What about a conference makes it meaningful 🤔

One of the weird and wonderful perks of being in the tech industry is the sheer volume of events available for everyone to attend, whether your interest is broad or tunnel-vision specific. We’ve thrown our fair share of events (RealtimeConf, RedisConf, &yetconf, to name a few) and others on our team have been organizers of events around the globe.

Recently, our teammate Lynn Fisher suggested we discuss what makes a conference meaningful.

What are some examples of great conferences you’ve been to who executed things well?

Lynn Fisher, Designer, Developer
I went to An Event Apart in 2010 and it made a huge impact on my work. That event runs like a well-oiled machine and consistently has excellent speakers and content.

JSConf Brazil in 2014 pulled off an awesome one-day event with live audio translation between English and Portuguese, which I was super impressed with.

CSSDevConf did something kind of unique with their multiple track format (I usually prefer single track). Attendees can vote on talks they found valuable and a group of those speakers present again later on. I was able to catch some talks that I’d missed because of competing time slots.

&yetConf is unmatched in my mind in creating a unique and surprising conference experience that was exciting, personal, and challenging.

Karolina Szczur, Designer, Developer
I had the best experience at inclusive events such as CSSConf and JSConf Europe and Nordic.js in Stockholm. They went to incredible lengths to challenge the status quo and assumptions about how a technical conference should look like—fun, welcoming, teaching, community and people-first.

What assumed conference “must-haves” really aren’t and should be done differently?

Lynn
Speaker Q+A and panels. In my experience it’s rarely a good use of the time and often results in a few speakers dominating the conversation. And let’s eliminate the opportunity for dudes to stand up and ask “a question, but kind of a comment.”

Multiple tracks. As I mentioned, I’m a huge fan of the single track. With multiple tracks people tend to select the talks that most directly apply to their work. But some of the best talks I’ve seen are ones I was surprised by, unsure of whether it would apply. Spoiler: they always do. And, experiencing the conference as one big group is actually a neat thing.

Hour-long talks. 20-30 minutes is plenty of time for the majority of speakers and content. It encourages speakers to edit and allows for more speakers in the day.

Adam Brault, Founder, CEO

  • Panels are an abomination.
  • Q&A is worthless.
  • Alcohol is totally unnecessary and generally the opposite of a valuable addition to the experience.
  • No one really needs a talk longer than 15 minutes. (Even longwinded people like me!)
  • Talks are not the only meaningful thing that can be done at a conference. (See Ùll’s “installations” and talk show interviews, JSConf US’s middle day outings, and AffectConf’s volunteer day.)
  • Most social events are not designed to facilitate true sociality, they are designed to create a party feel. Good social connections actually happen through smaller groups and one-on-one discussions.
  • And let’s talk about name badges. Nice aesthetically pleasing name tags are more user friendly.

What small details make a big difference?

Karolina
Carefully crafted, non-sponsor branded, environmentally friendly swag. Healthy food catering to dietary requirements. All gender bathrooms. De-emphasising the presence of alcohol. Pronoun stickers. Women-fit t-shirts. The availability of quiet spaces.

Lynn
I look for the things organizers didn’t need to do, but show they thought about their attendees as people. A few that stick out to me are: gender-neutral bathrooms, sanitary supplies in the bathrooms, allergy-aware food options, alternatives for non-drinkers, childcare during the conference, and live captioning/translations for talks.

Personalized swag and curated swag boxes (not sticking random branded stuff in a bag) make a conference feel extra special.

A well-scheduled event is huge and can be hard to get right. Are the breaks frequent and how do you know when to return? Are the talks too long and too many grouped together? Is there an emcee to lead attendees into each new part of the schedule?

Small details for speakers could be its own blog post, but one I’ll mention is handing your speakers a bottle or glass of water as their time slot approaches. Huge.

Adam
I learned this one in a BIG way. At Karolina’s suggestion we offered captioning at &yetConf. As a result, we not only had deaf attendees, we also had some of the most hilarious moments interacting with the captioner, and one of the best conference talks.

As a result, whenever we are talking about sponsoring a conference, we always try to encourage the conference to add captioning and sponsor that.

Who are people you’ve learned from about conference design?

