pretty close to that again right now, but somehow I keep plugging along. I’m sure I’ll be rejuvenated when the conference hits and I get to participate (at least to some extent, since I’m an organizer it means I’ll likely be cleaning up or frantically dealing with last minute missed schedules too).

    Anyway, I just wanted to say I hear you loud and clear and stand with you in solidarity on this ill advised rant. Totally worth it, and I’m glad to have read it!

    Cheers!

  • Marco
    June 14, 2016 (9:26 am)
    Reply

    Rebecca, you’ll always be the face and soul behind Write Speak Code in my mind. Keep up the amazing fight. And take a much deserved break when it’s done!

  • shadowcrow
    June 14, 2016 (12:21 pm)
    Reply

    as a volunteer staff of Tech conference for 6 years(COSCUP), totally agree with you. try to stop myself going back next years. another mystery things, if you do things more behind scene, some attendee even thinks you’re not existed.

  • Don Jones
    June 14, 2016 (5:11 pm)
    Reply

    I help organize PowerShell + DevOps Global Summit, and I feel your pain in terms of how much work it is. You’re spot-on with everything, right down to the personal financial risk (which we’ve finally been able to overcome through careful management; each event can now pay the next event’s deposits). We’re also able, now, to offer our speakers some cash to help offset their travel. As a nonprofit, we’re not making bank on the event, and so our community of speakers has always been very gracious with their time, and never demanded or even really suggested that they be compensated.

    But reading your post, I definitely feel fortunate in that our community _does_ talk about the unpaid labor of conference organizers. They’ve been massively supportive, and every year, we have new people asking how they too can help. When they’re critical, it’s usually spot-on – and usually accompanied by an offer to help fix the problem, or at least something actionable and practical as a suggestion.

    I think, too, we’re fortunate in that our community is perhaps less driven by rockstar personas and more by a genuine sense of community. Our event is a conference, but it’s as much a ginormous reunion of old and new friends. We’ve really strived to keep the event connected to its people, and not just a series of lectures. We’re lucky to not need sponsor money, and to have gracious sponsors anyway – who understand the financial realities and are willing to help in advance. We’ve tried very hard to eliminate those and other common downsides of a _commercial_ conference.

    I think you’ve really hit a point with your “here’s the thing” note. If companies are the ones benefitting from your community event, then it might definitely be time to re-think how your event exists, and why. I’d be pretty testy, too, if our event was in that position – it’s unenviable. Again, I’m guessing we’re fortunate in that we are able to charge enough to our attendees (many of whom have their companies pay, although not all) to run a break-even-or-tiny-profit event, without needing to rely on that sponsorship angle.

    But good on you for letting people know the realities of the situation, and best of luck with your upcoming event!

  • pratik patel
    June 15, 2016 (1:25 pm)
    Reply

    Great write up on the challenges and stresses of running a conference!

  • Jacqueline M Ta
    June 21, 2016 (11:28 pm)
    Reply

    Thank you for doing the hard work of organizing conferences. I realize it truly is a labor of love, and not compensated in dollar terms. I can only imagine the stress of making sure tickets are sold, sponsors are lined up, and so forth. I thought you did an awesome job with Write/Speak/Code.


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