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Computing Thoughts
How Do You Force Volunteers To Do Something?
by Bruce Eckel
February 17, 2009
This issue came up during the organization of the upcoming Pycon conference, regarding speakers posting their slides and notes. I liked what I wrote to the organizing group so I wanted to share it here.


Pycon is a volunteer-run conference, and the speakers aren't paid (speakers must pay entrance fees like anyone else). So if you're used to the carrot-and-stick model, there's really no stick.

I've participated in a wide range of events. For example, I was on the senior advisory board for the Software Development Conference (a very directing-style conference) for something like 8 years, and I've been organizing Open Spaces conferences and going to Burning Man (very free-form, enabling-style events). Two long-term girlfriends were heavily involved in non-profit organizations. I have seen different kinds of behaviors, and wondered about them, for a long time.

Even when we were paying speakers (at the SD conference), many would not give their slides, citing them as valuable intellectual property for their business. However, that was before the internet changed the standard of behavior.

When you feel like everyone is the same (we're all in this together), it definitely changes the atmosphere. At Pycon, I know where the profits go (to the PSF, and to future Pycons), and that everyone is really volunteering (I think we have one paid person, but I'm reasonably certain he's only getting a living wage out of this, and he's really helping making it happen). So I'm happy to do scut work -- there's no hierarchical order. Stuffing bags with everyone else is fun. Doing whatever needs to be done is fun, because we're in it together.

When the concept of "forcing" is introduced, it breaks that unity and says "us" will force "them" to do things. That bothers me a lot because it tries to reassert an "us" and "them" in a unified group. That's not what we're trying to do, and a punishment-reward system only works intermittently.

To me the Python/Pycon community is all reward and no punishment.

What does work is incentive, and the biggest incentive when you want to be part of the community is incentive that comes from that community. At Burning Man, the people who have been there before try to indoctrinate the new people. It doesn't always work at first, and things fall through the cracks. Those who understand the concept of "leave no trace" end up cleaning up after those who don't. But the gentle pressure is there, and when you stop your bike to pick up a piece of MOOP (Matter Out Of Place -- the subculture generates its own language), you get a positive feeling, even if there's no one to see it. You're connecting with and supporting the community with that simple act.

In Open Spaces conferences, the key to changing the culture is having simple, clear agreements that everyone knows about. Everyone knows that getting up and going to another talk is not only OK, it's encouraged. Experimentation and discussion is encouraged. Once people figure out that it's all about them doing the thing they most want to be doing right now, it flourishes.

The best carrot in a community-organized volunteer event is something that makes you feel more part of the community. A speaker is speaking because (I believe) they feel they are serving our community. All we need is a little nudge beyond that to make them feel that getting their slides and notes posted will serve the community.

I would suggest that we make it one of the public ground rules that it is OK for any conference attendee to ask any speaker for their slides, once the presentation is finished. Then we (the conference organizers) have gotten out of the way of the process, and allowed the customer (the attendee) to interact directly with the supplier (the speaker). The speakers know that any customer may approach them and ask for slides, and I suspect that they will want to be able to say that they are downloadable rather than having to apologize. Conference organizers are not in the middle, wielding a stick to get speakers to follow the rules. Instead, speakers are getting requests directly from the people they are serving. And when speakers conform, they won't be conforming to our rules, but serving the community, and that will, I think, make them feel good and want to do the positive thing.

This probably won't be a perfect solution; there will be some that might not post their slides anyway. But I suspect the stick approach won't get those people to do it either. And it's very possible that when speakers know that anyone at the conference may ask for their slides, a lot more speakers may post those slides.

One final suggestion -- let people post slides on their own site if they want, and have the Pycon site just redirect to that. This gives them the opportunity to do a little marketing, which is a further reward and incentive for doing the talk.

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About the Blogger

Bruce Eckel ( 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 © 2009 Bruce Eckel. All rights reserved.

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