The inner workings of technical conferences

(Last Updated On: 22nd December 2019)

Introduction

In this blog post, David Leitner and I want to give you an insight, based on our experience from the past years of speaking at international conferences (e.g. more than 50 conferences over the last couple of years), about some less obvious but quite significative things you should be aware of when submitting a talk to a conference. Since there are already a lot of blog posts about how to successfully prepare your talk, we try to complement them by providing a quite different perspective with a different focus: we think it is inevitable to understand how conferences run their selection process, behind Call For Papers (CFP), and what are the factors that might influence your submission. Besides, we want to give you an overview of different speaker profiles and conference types that might be of interest to you.

Behind the selection process

Each conference starts with a selection process. This usually tells more about the event itself than any marketing slogan or other formal information you might get about the event. Not always, but very often, conferences allow speakers to apply. If there is an open CFP, it is worth it to get an understanding of how the selection process works, to have a grasp about what is expected and how the talks submission is rated. Multiple factors can give you such hints:

  • Committee: first of all, identify what is the composition of the committee. You can find it somewhere on the event webpage of the conference. The background and the main competence of each member might give you a good understanding of which topics could raise their interest (eventually getting accepted) and which could have fewer changes. In general, people are biased towards topics that are orthogonal to their area of competence.
  • Speakers: besides the committee, you should also consider the composition of speakers. This can be done by looking at already confirmed speakers or speakers from previous years. There are some important facts, for example, the ratio between international versus local community speakers and what is the language distribution. For example, some conferences encourage local speakers and there is a reasonable mix between international speakers and the local ones. Besides, there might be a significant number of tracks already assigned for talks in the local language (e.g. Germain, Russian, French, Chinese) which might diminish your acceptance changes as a non-local language speaker. By the variety of speakers and accepted talks, you might get a good insight, whether it is a predominant community-driven or more industry-driven conference. If the conference has a high number of tracks about a specific (commercial) framework or product, the goal is probably a different one then if the topics are mainly driven by the community. 
  • Support for first-time speakers: if you are a first-time speaker (or at the very beginning) you should explicitly contact the organizers to find out if there is any kind of support. They might offer you additional assistance and mentorship, although it is not always made fully transparent. 
  • Financial support: it is important to mention that there are different classes of speakers. Usually, those who (i) earn money by speaking, those how (ii) do sponsoring to get a slot, those who (iii) get the traveling and/or accommodation paid, those who (iv) pay all the expenses on their own (or their costs are shared between the speaker and his or her employee). While this is not very obvious at the moment you apply, it might have an influence on your chances to get selected since the conferences are usually trying to keep the speaker’s budget lower. Nevertheless, this is different from conference to conference and in our opinion, at least the travel and accommodation should be covered by the organizers. If this is not the case, you should expect the conference to be fully community-driven and having a transparent budget.

The feedback culture

In most of the cases, the feedback received after the submission is just a generic polite sentence which does not offer many details. An example of this, extracted from one of our rejected proposals, is “We are very sorry to inform you that your proposal … for … was refused. Do keep in mind that we received over … proposals and the available slots are very limited! We would like to thank you sincerely for your proposal and shown interest.”. Is this feedback relevant to you, as an applicant? If you are not interested in anything else but just to know if you get accepted or not, yes, it might be enough. But you probably want to improve yourself and submit better proposals in the future. In such a case, it is not relevant at all since it does not contain any detail why your talk was rejected. Maybe you had a cool idea but unfortunately, it did not get selected.

In such a case, I would encourage you to reply to the organizers and ask for specific, detailed feedback. This way you might get a grasp about what they liked and what they did not like about your proposal, what were the evaluation criteria, etc. Even in such a case do not have high expectations. It could happen to still do not receive any answer (which is not polite, in our opinion), or the organizers might tell you they cannot provide any further details, unfortunately. This latter case could be understandable since collecting detailed feedback for submissions requires extra work, and for conferences with thousands of proposals it takes a significant amount of time. Nevertheless, in the best case when you receive it, do not take it personally, read it carefully and try to understand the committee’s point of view. Do not try to contradict or over-argue them. Do not forget they are still humans, they might or might have not properly understood your proposal, they might be biased towards other speakers or topics. It is subjective to a certain extent. In either case, take it as a win-win situation, an experience that could potentially help you in submitting better proposals.

