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.

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

  • Pam
    June 13, 2016 (9:16 pm)

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

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