What conference talks mean for you and your project

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A couple of months ago I wrote about my answer to the question “What’s the point of tech conferences?” That post touched on a misconception among veteran techies who apply to speak at conferences:

I have a professional acquaintance who recently pitched a fit on Twitter over RailsConf not accepting his talk this year. This person works on a tool that much of the Ruby community uses, and he had submitted the talk “What’s new in <the tool>,” and it had not gotten in. In most previous years, I think he did get in with this talk. So he took to Twitter to accuse the organizing committee of caprice.

– Me, “What’s the point of tech conferences?

I don’t think that the organizing committee made a capricious decision (full disclosure: I wasn’t on the committee, but I’ve been on other such committees). If you’re wondering how they made their decision, I invite you to go read that post.

This post addresses the following question:

“If I steward of a critical tool in a particular ecosystem, how do I approach the topic of representation and recognition at community events?”

A colorful circus caravan with horses, tigers, zebras, and sideshow performers crosses a stone bridge.
What is the role of the Big Tent Circus Show in a tech community?

As one such steward of tools myself, I also have this question, and a functional answer (besides “call the organizers’ judgment bewildering on Twitter.”)

See, cons represent such a tiny slice of community recognition.

Let’s take the example above: the con in question, admittedly one of the largest in this particular programming language community, has talks that range from an audience of 9 to, at the very top end, about 120. (I’m excluding keynotes; they’re a different animal, and they usually don’t get selected via the call for proposals. Instead, organizers usually reach out directly to keynote candidates).

A single talk at a single venue with an audience of 120 does not catalyze the success of a tool. It’s nice to have the talk, but it’s not going to make or break the tool to have, or not have, that talk.

Even if a recording of the talk made it to the conference’s YouTube channel, the talks that go gangbusters on a conference YouTube channel fall into three categories:

1. Pyrotechnic marvels with impressive live coding victories (Dave Beazley on Python concurency)

2. Philosophical Masterpieces (Douglas Engelbart, The Mother OF All Tech Demos)

3. F**king hilarious (Gary Bernhardt, ‘Wat’).

Moreover, the cons did not create the viewership for any of these talks. That comes from word of mouth and online sharing. I can recite these talks. I can’t recite which conference hosted them.

Conferences are not the be all, end all.

They’re a tool for generating interest—and a low leverage one at that. If the talk is absolutely stunning, a straight-to-YouTube upload that got just as popular online would do just as well.

Now, on feeling that rejection of your talk means a loss for the community on the whole topic: just because one talk did not get in, that doesn’t mean someone else isn’t presenting this topic. For example, Active Record is the API for relational database management in Ruby on Rails. For Rails developers it’s a critical tool, which lots of people have used to do lots of things. There’s a small chance any one ActiveRecord talk gets accepted to a Rails conference, but several absolutely will. Speakers are not guaranteed air time, but by sheer ubiquity, a tool might be guaranteed airtime.

To avoid getting shut out of a conference, a tool team can do two things:

1. Make sure that tool is used widely enough that lots of people have stories.

2. Make sure that those people are submitting those stories to cons.

Because remember: conferences don’t create conversations. They catalyze and express them. The more of the community wants to talk about a topic, the more the organizers are like “yes, we should have talks on this.” I have even seen and organized conferences that added a prior nonexistent track based on the number of talk submissions on a specific topic.

That’s not to say that one talk doesn’t make organizers think “Hmm, interesting. Yes.” But several talk submissions? That’s convincing.

The bottom line:

1. One conference talk does not make or break a tool: conferences themselves have relatively small audiences and their online channels tend to draw very little organic attention.

2. Online community, engaging presentation, and utility generate interest in a topic.

3. Conferences reflect that interest ex post facto by platforming a subset of what the community wants to talk about.

Most importantly, though: if your talk does not get into a con, it does not mean your tool does not matter.

It does mean that no one tool guarantees a particular talk a slot at a con. Because conferences are not about any one person or any one tool. They’re about catalyzing interactions among the whole community that ripple outward from those who attended to those who did not.

If you liked this piece, you might also like:

How to give an engaging conference talk, from my perspective

How to spot misinformation in articles discussing what “studies have shown”

What’s the point of tech conferences?

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