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Computing Thoughts
Conferences and other interactive events
by Bruce Eckel
January 29, 2008
Summary
How do you balance the needs of all the parties involved in a conference, or in any event where people are traveling to be in one place?

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(Inspired by my January 8-15 trip to the CodeMash conference in Ohio, then for a sprint with Mark Ramm, the lead Turbogears guy, and finally the RIA Jam, the latter two in Ann Arbor).

The first part of this article is a work of fiction, purely hypothetical. It's written in the first person only as a narrative device, to keep the story interesting. Any similarity to real conferences, living or dead, is purely coincidental. Nothing to see here, lawyers ... move along.

I spent many years as a senior advisory board member for a computer programming conference which I'll just call "AC" for "Anonymous Conference" or "Any Conference." AC is run by a corporation, driven primarily by the corporate profit motive. Only when the people running the conference can be convinced that corporate profits are at stake do they consider change; otherwise the attitude is "it worked before so don't rock the boat."

This doesn't make AC a bad conference; indeed, I still attend occasionally and even speak, mostly just to see what's going on. They continue to provide value, but I think I just outgrew the tug of war of "value for the attendee" vs. "value for the corporation." The breaking point came with the arrival of the Web. The trade show portion of the conference was primarily a way for companies to demonstrate products to potential customers. Pre-web, it was one of the only ways to do this, and so it was immensely valuable for companies to spend the large sums of money to get their people to the conference, rent space, suck up the opportunity costs, etc. It was a controlled economy, and for-profit conferences made the most of it, charging as much as possible for booth space. In fact, the income from the trade show dwarfed the income from the conference, so the show was a big deal.

Trade show profitability produced the less-than-honest practices of charging dramatically less for a "show-only" pass (or even giving them away) in order to produce "traffic." The conference organizers were then able to claim lots of "quality traffic" to justify the high price of booth space. Of course what the booth-renters want is traffic with the people that are coming to the conference. Those people are more likely to make or influence decisions. What they get instead is "show-only" people who've heard you can get lots of free stuff at these things. Turn your back and your booth givaways get shoveled into someone's bag. On top of that they wear you out asking questions that make it clear they're not part of this industry, know nothing about it, and are only here so the conference corporation can charge you more (which makes it doubly infuriating).

And if you're a truly qualified browser, you tend to kind of slip down the middle of the aisle casting furtive glances to each side, trying to see if there's anything remotely interesting to you, but without implying any kind of commitment. The desperation in the booth is palpable. "We've spent all this money and time, dealt with all these yahoos, and if we don't make contact with a real, live qualified customer these days will be meaningless and we'll feel duped and used. Look, over there, a guy with a conference badge! Joy, it has extra thingies on it, maybe he's a speaker or a writer or something. Pleeeeease come over and save us!" If you so much as glance in that direction you see a booth full of people with enormous, sad doe eyes gazing soulfully at you. After the first few times, you stop looking, but pretend instead that you're trying to find a friend.

Not a great experience for everyone except the conference organizers, but what could you do? If you wanted to get the word out about your product you didn't have much choice (and these conferences were often run by magazine publishers, as AC was). They had you, as the saying goes, by the short hairs.

But with the Web, the model of free demo was (at the time) starting to become the norm. The web began inexorably cutting out the middleman of both magazines and conferences. It was far cheaper for companies to give away some kind of product sample off their own web site than to buy booth space at a conference, then ship and set up a booth and populate it with the company's technical experts (who are then not getting other work done). And far more valuable; the web site sits there 24 hours a day, effectively free, handing out literature and product samples to people who are actually interested.

The people renting booths could do the math, and began to stay away. I saw it coming. The folks at the AC conference said "but the show is by far the most profitable part of the conference!" and decided to try to wish away the Web rather than see the writing on the wall and actually be proactive about it. That's the point where I said "I don't want to watch this thing -- which I've put so much time and sweat into -- auger into the ground." So I opted out.

It was a hard decision; I had become very invested in the conference and it took at least a full month of my life every year (doing a cost-benefit analysis in hindsight, not a profitable month). It was a big and exciting event when it happened. But when I went back a couple of years later as a speaker and observer, the trade show had indeed dwindled to a small number of crackpot companies who were desperate enough to spend the money (you've never heard of their products because no one actually wanted them).

Many of the for-profit conferences and print magazines have fallen by the wayside because of the Web. It was inevitable; the Web offers far more for far less effort. Searchability alone means you can quickly find a collection of possible solutions to your problem. Companies that figured out how to create useful search systems are solving the real consumer problems, and consumers have gone there. Even the once-mighty Comdex is no more.

