Ben Scofield

me. still on a blog.

Conferences Suck

Disclaimer: I’ve said some of the things in this post, as have some of my friends, some of my acquaintances, and some people I don’t like. This is a fairly widespread phenomenon, but it’s one that I’d like to see fade away.

I’ve mentioned a few times that I’m doing a lot more speaking now, so I’ve spent quite some time looking at conferences and the chatter around them. As a result, I’ve seen a ton of people saying that conferences suck, which I find almost universally disappointing. At the very least, all conferences have the potential to be great experiences; what we get out of them is directly related to what we put into them. To see how this works, I’d like to tackle some of the reasons given for conference suckage.

Presentations suck

It might not be immediately obvious how effort-in improves results-out for presentations – after all, it’s generally someone else doing the presenting. That’s the root of the problem, though; the way we improve presentations is by giving them, and giving them better. There are a lot of reasons that the average quality of technical presentations is lower than we’d like, but improvement starts at home. Submit, speak, get better. And don’t forget the power of constructive criticism. Use whatever feedback mechanisms the conference provides to let the speakers know what they did well and what they should work on. Also consider more general systems, including sites like SpeakerRate (shameless plug!)

Panels suck

OK, so I agree with this one – but panels are hardly the only type of session at a conference, and I’m still guardedly optimistic about the format itself.

Cliques suck

I’ve not noticed this particular complaint as much recently, but it has certainly been a factor at times, with RejectConfs, CabooseConfs, and other events springing up as counter-programming to more “mainstream” events. Every group of any significant size has cliques, and particular ones will usually form around events. Cliques aren’t even necessarily bad, as long as the members are mindful of their culture and are open to the potential of people outside their group. To the extent that particular cliques are exclusive and elitist, that’s a problem, but conferences are at least minimally democratic; if you don’t like how events in your community are run, then start your own, or help others who are already running an alternative.

Venues suck

This was particularly evident when Railsconf 2009 moved to Las Vegas, but I’ve seen it with any number of events – there’s not enough to do near the hotel, or there’s too much, or the city is perceived to be unsafe, or it’s too bland… The litany of complaints about conference venues is nearly endless, and people sometimes get extremely worked up about locations. What confuses me about this problem is that (with few exceptions, like SXSW) the conference isn’t inextricably tied to its location. If you’re unhappy with the city, fine – attend and deal with it or don’t, but don’t assume that conference organizers ought to consult your personal preferences before booking a venue. After all, they’re planning a conference, not a group vacation to some cool city.

Complainers suck

The common thread with all of these reasons is that we as attendees, presenters, and organizers of events need to stay aware of the fact that we make up the conferences we attend. If you’re not getting value out of an event, you have two choices: stop attending it, or work to make it better. Neither of those includes complaining incessantly without doing anything constructive.