Karolina
Ashe Dryden created invaluable materials on running inclusive events and governance, setting a shining example with AlterConf. I was always inspired by how Andy McMillan and Andy Baio have challenged the format of conferences with XOXO. Last but not least, experience design by CSSConf and JSConf Europe teams (especially Kristina Schneider and Jan Lehnardt)—they've crafted something on an entirely different level.

Lynn
I’ve learned a lot from observing Adam, Jenna, Jenn, and Amy as they prepared things for &yetConf. They’ve definitely modeled the unique and personal conference experience, where doing that extra work truly makes things magical.

Karolina has been sharing a lot of her thoughts and learnings about creating diverse and inclusive events and that’s been eye-opening too!

Adam
Let me start by saying that for most of the past 20 years, I have been slowly growing in my understanding of systemic racism, sexism, and ableism—most especially including my own. I am embarrassed that the first technical conference I organized had 42(!!) speakers and only two of them were women.

I am personally fascinated by the ability of a conference to have an intentional shaping influence on the culture of the industry. No conference has had the impact of JS Conf EU, which is probably the most pioneering conference in creating an inclusive and diverse tech conference.

To that end, I give props to Tiffany Conroy’s foundational influence on JSConf EU, and Karolina Szczur’s continued advancement of those ideals both through [JS,CSS]Conf[EU,AU] has been extremely inspiring and educational. Jan Lehnardt and the rest of the EU team no doubt deserve credit, but I know that Tiffany’s We Are All Awesome project and her thoughts on what was possible for representation at conferences was mind opening for me.

Chris Williams deserves significant credit for setting the tone for open collaboration and unwavering support for baby tech conferences, bringing a spirit of open source generosity and kindness that has been a hallmark among conference organizers toward other conference organizers in the JavaScript community.

I was always intrigued to see the approaches that Mikeal Rogers took to conference organizing in the NodeConf series, as it always seemed to be what he believed was best for the community at that particular moment, evolving the conference from a technical exhibition to an educational, community building and onboarding experience.

I once said Paul Campbell was “the kind Steve Jobs of conferences” and I stand by that. I’ve learned some of the most unique lessons from his event design, two of which being the importance of creating a unique shared experience, and ways to create a conference experience that works for introverts.

Along with Paul, Jesse White and AJ Leon taught me how a conference can be a truly magical communal experience.

I also have learned a lot from teammates I collaborated with on conferences. From Mel, I learned that basically anything is possible and we shouldn’t give up just because an idea is hard to pull off. From Jenna, I learned that it was possible to have fun and laugh about it even when discouraged as hell and use that sense of humor to keep driving forward and making the best event we could even if it didn’t match the ideal in our heads. From Jenn and Amy, I learned that having an organized plan for communication, structure, roles and responsibilities helps everyone involved want to kill you just a little bit less. :grimacing:

What events are you looking forward to attending?

Karolina
I’m always excited about going back to JSConf and CSSConf Europe held in Berlin. Those two events have become the golden standard for tech conferences worldwide. They also feel like a family reunion, especially that I’ve attended every single edition prior.

I’m planning to finally make it to XOXO in Portland, a fantastic festival for creatives run by a friend of mine, Andy McMillan, and Andy Baio.

Lynn
The &yet design team is attending An Event Apart in Boston this June. I’m thrilled to go after attending for the first time 8 years ago. There’s so much that excites me about the web right now and taking a CSS workshop with Eric Meyer feels like the dream.

I’m also going to be speaking at Phoenix Design Week this year (baby’s first keynote). I’ve been attending for years and I’m super excited about the theme this year. It’s focused on “Beyond Design” and exploring how other industries, disciplines, and perspectives affect the past and where we’re going. It’s right up my alley.

Adam
I am completely and totally exhausted by events that I don’t produce and I am completely and totally exhausted by events that I produce. However, I was impressed by AffectConf last year in having a lineup of people I’d never been exposed to who shared challenging talks that would have made for riveting keynotes at any conference I’d attended. Planning on that one for sure.


There are at least 30 more questions we could keep discussing (seriously, Adam wrote out at least that many) our opinions on what makes a conference not only a success, but worth attending. We want to know what you think about conferences? Which ones are you looking forward to this year? Send us your replies at @andyet on Twitter, or questions and we’ll keep this conversation going.

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