The AC conference has been one of the few survivors. By being one of the last standing, and by maintaining its name, it still attracts speakers who now have fewer places to go. The last I saw it, the trade show was quite small, and still not really worth going to (if booth costs have been slashed dramatically it might be worth it for some vendors). But the conference itself seems to be doing well, and is probably now the more profitable part of the picture. But I do wonder if the reason the conference is still being run is a secret hope that maybe all this will turn around, the Web will become a bad dream that failed, and we'll return to the glory days of vast trade show floors filled with vastly-expensive booth space.

I'm very glad I didn't stay around to see the wailing and teeth-gnashing. I had an emotional investment in AC. It also felt like the strong and right thing to do -- walk away, even though it was at the zenith, when I could see that people weren't paying attention or listening and that things were going to get bad.

There was one other dark aspect to the for-profit conferences. The conference goal was to make as much money as possible. Speakers know this and want to be paid for their time and effort. Any money paid to speakers cuts into profits, and must thus be reduced or eliminated. So trade-show tactics were used: tell the speakers it's about exposure, that they'll get consulting and training gigs by presenting at AC. Talk about the contacts with all the great people that come to the conference, other speakers, etc. Some of that is true, sometimes. My own best experiences were often spent hanging out with other speakers. But if I look at the big picture, I got a lot of exposure via AC over many years -- more than most speakers, I think -- and I can only count a few instances where it lead to any customers. In terms of getting customers, I suspect there were probably much more effective ways to spend my time.

But the thing I, and all the track chairs, disliked the most was the speaker budget. They gave us, who were effectively volunteers (although we did get stipends, they were very small compared to the number of hours we put in), the budget for speakers for our tracks, and we had to work it out. Making us, in effect, tools of the man. We had to keep people from asking for more. The best situation was when someone saw the conference as an exposure opportunity, and didn't ask for anything (the downside of this was that sometimes you'd just get marketing talks). Next best was some kind of flat fee which, if the speaker gave enough talks (not always possible) that speaker could (barely) cover their travel and lodging expenses. The bigger players made more dents in your budget.

I tried to be as honest as possible. But when I said "I can't give you more," there was a whole raft of meanings behind that statement. Sometimes it was "because speaker Y is more popular than you and has used up more of my budget." Or "speaker Z has always done a bunch of talks (the only way the conference was worthwhile for him) and has just demanded more, and that has impacted the budget." But in the end, the real answer always came down to "I can't give you more because that would negatively impact corporate profits." In a for-profit conference everyone knows this is the truth, so anytime you're asked to do volunteer work it grates on you. They do whatever they can to make you think you're serving the greater good, but you always know that somewhere, any extra work you do is actually serving corporate profitability.

CodeMash

The above conclusion is why I've come to really, really like user-organized conferences, such as Pycon, Javapolis, and CodeMash. They're not making any money so if you give something of yourself, it actually is helping some kind of greater good. The conferences themselves serve the people who show up -- attendees, speakers, and exhibitors. They don't have the hidden agenda of actually serving the invisible shareholder, as publicly-held corporations do.

User-organized conference have also shown that there is still a place for exhibitors. It's a tenuous relationship, because the exhibitors are still smarting from their experiences with for-profit conferences. But the exhibitors are obviously getting something out of the experience (for one thing, any contact is with real conference attendees; there are no "show only" passes). And for many of these conferences the attendee entrance fee doesn't cover the costs; without exhibitors and corporate sponsors CodeMash, for example, wouldn't happen. But my impression is that it's a give-and-take situation rather than the conference putting the screws to the exhibitors because they can. The landscape has changed significantly and everyone is benefiting (well, except for the volunteers who organize thing thing, who seem to just end up being exhausted -- for this I can only say "try Open Spaces"; as long as you insist on running an old-style conference you'll get exhausted).

Of course, I can't speak at every user-organized conference I receive an invitation from. Time and money constrain my choices. I also like to reduce my travel; People like my friend James can get on a plane as easy as getting in a taxi, but for me a plane trip seems to punch extra days out of my life. It's always nice when I can do several things in a particular location or as part of a multi-leg trip (Europe, for example, is a bigger excursion because of jet lag issues so if I can do more than one thing while I'm there everybody wins, and I'm more likely to make the trip). And if someone is paying me to travel somewhere, I try to advertise the fact that I will be in a particular area so that organizations like user groups, who are unable to pay for things like fees or travel expenses, can benefit.