Speakers typologies

Speaker profiles are quite diverse. Looking at any commercial conference schedule you could immediately get a grasp that there are multiple speakers typologies. It is important to understand them since they are your “potential competitors” during the selection process. We try to summarize such typologies as follows:

  • Advocates: they have a fundamental interest in advertising their products and convincing other people to use them. Since they need to “sell”, they have very good oratorical capabilities but also engineering background. They normally attend an impressive number of conferences per year and are well known by the community. Part of their job is also to speak at different events and they are doing this usually very good. 
  • Independent consultants/trainers: these are the guys that want to impress the audience with their skills and capabilities. They might be authors, bloggers, workshops or meet-ups organizers and would be happy to be identified as true professionals. Their target is to get more clients and contracts.
  • Passionate practitioners: they usually do not have a commercial interest behind (as opposed to the previous two categories). They love to share their expertise in a particular framework, library, programming language, etc. They are highly motivated and very passionate about what they are doing. Speaking at conferences is in general complementary to their daily basis activities.
  • Creators: they are the designers or main contributors to frameworks, libraries, tools, etc. Knowledge wise, they have the deepest technical depth in the subject. They might not be extremely good speakers (is not their primary strength), however, they have strong expertise. They might not have any direct, commercial interest since they do not target any profit.
  • Entertainers: they have an interesting skill in presenting technical stories in funny ways. They make jokes, share personal stories, use a lot of strong idioms, funny pictures, etc. From a technical standpoint, their topics are usually not the most advanced ones, however, the attendees become relaxed and have a positive, good mood, during their talks. 

Of course, these are just stereotypes, and a speaker is usually a mixture of several types listed above. An advocate can still be a passionate practitioner who has turned his hobby into a job. It is still important to understand there is quite a huge amount of conference speakers, who do this as their profession. Don’t let them scare you, they all started small. Nevertheless, as an important lesson to learn: content is not always king.

Understanding the purpose of the conference

Fortunately, the number of technical conferences keeps on growing, leading to an increased diversity and potentially better quality. There are more and more options to choose from, and people have now a lot of opportunities to share their experiences. But not all conferences are the same, they target different areas of expertise and have a different scope or mission. 

In general, there is an infinite amount of conference types. On the other hand, they could be superficially drilled down in two distinct categories: (i) those which target profit, (ii) those which don’t. Hardly, there can be any in-between:

  • Industrial or commercial conferences: their main goal is to get revenue. They could do that indirectly by promoting some commercial products or services or directly, by selling tickets and attracting sponsors. Big conferences have in general an overwhelming number of sponsors. By sponsoring the event, the company receives a booth, tickets for the employees, and sometimes a slot for a company speaker. 
  • Non-profit oriented conferences: they might be driven by a local community, a non-profit organization or an academic institution. Their primarily target is not to make profit but to facilitate an environment where attendees can share their expertise or interest in a specific technology, framework or methodology.
  • Franchise conferences: they are in general a mixture of the above-mentioned categories. It usually works the way that a brand allows using its name, social media channels, and marketing materials. This helps organizers to attract more people and to easily get the awareness of international speakers. Although the conference itself could be community-driven, the franchise is, of course, focused on making a profit. 

It is completely legitimate to make a profit out of organizing conferences, so why might this be important for you, as a potential speaker? Well, usually the target of the conference has an impact on the selected topics. Since a big part of the profit comes from people buying tickets and from sponsors, commercial conferences are usually striving for speakers that could help in better advertising the event and attracting a broader audience.

On the other side, community conferences are not driven by the goal of selling a higher number of tickets but rather finding the most suitable topics and bringing the right people together. Thus, the criteria behind the selection process are slightly different. For example, niche topics, which usually are appealing for a smaller group of people, even though they are quite innovative, or topics that might require an advanced level of understanding have higher chances to get accepted at these conferences. Of course, this is not black and white, but at least for us, it turned out to be a relevant enough indicator.

Final thoughts

Nowadays, the number of conferences is impressive, there are so many alternatives, therefore you should be in a position to select rather than be selected. Favor quality instead of quantity and do not be a conference hunter. If you like conferences go for them and apply as a speaker. However, if you are not that guy don’t see it as an impediment nor a responsibility, as there are a lot of incredibly smart people who are not known as conference speakers. Nevertheless, be driven by passion in everything you do, be curious and eager to experiment with new things. Try to share what you have learned and always be open to criticism. 

Disclaimer

What we aim to emphasize in this blogpost is not intended to finger point or distinguish between good or bad conferences, neither to influence people to apply some but not the others. We still strongly believe the creation of a technical conference is a very precious giveback to the community at its very inner heart and we would like to congratulate all the parties involved. Nevertheless, we would like to provide an objective and transparent insight into their inner workings. This way we strongly believe it will improve the overall quality of further events and make people more aware of the surroundings.

About co-author

  • David Leitner is Co-Founder of SQUER Solutions, a Viennese Software Company, which is working with different stacks and environments, but always an overarching mission: connect ideas and provide impact — with technology. He spends much of his time on the front-lines tackling the challenges of scaling software and complex domains. David enjoys sharing his knowledge as a speaker at conferences and as a lecturer for his post-diploma courses at the University of Applied Sciences Technikum Vienna.

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