A very big factor is quality of experience. I spoke at a conference in Moscow last April mostly because I had never been to Moscow. Every interaction I had with the conference organizers was miserable. When I got there I discovered that virtually all the US speakers had dropped out because of this factor. The conference itself was one of the lowest-energy events I've been to, but that (and the lack of interest on the part of the conference organizers) might have been a post-communist Russian thing; I have no idea. The saving factor was that I had announced my schedule and had been contacted by Alex Naanou, a young teacher at Moscow State University, who asked me to speak to a group of students (there was a lot more energy at the University than at the conference). Alex also showed me around Moscow, so the non-conference part made the trip worthwhile.

Dianne Marsh of SRT Solutions in Ann Arbor has come to my events in Crested Butte, so she knows my penchent for creating (and wanting) whole experiences. Both years she has been able to draw me to CodeMash by adding events to the mix. This year it was the RIA Jam in Ann Arbor, and the surprise benefit of a TurboGears sprint on the weekend (more about those later).

CodeMash is a user-organized, nonprofit conference held in a hotel with an indoor waterpark. Holding a conference at an amusement park isn't unique; I've been to several at Disneyland and Disneyworld. What is unique is the general orientation of the conference: you can bring your family and they can have something to do, and you can cut loose yourself. Which we did, every day, and that was a big part of the conference for me. It made it seem like a vacation.

This year they tried something new: a "kids day" where they taught the Kids Programming Language and various other things oriented towards kids. It was a big success and it got me wondering why more conferences don't think outside of this particular box, and consider how attractive it might be for a programmer to bring their family if there's something for everyone to do. It seems like a no-brainer once I've seen it (an important factor is that CodeMash is intended to be regional, and virtually everyone there had driven -- which also allows you to bring your family). Of course, if you're looking for a quick buck, making a family-oriented conference (and please note that I intend zero religious connotations by that term) seems like too much effort.

The other feature I like about CodeMash is that it is not pro- or con- for any particular technology. This allows the topics to be broader and more interesting.

This year we had a more official Open Spaces at CodeMash, with rooms and everything. I introduced the concept using the same presentation I gave at Javapolis (very short, very few words, lots of interesting pictures to look at). The turnout was quite nice, significantly better on a percentage basis than JavaPolis (various Europeans at the latter conference offered suggestions about why this was the case, primarily citing what they considered the formality of Europeans, but I think most people came without expecting Open Spaces and so weren't ready for them when they happened, whereas at CodeMash they were expecting it).

I'd personally like to see open spaces integrated just a bit more into the agenda, with fewer formal talks and more open spaces.

TurboGears 2 Sprint

Mark Ramm, leader of the TurboGears project, lives in the Ann Arbor area. The weekend after CodeMash he held a sprint to work on TurboGears 2. I came in to work on the tutorial, to clean it up and make sure everything works easily for new users. I only got partway through, but I feel pretty good about the part that's done, and I hope to get through the rest before the Flex-Turbogears Jam coming up in Crested Butte.

Sprinting is a superb way to learn a technology, but I admit that Mark's presence was a very important part of the incentive to work on the project.

RIA Jam

Finally, we had the RIA Jam. All but one of the attendees was interested in Flex, and we had some people who were already fairly experienced with Flex, so James Ward was kept very busy.

Every Jam I've held has come out very well. People make superlative comments. But, like Open Spaces, the start of each one is a bit nerve-wracking. Was I clear enough in the description? Do people really understand what we're doing here? It turns out that yes, they get it and they self-selected because they were ready for this kind of event.

I've begun to wonder whether this self-selection process may be limiting the landscape to (a) The Mythical 5% and (b) people who've been to Crested Butte before and will take any excuse to come back. The Open-Spaces and Jam experiences are great for everyone, but perhaps the majority of people are not quite ready for such things. There may be room to add an additional approach, slightly more formal and structured, for those who are not quite ready for the freedom of a Jam. This will require more thought and experimentation.

Upcoming Jams include the aforementioned Flex-TurboGears Jam and the C# 3.0 Jam.

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About the Blogger

Bruce Eckel (www.BruceEckel.com) provides development assistance in Python with user interfaces in Flex. He is the author of Thinking in Java (Prentice-Hall, 1998, 2nd Edition, 2000, 3rd Edition, 2003, 4th Edition, 2005), the Hands-On Java Seminar CD ROM (available on the Web site), Thinking in C++ (PH 1995; 2nd edition 2000, Volume 2 with Chuck Allison, 2003), C++ Inside & Out (Osborne/McGraw-Hill 1993), among others. He's given hundreds of presentations throughout the world, published over 150 articles in numerous magazines, was a founding member of the ANSI/ISO C++ committee and speaks regularly at conferences.

This weblog entry is Copyright © 2008 Bruce Eckel. All rights reserved.

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